David Lister: The Week in Arts

Deafened by a strident chorus of disapproval
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The Independent Online

How have the mighty fallen! In all the productions being staged in the UK this winter, there seemed to be one racing certainty. At the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, Wagner's Ring cycle was presented over four nights.

That was a tall order. Even at the famous Wagner festival in Bayreuth, they have two days' break in the middle of the operas. But this was different. It had the mighty Valery Gergiev, the charismatic and revered Russian conductor and his Mariinsky company from St Petersburg.

This was to be the moment of truth for the Wales Millennium Centre. It had wooed the world's best to Cardiff. News pages in the national press had gushed about this coup, and every arts guide on what to see this winter included Gergiev's Ring as a must.

And then it all went horribly wrong. The reviews this week must rank among some of the worst ever given to an opera production anywhere. It wasn't just that the critics did not care for the director's concept of having 30ft tall anthropoid figures on stage, dancers running on with red plumage and inanimate figures that periodically glow. That's showbiz. They were, more alarmingly, concerned at the standard of singing. Even the conducting of the mighty Gergiev was criticised. The Independent described it as "sometimes like a piece of Rhine driftwood".

The Guardian noted the "inadequacy of many of the singers", but hinted at the distractions they might have suffered by noting that "when the ring of fire is conveyed by dancers with twisted filigree of day-glo pink on their heads, it's hardly the stuff of spectacle." The Independent's critic cleared his throat and remarked as politely as possible that this was "one of the patchiest Rings, in terms of musical drama and continuity, I can recall".

The Spectator's man simply gave up the ghost. He concluded: "The whole thing can only be accounted the most large-scale artistic disaster I have ever encountered on the operatic stage, something for its spectators to forget and for its performers to be ashamed of." He confided in his readers that he was able to deplore only three of the four parts of the Ring cycle, as he could not bring himself to turn up on the fourth night to see Götterdämmerung. He had been so "upset and depressed" by the end of the third night.

I am a little old-fashioned and take a dim view of critics being too upset and depressed to turn up to any part of a performance they are paid to review. I trust he wasn't too upset and depressed to return a quarter of his fee.

But we get his point. He and his colleagues rated this Ring the stinker of the year. So much for the Wales Millennium Centre's predicted triumph; so much for Gergiev; so much for the Mariinsky. So should all those arts writers and editors of listings guides apologise to the poor punters whom they have inadvertently misled? Should the mighty Gergiev be ordered to explain himself at a press conference?

In a strange way, which will bring little comfort to those who forked out for seats for all four nights, such unexpected stinkers add to the unpredictability of live performance. This is akin to Manchester United going out of the FA Cup to a side of part-timers.

There is almost a perverse pleasure to be taken from the reminder that there are no certainties in live performance. And the elite can still be humiliated in print. That knowledge should keep performers on their toes, and remind audiences never to take hot tickets for granted. But it would still be interesting to hear Mr Gergiev's side of the story.

Private lives kept private

Tomma Abts, pictured , the painter who won the Turner Prize this week, is a woman of mystery. She was asked in an interview after her triumph about a rumour that she was going out with, or had gone out with, the 1998 Turner Prize winner, Chris Ofili.

"I won't talk about that," she replied. We'll take that as a "yes", then. One doesn't usually say "I won't talk about that" if there is no truth in a rumour. I rarely say "I won't talk about that" when asked if I am going out with Nicole Kidman. It is, of course, no one's business whether or not the Turner Prize winner 2006 is walking out with the Turner Prize winner 1998.

I mention it only in admiration of the visual arts world, which commendably manages to keep these things secret. The dalliances of every stage, screen and recording star are public property. Our visual arts celebrities have the knack of maintaining a private life. Good on them.

* The RSC is doing great stuff on stage with its Complete Works season. But offstage, it has a habit of going doolally.

Michael Boyd, RSC artistic director, told a press conference that he would be looking at the regenerated part of east London, the Thames Gateway, as a possible site for a permanent London home for the company. That should guarantee that the large part of the audience which comes from west London and beyond (not to mention tourists) will halve. Surely the RSC realises that if it is to have a permanent London home, then it has to be in the West End or nearby.

Mind you, there is a very nice theatre at the Barbican Centre, which is quite easily accessible. No, wait a minute, the RSC had that as its London home, but gave it up with no permanent alternative planned. As I say, doolally.

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