Previewing a theatrical coup for Birmingham…

This November, Mariinsky Theatre will bring Wagner’s Epic Ring Cycle to Birmingham Hippodrome in a once in a lifetime week of Opera performance. Birmingham Post’s Christopher Morley headed over to St Petersburg to preview this exciting event…

Christopher Morley

Christopher Morley

Setting off for St Petersburg wasn’t much fun, what with a 4am wake-up call at Birmingham Airport, and a chaotic transfer at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. But the Air France flight onwards was wonderful, with a real meal as well (!).

St Petersburg was just emerging from the winter, the frozen-over canals in this Venice of the North just beginning to show tiny cracks, the magnificent Neva river already half-thawed, with seabirds perched on the edge of the ice hopefully scavenging, and an optimistic fisherman casting his line down into the newly-released waters from the apex of the main bridge.

This is such an elegant city, very reminiscent of Stockholm (they are both Baltic-situated), and a mixture of Mother Russia (onion-topped churches) and sophisticated Europe. What I particularly liked about it was its organisation of the many pedestrian crossings, arrows telling us which side to follow, and with countdown displays telling us how long was left before we might be mowed down.

Gotterdammerung © N.Razina

Gotterdammerung © N.Razina

And so I arrived at the purpose of my trip, the campus which holds both the original Mariinsky Theatre (what a gold-leaf jewel of an opera-house that is!) and its spankingly new grandchild, not yet a year old, glowing with opalesque warmth (LED backlighting making us forget the darkness of a north Russian winter), and entertaining a glittering retinue of some of the most stylish dressers, both male and female, you could ever hope to see.

Not just adults; I was there to catch Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, the last two episodes of Wagner’s epic Ring tetralogy, and was amazed to see tiny little youngsters there, girls dressed in their party best, boys grave and decorous, all happy to sit through five hours of demanding music.

There were also teenaged courting couples (“wanna come to the Ring with me?”), bless their cultured hearts. The Russians have got their attitude to culture right; perhaps the further west one goes, the more philistine and materialistic becomes the valuation of the arts.

Valery Gergiev, the super-conductor who bestrides the world stage always approaches music with such dedicated humility and his Ring interpretation was a fascinating experience which audiences in Birmingham will share in November. The setting and costuming evoke mythological resonances of long ago, and the musical performances fly on the wings of Wagner’s genius.

All these thoughts were with me as I flew back. And this time the transfer at Charles de Gaulle was brilliant — as had, yet again, been the Air France inflight meal.



Mariinsky Theatres

Birmingham Hippodrome to host Wagner’s Ring Cycle – Birmingham Post’s Chris Morley chats to Valery Gergiev

We’re delighted to welcome guest blogger Chris Morley, respected Opera correspondent for Birmingham Post.  We recently  sent Chris to London to meet the great conductor Valery Gergiev ahead of his visit to Birmingham Hippodrome next year.  Chris says:

Valery Gergiev

Valery Gergiev

Birmingham Hippodrome is renowned for its capacity to stage the most spectacular of shows. Night after night packed audiences have thronged its auditorium to enjoy The Lion King  and War Horse, and it annually mounts the biggest pantomime in the country.

Next November all its state-of-the art resources will be brought into play when it hosts Wagner’s massive Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle in the world-renowned Mariinsky Theatre production, conducted by the great conductor Valery Gergiev, the largest Midlands event in the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture.     

This production has been seen in only a handful of locations around the world: at the Mariinsky’s home base of St Petersburg in Russia, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Spain, the USA (New York’s Metropolitan Opera), and the UK, both at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff.

Now this Mariinsky Ring can add the UK’s most versatile lyric theatre to its list of venues, one which is well equipped to encompass all Wagner’s extravagant demands in this tetralogy.

Maestro Gergiev has not yet had the chance to inspect the venue, but when I describe it to him he is pleased to hear about the orchestra pit, the size of the stage, and particularly the available height. “Height is very important,” he firmly declares.

“I was many, many times in Birmingham, conducting at the Town Hall and in Symphony Hall,” (his recent Mariinsky performance of Wagner’s Parsifal at Symphony Hall lives long in the memory), “but never yet at the Hippodrome”. But the venue is no stranger to the Mariinsky, whose ballet company, formerly known as The Kirov Ballet,  has performed here already to great acclaim.

Wagner’s Ring took the composer around 30 years from first ideas to premiere in the newly-completed Bayreuth Festspielhaus, built for him with immense financial assistance from his besotted admirer, the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria. This despite the fact that Wagner and the King hadn’t been speaking for eight years, as a result of Ludwig staging earlier parts of the Ring in Munich without the composer’s permission.   Never mind that this ducker-and-diver of genius had himself been peddling excerpts from the operas around the concert-halls of Europe during the same period.

The story, drawn from the Nibelunglied, a  Middle High German epic poem set down in around 1200, is drawn from Norse and other north European legends, pits the Gods against cave-dwelling underlings — with a tragic human love-story complicating matters — and brings all kinds of visual coups de theatre into play.

The tale is a mythic one, and this Mariinsky production underlines the concept, drawing comparisons with ancient folktales from Russia, Scandinavia and eastern realms. Its designs evoke images from a fairytale past, and Valery Gergiev stresses the timelessness of a story which should not be tied to one particular period or directorial psychological concept.

“The dragon is a proud, powerful image, not only in China: birds (the ravens and woodbird here) are everywhere… I’m Ossetian myself, and the Ossetian mythology is also quite rich and epic. It’s amazing how many similarities there are between Caucasian myths and the Ring cycle.

“We have to see in a separate way what happens between Siegmund and Sieglinde, but the Norns, water, gold, they are images which in a strange way, they travel — look at old Peruvian and Mexican stories, Siberia, Scandinavia.

“I think Wagner was most only thinking of the future. I don’t want to impose any vision, any programme, but I think of the gold as being the possession of power, and the ring is the most powerful weapon.”

And the maestro goes on to compare the acquisition of gold with today’s stampede to control oil rights, and the desire of national leaders to become super-national leaders, with all the political conflict that engenders. Hitler (a notoriously famous admirer of Wagner) is mentioned, but the mindset is endemic the world over. In discussing the subtext of Wagner’s Ring, Valery Gergiev’s analysis hits the spot.

“Today we see the confrontation between different races, and that is something to compare from the legends.   Even more strongly felt than ever before, this is a contemporary work!” 

Valery Gergiev’s ideas are stimulating and refreshing. Opera-lovers from all over the country and beyond these shores will descend upon Birmingham for this exciting prospect. And perhaps they will take away with them the recordings of Wagner’s Ring cycle which are currently being set down and issued by Mariinsky Opera under this fascinating maestro.

Mariinsky Opera will perform Wagner’s Ring Cycle from 5 Nov-9 Nov 2014.  For further information please CLICK HERE