OPERA / Deep in the pit: Mark Pappenheim watches those modern-day Nibelungs, the musicians, slaving away in preparation for the start of the Ring cycle

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Mists thicken, darkness falls, the smell of sulphur fills the air. Down, down we go, through bottomless caverns, deep into the bowels of the earth. Down into a vast, empty pit: open shafts radiate in all directions, the din is deafening. The place? Nibelheim, underground realm of the dwarfs, where Alberich, the love-denying, has forged the Ring, and with its magic power forced his fellow Nibelungs to mine the gold with which he plans to rule the world.

For Bernard Shaw, writing in 1898, the enslaved Nibelungs were the working class. 'This gloomy place need not be a mine: it might just as well be a match-factory, with yellow phosphorous, phossy jaw, a large dividend, and plenty of clergymen shareholders . . . Or any other of the places where human life and welfare are daily sacrificed in order that some greedy foolish creature may be able to hymn exultantly to his Plutonic idol.'

A quarter-century and a World War later, Shaw saw no reason to revise his view: 'The main difference is that Alberich is richer, and his slaves hungrier and harder worked, when they are so lucky as to have any work to do.' (How was he to know that, by 1994, mining itself would be as much a folk memory as phossy jaw?)

Steeped as it is in 'sentimental socialism', Shaw's vision of the revolutionary roots of Wagner's Ring - forged beneath the fluttering red flags of the barricades of 1848 - may seem as outmoded today as Clause IV at a Labour Party Conference. But, as a packed house, paying up to pounds 121.50 a seat, settles in at Covent Garden tonight for the start of a new Ring Cycle, spare a Shavian thought for those modernday Nibelungs, the instrumentalists slaving away in the Opera House pit.

For, in their triumphant harnessing of natural resources - metal, wood, gut, horsehair, rosin - orchestral musicians, no less than miners, illustrate the Wagnerian allegory of nature versus society. Deep in their own dark pit, they too offer a microcosm of the materialist world, and are equally subject to the swings between democratic and autocratic forces - happily making music in collective harmony, or submissively bashing out notes beneath the beat of a tyrant's baton.

It is also true that in no other opera is the orchestra such a leading player. The Rhine, the Gold, the Curse, the Sword, Siegfried himself - virtually every event, object, idea or character in the Ring makes its first appearance in the pit, woven into the dense Wagnerian web of orchestral leitmotifs, and making the stage itself, to a rare degree, the mirror of the music rather than the reverse.

Twenty-eight years in the making, four evenings in the running - necessitating the creation not only of special instruments (the famous Wagner tubas and their counterparts, the bass trumpets and contrabass trombones) but of a special theatre too - Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen remains the longest haul in the operatic repertoire.

The Ring was once an annual fixture at the Garden - two cycles a year. Alan Taylor, co-principal timpanist since 1951, has lost count of the number of cycles he's banged out. 'There was an old trombone player here who used to boast when drunk, 'I done fifsch cycles' - meaning 50 cycles. I don't think I've done that many in my 43 years, but I do know I've never missed one.'

Yet ask him about his favourite moment, and he's lost. 'Well, I think it's in Rheingold - about 20 minutes before the end, very very dramatic. I don't know which bit it is, though. I could show you on my part, and you could check it in the score. But I'm not a score-reader and I don't like percussion players who are - always looking in their scores instead of counting their bars' rest. It gets up my nose. Old-fashioned, that's me.'

A small but vital cog in the big machine, Taylor was stuck away for years beneath the stage. It was only in 1976, when he was shifted out of the pit into a stage box to make way for even more strings, that he saw his first Ring - 'the moving one, with the giants, poor souls, in those built-up shoes and spaceman suits'. But wasn't he ever tempted to go out front and take a look? 'Personally, no. I just come and play and hopefully enjoy it]'

The sheer scale of the Ring has always made it something of a rite of passage for pit players. No matter how many cycles you notch up on your bow, you never forget your first time. For Taylor, in the summer of 1954, 'It was a most unpleasant conductor called Fritz Stiedry. He was a nasty piece of work, banging on the music stand, stamping, shouting - 'I am right]' He was only a guest, but he told the then orchestra manager, 'When I come back next year I want a complete new orchestra apart from the first violins.' In fact, I don't think he was ever asked back.'

Taylor has no doubts, though, about the most memorable Ring conductor: Rudolf Kempe. 'That's not decrying Sir Georg, Sir Colin or any of the others. But Kempe without a doubt - he was so calm. He wasn't a great public draw,' he admits. 'I don't think people realised how good he was. But he was a superb craftsman with the stick. And he knew everything. He only had to look at you - he didn't have to yak like some others do.'

Harold Nash, bass trumpet player, agrees. He played his first cycle under Kempe in 1957. 'He managed to underplay it - some people would say too much. He used to sit on the stool, and stood up only once in each opera. But when he did, the roof really went up] It could be in odd places, though. In Walkure, it was at the end of Wotan's Farewell. Things like the Ride, which other conductors let rip, he kept all subdued.'

After Kempe, who conducted two Covent Garden cycles every year but one between 1955 and 1961, came Solti. 'Solti was entirely different,' Nash recalls. 'He was on his feet even before it started. And in Gotterdammerung he used to conduct a full bar of silence to begin with, so it was at fever pitch from the word go.'

Both players note the tendency for cycles to become louder and longer. It's not just a matter of opinion, it's there in their parts - those time-worn palimpsests of passing maestros' marks and timings. Alan Taylor's, while not quite dating back to Mahler, who conducted Covent Garden's first cycle in 1892, do bear 'lots of turn-of-the-century marks' by two Dutch percussionist brothers, Willem and Johann Gezinck. He's also continued their habit of clocking in different conductors' running times. 'For example, TB - Tommy Beecham - first act: 56 minutes. Kempe: one hour. This chap: considerably longer, let's put it that way] Apparently, in the old days, they got on with it a bit - or Beecham used his famous blue pencil. 'Oh, we don't want to bore people, we'll just cut that out']'

Not that consistency need be a virtue of great Ring conductors. Alan Taylor has fond memories of the East German, Franz Konwitschny, who conducted two Covent Garden cycles in 1959. 'He liked his sherbet,' he laughs. 'He finished rehearsals early every time - wonderful] All he'd say was 'Young wife' - and there she was, a really beautiful young lady.' By the time of the second cycle he no longer seemed in such a hurry: 'His second Siegfried was actually 40 minutes longer than his first,' says Nash. 'Unbelievable] But perhaps he'd got bored with his wife by then]'

'Das Rheingold' opens tonight 7.30pm (071- 304 4000) and will be reviewed on Saturday

(Photograph omitted)