Music: Lords of the Ring

The Ring Royal Albert Hall, SW7 La Transfiguration de notre seigneur Jesus-Christ Barbican, EC2
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The Independent Culture
When Bernard Haitink picked up his Evening Standard award for the Royal Opera Ring - an award pointedly made to him for the music, not to the company for the production - he admitted that on Ring nights "I look at the score, not the stage." And we all knew what he meant. The Richard Jones production had a rude vitality and sometimes startling inventiveness. But in its efforts to decode Wagnerian symbolism into cartoon strips, it made the same retreat from seriousness into parody that dogs so many post-war Wagner stagings. So it failed its audience. And there'll be few tears shed over the fact that its revival - last week at the Royal Albert Hall, this week in Birmingham - is just a semi-staging, though the reasons for the trim-down are financial rather than aesthetic.

Not a trace of Richard Jones remains: the latex roly-poly body-stockings of the Rhinemaidens, the street-sign substitute for Wotan's spear, the paper bag over Brunnhilde's head - all gone. Instead, you get a cast in variants of concert-dress black, on a bare stage with the orchestra behind. The only real resource is lighting, in the manner of the Bayreuth stagings of the 1960s. But with no chance of a total blackout - thanks to the orches-tral desk-lamps - it's inevitably basic. And you can't forget that it's semi-staged, the moves determined largely by the singers (there's no credited director) who deliver moments of extreme intensity alongside quarter-hours of nothing-doing. The crowd scenes tend to come off worse: the Valkyries stroll on like old girls at a school reunion; the gods troop off to Walhalla like the personable airheads of TV sitcoms.

But to fret about that is to miss the point of this revived Ring, which is music. And it's surely significant that the whole visual focus of the show centres on Bernard Haitink - placed onstage among the singers and looking as though any minute he'll turn round and sing a Leitmotif or two. He is undoubtedly the star here, and he shines in every sense. Amid the troubles of the company, he stands with clean hands and a saintly dedication. As successive managements have come, gone, done their worst, Haitink has kept his nerve and struggled on, doing his best in wretched circumstances. And, since he established his Wagner credentials with his Ring on EMI seven years ago, Haitink has ranked among the best in the world. It had a rough Brunnhilde (Eva Marton) but it made the grade through the sheer depth of Haitink's reading. At the Albert Hall the same applies. He has a flawless sense of pace which keeps the music moving - long acts fly by - without hectoring or overdrive. His phrases breathe with an organic naturalness. He spotlights details without loss to the embracing structure. And he deals intuitively with what Wagner called the Mischklang: the absorbent blend of instruments that gives the sound its warmth and colour.

Of course, the exposure of the orchestra at the Albert Hall poses different problems to the situation at Bayreuth; there, the orchestra is mostly under the stage and otherwise shielded from the audience by a hood. To get the balance he wanted, Wagner used to seat his players unconventionally, with the softer instuments - flutes, cellos, oboes, harps - along the middle where the sound came out directly. At the Albert Hall, the problem is to project a clear sound, big enough to reach the upper gallery but not so big that it obliterates the voices. Haitink gets that with an admirable sensitivity - sometimes too sensitive, like at the opening of Die Walkure where the bite and fury isn't so arresting as it was at Covent Garden. But I'm not complaining. These are readings of authority and stature. As things are with the Royal Opera, we may never hear their like again; we must make the most of them.

As for the cast, it's not so starry as the last time round. But there is still John Tomlinson, the leading Wotan in the world today, and such a vast, capacious voice that you can hear it resonate against the distant surface of the RAH walls. An impressive feat. He's a sublimely human Wotan, given to triumphal gestures with a spear but actually a creature of quixotic pathos. The authority comes in that pure bass sound, its timbre darker than your ear expects, in an essentially bass-baritone role. But the jaunty, prowling swagger of his movement gives the game away: this is a vulnerable Wotan, living on his godly nerves. It's a momentous portrait of, perhaps, the toughest role in opera. And again, this may well be its last time on a British stage.

Hildegard Behrens's Brunnhilde is less of a joy: white-toned and wiry, with a hollow bottom. It's no match for the Brunnhilde she recorded 10 years ago in James Levine's Ring. She is, still, a compelling actress, and her fans may regret that, for this run, she shares the role with Anne Evans. Ekkehard Wlaschiha's Alberich tends to lasso its pitch, swinging around the note, but is dramatically effective, with a snarling, sharp- focused acidity. Michelle DeYoung's Fricka is uncommonly seductive in her stateliness. And there are some strikingly-taken smaller roles from British singers like Rosemary Joshua (Woglinde/Woodbird) and Timothy Robinson (Froh). All told, this Ring is a resounding triumph - against all the odds, and in the face of terminal decline. It ought to stir the conscience of the Royal Opera's feeble management as they prepare to close the company down. It ought, too, to shame the politicians - Left and Right - whose cultural indifference has let things come to this.

Ring cycles are such epic events that they tend to sweep all competition into touch. But there was one other event of epic stature in London this week, at the Barbican. The LSO & Chorus under Kent Nagano gave a rare outing to Messiaen's La Transfiguration de notre seigneur Jesus-Christ: one of those awesome grands projets in sound that were the anthems of French culture in the 1960s. La Transfiguration is a concert-liturgy with reinvented plainsong: sober, stern, but somehow blowsy and apparently inspired by contemplation on the beauty of Mont Blanc. Sunday's performance wasn't so inspired: Nagano has no gift for choir-conducting, and the chorus entries - in persistent unison - were ragged. But orchestrally this was a good show, and the better for the presence on the platform of the legendary Yvonne Loriod: Messiaen's widow, 74, and still a pianist of amazing virtuosity. She wore a billowing gold frock and looked like something out of Sacre- Coeur. But then, this lady is an icon. She elicits adoration.

The Ring: Birmingham Symphony Hall (0121 212 3333), Mon, Tues, Thurs & Sat.