Barry Millington Explores the Curious Critical Reaction to Two New Ring Cycles
LONDON HAS RECENTLY EXPERIENCED NOT ONE BUT TWO Rings--Keith Warner's at Covent Garden, conducted by Antonio Pappano, and Phyllida Lloyd's at ENO, conducted by Paul Daniel--but are we grateful? Where cities like Toronto, Seattle and Adelaide have taken civic pride in similar recent achievements, the British press--or sections of it--has attacked both productions with a venom that has attracted attention from impartial observers both here and abroad. What exactly is going on? To answer that, a little context is necessary. But first, my own brief thoughts on the two productions.
Keith Warner's staging, designed by Stefanos Lazaridis, focused on the work's philosophical core. Taking his cue from Ludwig Feuerbach, whose ideas were of crucial importance to Wagner during the years of the Ring cycle's conception, Warner traced the shift from a world ruled by God or gods to one controlled by human beings, who take responsibility for their own actions. Mankind's use and abuse of science and technology were highlighted, too: a double helix, symbolizing the genetic code or the secret of life itself, was incorporated into the basic set design, while eugenic experiments taking place in Nibelheim invoked unspeakable horrors.
Another central design motif was the large white block or "wall," capable of manipulation in many planes and of transformation in various contexts. In Act III of Die Walkure, for example, standing between Wotan and the Valkyries, it appeared to suggest the remnant of the god's will. In Act III, Scene I, of Siegfried, the "wall" transmogrified into a horizontal platform: the Wanderer appeared on it, to be hurled about vertiginously for his confrontation with Erda. When vertical, the wall had a door, suggesting an entrance to inner mysteries or an initiation. Indeed, Warner's Siegfried referenced Joseph Campbell's celebrated study of the spiritual and emotional development of the hero.
The production was also notable for the quality of its characterizations. Bryn Terfel's portrayal of the guilty god, sung and acted with a closely observed dramaturgical conviction, deserves special mention, though there were outstanding performances, too, from Philip Langridge (Loge), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Katarina Dalayman (Sieglinde), John Tomlinson (Wanderer/Hagen), Lisa Gasteen (Brunnhilde) and others.
Pappano's superb conducting, consistently alive to textual nuance, complemented Warner's staging in every detail. The criticism, often expressed in patronising terms, that Pappano's conducting lacked weight and failed to achieve the "arc" or overall sense of structure in the cycle seemed to misunderstand the originality of his approach. Not only does he bring a Latin sensibility to bear on the work's lyricism, he allows gesture and motif to shape his paragraphs--as Wagner intended--without sacrificing cohesion in the large-scale structure.
Phyllida Lloyd's ENO production, by contrast, attempted to relate the issues of the tetralogy directly to contemporary society. The second scene of Rhinegold (designs were by Richard Hudson) opened in a domestic interior complete with bath, from which Wotan declaimed his first lines. Act I of Siegfried was set in a more seedy domestic interior, with kitchen sink, bunk beds and a workshop annex for the forging of the sword. The tawdry values of contemporary culture were highlighted once again in Twilight of the Gods. For the love duet of the Prologue, Siegfried and Brunnhilde were seated at a table decorated with gingham cloth and flowers, a kitsch dawn backdrop invoking the Wild West as refracted through the lenses of Hollywood or Broadway. …