OPERA / Power without responsibility: This year's new Ring cycle at Bayreuth raises wider issues about the future direction of Wagner's own festival. Antony Peattie reports

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The Independent Culture
Alfred Kirchner's new production of the Ring disappointed expectations roused by reports of his work in Frankfurt and by experience of his work in Berlin (Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor) and Vienna (Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina). There were a few striking single performances, such as Ekkehard Wlaschiha's intense Alberich, Rene Pape's moving, mellifluous Fasolt, Siegfried Jerusalem's intelligent Loge, but no sense of an ensemble. Poul Elming as Siegmund and Tina Kiberg as Sieglinde created real drama, but it was vitiated by the blankness of Hans Sotin's Hunding.

Too many scenes, such as Fricka's with Wotan and the Annunciation of Death in Die Walkure, looked as if they had not been directed at all: the singers simply faced out front. While Deborah Polaski's Brunnhilde was loudly and mostly accurately sung, she was most convincing as a character when yodelling her battle cries. But there has to be more to Brunnhilde than 'Hojotoho'. Whether ecstatic or grieving, raped, betrayed, vindictive or serene, she remained imperturbable, impermeable. As Siegfried, Walther Schmidt was vocally fearless, but limited himself to portraying a bouncy lout. Seldom has the last scene of Siegfried seemed to last so long.

Sets and costumes were designed by Rosalie (the adopted name of Gudrun Muller, in homage to her teacher Jurgen Rose). The basic idea of a segment in the middle of the stage - an upturned saucer - proved serviceable enough, if reminiscent of 1950s disc stagings of the Ring. Alberich's transformation into a snake worked: the Nibelungs - anonymous, robotic slaves cowering inside metal tubes - formed an S shape. But the dragon was fudged, as were the eruption of spring into Hunding's hut and the final cataclysm - a static affair of fibre-optic cable glowing orange.

Stylistic confusion reigned: symbols bumped against literal analogies with contemporary life and against arbitrary abstraction. Not so much post-modern, as a mess. In Gotterdammerung lime-green telegraph poles stood in for trees. When Siegfried died, their top halves cranked down in homage . . . As for the costumes, they were among the most distracting, most singer-unfriendly I have ever seen. The gods all wore stiff breast-plates, supposedly modelled on the antique. On the men, the fake pecs and abs looked merely silly; on the women, they alienated sympathy still further. Sieglinde lost hers in her flight, but Brunnhilde never did. She also wore stiffly creased, black-and-white-striped paniers. And huge black net collars. Rosalie punished Fricka with raffia sprouting from one shoulder in Rheingold and a monstrous stiff kite-shape over the same shoulder in Walkure, inhibiting any movement in her right arm. Freia wore a transparent green crinoline and teetered on platform soles. This, for the goddess of love, in a drama concerned with the conflict between power and love] Wotan's face was only visible at John Tomlinson's curtain calls (otherwise, it was obscured by helmet, eyepatch and hat). Heroically determined to communicate, he took magnificent vocal risks, while his articulation of the words was exemplary. He was rewarded with an ovation at the end.

But this Ring was not just a design disaster. In the Ride of the Valkyries, extravagantly dressed ladies flew about in individual lift-shafts that swung both horizontally and vertically. After Chereau and Kupfer, that's not enough: the Valkyries stir up wars between humans to recruit dead heroes as Valhalla's defence force. This aerial ballet of fashion victims betrayed Wagner's vision for a cosmetic gimmick.

I've left the conductor, James Levine, until last - deliberately so. For what Wagner would have judged the excessive attention paid to conductors has led to the Downfall of Bayreuth. In his magisterial new history of the festival (Bayreuth, Yale University Press, 1994), Frederick Spotts points out that it is 'one of the historic Bayreuth conventions that the dramatic presentation is paramount and the music subordinate . . . Not until 1930 - and then as a concession to Toscanini - was the name of the conductor even mentioned in the programme.'

When the festival restarted after the war, in 1951, Richard's grandson Wieland Wagner purged the stain left by its longstanding association with Nazism by replacing the painted cloths and stucco rocks that had paid lip-service to Wagner's exorbitant stage directions with abstract sets. He revolutionised theatre design and production philosophy.

After Wieland's death in 1966 and under the leadership of his less talented brother Wolfgang, Bayreuth mouldered. Major artists began to refuse to work there. Wolfgang was forced to bring in directors who weren't (even metaphorically) members of the family. Gotz Friedrich was only the third director to work at the festival who was not a Wagner. His 1972 Tannhauser presented the artist as an outsider in a hostile society. Bayreuth was forcibly reminded of Wagner's own radicalism and revolutionary ambitions. Its smugness was disturbed, but at least the festival mattered once again. Later, it was saved by conductors, such as Pierre Boulez, who insisted on working with good directors. Together, Boulez and Patrice Chereau restored the primacy of Bayreuth with the historic centenary Ring of 1976.

More recently, however, Wolfgang Wagner has found big-name conductors who are happy to work with less demanding directors. The rot began when Levine used his influence to have Friedrich's production of Parsifal retired early after 1988. In its place, Wolfgang directed a 'new' gloomily conventional production.

The age of the director has given way to the age of the conductor, in part because public funding has yielded to the priorities of record company marketing. Next year, the festival revives Wolfgang's Tannhauser, and in 1996 he directs a 'new' Meistersinger to be conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Bayreuth's conductors shirk their responsibility to Wagner in favour of more power and less competition for the limelight.

In the Ring James Levine achieves astonishing feats. Repeatedly, the ear is surprised by the sheer beauty of the sounds, caressed and mesmerised by exquisitely refined textures. Levine made a gorgeous grisaille out of the scene when the gods grow old; he rendered their march into Valhalla as a playful, unpompous dance; while the forest murmurs and the fire music emerged as virtuoso exercises in colour-painting that challenged the orchestra to the utmost. They played superbly. But the Ring should be more than a series of sound effects. Meaningless, unemotional and undramatic, none of it meant anything or carried emotional weight. This was a child's self-indulgent wallow in the score. Wagner wrote for adults.

What of the future? Wolfgang Wagner is 75. He answers all criticism with the fact that there are 10 applicants for every ticket. Who will succeed him? Professor Spotts, whose book is not on sale at the festival bookshop, suggests that his second wife, Gudrun, is the real eminence grise. Some see her as the Alberich-in- waiting to Wolfgang's Fafner. It may be significant that at this year's press conference Bayreuth's mayor thanked Frau Wagner along with her husband. Bayreuth needs another revolution. It doesn't look like it will happen soon.

(Photographs omitted)