26 APRIL 2003, Page 50

Wagner revealed

Michael Tanner

Gotterdammerung Edinburgh Festival Theatre

This year's Edinburgh Festival will have as its focus two cycles of Wagner's Ring, which got under way three years ago. For the last and most demanding drama of the cycle, Gotterdarnmerung, Scottish Opera wisely decided to stage three preliminary performances at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, of which I attended the second. In the first, the regular Siegfried, Graham Sanders, was unable to sing, and his part was taken by his understudy. For the second Sanders was enough recovered to perform, but still suffering from his cold.

As with the earlier instalments, the most impressive thing about the performance was Richard Armstrong's realisation, thanks to the superb playing of the orchestra, of Wagner's vast paragraphs, in which he found not only all the magnificence and depth that they possess but aren't always given a chance to reveal; but also he has balanced the huge forces so carefully that more detail, including many ravishing and telling inner parts, was to be heard than it was even under Goodall, who is so clearly Armstrong's model. The wind playing was especially fine, with passages such as the Act II music for eight horns. after Alberich's spooky scene with Hagen, betraying no hint of nervousness. The jetblack prelude to the same act, too, one of Wagner's most terrifying depictions of the heart of darkness, poured out into the auditorium with almost palpable malevolence. It was in the great transitions, such as that at the end of Hagen's Watch, Wagner musing musically on the hatred of

happiness as he takes us back to Briinnhilde's rock, where she is enjoying the last few happy moments of her life before the final ones of all, that Armstrong showed himself to be a great Wagnerian. He was sometimes a bit less impressive in the action music, of which Gonerdiimmerung is uncharacteristically full. Act II from the gathering of the vassals onwards should give the impression that one is in uncomfortable proximity to an erupting volcano, the energy and danger being generated primarily in the orchestra. though it is apparently accompanying the betrayed betrayers on stage. This performance was more superficially than saturatedly vehement, giving the impression that Wagner was betraying his characters by making mere melodramatic puppets out of them (as on the famous Solti recording). But the three set pieces, Siegfried's Rhine journey, the funeral music, and the orchestral peroration to the whole work, were all marvellous, the funeral music in particular. It can sound cheap. a parade of motifs punctuated by ever-noisier chords. Here it had its proper sweep. the elements in it contributory to an overwhelming whole.

The musical splendours make up for, but also cast in an even worse light, the tiresomeness of Tim Albery's production. with Hildegard Bechtler's sets. Wagner explores in the Ring the possibility of heroism, and without that dimension it is merely a set of varyingly lovely and imposing episodes. In Albery's world heroism is not permitted to exist. After a striking Norns scene — for once they really did have a thick rope to spin, and apart from a weak Third Norn (a small but vital role) they generated a real sense of the mythic — Brtinnhilde and Siegfried were presented, in their glorious duet, as a parody of homeliness, she straightening his tie and doing up his collar before he left for a day with his fellow consultants, and she curled up awaiting his return. The Gibichungs sat broodily on their office furniture. Gunther such a wimp that his main concern in swearing blood brotherhood with Siegfried was in bandaging his wrist after gingerly cutting it. The Hagen of Mats Almgren is undersized, not up to his stretches of barbarism. Otherwise the casting is better than one could reasonably hope for, with an impassioned Briinnhilde (in office naturally) from Elizabeth Byrne and all the signs of a full-blooded Siegfried from Sanders when he is fully recovered. Jane Irwin's Waltraute — BrUnnhilde makes her a cup of instant coffee on her arrival at the rock — is altogether outstanding.

I recounted in my review of last summer's Siegfiied hearing a man leaving the theatre afterwards and asking his wife, 'Why does the producer hate Wagner so much?' This anecdote provoked more favourable mail than anything else I have written. I wonder if Albety and his ilk realise how damaging their trivialisations of Wagner are seen as being; if so, they no doubt think that they are shaking people out of their complacency. In fact they aren't doing anything as useful as that. They are merely seen to be sabotaging a great, elevating masterpiece and not putting anything in the least degree interesting and thoughtprovoking in its place. Unable to be moved by greatness. they are intent on denying it to others. Nietzsche was terrified at the possibility of the endless return of the smallest man. How would he react to the mass of contemporary producers?