Opera: A Ring of confidence

Opera: POCKET RING/ THE DONKEY'S SHADOW, COVENT GARDEN FESTIVAL, LONDON

TOO STRESSED to spend four nights following the tortuous progress of Wagner's Ring cycle? The Pocket Opera Company of Nurnberg has the answer: its chamber version crams it into one evening. Here, the Rhine is a paddling-pool, Nothung an arm stuck through a screen, the Tarnhelm a supermarket plastic bag.

There are moments in the production (part of the BOC Covent Garden Festival) that are played just for laughs, but what makes Peter B Wyrsch's production interesting is that, while it's not afraid to laugh, it also tells the story with an, at times, breathtaking economy.

Much of the credit goes to David Seaman, whose reduction for eight singers (doubling and trebling according to voice type) and 12 players ensures that music and drama cohere, just as Wagner insisted. Sometimes Seaman's orchestra sounds like a Looney Tunes caricature, sometimes like Palm Court serenaders, but there is genuine insight in the way he has filleted the structure, then put it back together so that it seems whole. Nor is this simply Wagner's Greatest Hits: out went the Ride of the Valkyries and Siegfried's Rhine Journey, precisely because such passages stop the narrative dead in its tracks.

Butchery, some will say, but what emerges has its own integrity. In this telling, Siegfried becomes the moral centre around which orbit corruption, selfishness and godly indifference. James Hancock (who also plays Froh and Siegmund) sings heroically, and captures Siegfried's essential childishness. If the singers are short on Wagnerian weight, each pays proper attention to the declamatory line, although, by the end of what is still a long show, the strain is showing. However, it's an ingenious, sometimes amusing, often enlightening evening.

On Monday, the Festival offered a strongly cast performance, conducted by Ernst Kovacic, of Richard Strauss's opera The Donkey's Shadow, which he composed for performance at his grandson's school. Incomplete when he died in 1949, it was rendered performable by the school's headmaster and music teacher.

Here, dialogue was replaced by Peter Ustinov's narration, so wordy that the music became a sequence of interludes in his wanly schoolmasterish performance. It was all reminiscent of Fifties BBC children's radio, and the music proved faceless, old-fashioned and not notably Straussian, except perhaps for a quasi-classical arietta, prettily sung by Mary Nelson. An interesting oddity; but emphatically not a candidate for the repertoire.

Nick Kimberley

The Pocket Opera `Ring' is at the Peacock Theatre, WC1 (0171-413 1410), 28, 29 May, and at Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844), 31 May, 1 June

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