So, Wagnerian opera is not exactly the pre-Christmas cheery post you were expecting, right? Or indeed opera of any description I’ll wager? But then, that’s exactly the sort of wacky eclecticism that you love about this blog. Erm – right?
I’m no opera fan usually, but I’ve been tantalised by Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle ever since I was a young boy when I caught glimpses of versions of it broadcast on the BBC over various holiday seasons. There was something about the subject matter (myths and Gods) and the resulting extraordinary stage designs and technical productions that was unlike anything else I’d ever seen. It made me want to watch more.
Sadly this was in the days when having more that one TV set in the house was a rarity, and an interminably long German opera would have been an impossibly tough sell to the rest of the household. Even so, I’ve always harboured a desire and intention to get around to watching it one day…
Before you ask: no, the appeal of Wagner’s Ring Cycle back then isn’t anything to do with being a Tolkien fan. On the contrary, I only got around to finally reading The Lord of the Rings some two decades later just before the Peter Jackson films arrived in the cinema. But of course, there’s a distinct overlap and similarity between the two works – and not just their length. Both seek to revisit and revive age-old national myths, one English and one German; and at their heart both are about a supremely powerful ring of magical but ill-defined powers and significance. Hard to believe Tolkien wasn’t significantly influenced by Wagner’s work, surely?
Like Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of Tolkien’s writings, Wagner’s Ring Cycle is presented as a trilogy of three hefty instalments lasting in the region of four hours apiece of which Die Walküre – The Valkyrie – is the first. However, when writing this opening opera in the sequence, Wagner found he was having to explain so much back story that a fourth work had to be added as a sort-of prequel. With Das Rheingold weighing in at a ‘mere’ two-and-a-half hours, Wagner didn’t deem it to be a proper fourth opera in its own right and therefore it’s usually referred to as a ‘preliminary evening’.
I’d already thoroughly processed Das Rheingold a couple of years ago, before this blog started. While Wagner himself intended his four works to be seen on consecutive events, it’s taken me all that time to finally get around to deciding this week decided that it was time – indeed, long past time – to get my teeth into the first ‘proper’ opera. At my disposal have been two recordings of productions of the opera: a 1992 production conducted by Daniel Barenboim at Bayreuth Festspielhaus that I have on DVD which I was fortunate to pick up in a sale years ago; and a 2008 production staged in Valencia conducted by Zubin Mehta which has been aired this year on the digital channel Sky Arts but which is also available to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray. Having two takes on the material had been really fascinating to compare and contrast.
Wagner certainly doesn’t make things easy for newbies. While Das Rheingold is a great entry point to the Ring Cycle thanks to its shorter length having to pack in a large amount of storyline giving it real zip, the first Act of Die Walküre had me wondering if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake by contemplating this project. It was so slow it made the first half of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey look positively brisk. The synopsis is simple: an exhausted man takes refuge in a house where he is given sustenance by a woman, but when her husband returns home it soon emerges that the two men have been bitter enemies on the battlefield earlier that day and they resolve to finish their mortal duel in the morning. But the stranger has now fallen in love with the wife, and the two abscond after realising that they are also long-lost twin siblings by the names of Siegmund and Sieglinde.
Charitably, that would be enough plot for maybe 20 minutes of a film; here though it’s over an hour. That’s because plot is not king in opera – it’s primarily about the music and the singing – but unfortunately the music in the first Act is also a rather muted, unmemorable rummaging around the Ring’s existing leitmotifs, with the singular exception of the prelude to the Act which is a terrific piece of ominous portent that would fit proudly into any film soundtrack. The significance of what’s going on is shrouded in mystery and so is very disconcerting to newcomers: it’s only in Act 2 when the Gods arrive on the scene that it starts to make sense, pick up pace and start to really grip. (And once you’ve seen the rest of the opera, going back and re-watching Act 1 is considerably more effective than it seemed at the time.)
