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June 20, 2006

A Caucasian Gold Circle - Valery Gergiev conducts Wagner's Ring cycle at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg

Posted by David Conway

Wagner's Das Rheingold
13th June 2006

and Die Walküre
15th June 2006

Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg
conducted by Valery Gergiev

When Gergiev first conducted Wagner's Ring cycle in St. Petersburg 2003, it had not been staged in Russia for 90 years or more. Gergiev took the opportunity to present the operas very definitely in his own terms. Perhaps he bore in mind the strife which other recent conductors have had with Ring producers, as well as the need to ensure that a new audience was not overburdened by extraneous business. The programme credits the concept of the production to him and to Gyorgy Tsypin, the designer; so it is they who must be thanked for the pleasure of seeing a production of the Ring cycle that wishes to present its audience with the story more or less as Wagner intended us to experience it, as a myth and not an esoteric lecture.

In the Mariinsky Theatre's Ring, sung in German with a Russian cast, we are spared the egregious and distracting interferences that London audiences have had to put up with in recent years - no-one's head is in a paper bag, there are no crashed aircraft in the background or mathematical formulae on the wall to belittle us. This in itself is a blessed relief. Of the unusual elements the production does contain, more presently.

My schedule only allowed me to attend the first two operas of the cycle, which is being performed only once this year in St. Petersburg, and may not be seen again there for some time, as the Mariinsky closes after this season for extensive (and controversial) rebuilding and extension. The two instalments provided notable contrasts.

In Rheingold Gergiev's conducting was, true to his reputation, more notable for its vivacity and colouring than for its subtlety. Not that he races the score – it clocked in around par, at about 2 hours and 35 minutes. The Mariinsky orchestra delivered acceptably and many details come over very finely. But overall I felt the evening underpowered. Any sense that the music was organic, rather than episodic, was lacking – of course the music itself is not up to the subtlety of the Ring music of the last two instalments written after Tristan, but other conductors have made it all seem to grow from the first deep E flat on the verge of silence. Here the details of the architecture were evident but the overall structure was undefined.

Also rather under-powered was the Wotan, a debut in this role by Alexei Tanovitski. Whilst he has something of the voice for the role, he generally appeared too diffident to carry my confidence. When he attempted to reassure the other Gods that Loge was bound to come up with a solution to the demands of his Giant builders, he appeared to be as doubtful as they. Of course, Wotan is indeed at heart a ditherer, but he is also a leader and has to have the swagger, or sneer of cold command, which can cover this up – as do all successful politicians (and we bear in mind here, as applicable to Wotan, the dictum that all political careers end in failure). Tanovitski, tall and willowy, with a long ponytail of white hair, went through the opera rather more like a superannuated biker than a driven visionary.

In these circumstances the three louche roles, Alberich, Mime and Loge, have the opportunity to shine – and they did so. Alberich (Viktor Chenomortsev), with a pot belly wearing a long ribbed knitted robe, gave us Nibelung as armadillo, and with great panache. Nikolai Gasiev as Alberich's put-upon techno-nerd Mime almost got some sympathy from us; whilst Vasily Gorshkov's stocky and rather brutal Loge convinced us that at least one character on stage had the full measure of what was going on, with a lyrical voice which, if it very occasionally verged on a shout, carried with it a vivid characterization.

Gergiev and Tsypin's production, although its context is clearly primordial, does not limit itself to the world of the Nibelungenlied. The designs show an eclectic approach to mythos, suggesting amongst other sources Egyptian monoliths, sarcophagi and head-dresses and Inca jewellery.

But the strongest influence of all comes from Gergiev's native Ossetia. Gergiev's parents are Ossetian and he was brought up in Vladikavkaz. The region is now split between Georgia and Russia and is the site of a sporadic and often violent civil war: Gergiev is an active spokesman for peace in the area. The Ossetian connection is not therefore merely decorative. Moreover, it transpires that there are interesting connections, hinted at by Tsypin in his Russian programme notes, between the Nart mythology of Ossetia and the legends adapted by Wagner.

A quick research on the Nart legends (of which I confess I had never previously heard), shows that they have a Wotan-like hero named Wadanu and an Yggdrasil-like "Lady Tree". Not only that, but Herodotus describes the Alans, from whom the Ossetians are descended, as "tall and fair-haired"; and Attila the Hun, whose depredations were responsible for the displacement of the Alans, does of course figure himself in the Nibelungenlied. So the Caucasian connection in this production is much less far-fetched than the ideas underlying many other recent Ring "concepts".

