Yesterday's performance of Götterdämmerung, the end of the Royal Opera's first complete Ring Cycle in over a decade, was greeted with loud cheers and a standing ovation from some members of the audience.
But while the production was as stimulating as before and sometimes faultless, the musical performance left much to be desired. Antonio Pappano looked understandably shattered by the end, and I fear that the orchestra sounded equally exhausted for most of the third act and some stretches of the previous acts. Had this ambitious staging of the Ring suffered from a lack of rehearsal time? To me, the lack of clarity, purpose and even basic accuracy suggested this might be the case.
Director Keith Warner was absolutely at home in this opera, more so even than the rest of the cycle, perhaps. Götterdämmerung is about a world in which the gods have been eradicated and are now only mythical points of reference for the Gibichungs. Man has taken over, and a far more secular, demystified setting predominates. This becomes gut-wrenchingly clear in the staging of the Norns Scene. Having recapitulated the events of the Ring so far, the rope of fate is broken and their day is done. Man now controls his own destiny.
This explains the extraordinary setting for the Hall of the Gibichungs (all mirrors and white walls that reflect the Tarnhelm, the helmet which plays a large role in this part of the Ring). Warner depicts it as a materialistic place in which the gods have become golden effigies, tangible artefacts of the Gibichungs' religion - as forces, they are completely inert. No wonder Brünnhilde is so ill at ease in this unfamiliar world. Her 'wedding' to Gunther takes place on the same revolving, upturned wall on which Wotan/Wanderer spelt his own end in Act 3 of Siegfried and she is trapped inside a ring of barbed wire while Hagen and Gunther sit in chairs on the podium. The most tremendous image of all is a statue of Wotan placed at the back of the stage overlooking the action. Scholars have often commented on the musical presence of Wotan in Götterdämmerung despite his physical absence. This view is encouraged but developed by Warner, who uses the statue to remind us that this new, de-spiritualised world is what Wotan wanted.
The final act is not an entire triumph, production-wise. The action at the opening is a little cramped, so that the death of Siegfried is a bit cumbersome, and the staging of the immolation of Brünnhilde does not provide quite the uplift one might expect. But the gathering of youths around the burning effigies of the gods, signifying the replacement of deities with humans, is a fascinating depiction of the purification provided by the destruction of religion. A huge ring descends from the sky, and the people climb onto it and around it while the Rhinemaidens sit at the front of the stage looking after their ring, which has been returned to them. The ring has come full circle and humanity is cleansed; overall, this staging of the Cycle has been tremendous.
It has to be said that none of Warner's efforts could have made up for the lack of uplift from the orchestra and Pappano in the final act. Nobody can blame them for being tired, and the musicians' commitment was never doubted. But when the violins are so ill-coordinated, the brass ill-tuned and the ensemble as inaccurate as they were several times last night, it is difficult not to feel disappointed.
Vocally, too, things were ragged in places. The Norns had been some of the most impressive singers when the production was new, but here they were disappointing: thin in tone, not synchronised with the orchestra at times, and making little of the text. Marina Poplavskaya was the best of the three, but even she wasn't as stunning as when she first sang the part. The Rhinemaidens were worse, sometimes deviating completely from the score and singing way out of tune. And the male chorus, which had been outstanding in April 2006, was merely acceptable: the thrill had gone.
John Treleaven also sounded tired and did not match his performance during Siegfried. He maintains a commendable sympathy with the character and his ease with the patterns of the language makes his performance more 'Wagnerian' than some of the other singers' interpretations, in some ways. But it's a shame that the company did not take further time between the performances to allow the singers to rest their voices a little more.
Lisa Gasteen was often at her best during this performance, after some disappointing strain during Siegfried and Die Walküre. She is the physical embodiment of the warrior Brünnhilde and gives the music all she's got, showing us the character's pain during her rejection by Siegfried with a raw emotion that the evening otherwise lacked in many places.
Kurt Rydl (Hagen), Peter Coleman-Wright (Gunther), Emily Magee (Gutrune), Mihoko Fujimura (Waltraute) and Peter Sidhom (Alberich) were all uniformly excellent - a strong supporting cast, in fact.
But while the production has made this Ring into a riveting journey, Pappano's conducting has raised questions at times that were never there during the individual instalments. His sense of coherence was welcome, but the less demonstrative, assertive approach was a problem. Let's hope he gets to revive the production in a future season and have another stab at the piece: if he combined coherence with the exciting gestures that were always there previously, it could be fascinating.
Photo credit: Clive Barda
Read our interview with Rosalind Plowright about this production here.