review: Opera Gotterdammerung Royal Opera House, London
'Maybe, just maybe, a few closed minds have now been prised open to see the method in the madness'
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Monday 16 October 1995
And so this Gotterdammerung begins with the stage and auditorium bathed in a golden light. The houselights remain lit in direct contradiction of Wagner's crepuscular prelude. Until the First Norn asks "What is that light? Daybreak or firelight?" But why are these Norns, these mystic watchers, done out in cardigans and day-frocks? Think. They are the nosy neighbours of the Ring, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-gossiping. The rope of destiny they spin is attached to the front-cloth, an enormous window-blind (their window on the world, if you like) bearing the carved symbols of Wotan's broken spear and set to spin upwards out of their hands when the cord finally snaps.
It's so simple, it's breathtaking. But it pulls you up short, it makes you think and think again about who these characters really are, their function, their place in the broader scheme of things. And so Gunther and Getrune of the Gibichungs are minor royalty, so minor, so inadequate, that brother Gunther (the excellent Alan Held) deems it necessary to keep up appearances, to sprint off for their crowns at the arrival of the heroic stranger, Siegfried (a dry, tired sounding Siegfried Jerusalem). Hagen, their half-brother (a bluff, bellowing, black-voiced Kurt Rydl), is in every sense duplicitous: a druggy janitor-cum-security chief with an eye on any crown. We don't see him at first. He blends with shadow, this prince of darkness.
One common criticism of the Jones Ring is that it is lightweight, that it inadequately reflects the gravity and moment of Wagner's score. It is true that Jones and his designer Nigel Lowery repeatedly play against the rhetoric, the grandly imposing, consuming manner of this music. But what strength there is in its unblinking stillnesses, in the weight and intrigue of gesturing. When Waltraute comes to plead with her sister Brunnhilde to give up the cursed Ring, to return it to the Rhinemaidens where it belongs, the two speak but do not communicate. That was never clearer. Waltraute's great narration (marvellously delivered here by Jane Henschel) is played out with just her head illuminated in the darkness - nothing else - as though we are looking directly into her thoughts. You could argue that we must see Brunnhilde's reaction at this point. But do we need to? Jones makes us imagine it. All of which adds something to the moment, later in that scene, where the proud Valkyrie's humiliation is cruelly compounded with a wicked variation of the old paper-bag-over-the- head joke. It's startling stuff.
I have pages of notes and no space to share them on the glories of Bernard Haitink's work with the orchestra. And on the relative strengths over weaknesses of an excellent cast. But is it not significant that one remembers the courage, spirit and resolve of Deborah Polaski's Brunnhilde over the shortness and less than ingratiating sound of her top register? This was all of a piece, this Gotterdammerung, this Ring. When Gibichung Hall collapses (a pile of cardboard boxes - fragile, like so much in this world), a dark figure waits for Brunnhilde by the scorched chimney of Valhalla, just as she once waited for her hero. Is it Wotan come to reclaim his favourite daughter or Siegfried reunited with his bride in death? Either way, love has redeemed all. And the light at the top of the world literally shines once more. Tears, not jeers, should be our response.
n 4.30pm, 19 Oct and in rep (0171-304 4000) Bow Street, London, WC2
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