Der Ring des Nibelungen, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, September 2018Posted on 2 October 2018
Keith Warner’s production of the Ring alludes to connections with modern physics: in Rheingold the tarnhelm deforms the gridlines of Cartesian space to the curved space-time of Einstein’s General Relativity, and in Götterdämmerung, Siegfried’s Rhine journey traverses both space and time. In Siegfried Act 1, Mime adds mathematical symbols to those already written and in the Act 3 prelude Wotan flings away his books in exasperation, unable to find his way through a cosmos he has deformed by disobeying his own treaties (or natural laws).
Nibelheim by contrast seems to be where new technology is invented, yielding such things as the tarnhelm and a model aeroplane stolen by the gods; in Siegfried the hero uses a propeller from its crashed prototype as a mould for the sword he forges anew. But nature and technology aside, more god-like agency than usual is brought to bear directly on events. In Act 2 of Walküre, Wotan impales both Siegmund and Hunding with his spear, before doing the same to Erda in Act 3, and his daughter Brünnhilde is the direct agent of the gods’ destruction. In an unusual twist, Siegfried tosses the ring away, before retrieving it when the Rhine Maidens leave it alone, and in the final moments it is Brünnhilde who takes it from his hand and returns it to the Rhine.
She is the heroine of this great drama, and the Royal Opera did its audience proud by engaging Nina Stemme, who was magnificent, with a nuanced and beautifully powerful reading of the role. Very strong performances from most of the cast, with the well-deserved return of Stefan Vinke as Siegfried, and John Lundgren in his Covent Garden role debut made a convincingly world-weary Wotan/Wanderer after a slightly low key Rheingold. All these singers brought previous experience of the roles with them, as did Stuart Skelton as Siegmund in a terrific Royal Opera debut.
Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich made a great impact in Rheingold, remaining an engagingly dark vocal force throughout, with Gerhard Siegel repeating fine performances from earlier revivals as his brother Mime. Stephen Milling, a previous Hunding (very well sung this time around by Ain Anger), made a superbly dark hued Hagen, sitting silently at stage front as Siegfried fatally deceives Brünnhilde, but standing later as Alberich addresses him father to son, asking whether he is still sleeping. Presumably the director decided that Alberich, floating in his little boat like the Mekon in those old Eagle comics, has lost his sight by this point. Meanwhile in the land of the Gibichungs, Markus Butter as Hagen’s weak half-brother Gunther was suitably ignoble of tone, and Emily Magee portrayed an attractively frivolous Gutrune, far better than her disappointing role debut as Sieglinde in Walküre.
Among gods and giants, Sarah Connolly sang a strong Fricka, though I wish the director had allowed her to stay upright in her argument with Wotan over the union of Siegmund and Sieglinde. Lise Davidsen made a gloriously strong Freia (also exhibiting searing power as the soprano Norn in Götterdämmerung), with Alan Oke as a splendid Loge, Markus Eiche and Andrew Staples as Donner and Froh, Wiebke Lehkuhl as a powerfully sung Erda, and Heather Engbretson trilling strongly as an acrobatic Woodbird. Excellent role debuts by Günther Groissböck as a lyrical Fasolt and Brindley Sherratt as a deeply defiant Fafner — seriously good performances by both.
Musically this was a scorcher, Antonio Pappano repeating his success of 2012 and gaining conviction as the cycle progressed. Some may quibble with isolated aspects, but when Pappano elicits a top rate response from a singer it is magic.
Three further cycles take place until the final Götterdämmerung on November 2 — for details click here.