As rehearsals for Keith Warner's new production of Das Rheingold begin at the Royal Opera House, the progress of Phyllida Lloyd's ongoing Ring Cycle for English National Opera has become almost painful to observe. Delayed in rehearsal by the renovation of the Coliseum (Rhinegold), and derided for the slightest hint of feminist thought (Valkyrie), Lloyd's Wagnerian odyssey has been strikingly unlucky thus far. Can ENO seriously consider going head to head with Covent Garden in 2006? If the empty seats at the first performance of Siegfried are anything to go by, they cannot.
With the exception of the first violins' most vertiginous figures, the orchestral playing is again vastly improved from the previous opera in the cycle. Siegfried's horn call is properly electrifying, the work of the woodwind and lower strings consistently expressive, and, from time to time, conductor Paul Daniel manages both to galvanise his players and to accompany his singers with due regard to vocal health. Thematic strands from Lloyd's earlier productions reappear: a wash of Erda's linden green, and further shadow boxing behind the screen. The circling silhouette of the Woodbird (Sarah Tynan) - who travels by scooter - offers a welcome moment of theatrical magic. The stop-start maturation of Wagner's eponymous teenage hero is well drawn, despite the unflattering Take That dance routine he is required to enact as he forges Nothung. The dialogues between Siegfried (Richard Berkeley-Steele) and Mime (John Graham-Hall), Wotan (Robert Hayward) and Alberich (Andrew Shore), and Wotan and Erda (Patricia Bardon) are cleverly characterised. But Lloyd's imagery is earthbound and claustrophobic.
Intimate character development is not enough to carry a work of this scale and Lloyd and her designer Richard Hudson have created a stylistic cul de sac. If Mime lives in a trailerpark, why dress Siegfried as a middle-class Sk8ter Boi? ENO's baseball-capped hero is symptomatic of a wider trend in opera, in which the translation of complex ideas into an accessible visual language is become so all-consuming that the ideas themselves are reduced. Thus the spring near Fafner's cave (here an asylum) is a water-cooler. Thus his transformation into a dragon is a mere tattoo. Thus Wotan's encounter with Erda takes place in a rest-home where the Norns snooze in Parker Knoll chairs and the television is tuned to Brünnhilde's wall of fire.
The humour in Siegfried is not all deliberate. It is curious that the Nibelungen are more well-spoken than the Gods. (I still can't understand a word of Hayward's poésie concrête.) Fine figure of a Fafner as he is, do we really need to see the sausagey silhouette of Gerard O'Connor's genitals at his murder? Of course, one could argue that the Ring Cycle is inherently phallocentric but having established a potent back-lit image of Kathleen Broderick's feline Brünnhilde in profile, Lloyd blows the final duet by turning Brünnhilde's embrace with Siegfried into a Rorschach blob of such bluntly priapic tumescence as to be far funnier than any amount of witty fire-extinguishers. With committed performances from Berkeley-Steele, Graham-Hall, Bardon, Broderick and Shore, it pains me not to like Siegfried more than I do. But Harry Enfield and Puppetry of the Penis are hardly the most heroic of reference points. With the proviso that I may yet be proved wrong in The Twilight of the Gods, it seems that Lloyd has run out of ideas.
Had you asked me last week which of this week's performances I would enjoy and which I would endure, I'd have predicted this: for enjoyment, Siegfried; for endurance, The Second Mrs Kong and the London Philharmonic Orchestra's Family Funharmonics event. I was wrong. The LPO's Vacuum Cleaners and Other Endangered Species was the most invigorating introduction to live orchestral music I could imagine for my four-year-old, notwithstanding the nightmare of having to concoct a cat costume for him to wear to it. There's a limit to what you can do with pipecleaners and Tipp-Ex.
Last time I heard the LPO was in their sensational performance of Jenufa at Glyndebourne. Janacek featured here too, with the characters in the suite from The Cunning Little Vixen introduced by CBeebies presenter Chris Jarvis and illustrated by conductor Alexander Briger. The orchestra played wonderfully, sounding plush and warm and firm and bright for their laughing, squealing and ultimately enchanted capacity audience. Kids can dress up or down, have their faces painted, try out the instruments, and even take a turn with the baton, while hearing anything from Stravinsky to Harry Potter. The next Funharmonics concert is on 6 March. Parents, grandparents and people who write cheques to keep projects like this one alive, put it in your diaries.
Finally, the giant ape. Harrison Birtwistle and Russell Hoban's brilliantly orchestrated multi-media fantasy on an afterlife romance between the model for Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring and King Kong received a superb semi-staged London premiere this week from the BBC Symphony Orchestra - back on tip-top form under Martyn Brabbins - and Apollo Voices. Romp is not a word I associate with Birtwistle but this 1994 philosophical comedy of marital boredom, identity crises and true love was just that. No, Mrs Kong is not gratefully written for singers but it was excellently sung, and particular credits should go to Andrew Watts (Orpheus), Robert Poulton (Dollarama), Susan Bickley (Mrs Dollarama), Roderick Williams (Vermeer), and coloratura soprano Rebecca von Lipinski (Pearl). Fabulous.
'Siegfried': Coliseum, London WC2 (020 7632 8300), to 3 DecemberReuse content