Mariinsky Ring Part 1: Not Promising

Some context needs to be set around what is to follow.  The Mariinsky Theatre, led by Valery Gergiev, have brought their much toured Ring Cycle to Covent Garden.  Ticket prices for the cycle are, in the main, higher than the normal Covent Garden season (a good lower slips for all four was £240, i.e. £60 each night compared to about £35 normally).  We had the cheapest seats, at £40 for all four operas, in the Upper Slips so we were always expecting to be looking down on things quite literally.  On the basis of the first night of the cycle, I can feel myself looking down on it metaphorically as well.

That said, the caveat for what follows is that I do have an admiration for the unflagging energy and sheer bloody-minded courage that it takes to pack up your Ring and shunt it around the world, with your own company artists performing 17 hours of strenuous music drama on the minimum of rehearsal.  None of our companies could get that together in a million years, so we should be a little wary of carping too much.  Nonetheless, I intend to carp…

Two hours and 40 minutes is a long time to be sitting in a restricted view seat whilst people on the stage below you fail to pull something off.  The staging made much use of lighting and giant statues laid on their backs that floated up and down from the flies.  Then there were the dancers in glittery bodystockings that writhed around in taut nets to depict the undulating Rhine and, rather more bizarrely, Alberich as a dragon.

The statues are inspired by some Ossetian folk mythology, apparently, in tribute to Gergiev’s homeland.  Ho-hum.  The same inspiration has provoked some quite bizarre costumes:  Fricka has a sort of vase on her head, Loge some kind of fiery kimono, and Donner and Froh looked a bit like Cavaradossi in a blue painting smock as he daubs his way through the first act of Tosca.  Wotan has a simple white coat and casual slacks, which probably provided the costume department with change for a tenner.

Musically, things were patchy.  Dramatically they were dire.  Gergiev gives the big moments their due weight and thrill, but also reined things in notably so that singers were very rarely having to compete.  The orchestra were on very good form and this was the most completely pleasurable aspect of the evening.  Gergiev’s approach gave fantastic clarity to the different goings-on of the score, but there was little sense of it all hanging together into one grand whole; there was none of the ‘sweep’ that people always talk of in Wagner.  It was moment connected to moment connected to moment…

There were some good, strong voices, first amongst them Larisa Diadkova’s Fricka.  Having seen her in Dvorak’s Rusalka at Glyndebourne last week, she did indeed stand out as the undoubted international star that she is.  Evgeny Nikitin was an underpowered Wotan.  Oleg Balashov pranced around distractingly as Loge.  The Rhinemaidens pierced the river’s murky depths with rather more vocal force than we’re used to, and Erda made her gloomy pronouncements with strong voice, whilst coping with the most preposterous costume seen for a long time on Covent Garden’s stage: she seemed to have a 12ft curtain rail on her head with black trailing strings along it.  Nikolai Putilin’s Alberich was a good characterisation and sang boldly, if unsubtly and with rather choppy delivery.

Oh, the drama!  Or rather, the lack of it.  Rehearsal times mst be very short in an endeavour of this sort, and that comes across loud and clear.  Most people kept within panicking distance of the prompt box, and sang to the room rather than the other characters.  I’m sure I could hear the prompter occasionally.  Fafner killing Fasolt looked for all the world like they forgot who was whom and after a rather feeble clonk to the back of Fasolt’s head and a bit of a shove, they strolled confusedly around the stage and both fell down, then one stayed there and the other crawled back off up stage with the ring.  The Tarnhelm try-out session was dramatically feeble with the dragon portrayed by the writhing-people-in-nets as red ‘tongues’ stretched out from off-stage, which interleaved and then couldn’t work out how to get themselves back off stage again…  oh dear.

So, on to part 2 tonight:  Die Walküre.  New Wotan, same Fricka (phew!) and new singers for Siegmund, Sieglinde and Brünnhilde.  If they can’t manage to drum up some interpersonal dramatic edge in this of all pieces, then the whole enterprise is doomed.  I’ll let you know.

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