My body aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense
As though of Wagner I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
This past week, and Rhine-wards had sunk…
Nietzsche referred to Wagner's music as a drug. He didn’t mean this as a compliment. And yet there is something drug-like in Wagner's intention: the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “complete” work of art, will not leave you alone. No sooner do you confront one sense than you are assailed by another from a different direction – music, singing, drama, scenery – until all search for meaning, all reason, drops away. The drug will not leave you alone.
In Xanadu did Richard Wagner
A stately opera house decree.
The seats in the Lyric Theatre of QPAC are much softer and more comfortable than those in the theatre on the Green Hill at Bayreuth, which until recently were unupholsteredly wooden. And of course there are no surtitles in Bayreuth – I very much appreciated that the surtitlist for this production, Stuart Spencer, had gone out of his way to preserve Wagner’s alliterative poetry. But it is still a massive mental and physical effort to sit through the 15 hours of music theatre over four evenings that comprise the Ring cycle. Wagner makes demands on his audience; but it is right that he should. In Brisbane the cycle is being presented over a week, with a day between each of the four evenings that comprise the work, following the model of performances at Bayreuth. It disrupts one’s working life, or one’s sleep patterns, or both, as some of the performances start at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and still finish around 11, leaving your mind and body buzzing. Even in the off days one is full of Wagner: his questions, his clumsinesses, and the transport of his music. The drug, the Gesamtkunstwerk, will not leave you alone.
And so I return to the question I raised in my review of Das Rheingold to ask not what the Ring is, but what it does. One answer to that is that over the week of its performance it creates a sort of community, as one keeps meeting people who have shared your experience – but a community of people who have all been touched by the same thing in very different ways. I would like to examine this through two of the discourses that run through the Ring cycle.
First, the discourse of marriage. Chen Shi-Zheng’s production emphasised beyond doubt that Wagner in this cycle construes marriage as awful. Fricka in Die Walkure protects the sacred institution of marriage, even the horribly abusive marriage of Hunding and Sieglinde, against the love of Sieglinde and Siegmund, a love in which each finds the only moment of beauty, of ecstasy, that they have ever experienced in their troubled, broken lives. Then, in Gotterdammerung, for the mismatched marriages of Gutrune with Siegfried, and Gunther with Brunnhilde, Hagen’s invocation of Fricka bore fruit in all of them except Brunnhilde wearing ram’s horns, the ram being Fricka’s animal. (Hagen, if he was capable of laughter, might have chuckled at the thought that wearing horns was also a sign of cuckoldry.) The association of the institution of marriage with the vilest characters in the Ring, Hunding and Hagen, throws a massive challenge to everyone in the audience, since practically all of us have some experience of marriage, even if we have avoided or rejected it. In this production, both Hunding and Hagen were sung by the same man, Andrea Silvestrelli, who is truly the perfect operatic villain. (I am sure he has sung Sparafucile as well.) The message could hardly be clearer.
Second, the discourse of fathers and children. We all have fathers, even though we may never have known them, and many of us have children. Are our parents reflected in Mime, who brings up his child for one purpose, to achieve what Mime has been unable to achieve? Are they reflected in Wotan, who will brook no disobedience to his expressed desires, even though his child acts out his inner will? Are our children reflected in Siegfried, who when his father gets in his way shatters the spear of his authority? Having just killed his adoptive father? Or in Brunnhilde, who, though rejected by her father, retains a deep connection with all that is wonderful about him?
So this operatic cycle calls into question some of our basic assumptions about our world, assumptions which we may retain even when overtly denying them. This production, with its musical clarity and its dramatic simplicity, allowed these questions some air without answering any of them. And it did so through the medium of magic, which coaxed irresistibly that suspension of disbelief which all theatre demands.
In my review of Das Rheingold earlier this week I remarked how Leigh Sachwitz’ digital set design creates a magical, rather than an interpretative, context for the audience to receive the production. While the set design became more and more representational as the cycle progressed, especially in the “real world” of the Gibichungs’ palace, or the frozen Nordic landscapes and the snow, there remained an air of the impossible, the magical, about the design system. The use of the digital design for the scene transitions became even more impressive in Götterdämmerung, never distracting from the music while always supporting it. And the way the design reminded us of various scenes from the past in the final scene was a true stroke of genius.
Besides being to my mind an ideal technique for generating any operatic scenery (I don’t think I ever want to see analogue scenery again) this magic completely freed the director, Chen Shi-Zheng, from the urge few directors have resisted since the Chereau Ring of 1976 – the urge to Regietheatre, where directors impose a particular narrative of their own on Wagner’s work. In Opera Australia’s Brisbane Ring, all the characters inhabited the drama with their own individuality; they acted and reacted as their character prompted, not looking through a psychological, a socialist, a futurist lens. This in turn enabled an easy dialogue between the orchestra, with its ever-increasing complexity of leitmotifs, and the stage.