But there is another interesting design factor in this production which, intentionally or otherwise, links it closely with the history of Russian music in the West. For the Caucasian motifs used by Tsypin, and his use of other "primeval" objects such as human and horse bones and skulls, strongly recalls the innovative and influential designs of Nikolai Roerich for Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, premièred in Paris just about the same time as the last Russian production of the Ring was going onstage at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

Moreover the lighting used in Gergiev's Ring, often suffusing the stage in intense pools of reds, greens, blues and purples, echoes the techniques used by Roerich in his paintings, which in themselves were inspired by the light effects in the Caucasus region itself. This then is a Ring which seems embedded in operatic and artistic culture and traditions, rather than at odds with them, and the cumulative effect of this was I felt already powerful by the end of Walküre.

That is not to say that there are not some awkward moments in the actual staging. The Rhinegold itself, for example, is a man-size filigree golden globe. This makes it handy for Alberich to wheel offstage when he steals it, but it makes a nonsense of the lengthy musical passages when the Nibelungs heap the gold up for the Gods, and later when the Gods heap it up for the Giants.

The Giants themselves are impressive basalt slabs, about twelve foot by eight, equipped with rudimentary stone arms on hinges – they look great, but the singers ensconced in them have no opportunity to express personalities or engage us with the characters. At odd moments, those on stage have to double as stage-hands as the simple elements of the set – rocks, monoliths, roofs – are redisposed. The assumption is I suppose that we as an audience should train ourselves tactfully not to notice these sorts of discrepancy and I have become over the years reluctantly inured to this code, whilst still resenting what appears to be laziness or clumsiness in those presenting the spectacle.

If Rheingold was little more than acceptable, the performance of Walküre was undoubtedly world-class. Perhaps Gergiev finds the story-line more engaging here; after all Rheingold is little more than a series of cruel renunciations, whereas in Walküre renunciations are at least interspersed with affirmations of love; anyway, the emotional temperature was several degrees higher. Furthermore the evening saw a different Wotan, also a debut performance (Oleg Korotkov), but with a far more intense stage presence. This was a Wotan suffused by anger and pride, a bruiser and definitely a figure of power, with a voice to match.

The first act of course belongs to Siegmund (Oleg Balashov) and Sieglinde (Mlada Khudolei) whose burgeoning passion was developed with some good (if initially tentative) singing and acting, and had the additional advantage of the performers looking their parts. A dour and sinister Hunding (Gennadi Bezzubenkov) counterparted them perfectly and the orchestra was on top form. My only complaint is that the twins ran offstage just before the end instead of falling on each other, which rather took the wind out of the orgasmic punch of the final chord.

Korotkov established his authority immediately at the start of Act II in his brief instructions to Brünnhilde (Olga Savova), but was brilliantly put on the defensive in the following interview with Fricka (Svetlana Volkova), who carried out her argument much in the style known to all married Russian couples – aggressive sallies followed by concerns as to whether she had gone too far in damaging her spouse's fragile ego. I was pleased to see Fricka's attendants in this scene come onstage wearing Egyptian-style headdresses in the form of rams' heads – the only time, I think, that I have ever seen onstage any reference to Wagner's instruction that she should enter in a carriage drawn by rams. In her scene with Siegmund, we became aware that Savova was going to be a Brünnhilde to remember, with a true and warm voice and a fine stage presence.

Tsypin suggests in his notes that the industrial revolution of the 19th century can be paralleled with the revolution in genetics and cloning of the present era. Perhaps then it wasn't all that surprising to find that at the start of Act III, Brünnhilde's seven Valkyrie sisters had become fourteen. I have never come across this doubling of the parts before; it certainly made for a joyful noise, but once again the staging was lacking – during the Valkyrie Ride (tremendously rendered by the orchestra) the ladies did little more than stroll back and forth. Never mind, the final scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde, as he puts her to sleep and surrounds her with the magic fire of Loge, put the seal on a very rewarding evening.

British audiences – or at least those prepared to put up with the trek to Cardiff - will have the opportunity to see and hear the Mariinsky production at the Millennium Centre from November 29th to December 4th. Apparently the tickets for this event were completely sold out within four hours of their becoming available. (The production will also go to New York in 2007). There is no information at present as to who will be in the cast, but on the basis of the first two instalments, the experience will be, at a minimum, stimulating, and at its best moments, close to the sublime.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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