The first three times I saw Keith Warner's spectacular production of Die Walküre back in 2005, I was both thrilled and moved to tears. The deftness of the handling of the narrative was extraordinary, but the emotional punch of the experience was what really made it special for me.
Now performed as part of a cycle for the first time, I feel the production has lost some of its sharpness, while the music does not have the searing intensity that characterised the remarkable performances of two years ago.
Warner's vision remains utterly breathtaking, and in its broad outlines the production is still tremendous. Act 1 finds us in the domain of Hunding, which is here staged in what was originally the dwelling place of the gods but is now in a ruined state. It makes sense that the characters of Siegmund and Sieglinde, Wotan's incestuous children, should inhabit the realm that he originally created but has now moved on from. It's also powerful to show that the gods have left behind them nothing short of a mess.
The tree of life is represented by roots growing out of a double helix that once more connects us with the important role of man's scientific endeavours, and Wotan's fascination with them, in this production (as does the pile of books scattered around the hole in the middle of the stage). In the second act when Wotan capitulates to Fricka's demands and foresees the end of the gods, the red rope of fate that had been dangling from the ceiling suddenly drops and disappears: he knows the end is nigh.
The director's lucid portrayal of the levels specified by Wagner in his libretto - from the bottom of the Rhine to Valhalla in the sky - is brilliantly maintained by showing the Valkyries descending the ladder from Valhalla to the earth beneath. When Siegmund rejects Brünnhilde's offer of eternal protection in Valhalla, he breaks the ladder with his sword. The most striking image is that the sand timer which Fricka and Wotan had been using for their chess game in Rheingold now becomes the finger of fate, pointed at the father of the gods with horrific bluntness.
All of this, and more, means that Warner's production remains something special, and I still admire Stefanos Lazaridis' appropriately grand designs. But it seems to me that each of the three acts has lost something in the two years since we last saw the production. There isn't an inch of passion in the first act, and since it's mainly one long love duet, that's a huge problem. The second act's psychological encounters still register well, but Warner appears to have responded to what was in my mind an invalid criticism of the original incarnation of the production - namely, that it was cluttered with imagery - by removing some of the props, artefacts and gestures that were so striking originally. Last time, Brünnhilde sang her 'Hojotohos' whilst climbing down the ladder at the start of Act 2, which was one of many examples where Warner stages the Ring's pivotal entrances in arresting ways, but this time she sings them once she's reached the stage; it's as deflating as a comic actor sitting down on a joke. None of the business with Nothung, the sword, works as effectively as it did before: Siegmund has to wait for it to drop, rather than actively taking it out of the tree, and in the second act it's knocked straight out of his hand rather than broken in two. The death of Siegmund isn't so exciting; Wotan's murder of Hunding now seems angry where it had been more subtly staged on the first outing as a very easy act for him.
The image of the wall is still eye-catching, both as a physical barrier between Wotan and Brünnhilde in Act 3 and as a dazzling video image that Siegmund seems to reject or break down in Act 2. But Wotan doesn't push it on its axis as forcefully this time (here's where Terfel's physicality was missed). Worst of all, the final scene, which had been the highpoint of the entire cycle when the instalments were unveiled one by one, is no longer as impressive because the pyrotechnics have been scaled down. And having an actor dressed as Loge pop on for a second (albeit in deference to Wotan's cry of "Loge, hör'") undermines Wotan's control over the event. Indeed, it was comic and laughable, where originally Warner had made Wotan's engulfing of his daughter in a ring of fire hugely poignant.
In short, what had been one of my three or four all-time favourite opera productions has lost some of its drive, tension and excitement, even though it is still very good.
The music was more of a concern for me. Antonio Pappano's conducting had been stabbingly intense in 2005. All the big orchestral gestures were blazing, burning, passionate, extreme. Wotan's farewell had genuinely evoked bereavement; the 'Ride of the Valkyries' had been razor-sharp and exhilarating; the 'Magic Fire Music' had been precise. But this time, most of the grand gestures have gone, in favour of a beautiful, lyric, almost Italian line, which works splendidly in the parlando encounters of the second act and always functions well for the singers but doesn't create the same dramatic and emotional impact. Just occasionally, the orchestra is let loose and we finally realise what we're missing. But they never play with German warmth (especially the brass and strings), and it was a shame to hear quite a number of inaccuracies in the performance, not least the disastrously ill-coordinated harps in the (here unmagical) final bars.
