Wagner's 'Ring' cut down to size; MUSIC

Covent Garden's "developing" (their word) Ring cycle turned through 360 degrees again this week, and more emphatically than the first time round. At the end of Gotterdammerung what is always unknown is what happens next. Either it's the end of the world, in which case Wotan, Alberich & Co have passed on to some great, cathartic, Schopenhauerian nothingness beyond, or it's merely the end of a world, in which case the Ring is truly cyclic and about to start again, with new hope but a fatal disposition to the same mistakes.

Richard Jones's production hedged its bets last October, when the curtain fell on a mystifying piece of business that involved Brunnhilde being led off by someone who looked like Spiderman but was apparently the Spirit of the Rhine. Was this an end or a beginning? Was Brunnhilde being signed up for a new career in Marvel comics? It was anybody's guess.

This time it's clearer: she returns unaided (no more Spidermen) to the industrial chimney which in Nigel Lowery's set serves as her rock - presumably to wait for the next Siegfried (they run like buses in Wagner) and start the ball rolling again. It's a nice idea, and the more I see this Ring the more I realise how many nice ideas live even in its slapstick, custard-pie routines. There is a maverick genius at work here, and its visual language can be striking if perverse. Whatever you feel about Siegfried capturing Brunnhilde by stuffing a paper bag over her head (as though she were Babar the Turk in the wrong opera), you don't forget it.

But that doesn't make this Ring the brave, avant-gardist gesture it's beginning to be hailed as - not least by Tom Sutcliffe in his new book Believing in Opera (Faber, pounds 20), which calls it a "milestone in the work's interpretative history" destined to "stand beside Covent Garden's fabled Don Carlos of Visconti". A bizarre comparison. For me, it amounts to not much more than an interesting failure of nerve: a retreat from the epic demands of the piece. Wagner may have (unwittingly) written the theme music to the Third Reich, but in the 15 hours of The Ring he also produced one of the supreme human achievements of all time. To deflate it into 15 hours of parodistic urban irony - from saucy postcard Rhinemaidens to Neasden Norns - and to end the whole thing on an image of collapsing cardboard boxes (however replete with symbolism) certainly cuts The Ring down to size and teaches Wagner a lesson. "That'll show him" seems to be the constant subtext.

The music, though, is as strong as ever. Siegfried Jerusalem's Siegfried tires in Act III, his death not a moment too soon, but sustains exemplary diction. The Rhinemaidens' close-harmony issues with delectable richness from Rosemary Joshua, Gillian Webster and Leah-Marian Jones. Kurt Rydl is a handsomely laidback Hagen. And Bernard Haitink conducts, as before, with magisterial deliberation. But, above all, this is Deborah Polaski's night, trumpeting the qualities that make her the Brunnhilde of her generation. Even in Wagnerian circles, few voices have so much meat on their bones, or sustain such lyricism through such power of attack - which proves altogether more forceful in the captivity scenes than we saw or heard last year. It's extraordinary to think that not long ago Polaski vanished from the stage to go and wash dishes for Jesus. If I were Jesus I'd be very pleased she had a change of heart.

The Romanian National Opera are on tour in Britain; their Norma, which I caught at the Bristol Hippodrome, is a different experience to Richard Jones's Gotterdammerung: thoroughly non-interventionist in a staging that takes the piece at face value with no regard for sub-, con- or pretexts. The cast just come on and do it, with a down-to-earthness that may not fire the imagination but can be oddly endearing. The Pollione's emotional vocabulary is limited to raising his left, or alternatively right, arm; every entry is loudly prompted; and the chorus are preoccupied with finding the tape-marks that tell them where to stand - a behavioural model that didn't, in Bristol, stop the Adalgisa from collapsing on the wrong spot at the end of Act I and making an unscheduled recovery as the curtain came down on top of her. But I can only say that I enjoyed it. Hugely. The conductor knew his business, the orchestral playing was assured, the chorus singing was impressive and, though I hope never to hear the tenor again, Mariana Colpos's Norma had a decisive vocal presence that would stand proud in any company. Good old-fashioned values, holding fast.

English Touring Opera's new season opened on Wednesday at Richmond with a Pearl Fishers by Caroline Gawn that has problems in taking the piece seriously. And anyone can sympathise with that. Pearl Fishers is a farrago of exotic nonsense with a libretto that deserves (and gets) ridicule in translation. But here it's hard to know how many laughs are intended. With cardboard sets and an automaton chorus dressed like deranged medical orderlies in rain-hats, this is clearly not verismo; but the line between self-parody and self-destruction can be thin, and Caroline Gawn crosses it too readily. The saving graces are reliable male leads in Adrian Clarke and Jeffrey Stewart, and a Leila (Sandra Zeltzer) whose top is dazzling. It's also brilliantly conducted by Andrew Greenwood, who takes Bizet's score seriously and almost persuades you that there's more to it than the big duet.

The London Sinfonietta's new South Bank series, American Independents, is an upbeat quest for the essentially experimental spirit that makes music Over There different from Over Here. Virgil Thomson famously said that to write American music you had only to be American, then you could do what you liked; and there was truth in the perverse simplicity of the remark. What made John Cage a more American composer than Samuel Barber was that Barber played by the rules, Cage didn't. And Cage's 1940s aural take on urban life, Credo in Us, set the tone for the opening Independents concert on Tuesday: a tone of off-the-wall iconoclasm with a democratic inclination towards turning high art into entertainment. Michael Daugherty's Le Tombeau de Liberace was the centrepiece: a new work from the author of Jackie O and Elvis Everywhere who one would be tempted to say works from life but for the fact that his subjects are the recent dead. His language is quotational, satirical, a mite crude; and the Liberace piece turned out as camp as you'd expect, a miniature piano concerto played with appropriate flamboyance by Paul Crossley. The problem was that music necessarily endures across extended time; jokes don't, and this one wore out quickly. But it gets a consolation prize for title of the year.

'Gotterdammerung': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), to 2 Nov. Romanian National Opera: Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), tonight; Canterbury Marlowe (01227 787787), from Wed. ETO: Wolverhampton Grand (01902 29212), Mon & Tues.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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