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Wagner – Das Rheingold – Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla

Wagner – Das Rheingold – Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla

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”Going to the opera, like getting drunk, is a sin that carries its own punishment with it,” wrote Hannah More to her sister in 1775. Of course the noted bluestocking was writing before Mozart revolutionised the artform, let alone before Richard Wagner unleashed upon the world a magnificent obsession nearly a century later.

The opposite extreme was expressed by a stately lady in Vienna to then-budding opera fan William Berger, explaining to him a contretemps he had just observed involving a music student, an elderly woman and a Soviet officer during an interval of Tristan und Isolde.

”It [Wagner opera] is a drug. It can open your eyes, ease your pain, even save your life. But if you keep indulging in it, it will make you insane,” she told Berger, as he recounts in his entertaining book Wagner without Fear.

Opera in the Bowl will be part of the Ring Cycle Melbourne.

Opera in the Bowl will be part of the Ring Cycle Melbourne. Photo: Jeff Busby

The monomaniac composer was born 200 years ago and became one of the greatest, most influential and controversial geniuses in artistic history. Any critic who thinks Wagner is in decline should look at the forthcoming four-opera Ring in Melbourne, which virtually sold out on the first day and has a waiting list hundreds-strong.

”It was like a rock concert, there was so much interest,” says Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini of the biggest project his company has done.

Nothing in the operatic repertoire attracts the fanaticism the Ring does: people fly from opposite ends of the globe to see it. ”Many of them are not traditional opera fans – they don’t go to other operas,” Terracini says. ”They get caught up with the mythological narrative, the fascination of the subject matter and the whole scale of it. There’s some incredible music in it, but Bach wrote incredible music as well, and you don’t get people stampeding across continents to hear Bach.”

<i>The Ring Animated</i>, part of the Ring Cycle Melbourne Festival.

The Ring Animated, part of the Ring Cycle Melbourne Festival.

The instant sell-out is the sort of response that Wagner saw as his due, though he did not always receive it. His first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies) was not performed in his lifetime. His second, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), sold only three tickets for opening night – all to Jews, which cannot have pleased the virulent anti-Semite – and was cancelled just before the curtain went up when the prima donna’s husband sought to avenge his honour by knocking out the tenor backstage. Wagner was never to see this opera performed either.

So what is this Ring – full name Der Ring der Nibelungen – that is set to take Melbourne by storm next month? First, and most simply, it is a set of four operas – or one opera in four parts – composed over 20 years with the loftiest ambition: to create the complete or ideal German work of art, which is to say the world’s ideal artwork, as Wagner assumed German superiority.

In Berger’s summary, “it is a German Romantic view of Norse and Teutonic myth influenced by Greek tragedy and a Buddhistic sense of destiny told with a socio-political deconstruction of contemporary society, a psychological study of motivation and action, and a blueprint for a new approach to music and theatre”.

It is about power and love, about gods and mortals, corruption and redemption, contracts and oaths, industrialisation against nature, parental protection against the need to surrender control, and much more. (See panel, right.)

Director Neil Armfield says the Ring‘s appeal is that ”the music is so overwhelmingly beautiful, and keeps on getting better across its 16 hours. It’s a work that rewards any amount of contemplation.”

Armfield, an admired opera director, did not know the Ring before beginning this project 3½ years ago. The first year was spent just listening to the music. He has still never seen a production.

”This Ring is done with great innocence about staging traditions. It’s boring for me to do one in reaction to the past, as in Eurotrash productions where they compete to get more and more outrageous.”

Audiences – certainly this subscriber – will be grateful for that, but they have little idea of what to expect. Opera Australia has kept the production under wraps to maximise its impact, and young conductor Pietari Inkinen – who replaced Richard Mills at short notice – has given no interviews.

Armfield says his job is to make the audience listen with their eyes. The challenge is to find a world that accommodates the story, with all its metaphysical, spiritual and psychological narrative demands, without falling prey to theatrical effects.

