The Ring Cycle, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

A far from magical 'Ring'
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The Independent Culture

Cardiff no doubt had its super-duper new theatre, as much as the network of Russian connections formed through Welsh National Opera, to thank for this single performance of the Ring cycle by the Mariinsky company (formerly the Kirov) under Valery Gergiev. How warm that thanks should be is quite another question.

This is a Wagner road-show, which has already toured to Baden-Baden, California and various parts of the Far East; and though the staging, by Susanna Tsiriouk and George Tsypin, is an elaborate and in some ways spectacular affair, a lot of the musical performance might have fallen off the back of a pantechnicon.

The problems began with the casting. Playing the Ring on four consecutive evenings is not something to recommend, and it certainly did the singers no favours here. There were plentiful signs of wear and tear, some odd and seemingly unmotivated mixed castings, and a prevailing sense of everyone turning their hand to the plough, with, alas, frequently agricultural results.

But touring conditions hardly explain the inability to come up with even one decent Siegfried (out of two), or more than one respectable Wotan (out of, eventually, three, though the illness that prevented Yevgeny Nikitin from singing the Wanderer in Siegfried apparently cleared up enough for him to provide a decidedly under-par Hagen in Götterdämmerung on the final evening).

I could go on about the inadequacies in minor roles, but it would be kinder to highlight the few successes in major ones. Olga Sergeyeva, last seen here in the Mariinsky's Katerina Ismailova in July, was a strong, if not quite mellifluous Brünnhilde in the last two dramas (Olga Savova took the part in Die Walküre); she deserved better of a Siegfried who sang colourlessly, not always accurately, and was mocked by a ridiculous blond headdress and a tarnhelm (or magical helmet) that turned him, not into Gunther, but into Siegfried in a lampshade, thus rendering the rest of the plot incoherent.

There was a sprightly, personable Loge (Vassily Gorshkov, who was a fine Mime, too, in Siegfried), an excellent Alberich in Edem Umerov - for some reason, though, rested in Götterdämmerung, with baleful consequences for the great scene with Hagen - and two good Frickas, Svetlana Volkova and, especially, Larissa Diadkova, who was one too many, in every way, for the frail Wotan of Mikhail Kit. Mlada Khudoley was a moving, intelligent Sieglinde.

Gergiev conducted, sometimes with fire in his belly, sometimes like a piece of Rhine driftwood. There were thrilling moments and some admirable playing, especially in Siegfried from the heavy brass and deep woodwind, but little sign of that vaunted Gergiev intensity that Tsypin claims inspired significant aspects of the staging. It was one of the patchiest Rings, in terms of musical drama and continuity, I can recall.

Tsypin's own work, and that of the stage director Tsiriouk, has at least the virtue of consistency, and the greater virtue of not - so far as I could tell - plunging the audience into the kind of hermeneutics that end up distracting them from the music. The idiom is megalithic: huge humanoid figures of a vaguely central Asian mythology tower above the action, now and then nodding their heads in its direction, or supplying essential props - Valhalla, a rock for Brünnhilde, or, most intriguingly, a quadripartite dragon, which Siegfried helpfully (from a musical angle) has to kill four times.

Much of this is quite ugly, but it's redeemed by some excellent costumes (by Tatiana Noginova), and a brilliant palette of coloured lighting (by Gleb Filshtinsky), which sometimes strays into the lurid but always recognises the fairy-tale, rather than grimly Jungian, origins of Wagner's story.

If the staging itself is lifeless and at times confused, the colours at least give an illusion of focus. It's an illusion that could usefully have been transferred to the music.