After seemingly endless drumrolls and fanfares, with the conductor Antonio Pappano and the director Keith Warner giving countless interviews on the radio and in the papers, the Royal Opera’s new cycle of Wagner’s Ring, incomparably the most ambitious thing an opera company can undertake, has finally got under way. And hardly surprisingly, a widespread sense of anti-climax has been registered. Seeing it on the second night, I felt that there were a lot of good things about it and quite an assortment of bad ones. Many of the things that were good could easily get a lot better, while some of the bad things just have to go, and others might be merely modified.
Contemporary directors who are still fairly young, as Warner is, have seen hardly any productions of the Ring to react against, because ever since Patrice Chéreau’s devastatingly successful Bayreuth Ring of 1976, his kind of eclectic post-modern idiom has become the only acceptable one for a self-respecting avant-gardist to follow. Yet the Ring is an inherently rebellious work, both portraying and embodying some principle of freshness and renewal, so that we are always bound to grow restless with an orthodoxy of interpretation. So the gestures of defiance of tradition that Chéreau brilliantly enacted, including updating scenery and costumes, making the gods a degenerate crew of late capitalists, systematically undermining any possibility of nobility or grandeur, have now themselves become moribund, and Warner’s production may perhaps be viewed most kindly as an encyclopaedic farewell to them. It’s hard to think of any cliché of contemporary Ring-production which can’t be found in this production, which already has the feel of a museum piece. Most of Wagner’s stage directions are naturally ignored, some with disastrous results: no Nibelungs rush on with the hoard at the captured Alberich’s command, so the drama’s most terrifying climax, though also underplayed by Pappano, just didn’t exist.