GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG by Wagner; Opera North; Semi-staged concert performance; Leeds Town Hall; Leeds, UK; 11 June 2014; MATS ALMGREN as Hagen; JO POHLHEIM as Alberich (left); RICHARD FARNES - Conductor; PETER MUMFORD - Concert Staging and Design Concept; PETER MUMFORD - Lighting and Projection Design; Photo credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL;
On Opera

Freak shows

Horrors wrestled into being

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I was as excited as everyone else to learn that opera actually exists in New Zealand — two things surely linked before only by their joint gold for the world’s least fashionable phenomena. 

Not only that, but it turns out that Kiwis have a thriving new-opera industry, recently enriched by the appearance of The Unruly Tourists, a chirpy take on the 2019 visit to Hobbitland of the fecund Nolan clan from Liverpool, who found, as I suppose many do, that they had to make their own entertainment while there.

Despite the conflationary clichés of Fat Gypsy Weddings and so on, the Nolans are more gens de voyage than true enfants de Bohème, as we say in WC2 (though the NZers amusingly seem to take them as standard Poms) but they certainly slot into the category of misfits so vital to opera. 

Alongside the core roll call of nutters, wackos and champions of DSM-approved disorders (hysterics, narcissists, neurasthenics, borderlines) composers like Giuseppe Verdi and Georges Bizet discovered a vacancy also for social marginals, into which empty lot the itinerant friends — usually but not always echt Gypsies — moved with obliging alacrity. 

That one-woman air-raid, Carmen, is merely the hottest of this particular pack

That one-woman air-raid, Carmen, is merely the hottest of this particular pack; solo examples are invariably female, since they can multi task as both sex-vixen and fortune-teller. (British opera’s self-harm hobby has inevitably been activated in this area, as last year at Holland Park where Little Buttercup’s “Gypsy blood” in HMS Pinafore was cravenly downgraded to mere “mystic” plasma to protect the notoriously fragile sensibilities of all those new-Ukes and Kensington poshos.)

While no Brecht, Verdi took a gloomy view of the little hypocrisies of the time, his operas full of snarky commentary on the leveraging of the marginal and the outcast — always to the advantage of coves in top hats, natch, as with the ubiquitous Traviata set-up of pleasantly-disposed ladies. 

Those three operas he wrote between 1850 and 1853 — Rigoletto, La traviata and Il trovatore — are where he fills his social-critic boots, the courtesan Violetta, gypsy Azucena in Il trovatore and deformed jester of Rigoletto all recipients of bourgeois snoot towards the degraded outsider. 

Nobody comes out smelling brilliant, except perhaps old Violetta (apart from dying). Rigoletto has his moments as protective father, but his avid pimping of other chaps’ daughters is a bit of a blot. 

Fat Bastard from Austin Powers is the paradigm here. Is he a bastard because he’s fat? Or fat because he’s a bastard? Or is he frankly just a fat bastard? With Rigoletto it’s a hunchback, but you get the point. 

Verdi allows very marginal mitigation for the freaked-out antics of Azucena (the chick who bunged the wrong baby — hers! — onto the bonfire), but you feel he’s employing these maniacs more for their melodramatic than their Leninist potential.

Nonetheless — though of course you’ll never see Rigoletto presented as an actual hunchback now — opera is the last place that these slimier corners of the human psyche can get an airing, outside the Greeks and Shakespeare. The quaking epsilons who run the opera world do their best to suppress this salutary, cathartic trait, hiding stuff behind foreign languages and deleting it from the stage. 

A niche kerfuffle occurred at the New York Met last year when Riccardo Muti “boldly” insisted on keeping the sung (by an arsehole, which is the point) line “immondo [unclean] sangue dei negri” about the black fortune-teller Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera — but nobody noticed, since the English surtitles sanitised it. 

But there’s no eliding the fixation on deformity, evil and their interstices, and as ever it is in Wagner — who never admitted any boundary to what he should write — that the deepest-buried monsters emerge from their Cimmerian lairs for our discomfort.

Death, torture, rape, incest, necrophilia, mental and physical maimings … the Ring, Tristan, Parsifal are where bodies and psyches are at their resolutely unhealthiest, as close to actual pathology as drama can get. 

The only vaguely psychologically stable character in the entire Ring cycle is probably Brünnhilde — apart from the chaud au cul she nurtures for her strength-through-joy knucklehead nephew Siegfried, of course — but she can hardly balance out all those perverted dwarves and morally crippled gods. 

My own hero is Hagen, benighted product of the rape of some unnamed woman by the dwarf Alberich: designed, generated and programmed simply as a Terminator, the murderer of Siegfried — but you’ve got to hand it to the lad, he takes and runs with it like a champ. 

Surely the acme of thrilling nastiness in all opera — perhaps all art — is Hagen’s gathering of the clans, gigantic steerhorns blaring out above the orchestra, Hagen’s cavernous bass answered by bellowing male chorus; this, right here, is Wagner’s prefiguration of Nuremberg.

Which is not a coy way of calling Wagner a proto-Nazi: he was anything but. But what is so powerful and chilling is that he never distances himself from the horrors he wrestles into being: the snuff-movie stuff in Tristan, the revolting blood-feast of Parsifal, the salacious indulgence of subconscious longings. Wagner invests in it all a thousand per cent so we don’t have to try it at home. Even if you get the feeling hardcore Wagnerians rather like to. 

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