The Ring Cycle, (full name ‘the Ring of the Nibelungen,’) finished its Gateshead run last week. Sixteen hours of drama spread over four nights, two long intervals each night – about a day of your life. I have no idea what decent seats cost, but as the whole shebang demands a massive orchestra, a team of top singers in their prime, chorus, vast stage settings and a conductor who doesn’t get out of bed for less than a year’s wages for a working man, they can’t have been cheap. Yet they were sold out for all locations around the UK, months in advance. Had I got myself turned around to get tickets, including hotel and restaurants, I would have allowed at least £1000 for the week.
Opera North cut corners. Why not? They used modern projection technology to save themselves the expense of the sets Wagner demanded at Bayreuth – his purpose built theatre in Bavaria. Wagner imagined the orchestra hidden in a pit. Opera North had it on stage, in full view. This improves the acoustics and the entertainment value, as there is never a dull moment for the players. And Bayreuth needs knocking down. I watched a live stream of Tristan and Isolde from Bayreuth in 2015. Temperatures inside the theatre were in excess of 40oC. I was in an air-conditioned cinema on the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, and at €20 my seat was a twentieth of a Bayreuth wooden bench. The announcer in Bayreuth, assured us performers have died on stage in the heat, and some listeners have failed to see the end, despite the ticket cost. He went off to wring himself out.
Cost apart, there are other reasons not to buy a seat for Wagner. Opera generally, is the barmiest art form ever! You need subtitles. No one can understand what the singer is singing. The language is too distorted by the musical demands. Opera plots are often non-existent. Where they do exist they can be stupid, incomprehensible and if they make sense, predictable. Not so Wagner. He uses multi-layered plots in which you discover something new, each listening. After decades, I begin to get them. Books have been written using Jungian psychology to analyse them – especially the Ring. Are the plots stupid? I can’t say, but they are original, contain philosophy, wisdom, the development of capitalist production, love, hate, incest, dwarfs, giants, mermaids and a monster, but above all – amazing, and at times, very loud music. He invented the cadence which brought tears to our eyes, the first time we saw ET. His most famous tune is the Ride of the Valkyries, usually played as an orchestral version or ring tone. In the theatre, the Ride is fortified with Brünnhilde and her sisters, who boast the ultimate octet of girls’ names. (Helmwige, Gerhilde, Ortlinde, Waltraute, Siegrune, Grimgerde, Schwertleite). The girls need massive voices, able to shatter glass at fifty metres and all shriek in fear as Wotan approaches. They have to drown out a hundred piece band with horns and trombones a plenty. Magnificent mayhem. After the ear-bashing Wotan received from her indoors, in the previous act, for allowing twins to procreate, in order to get the hero he needs, to undo all his daft actions, this is the ultimate stage domestic. Fantastic fur-flying fun – unless you are Brünnhilde, who unfairly gets the blame. The final act of the Valkyries is the most delicate farewell between Wotan and Brünnhilde – father and favourite daughter, who must be separated, to appease moral decency in a hypocritical world. It is rated as Wagner’s most successful attempt at the ‘total artwork’. He wrote the librettos, in amazing poetry, the music, created the drama and designed the visual experience. His notes on the sets are precise and unacceptable. There’s the mermaids (Rhein maidens swimming at the bottom of the River) and Walhalla going up in flames. There is a small matter of the mighty dragon Siegfried slays, and a subterranean workshop, into which Wotan and Loge descend, while the dwarfs beat anvils in time with the music. Wotan summons Loge to surround Brünnhilde with fire, so that only a hero can claim her, a hunt scene, Brünnhilde and her sisters on a craggy mountain top, and two giants who have a fight, one killing the other. I assume Wagner told his set designers, ‘Don’t bore me with problems – I only want solutions.’ Who paid for it all, is another story.
The Met created a computer-controlled mountain out of slabs that could slide into different craggy shapes. The burbling brook was a step too far. They used projection. Who can blame them?
What about Hitler and Wagner? He claimed to love Wagner, but didn’t get it. Even a man as obtuse as Hitler realised the parallels between Walhalla (the castle for fallen heroes) going up in flames, at the end of the Twilight of the Gods, and the demise of the Third Reich. The Ring lost its charm for the fascists as the truth in Wagner’s dramatic thread, dawned on them – the bad boys always get their comeuppance, but many will suffer in the meantime. Wotan was the ultimate wide-boy, who lost some godly power every time he did a dodgy deal. Siegfried, born out of incest, was supposed to rescue things. He had the love of a good woman (Brünnhilde, his aunt), but betrayed her through naivety. Brünnhilde took revenge for her treatment, burnt the house down and destroyed the gods. The Ring, all four nights, can be summarised with ‘cheats never prosper and don’t cheat on a good woman’!
Why then, was Hitler besotted? Wagner did himself no favours by writing anti-Semitic pamphlets. His only hope was that his outpourings were such garbage, no one bothered with them. But for the National Socialists, they would be long forgotten for the nonsense they are. Why did Wagner do it? No one knows. It is unlikely he was anti-Semitic as so many of his friends, sponsors, mentors, and promoters were Jewish – Mendelssohn the best known. We do know he was furious at his lack of success in Paris – the art-centre of Europe. His competitor, Meyerbeer, was however, the darling of the Paris opera and Jewish. Was it envy, spite, intrigue against the opposition? Who knows? No rule says a genius has to be a nice person. Meyerbeer’s operas have disappeared in the mists of time. Wagner goes from strength to strength! We could have done without his racial rants.
Wagner’s other problem with Hitler was not of his own making. Wagner’s Germany was held back in every walk of life, by its fragmentation. Operas such as Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger contain references to the need for a strong German state and identity. Such messages are carried by heroic tunes and singing. Enter over a half century later, the National Socialists. They misappropriated Wagner’s sentiment in a way he couldn’t have foreseen. The NS interpretation would have horrified a man who risked his life on the Dresden barricades during the 1848 uprising.
The final reason to avoid Wagner is the length. My first Parsifal involved me arriving in the Liverpool Empire at three in the afternoon, and leaving at eleven. That included a pre-performance talk and two long intervals with space provided for a picnic. I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew, especially as act one is over two hours. Time flew by! Wagner has many acts of that length. I’ve never been bored, but I’ve never sat on a wooden bench in Bayreuth.
On that Liverpool visit, I kept quiet about having travelled the length of the M62 for the occasion, only to find the woman to my left had flown in from New York, where she had been listening to – Wagner, at the Met. That was when I learnt how obsessive one becomes about his music. The Liebestod frequently gets outings on Radio 3 and I find it impossible to ignore. Turn it off or sit down and listen – there is nothing in between.
Leeds based Opera North started the cycle in their hometown, in their grand, refurbished opera house. They finished on Tyneside. The critics haven’t ceased praising them for managing this momentous artistic achievement. Normally, such a regional company, devoid of the pickings of London theatres, would steer clear. They worked up to the Ring over four years, producing an opera a year. This year was the culmination, when all four were performed consecutively, as intended. The art world is ecstatic about Opera North’s production. Tyneside is not renowned for losing its cool, but the auditorium went mad – four times – on four nights, clapping, cheering, whistling, and stamping, until Radio 3 faded the noise. Then the announcer had to do the impossible – read the cast list without his voice quivering. It was an emotional moment after sixteen hours of music – when it finally did come to an end.
Image – The Norns from Götterdämmerung – courtesy of Clive Barda and Opera North.