Act 2 focuses on the god of battles, Wotan, who is revealed as having fathered the mortal twins Siegmund and Sieglinde. But Wotan’s wife Fricka, goddess of love and wedlock, requires that the twins pay for their crimes of adultery and incest, and Wotan is forced to acquiesce: he deploys his immortal Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde to ensure that Siegmund loses the duel with Sieglinde’s husband Hunding and duly perishes. Brünnhilde picks up on the contradiction in Wotan’s wishes and ends up going against his spoken instructions, and Act 3 deals with the consequences of that defiance. It’s the most gripping of the three acts and features all the best ‘tunes’, starting with the one undisputed breakaway ‘hit single’ from the Ring Cycle, the powerfully distinctive “Ride of the Valkyries”.
In terms of the actual performances, I’m not nearly expert enough in Wagner or opera in general to be able to pronounce on which is the ‘best’. Both productions sounded superb to me. Daniel Barenboim or Zubin Mehta, how can one choose between legends? The Bayreuth production features John Tomlinson as Wotan and Anne Evans as Brünnhilde, and both were excellent. The two Siegmunds played by Poul Elming (1992) and Peter Seiffert (2008) are impossible to choose between; and Petra Maria Schnitzer and Matti Salminen as husband and wife Sieglinde and Hunding in the Valencia production also stood out.
When it comes to the technical presentation, obviously the more recent 2008 production has the edge being filmed in spectacular high-resolution and with audio-visual equipment unheard of the previous decade. The 1992 recording is still pretty remarkable for a DVD but you’ll be able to tell a few visual deficiencies (shining objects sky-write a burnout trail across the screen that lingers for a second or two) and the audio is less pristine than the Valencia edition, more prone to other on-stage noises, the movements of the singers, and the acoustics of the hall. Conversely this also makes it more of an authentic concert-going experience and may be preferred to the less atmospheric and slightly clinical technical precision of the Valencia production: it’s going to be an individual preference here. Both presentations use the best audio encoding available at their respective times: the 1992 Bayreuth is Dolby 5.1 DTS and the Valencia is DTS-HD MA 7.1 on the Blu-ray, so it’s hard to complain.
Where the two really differ is in their artistic interpretation of the subject matter. The 1992 Bayreuth production overseen by Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang is the more ‘traditional’ staging even though its pared down sets and use of lasers (yes, lasers! how quaint) was surely cutting edge progressive at the time; but its age is keenly highlighted by the 2008 Valencia which is a very hi-tech modern production unlike any before it.
Neither production sets the opera in its ostensible ancient folklore time. Bayreuth’s appears to be set sometime in the 20th century as evidenced by the modern military camouflage fatigues worn by Siegmund and the Bauhaus-style dining table in Hunding’s house. Much of the opera is set on a bare stage representing the road of history receding backwards deep into the forced perspective distance of infinity, but there’s an impressive coup de théâtre at the start where the front of the stage initially containing only the trunk of an ash tree is pulled up and back, the underside of the flap forming the interior wall of Hunding’s house.
The Valencia production couldn’t be any more different, even though it too keeps the stage incredibly sparse. Hunding’s house is conveyed purely an outline on the stage made up from animal bones; the ash tree is shown only on the huge high-resolution video display screens that form the entire stage backdrop and which are alive with perpetually changing, gorgeously designed computer graphics throughout the four hours. The ash tree shimmers, shifts colour, lives and breathes all the way through Act 1, and later the screens perform a ‘flyback’ from the earth all the way into orbit to take us into the realm of the gods to denote the start of Act 2. It’s really quite spectacular and effective, although such modern tricks won’t be for everyone.
Another specific example of the different approaches comes at the end of the opera, when Wotan lays down Brünnhilde inside a ring of fire in a sequence set to the most exquisite and moving music of the entire opera. But how to show a ring of fire on stage? The Bayreuth production cranks up the smoke machines to full power, floods the stage with red lights and shoots some lasers to obscure the view, and when we can see again we find Brünnhilde laying inside a modernist cube outlined by strips of glowing red neon representing her fiery prison. It’s effective enough and you’re expecting something even more shockingly modern in Valencia, but instead what you get is a moment of literal beauty as Brünnhilde is laid on a round dais, around which members of the Les Fura del Baus performance troupe perform a miniature Olympic torch lighting relay so that by the end Brünnhilde is indeed resting inside a ring of genuine fire, as hauntingly beautifully and simply executed as Danny Boyle’s London 2012 cauldron.
