Would You be Happy to Pay £850 to Hear a Soprano who Can’t Sing?

First, my most sincere apologies to anybody who believed me when I said that the Gergiev Ring Cycle was going to be ‘the event’ of the musical summer…

… I mean, would you have been happy to pay £850 to hear Brunnhildes who couldn’t cut the mustard and see a production that most schools could have thought through better?

If the role of a music critic as someone once said (Shaw?) is to be a watchdog and bark when necessary, I am about to flip my leash over what I endured those two nights (thank almighty God I didn’t have to go to all four). In the auditorium I was surrounded by people who were determined to have a good time, having forked out most of an average Brit’s monthly income for the privilege. Personally I believe they didn’t exactly get value for money…

“Well, if you’re not attuned to Wagner…” said one snotty-nosed neighbour. My problem is precisely that I am attuned, and that’s why I feel so angry. I’m a confirmed addict, and spent yesterday in seventh heaven at the Glyndebourne dress rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde, the Lehnhoff production conducted by Jurowski. It was a worthy antidote. (How about a Lehnhoff/Jurowski Ring for Glyndebourne? There’s a thought, and a dream…) But the Mariinsky Ring? Not so much half-baked as refried, and deeply indigestible…


Valery Gergiev’s power and Wagner’s ought to be a match made in heaven. Reality proved different during the Mariinsky Theatre’s Ring Cycle at Covent Garden, presented in a rare marathon of four consecutive nights. Visually abysmal and audibly knackered, it was a gamble too far – by turns incompetant and inhuman.

The tetralogy tells the story of a ring forged from the stolen Rhinegold by Alberich the Nibelung. Bestowing ultimate power on its holder, it also carries a curse, its potency stemming from Alberich’s renunciation of love. Gods, giants and mortals meet sticky ends for its sake. Finally, the self-sacrificing passion of Wotan’s daughter Brünnhilde for the dragon-slaying Siegfried redeems the world; the cycle’s central force is the all-conquering power of love.

This production’s concept, if you can call it that, was devised not by a director (the unlucky Alexander Zeldin was drafted in last-minute for a rescue attempt) but by Gergiev and his designer George Tsypin. Its imagery derives from myths that veer inconsistently from Ossetia to ancient Egypt. Sky-high primitive statues dominate the set, occasionally glowing like plastic lanterns. The Gibichung palace looks like Stonehenge, the forge where Mime rears Siegfried more like the House at Pooh Corner. Costume designs are folkloric, a watered-down version of Nicholas Roerich (designer of Diaghilev’s original Rite of Spring); lighting is lurid and non-atmospheric. It’s anybody’s guess why the guiding Woodbird is partnered by dancers sporting Anubis masks that looked clad in clingfilm, or why, with projection effects, Siegfried appears to kill the dragon via a colonoscopy.

In Siegfried, Brünnhilde climbed onto her rock fully lit, when we had to believe she’d been asleep there for about 21 years – apparently that was a technical glitch. But there was no excuse for the end of Götterdämmerung. The giant statues slowly keel over, while Brünnhilde – supposedly self-immolating and saving the world – slinks off stage at the back, ill-concealed behind some figures wearing fluorescent ribbons.

This, dear reader, is the downfall of the gods.

One senses the notion of icy timelessness, static in the mists of prehistory and myth. Unfortunately, in the spirit of Wagner’s ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, a unified artwork, Gergiev also gave us an icy, static, monolithic version of Wagner’s white-hot score, with scant hint of lyricism or passion. Revenge came across strongly; ecstasy did not. Cold, heartless and inhuman, Gergiev’s Ring, like Alberich’s, is cursed by its renunciation of love.

Perhaps the company was simply exhausted, having worked through morning rehearsals on top of the gargantuan operas. It certainly sounded like it. Often the music nearly ground to a halt. Siegfried sagged woefully. In Götterdämmerung‘s second act the energy picked up, maybe because the end was in sight.

Among the singers, Mikhail Petrenko’s Hagan was the only world-class performance, in glowing voice, oozing evil through every syllable. The villains generally did well, notably Nikolai Putilin’s Alberich and Vasily Gorchkov’s Mime. Both Siegfrieds, Leonid Zhakozhaev and Viktor Lutsyuk, sang reasonably but blandly. Gergiev’s expertise as accompanist meant that the orchestra never drowned the voices – but that didn’t prevent many singers from shouting.

And the Brünnhildes? Ouch. Olga Sergeyeva in Siegfried presented an unlovely voice with a wobble like an ambulance siren. Larisa Gogolevskaya in Götterdämmerung lacked stamina, charisma, substance of tone, the ability to cross seamlessly from one vocal register to another – indeed, most qualities the role demands. She sounded in need of a steam bowl. 

The Mariinsky’s orchestra deserves medals for surviving, let alone playing so well. Given the intense schedule, if there were occasional fluffs it was only natural. Hats off to the fabulous bass clarinet.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"