It was George Bernard Shaw who realised the extraordinary simplicity of Wagner's musical ideas. Yet their working-out is always unpredictable. Listening to Wagner is easy, but it is also quite surprising.
Tim Albery's production of Der Ring for Scottish Opera, now fully deployed after being built up, one opera a year, over the last three years, succeeds so well because it follows the same plan. The most memorable visualisations are simple, even childish: the gloomy scene of Nibelheim, with child actors creeping and crawling in the darkness, their eyes shining with tiny points of light; the jolly Valkyries, girl soldiers of some ragtag rebel army, swigging beer and slapping each other on the back; Wotan and Alberich as two crotchety old-age pensioners on a park bench; the three Rhinemaidens as teen chicks, lounging in a kitsch hotel bar.
Even the most startling sights - the hideous open mouth of the dragon on an illuminated screen; or Wotan's two ravens that appear, man-sized and black, with enormous beaks - could easily come out of some child's picture book.
Yet this simple-mindedness conceals a rigorous avoidance of cliché. In the famous love-scene of Die Walküre, the lovers hardly touch. When their fingers finally meet across a Formica table, it seems an infinitely moving moment. Siegfried, proudly brandishing his newly forged sword, cannot slice the anvil in half as there is no anvil. Instead, his wild gestures sever an electric cable and the scene is bathed in fireworks.
Albery is also a clever opportunist. The singer of Erda, Mary Phillips, is a young and pretty woman, so instead of turning her into a hideous torso in blue light, she becomes a normal ambulant character, staggering around voluptuously in a nightdress. Gillian Keith, the Woodbird, is a small, slim girl who happens to be a beautiful mover; so instead of being a disembodied voice, she swoops and dives about the stage in a white trouser-suit, an enchanting presence.
The governing visualisation, at least as seen by the set designer Hildegard Bechtler, is a postmodern mix of motorway flyovers, hotel rooms, office blocks and workshops, laced with fairy-tale swords and spears. The costumes (designed by Ana Jebens) are the kind of thing you might see on a visit to Asda, with cardigans, sports jackets and smart office suits. There is also a lot of real fire in evidence.
In this refreshingly dowdy setting, the artists give their electrifying all, and the blistering orchestra is inspired by a truly great Wagnerian conductor, Richard Armstrong. The wonderful Peter Sidhom as Alberich almost overstepped his resources of sheer tension; and Matthew Best as Wotan was so centred, so earnest, so utterly beyond trivial swagger that he overcame the problems of his somewhat unprepossessing stage presence.
Anne Mason was a distinguished Fricka, full of rich disgust; Peter Bronder as Loge, in red trousers and yellow top, was an agile smart-guy, and Alisdair Elliott, that fine character singer, a truly pitiable Mime who nevertheless always sang, never merely chattered. Neither of the giants (Markus Hollop and Carsten Stabell) had a really heavy voice, so they were dressed as factory shop-stewards facing up to the management.
The Sieglinde, Marie Plette, was new since this Die Walküre first appeared in 2001. Her sweet lyric voice and charming presence worked well alongside the dashing Siegmund (Jan Kyhle), though Kyhle's young-sounding tenor was often out of tune. The Siegfried, Graham Sanders, is at last allowing himself to sing out fully, though there are signs of strain. But his is a splendid characterisation, a youth in trainers who explodes with energy and bravado, sexually eager, unstoppable.
The real triumph of the cycle is Elizabeth Byrne's emergence as a great Brünnhilde. Hers is not a spine-tingling voice, but she has the focus, engagement and control to follow the part credibly to its terrible end, as engineered by Albery with his usual simplicity. And there were many other fine portrayals: Rachel Hynes as a physical Freia; Mats Almgren an overwhelming Hagen; Jane Irwin a serious Waltraute; Elaine McKrill a glamorous, touching Gutrune.
This is a simple though surprising Ring cycle, and it is, finally, magnificent.
Second performance of the 'Ring' cycle: 25, 26, 28, 30 August (0131-473 2000; returns only)Reuse content