For many years, like most moderate opera lovers, I had always wanted to see a complete Ring cycle, supposedly the pinnacle of all music experiences, an assault on the senses equal to nothing else in music. My musical friends have always said that Wagner is the nearest equivalent opera has to Shakespeare, a giant who dwarfs everyone else with the possible exception of Mozart. Poet and philosopher (Nietzsche was a disciple) as well as musician, he was the consummate professional, crafting Der Ring des Nibelungen over a period of nearly 30 years. He was 35 when he began it, 63 when he finished, and in the intervening years, during which he wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, he went through the gates of hell and back – as all great composers and artists seem destined to do.
I had seen various parts of the Ring of course: Die Walkure a couple of times, once at the ENO in English, and a bad Götterdämmerung many years ago. I had seen other Wagners too – Tristan at Glyndebourne, Tännhauser at the Met, Die Meistersinger in Covent Garden.
But to be frank, I had never quite got Wagner. I could listen and watch with genuine enjoyment and a great deal of admiration, but I had never undergone what fans call "the Wagner experience", that magical moment of musical discovery when one glimpses his true genius for the first time and all other operatic works pale by comparison. I felt I had been close a few times, particularly with Tristan, but never quite got there. Would exposure to the full Ring cycle, that "epic story of love and power", (or "opera's Everest" as someone more prosaically called it), do the trick?
Last Wednesday, I turned up at Covent Garden for Valery Gergiev's Mariinsky production, one of the most controversial and widely discussed of all Ring productions. It was heralded as "the musical event of the summer", four operas squashed by Gergiev into successive nights – 18 solid hours of opera and 24 if you include breaks, performed by lesser mortals than Gergiev over at least a week. Tickets cost £840 each, which shocked even the unperturbable Gergiev, but when the curtain went up there wasn't an empty seat.
The advance publicity had been mixed, to say the least, and some of it was downright hostile. For some reason, the Ossetian-born Gergiev seems to have got up the critics' noses, with some of them almost gleefully hoping he would fall over under a schedule that is possibly the most demanding of any conductor in history. One critic gloomily intoned, in best Wotan prophecy mode, that "Gergiev may be riding for a fall", while another wrote "surely something's got to give". The Guardian actually published a leader, ostensibly in praise of him, but warning "the Gergiev Ring may be a self-imposed challenge too far". Would "hubris takes its toll?" asked another.
This production, from beginning to end, was all about Gergiev who is Chief Lord Panjandrum at the Mariinsky Theatre, responsible for ballet and concerts as well as opera (he is also chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor of the New York Metropolitan Opera and Vienna Philarmonic, three of the top orchestras in the world). It was presented in London last week by the extraordinary couple, Victor and Lilian Hochhauser, who rent the Royal Opera House when it officially closes in the summer (the only people trusted enough to do so), and import ready-made productions, often Russian, for a different kind of audience to the more regular opera-goers. This year it was Gergiev's turn.
Previous Rings at Covent Garden have featured big names such as Domingo and Bryn Terfel, but Gergiev's cast is almost entirely Russian and contains no recognisable names, with the advance publicity stating that "Singers include..." followed by a long list of Russian names (there were three Evgenys on the opening night, plus a Nicolai, Oleg, Andrei and a Larisa).
When this particular production, which Gergiev has taken around the world, was staged in Cardiff in 2007, the critics slated it as a "Ring without direction" and a Gergiev ego trip. The set, consisting largely of giant fibre-glass figures and relying heavily on lighting effects, was variously described as "Lord of the Rings meets Tutankhamun" and "Easter Island statues remodelled in Plasticine by a six-year-old" – suffice it to say no one thought much of George Tsypin's design. And they were absolutely right – it was woeful.
But let's keep this in perspective: we were about to see the greatest work ever written for opera, performed by one of the world's finest opera companies, conducted by the hottest conductor of the day, housed in the grandest of opera houses – could it get better than that?
