Magazine article The Spectator

Supreme Challenge

Magazine article The Spectator

Supreme Challenge

Article excerpt

The Ring Mariinsky Theatre, Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Any article about a production of Wagner's Ring cycle has to begin by saying that it is the supreme challenge a company can face, and how much more so when the company is based in a remote foreign city, and flies in to mount the tetralogy a few hours after it has been performing something else in its home base.

Wagner's great epic is usually performed, even in Bayreuth, with two breaks of a day each between the second and third and the third and fourth parts. The Mariinsky Theatre of St Petersburg, however, arrived last week in Cardiff to perform the Ring on four consecutive evenings, as Wagner originally hoped; but it's almost never done that way, in the first place because of the immense strain that it puts on the singers of the three largest roles, Wotan, Siegfried and Brünnhilde.

Valery Gergiev has a way of handling such problems, as he does of handling all problems, it seems. Just avoid having the same singers each night. One could feel that what is gained on the swings here is more than what is lost on the roundabouts.

And what happened is that there were three Wotans (two were intended, but the Rheingold Wotan, scheduled to sing the Wanderer/Wotan in Siegfried, was ill so we had a further one); two Brünnhildes, the first surprisingly turning up again as Erda in Siegfried; and two Siegfrieds; in fact two of every important character who appears in more than one of the dramas, so no sense of continuity there. Even so, we were given the chance of spending a major part of consecutive days being present at the biggest of all music dramas, even if a fair amount of that time was spent waiting for each act to begin. And the Wales Millennium Centre is an ideal location for concentration of the kind that is demanded from both sides of the footlights: spacious, delightful and comfortable to be in, with superb acoustics (at least from where I have heard things).

As must already be clear, Gergiev has a fairly large selection of singers to hand, and this Ring, or something pretty much like it, was first mounted in St Petersburg in June 2003, and has been taken extensively on tour already, and will continue further. Gergiev collaborated, too, in the 'production concept', with George Tsypin, a Russian who lives in New York; the two men have, according to the programme, 'a special creative relationship'. Tsypin designed the sets, too, presumably working closely with the costume designer Tatiana Noginova, since it is often hard to say where the sets end and the costumes begin.

The stage is dominated throughout by huge anthropoid figures, I should think over 30 feet tall, about which or whom Tsypin writes, 'I had this strange epiphany and I saw these enormous figures -- I don't know if they are gods or giants. . . .

So it became this amazing device where you could, without really illustrating every scene, really create a different atmosphere.' The figures are sometimes headless, sometimes they have equine heads, sometimes human, sometimes wires or veins stick out of their necks. When one of them lies full length, it serves as Brünnhilde's rock or one of the other essential ingredients in staging the Ring.

Sometimes they tilt forward, as if taking a vague interest in the action. …

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