CLASSICAL MUSIC / Jones's Ring: far from gold

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The Independent Culture
WANDERING OFF-LIMITS for a music critic, I found myself this week at the Hayward Gallery's Deutsche Romantik exhibition, and drawn to a 1778 sketch by Henry Fuseli of a figure funereally draped across the massive, sculpted foot of some decayed colossus. No less striking was the title: 'Artist in despair over the magnitude of Antique Fragments'. There, in that sermon-in-a-frame, was one of the governing preoccupations of Romanticism: the maudlin joy of contemplating the unfathomable. Classicists rolled up their sleeves and tried to come to terms with the world through observation and analysis; Romantics hugged their knees and sighed.

Such Romantic impossibilities create impossible problems for latter-day interpreters. And no problems come bigger than Wagner's Ring cycle, which opened this week in a new Covent Garden production that involves an unlikely coupling of talents. Bernard Haitink - sober, statesmanlike, elevated by the Covent Garden Meistersinger and some recent recordings to the laurel league of international Wagnerians - conducts. And Richard Jones - offbeat, irreverent, with a punchy, comic-strip CV - directs. Judging from Thursday's Rheingold alongside Friday's Die Walkure, this is not a marriage made in heaven. Still less Valhalla, although Jones does have a Wagnerian pedigree. He did the Rheingold and Walkure for Scottish Opera's aborted Ring a few years ago - with the same designer as here, Nigel Lowery - and did it in bold, simple terms.

But like so many directors, Jones shrinks from the awesome seriousness of purpose of the Ring, taking refuge in ironic slapstick. Which is not on if you accept the Master's dictum that opera is a matter of 'deeds of music made visible'.

Rheingold may be, by analogy with the theatre of Ancient Greece, a satyr play to the rest of the unfolding drama, and therefore lighter in tone. But its 'deeds of music' don't allow for many laughs; and certainly not laughs of the kind that Jones seems to be envisaging. He has dressed his Rhinemaidens in Latex nude-suits to look like voluptuous fatties on a seaside postcard. They don't look like their music. They don't even move to their music. They sit out the sweep and surge of the 'Rhinegold' motif with their feet down a hole, as though receiving subterranean chiropody. Indeed, foot-fetishism plays a major role in this production. The Rhinegold itself comes in the form of women's shoes, dragged on by the bucketful to pay the ransom to the giants, symbolising, I suppose, the central Ring dilemmas, between love and power, spirit and materialism. Message: if you can't get a woman, make do with her footwear.

What Wagner-lovers will object to (and did noisily on Thursday and Friday, with booing of an order I haven't heard at the Garden since Les Huguenots several years ago) is that Wagner's messages are rather more profound than this. And so are his characters who, in Jones's hands, are only attitudes in uniform, on day-release from some Dadaistic asylum. Fricka, goddess of home-making and domesticity, becomes an eternal bride, stalking the stage like Miss Havisham in a wedding dress. Freia, goddess of youth, becomes a neurotic adolescent, clutching a doll which is herself in alter ego. Wotan, king of the gods, wears a white coat that designates him keeper of the asylum - and also a grotesque house-surgeon who doesn't merely sing about sacrificing his eye for wisdom but performs the operation before the audience.

I'm not claiming a complete dearth of effective theatre in all this. The final tableau, in which the gods chase a star of Valhalla like rowdy guests at a Victorian supper-party (they are by now, needless to say, in evening dress), is a memorable image of Wagnerian Wahn: the empty folly of the world. But by the end of Rheingold, you need to feel that the folly of these gods is enriching: a fortunate fall, drawing them into the human realm of vulnerability and pathos. You also need to feel that they, like you, have been left on the brink of something sufficiently momentous to command your interest over the next three nights. And I didn't feel that. All I recognised was a retreat from the momentous, into smirks and giggles.

Mercifully, the giggles toned down in Walkure the following night: the shift from the world of the gods to the world of mankind was obviously an encouragement to sobriety. But they were still the most appalling Valkyries I've ever seen (and I've seen a few). What hero would brave the fire for a Brunnhilde in a skeleton-print body-stocking and a gym skirt? Not me. The rest of the staging merely proved that if your concept of a piece reduces it to cartoon terms, it becomes texturally thin. Unless your ideas are striking and plentiful, which Jones's aren't. He gave the Scottish Ring his best shots, and there don't seem to be any more where they came from.

Musically it's a happier story, although Haitink clearly wasn't at ease with the Rhinegold and let pass some shabby instrumental playing. Things improved for the Walkure. By the last act, he had recovered the masterful command we all remember from his Meistersinger. But the consistent quality in Haitink's reading of these scores was a concern for pure musical values. It's a cliche that great conductors make Wagner sound like chamber music, but Haitink really does - with a refinement that encourages his singers to float their lines across the orchestra rather than fire them like torpedos through enemy defences. The voices in this Ring are admirably clean and free of old-Wagnerian bad habits. Small roles like Peter Sidhom's Donner register with elegance. Big ones like Ekkehard Wlaschiha's Alberich

and Jane Henschel's Fricka

are direct and well-defined. Poul Elming's Siegmund sets the tone, with a focused, unbloated Helden resonance that won't send shivers down your back, but will entice your ear. And central to them all is the double act of John Tomlinson as Wotan and Deborah Polaski (Brunnhilde), already familiar to Ring audiences in Bayreuth and Berlin. Polaski was reportedly unwell, but it didn't sound in her performance, which was bright, full and a relief after years of Gwyneth Jones screaming the part at Covent Garden. Tomlinson has never been exactly the right voice for Wotan (he is a bass; it's a bass-baritone role) and the top extension of the voice is sounding stretched. But lower down it's vital, with an almost predatory musicianship. And how wonderful it is to hear this great British Wagnerian at last engaged for a complete Ring on his own home ground.

In 1854, just after Wagner had published the text for the Ring, Robert Schumann tried to drown himself, subsequently explaining his actions in bizarrely Wagnerian terms. He wanted, he said, to surrender his wedding ring to the river Rhine; of course, he was by this time completely mad. Two years later he died in an asylum.

Wednesday night at the QEH was given over to a musical dramatisation of Schumann's life and death as part of the Deutsche Romantik festival; and the claim behind it was that Schumann is identifiably the pivotal figure of German Romanticism, representing in his work the movement's key themes with definitive intensity. This is a fair claim; and thinking back to Fuseli's foot - a lot of feet this week - Schumann certainly paid for his dedication to the impossible at the highest price. On Wednesday, the actor Gabriel Woolf told the story while an ad hoc chamber group led by cellist Steven Isserlis played the music. The performance lacked the fine-tuned balance of a regular ensemble. But it was enlivened by the personality of Isserlis (who plays these days in a persistent swoon that would be irritating if it wasn't so sublimely musical), and ended with a fine performance of the E-flat Piano Quintet. My one reservation was that there was no singing. Songs were so critical to Schumann's output, I can't see how you give the measure of his life without them.

'Rheingold': ROH, 071-304 4000: continues Mon & Thur. 'Walkure': Tues & Sat. All shows sold out.