An inspirational project in ruins: Libeskind quits Ring Cycle project

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The Independent Culture

In New York, his plans for an emotive monument at Ground Zero look set to be compromised by the commercial demands of the site's owners. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, his long-awaited Spiral extension has been delayed by a lack of cash.

Now Daniel Libeskind, the architect, has pulled out of a widely anticipated production at Covent Garden: a new staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle scheduled for 2005 and starring Bryn Terfel.

Although the cast and production teams for opera are rarely announced so long in advance, the word was out that Mr Libeskind was to produce the designs for the cycle. There was much excitement that the man responsible for the dramatic Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester was to turn his hand to one of the most epic works in the operatic canon.

Mr Libeskind was, after all, a former musical prodigy who studied music in Israel and New York before turning to architecture. He took as one of the inspirations for his Jewish Museum the stage work Moses und Aron by the demanding 20th-century composer, Schoenberg.

But yesterday the Royal Opera House confirmed that Mr Libeskind had parted company from the director, Keith Warner. They were "unable to agree on the imagery". A Covent Garden spokesman said: "They were working together and decided not to continue to work together."

The architect has encountered differences of opinion on a musical project before. Two producers last year withdrew from Messiaen's St Francois d'Assise at the Deutsche Oper, where Libeskind's giant design of 49 revolving cubes was called a "spiritual washing machine" by one critic.

John Allison, editor of Opera magazine, said Libeskind was an interesting architect and people would have liked to see what he would have done at the Opera House.

"There's always a problem - but I think it's a problem worth tackling - when you have people from outside the opera and theatre world to design or direct. It can open things up and regenerate. Potentially it's very exciting as otherwise opera design is a closed shop. But just bringing in new people doesn't guarantee success," he said.

Mr Libeskind's work for Deutsche Oper "was architecturally interesting but not really what that opera needed and not very good from the musical point of view either".

Mr Libeskind's withdrawal from the Ring has to be seen in a different category from the delays to the Victoria and Albert Museum's Spiral and the problems in New York. Major architectural projects collapse when the artistic vision proves too controversial or the budget proves impossible to raise.

In the case of the V&A, the Spiral, a shiny extension to the museum's 19th century South Kensington building, was commissioned in 1996 under its previous director, Alan Borg.

The scheme won planning permission from Kensington and Chelsea Council despite some public reservations about the way the design contrasted with the main building.

But as Dr Borg's leadership waned, the project became bogged down. The drive to raise £75m to build it appeared to take second place to the creation of the new British Galleries.

Yet Mark Jones, Alan Borg's successor, is now totally committed to the project. "We're still fund-raising but hopefully we'll start building next year," a museum spokeswoman said.

The situation in New York looks more complicated. Libeskind was the winner for a scheme at Ground Zero with sky-high towers that seemed a defiant reminder of the pre-9/11 landscape, and a deep pit exposing the bedrock of the site.

But observers in the city now believe that his vision is being radically altered by the demands of the developer and leaseholder, Larry Silverstein, who has effectively taken control of most of the design package.

Mr Libeskind was not available for comment yesterday.