Theatre - Shock and awe

A lavish Danish <em>Ring</em> is often silly, occasionally sublime, writes Michael Portillo

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The Copenhagen Ring cycle is fundamentally anti-Wagnerian. The composer employed timeless myths, but director Kasper Bech Holten has miniaturised the piece by converting it into a family saga. While Wagner constantly transfers our sympathies from one character to another - from Wotan to Siegmund and Sieglinde, then on to Siegfried, and finally to Brünnhilde - Holten sees through Brünnhilde's eyes alone.

During the overture to Das Rheingold the heroine appears in Wotan's attic, rummaging through the family archives to discover the truth of her past. As we learn when we reach Götterdämmerung, the final part, this attic scene supposedly occurs as Hagen and Gunther have gone out to kill her husband, Siegfried. From the opening bars of the first opera until the final act of the last, we are in flashback mode.

At the cycle's climax, Holten, the programme tells us, sees Brünn-hilde "carrying out her final rebellion against her father's way of thinking - the masculine way - which has poisoned her own life". Holten says that his production "shift[s] gears between reminiscences represented at face value and the dreamy, unrealistic, pompous moments that Brünnhilde herself experiences as 'mythological'". The implied curl of the lip on "pompous" and "mythological" suggests deep hostility to Wagner.

I have no objection to new interpretations of the Ring, but it is a pity to reduce a work that explores the vast issues of the human psyche to one woman's experience in a 20th-century family - especially if the conclusion tritely ascribes all blame to the male of the species, with his addiction to violence and power.

Seeing Holten's Ring, however, is in parts as uplifting as reading his intentions is depressing. Of course, some of the nonsense does make its way on to stage. Wotan cannot be allowed merely to seize the ring that gives unlimited power from Alberich's finger. No, he must saw off his arm (leaving it swinging from a chain). Since this Wotan is just a thug (who then murders Loge, the god of fire), it is in-explicable that Brünnhilde can love her father. Nor can the audience feel that Wotan struggles between greed and duty, which is essential if we are to engage with the piece.

In Holten's production, Siegfried grows up in a house with television and Jimi Hendrix posters, so he is hardly likely to believe (as in Wagner's text) that the Nibelung dwarf Mime is both his father and mother. Siegfried goes on to discover not a vicious dragon but a Wizard of Oz-style fraud by the giant Fafner. He is harmless, but Siegfried (being a violent male, you understand) stabs him in the back anyway. The Götterdämmerung is almost too silly to watch. After Brünnhilde has sung of her immolation, she decides to avoid it and have a baby instead. I presume it is a girl. Women are the future.

Overlooking such idiocies, the production has much to offer. The stagecraft in Copenhagen's wonderful new opera house is awesome. Set designs by Marie Dali and Steffen Aarfing are often miniaturised, but (as in the case of Hunding's hut at the moment when Siegmund and Sieglinde feel the onset of spring) they can be transformed in seconds by a radical broadening of the visible stage area and a rotation of the scenery. Even when the idea is tiresome the set can be magnificent, as when Wotan calls on Erda at her down-at-heel apartment, where the old earth goddess lies dying.

The new theatre stands on regenerated dockland. Shaped like an aircraft carrier with a rounded glass bow, it squares up across the harbour, with Haussmann-esque symmetry, to the Amalienborg Palace and the dome of Frederik's Church. The auditorium is a giant salad bowl connected to the concrete exterior by bridges. Inside, its woods glow in yellows and reds. And yes, dear New Statesman reader, it was given to the city by Denmark's leading capitalist, Maersk McKinney Møller. The architect, Henning Larsen, is Danish. It is a triumph that a country of five million can design its own opera house and supply nearly all the singers for Wagner's Ring.

Not surprisingly, few of the performances are world-class. So it is a pity that Michael Schønwandt conducts too loudly for his struggling vocalists, though the orchestra makes a splendid din. Stig Fogh Andersen is superbly melodious as Siegmund, and as Siegfried in Götterdämmerung he battles well against the production's piffle. Stephen Milling is a formidable Hunding - who does not get killed!

This being my last column, it remains only for me to bid all you lefties farewell. Thanks for having me. For over two years this column has been under male control, and therefore obsessed with power and violence. All that will change. Women are the future.

See www.thecopenhagenring.dk

for tickets and details