Wagner rides again

A return to enchanted tradition in Siegfried at Longborough Festival Opera

Artillery Row

Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung has aroused mixed interpretations from the producers and mixed emotions in its audiences since its premiere at the composer’s purpose-built theatre at Bayreuth in 1876.

In the last fifty years, opera productions everywhere have been dominated by what the Germans call regietheater — where the conception of the producer and designers supersedes the stage directions and visual props suggested by the composer.  Maybe opera professionals, jaded by one-too-many sub-Viking epic setting, were understandably bored with re-hashing the tried-and-tested stagings. After all, hadn’t Wagner himself urged “Kinder, schafft Neues!” (“Children, create something new!”)

Wagner’s grandson, Wieland, had reopened Bayreuth after the war with sets slimmed down to a bare minimum, but they accentuated the mythic component of the operas rather than distracting from it. Certainly, Anna Russell’s pastiche of Wagner’s Ring as an incestuous but suburban family quarrel was a world away from Wieland Wagner’s conceptions.

Wieland Wagner died before the centenary production of the Ring at Bayreuth in 1976 revolutionised how his grandfather’s epic was staged and conducted from the pit. Patrice Chereau’s decision to set the Ring in the early industrial age when Wagner had written the text almost caused a counter-revolution as the bulk of the audience bayed — in vain — for the blasphemous producer’s blood.

Chereau wasn’t unique in staging operas like Siegfried in modern dress. In East Germany, at the same time, Joachim Herz put on an industrial Ring in Leipzig. But Herz’s version was behind the Iron Curtain and not filmed as Chereau’s was which set a visual standard for a new generation of directors.

Longborough Opera’s founder, Martin Graham, used to introduce his Wagner productions by recalling what a revelation Patrice Chereau’s Bayreuth Ring of 1976 had been to him. That inspiration seeded what has become the tradition of performing Wagner in his own theatre inspired by the specifics of Bayreuth, especially the placing of the orchestra under the stage so that it doesn’t drown the singers as happens to often in  conventional opera houses.   

Boulez was closer to Wagner’s own approach

It is the musical sound rather than the staging that people primarily come to hear. An off-the-wall “imaginative” production with busy irrelevant activity, sometimes directly contradicting the plot can bewilder first-timers and alienate old-timers. Longborough’s Director, Amy Lane, has avoided the temptation to let the echoes of contemporary issues like gender identity and surrogacy which play such a part in Siegfried — Who is his mother? Why doesn’t he look like the dwarf, Mime, who claims to be both father-and-mother to him?, etc. — get in the way of projecting Siegfried’s problematic heritage and emotions to the audience clearly.

With a couple of minor exceptions, this Siegfried avoids distracting the audience with interpolations contradicting Wagner’s text but it lets us think about what is being sung and revealed in the music.    

The musical legacy of Martin Graham’s discovery of Wagner in 1976 has been his preference, or that of this inspired choice as conductor, Anthony Negus, for his Ring productions over the tears of flowing tempi. Pierre Boulez’s swift tempi were almost as shocking to the Wagner faithful in 1976 as Chereau’s anti-capitalism. Serious music had to be solemnly slow. In fact, in so far as timings reveal what a performance might have sounded like, Boulez was closer to Wagner’s own approach, and that of his favoured conductors, than had become the norm through the twentieth century.

Anthony Negus had studied and worked with Boulez’s polar opposite in mattes of tempo, Reginald Goodall, whose own Rings in the 1970s were seen as a refuge for traditionalists in musical terms at least, yet he manages to combine the virtues of both as a conductor of Wagner. Negus keeps the music moving at a realistic conversational speed (so important with so many dialogues in the Ring), but recalls moments of Goodall’s lyrical beauty and ability to conceive an act as an arch of music, not episodes.      

Maybe in the first act, Negus and his orchestra underplayed aspects of how the score comments on and ironises the action on stage. For instance, Mime’s foolish failure to ask the Wanderer what he really needs to know (replete with music foreshadowing Beckmesser’s confrontation with Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger) needed the awesome power of  Wagner’s motifs related to Wotan and his spear of authority to be more assertive to emphasise to the audience the true identity of the character behind his disguise as the Wanderer — something which only dawns on the self-satisfied dwarf later.  

Quibbles like that shouldn’t distract from how wonderfully well Anthony Negus guided the orchestra to a growing sense of glorious power. The third act being composed long after the first two parts has a score which Wagner wrote on the back of his two triumphs, Tristan and Isolde and Meistersinger, which separated the composition of the earlier parts of the Ring from its final instalments. It was in the third act that the orchestra rose a gear to meet the challenge of underpinning Wotan’s doom-laden preparation for the end of the gods which will be presaged by Siegfried’s brushing the old Wanderer aside and awakening Brünnhilde,  and of course both these heroic virgins to their sexuality.       

The Woodbird’s black-suited costume (and occasional squawks) was a misfire. Surely a colourful coat of many colours would have alluded to her species better?

The emotion was appropriate and brought the house down.  

The appearance of Fafner, the fearsome dragon, was an anti-climax. It was in stark contrast to what Wagner’s music tells us about the Fafner, sitting and possessing his hoard of gold like a cruel capitalist in his bank vault, as well as the imaginative projection of the mouth Fafner’s cave which suggested that it was his and maybe the outcrops were dragon’s eyes — or perhaps like Mime quaking in anticipation of meeting the fearful creature, I was letting my imagination run away with me. So it was an anti-climax when a higgledy-piggledy figure on crutches appeared in place of the expected fearsome monster, a kind of disabled Wizard of Oz. Siegfried’s gleeful killing of the dragon often seems at odds with Wagner’s well-known campaigning for animal rights but smashing a disabled giant’s crutches aside before stabbing him suggests Wagner’s archetype of heroism was an Ueber-yob with no sense of chivalry. Certainly, Siegfried’s denim costume was not in  Rackham’s mind-eye.   

Fortunately, Bradley Daley’s Siegfried, like Simon Wilding’s Fafner, out-sang their costumes with force and clarity. In fact, the diction of the Longborough singers was very fine throughout and combined well with how Anthony Negus supported the voices from the pit.

Lee Bisset’s return to Longborough as Brünnhilde had strong stage presence and she acted the part of the formidable but still virginal Valkyrie so well — helped by having the necessary breastplate (chastity belt?) for Siegfried to slash from her. Maybe her voice shrieked at the very end of the love duet but the emotion was appropriate and brought the house down.  

With an orchestra shaped by Anthony Negus in the pit and singers making excellent use of the Longborough acoustic and performing in a characterful production which doesn’t dictate the audience’s understanding, who won’t be looking forward to next year’s Götterdämmerung?   

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