They came from everywhere last week; from Australia, Hong Kong, Warsaw, and all points across this country.
And those were only among the people I personally encountered during Birmingham Hippodrome’s splendid hosting of Wagner’s epic Ring cycle brought all the way from St Petersburg by the Mariinsky Theatre under the galvanising musical directorship of the gimlet-eyed Valery Gergiev.
The enterprise was huge, not least involving the transportation of a massive set, conceived in the comfort of the amazing Mariinsky Two (Mariinsky One is a florid and fragrant theatre from an earlier era), and very much at home here in the spacious and accommodating Hippodrome. We have the support of the Mariinsky Theatre Trust and BP to thank for this – enthusiasts and commerce combining to bring us great art.
And great art this certainly was, as stunning visually as musically. Some dramatic values were questionable, and surely the input of a permanent stage-director would have been beneficial, rather than a reliance upon an overall concept from conductor Gergiev and designer George Tsypin which sometimes left the performers to fend for themselves.
This became particularly clear at some of the curtain-calls, which seemed unprepared with a lot of shuffling, and indeed at the end of Die Walkure the Valkyries themselves emerged scowlingly, as though these sisters had just had a collective row.
Perhaps this is the nitpicking price an undertaking such as this has to risk when scrutinised in such a compacted period of time.
And, too, the price Wagner has to pay, when time and again we are subjected to yet another back-story of how the Rhine-gold came to be cursed and how Siegfried came to slay the hoard-guarding dragon. We almost come to expect the angler’s tale of the one that got away.
But there were so many pluses to relish. Tsypin’s sets were simply mind-boggling, raising questions (and why not?) which remain with us long after everything has been packed up and sent home.
Four ancient monoliths gaze down upon the proceedings, enigmatic human expressions faintly revealed by the faint light coursing through them, gradually bending or turning, or even, upended, swinging out into the audience. Mini-monoliths and rounded stones act as versatile stage-furnishings, everything reinforcing the sense of timelessness.
Equally as effective is the lighting design of Gleb Filtshtinsky, continually active whether in conveying the surging of the Rhine, the flickering of magic fire, the aura of the Rainbow Bridge, and so much else. Its technical deployment in a strange venue was an amazing achievement. And Tatiana Noginova’s costume designs, drawn from the mythology of Ossetia (where Gergiev was born), were arresting, sometimes difficult to wear (the head-dresses!), and always stimulating to the imagination.
Under Valery Gergiev’s fluttering hands Wagner’s complex, far-reaching score unfolded with a tremendous sense of inevitability. From the Hippodrome’s accommodating pit the orchestra delivered tones of rich brass chording, eloquent woodwind, and expressively articulating strings, and from these vast structures (Act One of Gotterdammerung could easily outlast the entirety of Puccini’s La Boheme) Gergiev was able to convey a seamless sense of line –which meant that Wagner’s constant web of Leitmotive was spun to telling effect.
Gergiev’s system of casting from a squad on the bench had its particular benefits in these stamina-sapping days. There were no duds here, but some of the soloists were particularly outstanding.
Both Siegfrieds were tremendous, Mikhail Vekua (previously Loge in Rheingold) stentorian in the Forging Song, Andreas Schager fearlessly giving his all in Gotterdammerung.
We had three excellent Wotans, with Vitaly Kovalyov in Walkure singing with perfect clarity even in the depths of his range, a delightful Freia from Anastasia Kalagina in Rheingold (later an enchanting Woodbird in Siegfried), and a most touching Sieglinde from Mlada Khudoley in Walkure (later a touch too frumpy as Gotterdammerung’s Gutrune).
Ekaterina Gubanova was a persuasive Fricka, and Edem Uberov had huge presence as the malevolent (but actually hard-done-by) dwarf Alberich in his three appearances.
Chorus and dancers (including expressive students from the Elmhurst School of Dance as shrieking Nibelungs) made important contributions, but we have to end with the cycle’s most tragic character, Brunnhilde, exiled from Valhalla to await her fate at the hands of any human who comes along.
Special among the three Brunnhildes we heard was Gotterdammerung’s Larisa Gogolevskaya, intense in acting, rapier-sharp in delivery, and at the end, a heartbreaking vision of indomitable heroism soaring out of emotional collapse.