The Economist (UK)
June 14-20, 2003
Ringing in the century
WITH its towering gods, its wilful women, its epic struggles and its 2,000 pages of musical score--the equivalent of 20 symphonic concerts played over just four nights -- Wagner's "Ring" cycle is a challenge for any conductor. "When you step on to the rostrum for 'Das Rheingold'," Sir Georg Solti said some 20 years ago, "you look at your hand, knowing that it will not stop for two-and-a-half hours. You wonder: Can I sustain it? What shape will I be in? Will I want to go to the toilet?" For Valery Gergiev, the fiery angel of the Mariinsky Theatre, who conducts the complete "Der Ring des Nibelungen" in St Petersburg this month, there is the added pressure of history. Mr Gergiev's "Ring" will be the first Russian production since before the first world war.
Russians had long been opera enthusiasts when, in 1783--the year the Bolshoi was founded opposite the Mariinsky, on the site occupied today by the St Peters-burg Conservatory--Catherine the Great ordered that theatres should not be "merely for comedies and tragedies, but also for operas". And although they were slow to succumb to the Wagner mania that gripped almost every European capital in the second half of the 19th century, they made up for it soon enough.
Wagner chose the city for the first performance of the Prelude and Liebestod of "Tristan und Isolde", and in 1907 St Petersburg was host to his "Ring", which had already impressed audiences in London and New York, as well as Bayreuth, Wagner's musical and spiritual home. Several repeat performances had to be put on through the year to satisfy the Petersburg beau monde. The German-born Empress Alexandra ensured that Wagner's work remained fashionable in Russia, and in 1913 the clamour for tickets for a performance of the "Ring" in Moscow was such that mounted police had to be called in to keep order at the box office.
By the time the Romanovs were on their way out and German music had been banned in Russia with the start of the first world war, there were eight works by Wagner in the repertoire at the Mariinsky, a quarter of its total. Fyodor Chaliapin, the Russian bass whose huge voice and commanding presence embodied Wagner's vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk (a complete work of art), had become one of the composer's most enthusiastic followers.
In his youth Wagner had written several forceful political tracts, such as "Art and Revolution" and "The Art-Work of the Future", which advocated the abolition of all class-ridden cultural institutions. For a time he was friendly with Mikhail Bakunin, the anarchist. The tsarist secret police thought it wise to put the composer under surveillance when he visited Russia in 1863, even though he had by that stage renounced revolution and was far more interested in penetrating the imperial court in the hope of finding a rich patron.
Although Wagner would eventually enjoy royal backing, after King Ludwig II of Bavaria became his patron in 1864, his music was widely regarded as revolutionary. In the early 20th century many liberal-minded young Russians saw the "Ring" as a political allegory, viewing the all-enveloping flames that finally swallow Valhalla as prophetic of events in Russia, and the young Siegfried as the ideal prototype of the revolutionary hero.
The vision of art for the people that Wagner had expressed so fearlessly in his youthful revolutionary writing was adopted as a blueprint for Soviet culture in the same way that the Communist manifesto provided a model for Soviet society. Lenin nurtured a particular passion for Wagner: Siegfried's funeral march was played at the memorial concert after his death in 1924. A Wagnerian enemy
All that changed, of course, with Stalin's cultural revolution, when militant communist ideology began to dictate every sphere of Russian life. Hitler himself was a keen Wagnerian, which led the authorities to expunge virtually all the German composer's work from Russian repertoires.An exception was made for "Die Walkure", which Sergei Eisenstein staged at theBolshoi in 1940 as a pro-German gesture after the signing of the ill-fated Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
For half a century after that, "Lohengrin" would be the only Wagner opera in the Mariinsky's repertoire, though it was always sung in Russian. Mr Gergiev, who took over as artistic director of the theatre shortly after the fall of communism in 1989, is very much the non-traditionalist as far as Wagner is concerned, both politically and musically--he has a light touch with the baton that highlights his indebtedness to Weber and Beethoven--and he has been keen to reintroduce the real Wagner to the Russian repertoire. "I love Wagner from the bottom of my heart," he told The Economist four years ago. "All I want is for Russians to be able to hear his music, in German, in their own theatres. That is my ambition."
But singing in German is very difficult for Russian voices, and Wagner more so than most. After a musical silence of almost 50 years, Mr Gergiev's company had no obvious candidates for Brunnhilde or Siegfried. They would have to train them from scratch. The three Russian stars of the forthcoming "Ring" have come up through the Mariinsky's rigorous voice school.
Vladimir Vaneyev, who sang a magnificent Boris Godunov at La Scala in Milan last year, has had his eye on singing Wotan for some time. Viktor Chernomortsev, who will take the part of Alberich under Mr Gergiev's baton, is another singer who has put himself through the training required to sing Wagner, while the young Olga Sergeyeva has been working on Brunnhilde ever since she first sang the part at Baden-Baden two years ago.
While the singers have been perfecting their German, Vladimir Mirzoyev, the director, has sought a particularly Russian meaning in Wagner's masterpiece about a golden ring from the bed of the Rhine and the gods who reject love in the pursuit of the power of the ring, leading inevitably to conflict and the collapse of the existing order. "Russia", says Mr Mirzoyev, "must lay aside its blood-spattered beginnings. That, for me, is the reason this 'Ring' has appeared at this particular moment." Wagner, who believed his work to have a universal appeal, would be delighted to know he is still so deeply needed.
The complete "Ring" cycle by Richard Wagner is being performed at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, from June 13th-18th, as part of the White Nights Festival. Details from www.mariinsky.ru