And actually, for me at least, it couldn't. None of the drawbacks mattered as Das Rheingold opened on Wednesday with a single note on the double-basses that seemed to go on forever. We were into it and set or no set (the latter might have been better), we were going to enjoy it. Rheingold is really not an opera at all, but two hours and 40 minutes of what Wagner called a "preliminary evening", setting out the story and theme for the three huge works that follow. Here, we are introduced to the characters whose passions, betrayals, anguish and awful fates we will live and identify with for the next four nights.
Foremost of them is Wotan, ruler of the gods, generally seen as based on Wagner himself. Then there is his wife Fricka, Alberich, the chief Nibelung (the only one still alive at the end), who steals the gold from the feather-headed Rhinemaidens and fashions it into the ring which causes all the trouble; Fafner, the giant who kills his brother Fasolt and turns himself into a dragon; Mime, another dwarf; Erda, earth goddess and mother of Brünnhilde; and the Machiavellian Loge – all of them heading for denouements or sticky ends before the final curtain on Saturday night. Brünnhilde, played by three different singers on successive nights, doesn't appear until Die Walkure, and Siegfried a night later.
But Das Rheingold also introduces us to something even more important than the characters: the leitmotif, which actually stems from those opening notes of Rheingold, which are woven and interwoven, transformed and transferred from minor to major keys with exquisite delicacy and breath-taking sophistication, and played on different instruments, ranging from the majestic brass to the delicate woodwind and strings, sometimes in the same breath. Each motif is associated with a different character, emotion or event, so they often give warning of what is to about to occur (in much the same way as the "bum-bum-bum" of the Jaws film music heralds the appearance of the great shark). There have been books and life-works devoted to Wagner's leitmotifs (he even wrote one himself), and there are nearly 200 spread through the four operas, designed to assist an audience to follow what is a complicated and often abstruse plot.
The most pervasive motif is that of Wotan, which allows him to be present on the stage even when he is not physically there (he has actually shuffled off, a broken and very sad god, in the final act of Siegfried and doesn't appear at all in Götterdämmerung). But there is the sinister curse of love that revolves around Alberich, the marvellous love theme when Sieglinde discovers she is pregnant with Siegfried, the theme of the fire-god Loge, Siegmund's hunting horn and of course, the thunderous brass of the Valkyrie, now famously associated with the film Apocalypse Now. By the end, one can only marvel at the sheer scale of Wagner's genius.
By day two, one is totally absorbed in the music and the fate of these characters, who draw us in to their own personal dramas as the story unfolds. The Ring has at least as many interpretations as Hamlet and even more analysts who have composed treatises on what Wagner's real message is.
In the intervals in the Floral Hall, there is heated and learned discussion about it, where everyone, expert of novice, has an opinion: Alberich is really an anti-Semitic caricature of greed and corruption; Wotan and the gods represent the old capitalist regime that must collapse to make way for a more earthly and mundane world; one learned Oxford don introduces the Vedanta and Buddhist influence, which I confess had escaped me until that moment.
We all look for the Ossetian flavour that Gergiev claims to have brought to it, but in vain. Goodness knows, there are enough flavours and influences to keep the Floral Hall going all night.
Outside the Opera House, the critics are already in full swing. The Telegraph carries a piece asking is it "the worst Ring in history?" The Times says it is "slapdash", justified by a few minor hitches such as Fafner's apron falling down, and a technician slipping on with a drill to fix the lights. The Standard finds it "mundane" while our own Independent critic mutters about the tiredness of both the orchestra and its conductor.
I am no critic, and see it all very differently, as does the little group of us who have bonded in our admiration for Gergiev and the orchestra over these four days. We thought Gergiev superb, and the orchestra sublime. After the first night, the set and the glitches were buried by an avalanche of majestic music, played by one of the best orchestras I have heard, under a conductor who never flagged for a second, making it an experience I will forever treasure.
And, yes, I think I have now had that "Wagner experience". But I still love Mozart. And Verdi. And even Puccini.