Of the singers, only Rosalind Plowright gave a completely successful, dramatically rounded, vocally flawless performance. She held the audience - and the rest of the cast - rapt from the moment she emerged through the window at the back of the stage in her stunning red dress. Her nuanced understanding of the psychological trajectory of her complex scene was by far and away the most thrilling aspect of the five-hour performance - indeed as far as I was concerned, she only served to illustrate how most of the other singers (with only one major exception) were lacking in this respect. The way she spat out the words of the harsh part of her message on the one hand and stroked and caressed Wotan's ego on the other was a sign of her fine artistry and total comprehension of both the words and music. Surely nobody else in the world today can match her in this role. (Don't forget to read our interview with her about the role of Fricka and her career in general here.)
Sir John Tomlinson remains the only other truly Wagnerian singer in the production, largely because, like Plowright, his delivery of the words outshines everyone else's by several thousand leagues. The two of them sing with such clear diction, and they project the German with a sense for the particular sound of the language; if only the same were true of the other members of the cast. Tomlinson was sounding more tired in this performance, with a very dry tone in the upper part of his voice that impeded the third act particularly. The bass part of his voice is as powerful and resonant as ever - the baritonal regions are the problem. But he remains an actor of exceptional, distinctive ability, and although I wasn't nearly as touched by his farewell to his daughter as I was by Terfel's rendition, he brings to it a paternal aspect that Terfel always lacked.
Neither Simon O'Neill (Siegmund) nor Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde) was a patch on Plácido Domingo and Waltraud Meier in the July 2005 performances. The passion, the feeling for the text, the purposeful movement around the stage, the connection of gestures in the music and text with physical gestures: none of it was quite up to scratch. That said, Westbroek's voice is tremendously full and effortless, and although O'Neill ran out of steam before the end of the first act, he managed some large, heroic high notes that far outshine what Domingo can produce nowadays.
It was unfortunate that Stephen Milling was unable to sing the role of Hunding due to an infection. He acted the part while Clive Bayley sang it from the side of the stage (with his arm in a sling). Milling's physical stature was perfect and Bayley's rich bass voice and way with the text made one long to have him perform the part properly. As it was, I found the spectacle of four people enacting a love triangle very distracting. Although I have the utmost admiration for both singers agreeing to perform in this way, couldn't Bayley have been a little more discreetly placed?
Lisa Gasteen's upper register is not what it was and she now sounds very strained at times as Brünnhilde. The middle is still very rich, though, and when Wagner calls for long narratives in this region of her voice, the effect is quite capitivating.
I remember thinking how impressive the Valkyries were when the production was new. Indeed, I wrote: 'The Valkyries sang with unusual ease, bringing a genuine thrill to the often weedy Ride of the Valkyries.' This time, the opposite was true. They neither sang with the same virtuosity and accuracy nor acted with as much charisma. This was one of the respects in which I felt the production had especially dipped in power.
When Domingo returns to the part of Siegmund next week, he may well reinvigorate the performance to the level achieved in 2005, and I'm sure that some of the orchestral blips will be ironed out as the cycles go on. Nevertheless, I find it hard to obliterate memories of those extraordinary performances from two years ago.
Photo credit: Clive Barda
Read our interview with Rosalind Plowright about this production here.
Students take note: a number of tickets remain for the student-only performance of Das Rheingold on 12 October 2007, with the same cast and production, and young conductor Rory Macdonald. Tickets start at £3; for £37.50 you can sit in an Orchestra Stalls seat that would normally cost £212.50. Don't miss this opportunity to be involved in a unique event: for more information, check out the Royal Opera's website here. You need to sign up to the Travelex students scheme and have a valid Student Card to be eligible, but it really is worth persisting.