But the Valencia production is by no means perfect. It employs the conceit of having the Gods move around the stage while in the basket of a huge mobile ‘crane’ that nimbly manoeuvres around on their behalf while they themselves float ten metres above the stage-bound mortal characters. This is a mixed blessing: at its best it’s uncannily effective, and after a while it’s difficult to go back to the Bayreuth production and see the Gods just walking around at stage level like everyone else. But the cranes do mean that the performers are static and isolated and this inevitably affects their emotional performances; the mechanical aspects of getting into and out of the contraption also start to irritate after a while, to the point where you wonder if it was worth the effort to do something so cumbersome that then has to be kept to over the entire duration of the Ring Cycle. Presumably traditional ‘flying’ techniques were simply not viable, either for safely issues or more likely because harnesses would have compromised the singers’ performances.
Valencia is also the hands-down lower in the costume stakes. With all the hi-tech trappings at its disposal, it appears to be seeking a 2001: A Space Odyssey aesthetic with the Gods presented as aliens, the mortals being cavemen from Cro-Magnon times, and Wotan’s human offspring (dubbed Wälsungs) seemingly the genesis of the new Homo Sapiens species much as a black monolith effected the same evolutionary jump in 2001. That means that Sieglinde and Hunding wear caveman apparel consisting of animal skins and bone accessories, which gives an unfortunate Flintstones cartoon feel to those characters. The Gods meanwhile suffer even worse, assigned ‘space age’ costumes that would have been rejected as being too ridiculous even for Blake’s 7 in the 1970s. Poor Brünnhilde gets the worst of it of all, her costume being a ‘wacky’ 21st century updating of the much-lampooned traditional helmet-and-breastplate outfit from the 19th century.
By contrast, Bayreuth sticks with mainly straightforward 20th century clothing – but it’s not without its own problems. The Gods are designated by their wearing of ankle-length black leather trenchcoats which are distinctly … There’s no other way of saying this, but they evoke a definite Nazi vibe, which is only heightened at the start of Act 3 where the similarly-attired Valkyries are herding their latest crop of warrior dead from the battlefields up to Valhalla: the dead are depicted as groups of huddled men in grey rags shuffling downstage, which brings us uncomfortably close to visions of Nazi guards directing their victims into Auschwitz. You’d have thought that Wolfgang Wagner would have wanted to steer clear of any such associations, accidental or otherwise, since his grandfather’s legacy is forever tainted by the composer’s well-documented anti-semitism and by his posthumous biggest fan in the 1930s being one Adolf Hitler. Equally, this could just be me being a little over-sensitive and reading things in that aren’t really there; but then, that’s what artistic reviews of the arts revel in doing as a matter of course.
So we come to the crux of this way-too-long review post: firstly is it worth watching Die Walküre at all; and secondly which of the two productions here comes out as the best route to watch?
The answer to the first question is yes, definitely – if you have any sort of level of interest in opera or in the ‘Gods and myths’ mise-en- scène. For sure it’ll be a testing experience, but ultimately it delivered at least for me and I was powerfully moved and affected by the conclusion. I will certainly progress on to the next instalment, but definitely not on a night-by-night basis as Wagner himself ordained. Having inadvertently stumbled into eight hours of Wagner in the last week alone by watching both of these different productions (instead of just comparing ‘key moments’ of the second as originally intended!) I’m not minded to embark on Siegfried anytime soon – maybe it’s a project for next Christmas. I’ll let you know.
I’d rate the Valencia 2008/Les Fura del Baus as overall the best production for newbies to try, simply because even if all else fails about the opera you will still be stunned by the visual beauty and hi-tech prowess on display which should captivate anyone remotely interested in theatre and stage craft.
However, if you’re more serious and knowledgeable about your Wagner, then I think I’d actually recommend the Bayreuth 1992 production. Despite being only on DVD at standard resolution, there’s something robustly authentic about it and the performances on display verge on the iconic.
Overall the Ring Cycle an experience. Like life, it’s not always the smoothest or easiest of times, but it’s one I genuinely think should be at least attempted once. When you’re ready for it.