Ring Cycle/ Scottish Opera, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Four nights of Wagner? Bliss. No, really
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The Independent Culture

Who likes Wagner? I mean, apart from Francis Ford Coppola who used The Ride of the Valkyries to grant shocking grace to the helicopter sequence in Apocalypse Now. Well, not me.

My exception is Tristan und Isolde which I saw at the precocious but impressionable age of 14 but, as I said last year, if I ever hear Parsifal again it will be too soon. So imagine my feelings when, at the end of a spellbinding Prom blisteringly well conducted by Claudio Abbado the conductor turned to us and announced an encore: the Vorspiel to Parsifal. Five minutes later, I was stunned to realise that tears were rolling down my face.

That's why, a year later, I nervously agreed to attend not one Wagner opera but four, ie Scottish Opera's Ring Cycle. Thanks to my Prom epiphany I was now willing to face 15 hours of music across four nights because I'd succumbed to the raw emotion of his orchestral writing. But what if this were the only way I liked Wagner: no singing, no story, no ideas? Ah, ideas. I'd mentioned my epiphany to a musician friend. "You're not one of those people who can't separate Wagner's music and his ideas are you?" he enquired, suspiciously. Well, pardon me for seeming jejune, but no I can't.

Neither could Wagner. Shakespeare's politics and personality are, in spite of earnest attempts by the BBC's Michael Wood, untraceable from the plays. Philip Larkin's private racism only indirectly affects his public poetry because the two remained separate. But Wagner's fingerprints are all over his work. To an unprecedented degree, his music and ideas are indivisible. This man published an outspoken 750-page autobiography and a staggering 15 volumes of musical and political philosophy, including the notorious and staunchly negative book on Jewishness and music. As a half-German and wholly Jewish man I find that complicates matters. And the real complication is that all that found its most profound expression in his musically, dramatically and intellectually ground-breaking operas, especially in the study of power and authority which was his masterpiece, The Ring, 26 years in the making.

So, by the first night, I was feeling torn. This marathon repays preparation so I'd investigated its hundreds of themes depicting and developing characters, symbols, events and emotions. Further reassured by being able to stick closely to events thanks to surtitles, I thought I was prepared. I wasn't. Nothing could have prepared me for the fact that when the final curtain fell, I was among those yelling in astonished joy.

Five years in the making, this resplendent production was masterminded by Scottish Opera's conductor Richard Armstrong whose control and vigorous encouragement of the gigantic 101-strong orchestra produced extraordinarily subtle results. I've never noticed the delicious woodwind writing usually buried beneath the blasting brass in The Ride of the Valkyries. Climaxes were splendrous but the singers were rarely swamped beneath the orchestra. Better yet, and this is the real test, the entire cast looked both dramatically engaged (a terrifyingly rare event in most Wagner productions) and engagingly relaxed. Why? Because they were in a seriously imaginative, properly detailed production.

Director Tim Albery and designer Hildegard Bechtler pay the works the ultimate compliment of pointing up their universality by not trapping them within a specific conceit. They lassoo the audience by making it use its imagination. Bechtler's ravishingly beautiful designs use giant, abstract, curving set pieces to carve spaces which simultaneously shield and define the characters. Across successive evenings, she and Albery cunningly shift the style from mythic to modern, from lateral to literal. They make characters evolve from the archetypes of Das Rheingold to contemporary people in Götterdämmerung.

Siegfried, the least dramatic of the four, has problems, not helped by young and valiant Graham Sanders struggling in the fiendishly hard title role. Lounging around with the slouch of a sloppy, stroppy teenager, he can't yet support his voice through this killer role which demands unbelievably high, strong singing across two entire nights. Unluckily for him, he's paired against a spectacular Brünnhilde.

Lean as a whippet in trim black trousers, Elizabeth Byrne looks like a cross between the young Liza Minnelli and Keeley Hawes. The only enormous things about her are the power of her perfectly focused voice and the career she's going to have.

Former Swedish popstar Jan Khyle sings Siegmund. His spine-melting voice is both powerful and immensely lyrical and Albery capitalises upon his talent and rippling physique and stages the first act of Die Walküre with astonishingly well-played eroticism. When the brother and sister seal their love with a passionate kiss, Albery pulls off a real coup by pulling the chairs and tables from under them.

Khyle's talent is matched by Matthew Best's Wotan, a richly sonorous bass of ever-increasing gravitas, Mats Almgren's stunningly still and malevolent Hagen and, best of all, Alasdair Elliott's Mime. Looking for all the world like Harry Hill in baggy leather shorts, the expressiveness of his magnificently penetrating singing is equalled only by the engrossing detail of his acting. Watching him gleefully whip up poison with an egg-beater is one of endless tiny, terrific moments.

Siegfried marks the only change in this self-evidently harmonius creative team. Peter Mumford's revelatory (in every sense) lighting for this and Götterdämmerung brings everything into sharper focus. Mumford made his name bathing dancers in scalding side-light and is, literally, brilliant at colouring and controlling emotions in large spaces. Bechtler cunningly highlights the production's controlling image of a journey by using an increasingly raked white road surrounded by massive, dark, leaning walls and Mumford makes the petrol blue on the set simply gleam and splashes acid greens and scorching yellows against a bald Beckettian tree. By the end of the act the music is in major keys and his palette has turned to super-saturated purple and gold. The whole design team make you see what Wagner meant when he wrote that his operas were "acts of music made visible".

Scottish Opera, currently lurching between funding crises, should brandish this magnificent achievement before every funder or sponsor in the world. As for me, unlike Siegmund, I didn't fall headlong in love. I've abandoned many of my Wagner prejudices but I'm still nervous about the solipsism of his vision. But give me a chance to see this mind-blowing production again and I'd be there like a shot.

'Ring Cycle Two': Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 473 2000), Mon, Tue, Thur, Sat (returns only); 'Ring Cycle One/ Two': Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0141 332 9000), in rep 4 Sept to 8 Nov; 'Ring Cycle': The Lowry, Salford (0161 876 2000), 3, 4, 8 & 11 Oct (returns only)

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