Phillipe Auguin conducted the orchestra with less and less restraint as the cycle progressed, so that just occasionally in Götterdämmerung the orchestra, anyway far more complex in this opera, and with far fewer patches of minimal scoring than the earlier operas in the cycle, did cover some of the singers, notably Gunther (Luke Gabbedy) and Gutrune (Maija Kovalevska) in their first scene. (Both singers, as their characters realised the hideousness of Hagen’s scheming, grew into their characters so that in the last two scenes they were able to act and sing with much more conviction.) But Auguin’s passion for clarity continued throughout, and I heard leitmotifs I had never noticed before. In the final opera Wagner’s use of the leitmotifs borders on the promiscuous; but I had never noticed how, in Act I of Siegfried, how at the point where Siegfried is wanting Mime to teach him about fear, we hear not the dragon’s motif but the tune of Brunnhilde asleep in the flames – the one thing that will eventually teach him fear.
I admire Phillipe Auguin’s work very much, particularly his intense fidelity to the score. Understanding tiny details of the score in relation to the drama, he plays the orchestra with complete clarity, allowing the play of leitmotifs to exert their powerful conscious and subconscious purposes at every appearance. One feature of his reading that I might question, however, is that he doesn’t often alter the basic tempo unless Wagner explicitly asks for it. Contemporary accounts of Wagner’s own conducting say that in his hands no two bars were at the same tempo. When I heard Barenboim’s reading of the work, I was impressed by just that flexibility.
But it is not just a question of authenticity. There are passages which need to go past fast or the characters’ singing becomes ponderous. But there are moments when I want the expansion of eternity. There were two such moments in the score where I wanted a much broader tempo, as they otherwise go past all too fleetingly. One was the point where Fasolt confronts Wotan with the fact that he is what he is only because of his laws, and that if he himself breaks them he is nothing. Wagner marks this passage (“Was du bist, bist du nur durch Verträge”) "Keine Arie!” (not an aria). Methinks he doth protest too much…this is such a vital turning point in the ethical construction of the work that I wanted David Parkin to have had much more time to make the point.
The second was the acceptance by Sieglinde of her destiny as the mother of the future hero Siegfried. The two phrases which Anne-Louise Cole sang here, while shatteringly intense, lacked the feeling that they lasted for ever. This is part of Wagner’s architecture for the whole cycle, as this theme is developed in the final apotheosis, at the very end of Götterdämmerung, where it was indeed played with glorious expansion as the aerialist Rhine maidens accepted the ring from Brunnhilde’s hand.
That brings me to Lise Lindstrom. Lindstrom has been the world’s favourite Brunnhilde for the last four years, and now inhabits this character, both dramatically and musically, with such unremitting intensity that I can say that I have never seen such a great Brunnhilde. Every movement and every stillness that she made on stage was crafted with compelling stage presence, whether as the newly awakened lover of Siegfried, the shattered, bewildered bride of Gunther, or the woman whose burning presence claimed the stage from everyone else at her immolation. And her voice! Shining over the orchestra like the silver blade of Nothung, it carried the drama into the hearts of every person in the audience. Even among this stellar cast she convinced us that, while Wagner’s first intention was to make Siegfried the protagonist, then changed his mind and thought of Wotan as the hero, the eventual centre of the Ring cycle is Brunnhilde.
And the cast for this production is indeed stellar, with hardly a weak link. I have mentioned Hubert Francis’ Loge, Anna-Louise Cole’s Sieglinde, Rosario la Spina’s Siegmund, Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried, and Silvestrelli’s villains, as absolutely beyond criticism. But the more minor characters are hardly less wonderful. It was so good to hear Deborah Humble, who had sung Fricke in such a controlled, restrained way in the first two operas, let her whole expressive arsenal shine in her portrayal of Waltraute imploring Brunnhilde to return the ring to the rhinemaidens. And I have never heard such a beautiful trio of rhinemaidens in the third act of Götterdämmerung, Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews gliding sinuously though their ringlessness. The combination of these and other singers, Auguin’s wonderfully respectful conducting, a responsive QSO, Chen Shi-Zheng’s equally respectful direction, and Leigh Sachwitz’ digital design magic, make this Ring cycle one that serves Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk drug very well, and indeed one of the best that anyone is likely to see.
Opera Australia presents
Director Chen Shi-Zheng
Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane QLD
Dates: 7, 14, 21 December 2023
Part of the Brisbane Ring Cycle – visit the Opera Australia website for full details»