”It’s very easy to have great ideas for how to do the fire or the dragon, but that’s a real trap. You could end up with these effects becoming like points on a tourist map. The music has to come first.”

That music was so revolutionary, so magnificent, that, according to experienced Wagnerian Asher Fisch, no composer has escaped being influenced.

The Ring is remarkable for dissolving traditional musical structures and replacing them with tiny tunes called leitmotivs – representing people, emotions, vows, and artefacts such as the ring, Wotan’s spear or Siegfried’s sword – around which the edifice is constructed. Fisch also mentions Wagner’s rhythmic invention and his new approach to instrumentation, including inventing the Wagner tuba.

”The biggest challenge with a new orchestra is to explain and achieve a completely different style from the first two operas and the first two acts of Siegfried, then the third act of Siegfried and Gotterdammerung.” Wagner had a 12-year hiatus, writing the ground-breaking Tristan und Isolde (and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg), before picking up where he left off at Siegfried Act III.

”When you come to the top of the third act, you are suddenly faced with a wall of sound that is so overwhelming you catch your breath and say, ‘How do I cope with this?’ Earlier, the music is more transparent, though it can be very loud, especially in Rheingold.”

Fisch thinks Inkinen will be fine, despite joining the Ring only last month, because he is dealing with experienced singers. ”If they were singing for the first time, it would be impossible, but Stuart Skelton, Susan Bullock, all these people, they will do their thing.

”After a singer has sung a Wagner role a few times they find it very difficult to make any changes. It has taken years to get in their bodies. When I work with experienced singers I make a few minimal points I would like to change, and I hope to get 50 per cent. The most important thing in the Ring is casting.”

Soprano Susan Bullock – as Brunnhilde, the most important role along with Terje Stensvold’s Wotan – has sung the Ring eight times before. ”Each opera has its own challenge,” she says. ”Die Walkure has a very wide range. You come on and are singing top Cs within a couple of minutes, and next time you are on it is low Bs. In Siegfried you come on in the last 45 minutes, and the audience has been engaged for 4½ hours. By then they are tired. So the challenge in Siegfried, apart from the very high tessitura, is you have to engage the audience, remind them who you are and what has happened, then develop the character quickly and take her to a new place as a woman in love, vulnerable and fragile.

Gotterdammerung is the big one, much more dominated by the role of Brunnhilde, where you go from a young woman in love to almost a Greek tragedy, a woman betrayed and making the final sacrifice for the sake of the world.”

Wagner remains controversial. Only two months ago, at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, London Review of Books publisher Nicholas Spice discussed with Age opera critic Michael Shmith ”is Wagner bad for you?”

It is not the composer’s fault that he was Hitler’s favourite and became identified with the Nazis, but in many ways he would have been at home. His anti-Semitism, made explicit in his vitriolic essay Jewishness in Music, was compounded by his hypocrisy in using Jewish help whenever convenient, such as Hermann Levi conducting the premiere of Parsifal – though, with typical tact, Wagner invited the rabbi’s son to be baptised first.

Tony Palmer, who directed an eight-hour film biography starring Richard Burton for the centenary of Wagner’s death 30 years ago, described him as ”a monster”.

”He was anti-Semitic on Mondays and vegetarian on Tuesdays. On Wednesday he was in favour of annexing Newfoundland, Thursday he wanted to sink Venice, and Friday he wanted to blow up the Pope.”

Despite his near-permanent sense of ill-usage, Wagner enjoyed a large measure of luck, especially in his patrons and those who allowed him to exploit them.

And when it comes to a project of the scale of the Ring, luck is an essential ingredient.

Terracini certainly thinks so. ”Everyone I speak to is overwhelmed at how talented Pietari Inkinen is, we have a wonderful cast and director, and have worked incredibly hard. Everything is going to plan, but you need the gods to smile on you and hopefully we’ll be able to ride that luck through the … series.”

The Melbourne Ring Festival, running from November 15 to December 13, includes a free concert, film and multimedia programs, talks and art installations.

For more information, see melbourneringcycle.com.au/festival.