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Classical: Putting the case for the defence

Though it opened to a critical onslaught in 1997, Pierre Audi's Ring cycle in Amsterdam is now complete.
When Pierre Audi became the artistic director of the Nederlandse Opera in 1988, much was still being made of his modishness. The rich young man who founded London's Almeida Theatre wore a stylish black shirt, buttoned up to the collar but without a tie, much as did those other fashionable cultural figures of Eighties Britain, Alan Yentob, Michael Ignatieff and Charles Saatchi.

Eleven years on, Audi still wears his tieless shirts buttoned to the neck, but he is a more substantial figure than when he left London. Not only has the Lebanese wunderkind become a prominent figure in the world of international opera, he is also, dare one say it, more substantial round the waist too.

Audi sits in his minimalist office on Amsterdam's Waterlooplein smoking his Oliphant cigars and talking about the first complete Ring cycle to be played on Dutch soil. Having had a very rough ride in the Dutch press, Pierre Audi is at pains to point out that he never expected to be directing Wagner. In fact, his sudden - and hugely successful - involvement as producer of Monteverdi's opera Il returno d'Ulisse in patria back in 1990 was intended as a one-off.

"It was a tremendous shock coming to the Muziektheater here in Amsterdam," he explains. "The performing space is tricky. The stage has enormous width, the pit is an isolated island in the auditorium and the acoustics are not the best in the world." Holland's opera supremo admits that he had become fascinated by the shape of performing space while running the Almeida, and so he decided to build the stage out and produce Ulisse himself as an experiment. The result, as Audi admits gently but without any hint of English modesty, was "amazingly intimate and acoustically exciting".

Monteverdi hooked Audi on producing opera however, and ever since he has staged his own shows in tandem with his duties as the artistic director at De Nederlandse Opera. After almost a decade of notable successes - including Simon Rattle's first experience of conducting Wagner and Peter Greenaway's debut as an opera producer - Audi unveiled the first part of his Ring cycle in September 1997. For the man who had achieved such critical superlatives in his newfound career it must have come as a bit of a shock to be so reviled in the British press.

It appeared that Audi could get nothing right. He was criticised for using real fire everywhere except where Wagner had specified it, for profligacy (it is a very expensive production); for making meaningless gestures such as the close-up of a human eye on a television screen in Mime's cave; for putting the orchestra actually on stage when Wagner had tried to hide it; and, damningly, for employing "a bunch of Bayreuth has-beens from the 1970s and 1980s".

The worst criticism, however, was reserved for John Brocheler's impassive interpretation of the great god, Wotan, of whom the kindest thing that could be said was that his performance in Das Rheingold was introverted. The Audi Ring did not sink without trace as some reviewers might have wished, however. Over the next year, each of the four operas played eight times and were revised by Audi for the unveiling of the complete tetralogy last month.

Did Audi learned from his critical mauling? "I think all opera is a compromise inevitably and all productions are searching. Rheingold was a very complicated, very awkward birth. The production team was new to Wagner and many of the singers were new to their roles. The set is so big and complex that it was difficult to rehearse without it, and that meant that a lot of what we had discovered in the rehearsal room was lost when we came on stage. Unfortunately, most reviewers only saw Rheingold." If he had to start again now, would he abandon some of the ideas that so upset British critics? "No, if I had the chance I'd go further," he says defiantly.

For this first staging of the complete Ring, Audi has not replaced John Brocheler nor discouraged his tentative, almost aloof, performance in Das Rheingold. In fact, for the opening of the complete cycle, Brocheler's head has been newly encased in red plastic hair, which has made him look even more effete, even less like the progenitor of warriors and the father of nine fearsome Valkyries. Audi defends his vision of Wotan: "The gods are leading empty lives. Wotan is cut off from his emotions. Then he discovers the Ring and Erda, who comes into his life at the end of Rheingold. Erda transfigures Wotan's life. It's a key meeting that unlocks violence and passion."

This is an unusual reading of the Ring, but it makes sense, particularly for those who stay long enough to see Brocheler consumed by Ring fever in Die Walkure or agonising over impending doom with his former lover in Siegfried. This Wotan is not Hans Hotter or John Tomlinson - he lacks the god-like potency of both of those famous readings. But the Brocheler Wotan does go a long way towards explaining why the father of the gods fails so consistently once in the grip of Ring fever.

As for the much lamented lack of an over-arching concept, Audi is emphatic that he did not intend one. Nor was he interested in contemporary metaphor. "I see the Ring as a dark fairy tale that is staged in four different theatres that change in configuration with movements of the story," he says.

This may go some way towards explaining why, as some critics have already pointed out, Audi virtually rebuilds the auditorium for each of Wagner's four operas. But was it really necessary, for instance, to put the orchestra actually on stage for Die Walkure and Siegfried, or to place the audience on stage in a ring of vertiginous seating called the "adventure seats" for Gotterdammerung? Audi lights up his next Oliphant. "I couldn't stop thinking of Wagner's idea of fooling around with where the orchestra went. In Das Rheingold and Gotterdammerung I've got the orchestra between the audience and the singers because it represents the Rhine. But in Die Walkure and Siegfried, it's on stage with the actors because it's a symbol of the forest, which is the element in which all of these characters live.

"As for placing the audience on stage, I realised that I wanted to build up the production from Act 3 of Gotterdammerung, working backwards. I saw Act 3 as two solos - Siegfried's and Brunhilde's - interrupted by the Funeral March, and I thought a lot about who they were addressing and I decided it should be us. That is why the audience is on stage."

Audi's vision of the Ring has suffered hugely from being judged by Das Rheingold, which is still nowhere near as sure a production as Die Walkure. The complete cycle, however, shows the strength of some of his ideas. Wotan does develop as a character; the theatre space is magnificently used, giving characters huge areas to prowl round the musicians; and placing the orchestra on stage coincidentally allows the music director Hartmut Haenchen to draw out a much better sound than when the musicians were trapped in the pit for Das Rheingold.

The complete cycle also reveals some stunning performances. The American duo of Jeanine Altmeyer and John Keyes made a powerful case for incest as Sieglinde and Siegmund. The British tenor Graham Clark was totally absorbing in his insect costume as Mime. Anne Gevang as Erda captured the agony of a goddess whose visionary powers are in decline. And the excellent Austrian bass Kurt Rydl, appearing as both Hunding and Hagen, played two of the most frightening characters I have ever seen on the operatic stage.

As for Nadine Secunde's Brunhilde, the Dutch audience were not only on their feet at the end of Gotterdammerung, they were literally screaming their adulation of her performance.

Opera, as Audi insists, is a compromise and no production is definitive. There are indeed things to be lamented about the first Dutch Ring - even after Audi told me why the number of lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling was significant in each production, I still didn't get it - but there is a great deal to be applauded too. Opera on this scale is simply not happening in Britain at the moment and we are the poorer for it.