Carry On, Wagner
By CHARLES REID
ANOTHER two Ring cycles are ended at Covent Garden. There is no sign of break or dwindle in Wagner's sway. Every night people who had been turned away by 'Full House' notices were waving pound notes along Floral Street in the hope of tickets at-kerb prices. I didn't see any takers. Once you get a Ring ticket you stick to it.
On aesthetic or philosophical grounds Wagner has been slated, laughed at and buried prema- turely by one school of thought or another all down the century; and things are likely to con- tinue so for a century more. Dissentients still play off other great names against his. Our fore- bears were told they mustn't like Wagner because Brahms was better. There is now another counter- name. At a musical party the other day a spokes- man for the London Symphony Orchestra, announcing to my delight a long-term schedule of Berlioz performances, added casually, as though the point were too evident to need argu- ing, that Berlioz was the greatest composer of his time. He was implicitly demoting Wagner. By what yardstick? Since the excellences (and deficiencies) of the two men are so different as to be mutually exclusive, it serves no useful purpose to measure one against the other. Let's go on enjoying and revering both from different com- partments of our minds.
London is well looked after on either side of the fence. Colin Davis stokes altar fires for Berlioz. Georg Sohi attends with equal passion to Wagner. Not only does Mr Solti, while con- ducting Der Ring, keep the altar fires high; he all but throws himself into them inunolatingly. The quality and range, the tumult and velocity of the sound which his passion wrings from the Covent Garden orchestra pit count for a good deal in our current Ring cult. In the first cycle his Rheingold dynamics were a sheet lightning which sometimes (as during Alberich's degrada- tion, Scene 4) gave a new vividness, almost a new truth, to dramatic situation and perspective. He can persuade as well as dazzle. In the second Siegfried, Act I, he had me assenting often to sharper speeds than I would have been prepared to underwrite before the curtain went up. It wasn't until the final pages of this act that the contrast between his spurts (e.g., Mime's 6/8- time frolics) and his slows (e.g., Siegfried's Nothungl Neidliches Schwert!') struck me as overdone to near dislocation point. From Entry of the Gods to Funeral March, however, the big set-pieces shattered or buoyed us up as they were meant to. He was abetted by a fine body of men (and a girl or two) in the pit. The opening wind chord of the GOtterdiimmerung I heard, always tricky, peeled on, a note at a time nearly. This, however, is a familiar boob; excusable and no crime. The rest was glorious.
We mustn't forget the singers, of course. It would be a poor sort of Ring where the orchestra was the main draw. This year's cycles have been heartening for the home-club supporter. Nine performances by principals from abroad. Forty by singers of the resident company. True, the forty included a swarm of second-line roles. That is not a dismissive phrase. The Valkyries' octet music in Walkiire and (especially in Goner- dihnmerung) the Rhinemaidens' trios (sung by Misses Robson, Minton and Guy) were as lustrous and perfected as anything on four nights. You have to travel far to hear Ring ensembles of this quality.
Now as to newcomers and others. Ludmila Dvorakova, from Prague, alternating with Amy Shuard as Brtinnhilde, acted almost plausibly, which is about as much as most Briinnhildes can manage, produced distinctive tone (mezzo trend, pleasantly tart) in plenty, and didn't put Miss Shuard's nose out of joint in the least. As well as two Brannhildes we had two Siegfrieds. The Young Siegfried, Ticho Parly, Copenhagen-born, has an adequate-to-agreeable voice and is the only singer I've known who both looks the part and acts it. The GOtterdiimmerung Siegfried, Karl-Josef Hering, from Frankfurt, can't act or perhaps doesn't try to, but sings the great third- act Narration and much that goes before with a power, a timbre and lively musicianship that almost convey dramatic illusion in themselves, as well as giving the ear pleasure.
Between them the familiar Richard Holm (Loge) and John Lanigan (Mime) acted every other Ring personage except Hans Hotter (Wotan) clean off the stage, though when it comes to taking care of his phrases and co-ordinating them with gesture and glance, Mr Holm has a clear edge on Mr Lanigan, whose opening Sieg- fried lines were needlessly spat and snarled.
After a Walkiire first act in which Gwyneth Jones (Sieglinde) didn't always control her voice and Berlin's Ernst Kozub (Siegmund) sounded as stolid as he looked, Josephine Veasey's Fricka came as a balm. Miss Veasey's line, like that of Gustave Neidlinger, from Mainz, the Alberich, is elatingly on the note; warm as well as precisely articulated. In short, a true Wagner line, bel canto in fact. As the Wotan alternate, David Ward produced a beauty of tone whose equiva- lent we don't always get nowadays from Mr Hotter who, however, is still unrivalled in volume and mien, every inch and decibel a god. To his baleful Hunding and cavernously amplified Dragon, Michael Langdon, substituting for Mr Frick, added a Hagen that was vocally a shade underweight but as coldly and economically sinister as any Hagen I have seen. John Shaw, whom I had not heard before as Gunther, was warmly received. His. vibrato, as well as the 'grain' of his voice, is of a kind that consorts with the psychology of the part. At the first GOtter- diimmerung we had a little too much of it. First- night tension, no doubt.
There's one aspect of Covent Garden's Ring which was never worth waving pound notes about and becomes even less so the more we see of it. It may be that Mr Neidlinger is a better singer than actor. How is one to tell? Even a Chaliapin would fail to make sense of an Alberich who, when the underwater gold starts glowing (of its own accord, note; no sudden downshaft of sun- light as specified by Wagner), is required to turn his back and, while the Rhinemaidens sing its praises, lolls in a sort of magistrate's chair facing the audience, as though passing judgment on us for being silly enough to put up with such inepti- tude. Why are wireborne Rhinemaidens inexor- ably, if tacitly, out? A flying-ballet opening scene —and Wagner asks for something of the kind— can be breathtakingly beautiful. It can also, if things go wrong, be ludicrous. But Rhinemaidens doing endless arm-waving motions from a rock balcony are ludicrous all the time.
In Hunding's hut the sword-hilt gleams pallidly, a dim opal bulb, responding not to hearth-flickers but, just like the underwater gold, in vacuo. Instead of great doors, rodeo gates swing open in the spring night before the eloping lovers. Instead of using a cave, as plainly required by story and stage directions—and, indeed, as implied by much in the music—the Dragon lives in a central well, can't for the life of him get out of it, and, when the fight starts, gives Siegfried such a walkover that the hero's not so much of one as he is made out to be. A forest without a leaf is no proper concomitant for an orchestra pit which, when the 'Waldweben' gets going, brims over with greenery. And why play scene after scene on or under a vast ring shape? We already know all we need to know about the ring of Wagner's story. We see it time after time. Why symbolise what's under our noses? Mr Hotter, who produces as well as sings, and Mr Schneider-Siemssen, who designed the scenery and costumes, have a lot to answer for.