The Ring of the Nibelungen (Coliseum)
New Statesman, Sept. 1977
Not all our visitors to London have yet learned that the English Ring enshrines some of our most cherished rites. From where I sat, it sounded as if Wagner had inadvertently scored the Rhinegold prelude for two-brassy voices with cellophane obbligato accompanied by a sharp attack of pleurisy. But that was only Row J's orchestral thesaurus. Soon the realRhine reasserted itself, rising and rolling through the theatre, buoying up the singers, sustaining the stage illusion, sweeping the audience off and to its feet, and finally bringing the house down.
Any account of the Wagnerian creation must begin with the word, always the prime mover of his music. Bright are the words of the Ring, no doubt, when the right man rings them; and Andrew Porter's singing version, now published with parallel German text and introduction (Faber £4.80), certainly has appeal. But he sensibly sounds a warning note about the “enormous and inevitable losses” of any translation (his paperback is also available clothbound for £15, or £50 in a limited edition). The substitution of new lamps for old, however deft and illuminating, entails a diminution of weight, substance and magic power. The tarnished gold and rusty iron of Wagner's deliberately old-fashioned and overwrought German sometimes seem rather chromium-plated in this version; for example “glittering” does duty for some dozen different German words, not all of which mean anything of the kind. At least the text thus simplified always had a pronounced clarity; but that was less true of the sung diction. Too many of the cast had their innate ability marred by inaudibility; and even some of the stronger voices were far more notable for their resonance than their consonants. Admittedly the threshold of comprehension varied widely with orchestral dynamics and scoring, and vocal register and timbre, as well as with the competence, experience and sheer determination of the individual performers. But it seemed absurd that any part of a modern translation especially designed for the English National Opera should for any reason be lost on an English-speaking audience.
Such defects, though only intermittent, were doubly disappointing; for whenever the voices could be distinctly made out, they gave us an electrifying Ring, with direct and instantaneous communication and response. Production (Glen Byam Shaw, John Blatchley), design (Ralph Koltai) and lighting (Robert Ornbo, Roger Frith) combined to enhance the vividness of impact. Thus the Gibichung roof-beams collapsed athwart the funeral pyre of Siegfried (the redoubtable Alberto Remedios) with stunning effect; it was perhaps his most heroic moment. Even the Wagnerian hyperbole of using the overflowing Rhine as a pyre extinguisher was rendered visually compelling. Each singer contributed some further quota of immediacy by their ability to sing, act, sound or look the part. But too few of them, I thought, were consistently competent at all four. Among the more notable exceptions were Emile Belcourt as Loge, Paul Crook as Mime, Katharine Pring as Fricka and Waltraute, and Derek Hammond Stroud as Alberich. Rita Hunter sang Brünnhilde with full-throated and moving ardour.
But the outstanding performance, by the general consensus of a standing ovation, came from the orchestra under the direction of Reginald Goodall. He was so manifestly immersed and carried away in the great stream of sound that one is tempted to hail Wagner as the best of all current-Goodall-conductors. It should also be said that quite apart from drowning rather more of the cast than the script actually requires, the orchestral playing, like the translation, could suffuse the music with fresh meaning; as (to cite just one instance) in the motif of Loge, god of liars and fires, all flickering tongue and flame. In sum then, the performance just needed, and should by now have received, a further final polishing of diction and direction. When we can all be entirely sure of catching the least word, and the last train, this will be a well-rounded and shining Ring.