Financial Times / July 23, 2007 / Arts
A reluctant ring of the changes
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Kirov Opera at Lincoln Center, N.Y.
New Yorkers love their "Ring," and they love a conservative
projection of the mystic myth. While the rest of the world has
been exploring modernist reinterpretation - often ridiculous and
occasionally sublime - the Metropolitan Opera has clung, stubbornly
and proudly, to let's-pretend realism. For better or worse, it
makes a tree look like a tree, a dragon sort of like a dragon.
And validating old-school romantic conviction, James Levine has
been enforcing spacious, leisurely, poetic grandeur in the pit
for 21 years.
Now comes the shock. For the Lincoln Center Festival, the Met
has imported a very different, much traveled "Ring" from the
Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, from the company the Soviets
called the Kirov. This, for all practical purposes, and impractical
purposes too, is Valery Gergiev's "Ring." It hardly adheres to
the progressive strictures of /Regietheater/, a development
dismissed by reactionaries as /Eurotrash/. Still, it manages
to defy tradition at every convoluted turn. If only it could
do so with equal parts confidence and competence.
Gergiev, probably the most chronic, most blatant overachiever
in music today, doesn't just conduct. The skimpy programme
booklet lists him as "production supervisor" and he shares
responsibility for the "production concept" with his designer,
George Tsypin. Significantly, no one is billed as director.
As a point of stylistic departure, Gergiev cites Ossetian folklore.
That potential inspiration may explain some of Tatiana Noginova's
costumes, which, amid other oddities, provide the once primitive
Gibichung men - now mincing puppets - with prim skirts and equip
the Valkyries with bizarre fan-shaped head-dresses. The Slavic
perspective does not, however, explain the clumsy mishmash of
symbols, props and periods, the misplaced artifacts and time-warp
contradictions of Gergiev's show. Nor does it justify the
pervasive theatrical ineptitude.
The unit stage in all four operas is dominated by four huge
statues suspended on wires. Perhaps the monolithic figures
represent primitive gods. Sometimes they float in the background.
Sometimes they loom in the foreground. Sometimes they stand.
Sometimes they tilt. Sometimes they sit. Sometimes they function
as character abstractions, e.g. Fafner the dragon. Sometimes,
when recumbent, they become props; Brunnhilde clambers into a
convenient hole in one statue's chest for her extended nap.
Another visual leitmotif, equally baffling and equally boring,
involves a corps of petrified penguins that observe the inaction.
The images look fussy and silly to this observer, but they may
convey deep meaning for the initiated.
In any case, Gergiev and Tsypin demonstrate little concern for
story-telling. The crucial gold of the Rhine is reduced to a
yellow-lattice orb, big enough to encase Freia. The giants are
now a pair of massive tanks with arms clumsily attached. Forget
physical battle. The flirtatious Rhinemaidens traipse about the
scene in gauche evening gowns. Reviving a time-dishonoured
tradition, the evil dwarfs Mime and Alberich resemble Semitic
caricatures. The Forest Bird has become a wandering coloratura
who flaps her arms as if in a grade-school pageant when she isn't
pretending to play a magic flute. Wotan appears to greet the
new world atop a mammoth potato. Balletic spooks provide
distraction whenever a scene change is suggested or an illusion
faked. At fire time, sperm images, lit in crimson neon, squiggle
on the backdrop. I'm not making this up, you know.
The charades bumble onward if not upward, with the hapless, also
helpless, principals often left to what may be their own devices.
Concept? What concept?
Under the circumstances, it would be gratifying to report great
musical compensation for the dramatic deficiencies. Unfortunately,
this ingrate detected little. Gergiev, whose forte never has
been introspection, favoured high speeds most of the time, and
whipped up undeniable excitement when surface agitation was
warranted. He kept the dynamic levels loud, loud, loud. He did
not sustain much tension between the big moments, however, did
not dwell on telling details, did not focus leitmotivic relationships
or build gradual, organic climaxes. The gutsy Kirov orchestra
followed his nervous whims faithfully and flexibly, though not
without occasional mishap or passages of seeming disorientation.
The ever-changing singers, all Russian and not exactly idiomatic,
did what they could.
The marathon - two cycles within nine days - began with a
particularly listless "Rheingold" on July 13. Alexei Tanovitsky,
the tall and youthful Wotan, looked imposing, sounded wan.
Larissa Diadkova, one of the few artists of international stature
on duty, provided the counterforce of a smart and sensitive
Fricka. Nikolai Putilin as Alberich sang forcefully while
stumbling about the stage like a zombie. Zlata Bulycheva emerged
muffled and shaky as Erda the earth-mother, possibly because she
was made to masquerade as a laundry line. Vasily Gorshkov sang
craftily as a dramatically stodgy Loge. The others were meek
Standards rose a bit in "Die Walkure" on July 17. Despite an
announced indisposition, Mlada Khudoley mustered lyrical radiance
as Sieglinde, generously partnered by Avgust Amonov as Siegmund.
Mikhail Kit, the Wotan, seemed genuinely heroic until he tired
in the "Abschied." Olga Savova, a mezzo-soprano, soared impressively
to the soprano heights of Brunnhilde, and Gennady Bezzubenkov
boomed darkly as Hunding. Svetlana Volkova's unsteady Fricka
made one long for Diadkova.
"Siegfried," the next night, found Leonid Zakhozhaev straining
for vocal survival over the long haul, an amiable lightweight
burdened as the heavyweight hero. Gorshkov, the erstwhile Loge,
easily outsang him as a wily Mime. Evgeny Nikitin droned
relentlessly as the wandering Wotan, and Olga Sergeeva found
Brunnhilde's should-be ecstatic awakening something of a trial.
"Gotterdammerung" on Thursday offered new principals: Victor
Lutsuk, vocally fearless as an astonishingly vital Siegfried,
and Larisa Gogolevskaya, a big-voiced, slightly wobbly Brunnhilde
who ran out of vocal steam at Immolation time. Nikitin returned
as a surprisingly macho Gunther, with Mikhail Petrenko posing
little menace as a mini-Hagen dressed, I think, in a strapless
evening gown. Returning to her lower depths, Savova conveyed
ample urgency as Waltraute. The Norns were harsh, the mermaids
Some of the singing, not incidentally, sounded like German.
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