By Roger Cruickshank
It’s nearly a year since Opera Australia’s first Ring cycle was staged in Melbourne, and I’ve been reflecting on some of the peripheral matters that still drift in and out of my memory of that event. Those of you who attended will have your own experiences and memories, and I don’t want to disturb these, dear reader. I will therefore virtually ignore the production. My random thoughts, in no relevant order, follow.
A pre-season parade
The scariest pre-Ring event for me was a parade which Jill Stark, writing in the Sunday Age of 17 November 2013, described as “like an acid trip for opera buffs. As the brass band played, eight Xena Princess Warrior lookalikes in metallic bodices arrived on horseback, gossamer wings billowing behind.” [I hadn’t associated “gossamer” with “Walküren” before. (RC)] “What followed was a procession so bizarre it bordered on psychotropic. First, a family of wild- haired cannibals, blood-smeared and snarling, leapt at the crowd, wheeling past a cage of severed heads.”
“Opera Australia billed it as a ‘’New Orleans street parade with themes of funeral, fire, apocalypse and renewal’’, led by the Valkyries – warrior women characters from Wagner’s acclaimed work. Several hundred people enjoyed the procession, which ended in a 60-strong brass band performance of Ride of the Valkyries, made famous as incidental music in the Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now.”
Wagner is supposed to have loathed band music, especially adaptations of his works. Thanks Lyndon. And I always thought that the Walkürenritter was famous before F. F. Coppola introduced it to a new audience through his film, and sealed the fate of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada which the US invaded in 1983 in Operation Urgent Fury, with the Ride as their death-delivering theme music.
The photos from the parade were not from any Ring I had imagined, and mercifully unconnected with the Armfield production. Men, women, and children with garlands of flowers in their hair, and flowing down their costumes, more like mixed- sex Blumenmädchen from Parsifal; men dressed in black armour looking more like Orcs than anything in Wagner. And that was my lasting impression, that Opera Australia’s parade was more like Sir Peter Jackson’s Ring than Wagner’s. Some in the parade were celebrating the wrong Ring! So Melbourne.
In October 2011, Opera Australia staged “The Love of the Nightingale,” an opera conducted by its composer, Richard Mills. This isn’t the kind of music I usually enjoy, but in those days wherever possible I went to every new OA production, regardless of the content. For this performance, I sat directly behind Mr Mills in the front row of the stalls. Mills had already been named as the conductor of the Armfield Ring, and as the Perth premiere of Nightingale in 2007 had picked up four Helpmann Awards, including Best Music Direction for Richard Mills, and Best Female Performer in an Opera for Emma Mathews in the role of Philomele, I was unusually keen to hear this work. I came away convinced that Mills was a brilliant choice to conduct the Ring, allowing me to make sense of the long sweeping phrases in his opera, and I was more than a little dismayed when he left the project. I will now go to Melbourne next February to hear his Hollander, to see if my enthusiasm for his Wagner reading was justified.
There are opera houses in Europe which were built over 200 years ago which have almost perfect acoustics, but here in Australia we pride ourselves in building venues with the acoustics of a good public toilet, and then performing Opera in them. Sydney’s so-called Opera House, often associated with the word “Icon”, with its tiled exterior, does remind one of a public toilet which has been turned inside out. During its construction, it was interfered with so disgracefully by NSW public servants that all we have is a little theatre under a little Spanish helmet, in which Opera struggles to be heard. So Sydney.
And so it was with Melbourne. The State Theatre, allegedly with one of the world’s largest stages, had a $4 million upgrade to the orchestra pit in readiness for the ArmfieldRing, so that it could accommodate 110 musicians. But it was clear from early reviews that there were dead spots on the stage which singers had to avoid if they had any hope of reaching their audience.
I had an A reserve seat in the stalls almost at the end of a row, just under the overhang of the Circle. The sound was abysmal. A friend who sat next to me offered me his seat, and I was grateful to swap and hear the vastly improved sound for such a small move in the venue. “A Reserve” that seat certainly was not!
Back in Sydney after the Ring, I came across this in the December 2013 issue of Opera Now. Robert Turnbull, in an article titled “Cycle paths” which lambasted Frank Castorf ’s controversial Ring in Bayreuth that year, wrote “As you read this, the first critical glimmers should be emerging from Opera Australia’s much heralded new Ring cycle in Melbourne, establishing a trend perhaps of culturally specific Rings with its references to Australia’s Aboriginal history.”
I spent a while thinking about that. Where was there any reference to Aboriginal history? Was the end ofGötterdämmerung, with the dead Siegfried standing with his face covered in white powder, next to Brünnhilde with the flaming lily, meant to be an Aboriginal reference? I wasn’t convinced. None of the reviews I’d read then, or have read since, mentioned anything about an indigenous perspective, and looking at the photo from the Immolation on the cover of The Wagner Journal (Vol 8 No 1) didn’t help me make that connection. Were overseas commentators expecting a “culturally specific” Ring? If they were, I don’t think that they got it. If we did get it, I missed it.
The “Aussie-est” Ring of them all
One unnecessary piece of Melbourne Ring-up-man-ship was the suggestion that the Armfield Ring was “more Australian” than any other Ring (and particularly the Neidhardt Ring) because it used more Australian artists. This puzzled me, because apart from the Wotan and two Siegfrieds, and the odd New Zealander cunningly elevated to the status of Honorary Australian in the style of Russell Crowe, I think that, with Lisa Gasteen firmly in the Australian camp, the Neidhardt Ring just might have surpassed its Melbourne successor for Dinkie Di-ness. But who’s counting?
The December 2013 issue of Opera Now had another revelation. The Deutsche Oper in Berlin would be staging one complete cycle of the late Gotz Friedrich’s Ring, with Terje Stensvold (our Wotan) and Susan Bullock (our Brünnhilde), from January 8 to 12, 2014. But I heard from a number of people at the Armfield Ring that one or both of these singers would be retiring after the Melbourne performances, as if we were attending a historical moment. And clearly we weren’t, and they weren’t retiring just yet.
Tea-towels don’t get much of showing in history. Most famously, perhaps, Blessed Veronica is commemorated in Station Six of the (catholic) Stations of the Cross, wiping the face of Jesus as He carries His cross to His death on Calvary with her tea-towel (often mis-translated as “veil”), which thereafter acquired a miraculous image of the face of the thorn-crowned Christ. Today she would have just taken a selfie.
The Ravens Tea-Towel in Armfield’s Götterdämmerung is a close second to Veronica’s. At some point, The Ravens Tea-Towel (a rectangle of fabric bearing a picture of Ravens) descends from the heavens between two stout wires, and hovers and flaps away a few feet above the ground. I imagine that when the immolating Brünnhilde sang “Fliegt heim, ihr Raben” (“Fly home, you ravens,” according to Rudolph Sabor’s translation). The Ravens Tea-Towel rose back up to the heavens, but I confess that I was more interested in Susan Bullock’s unexpectedly good singing at that moment, and didn’t notice.
Don’t stone the crows yet
Some years ago, a friend decided that I needed to be educated in Popular Culture. First he took me to the movie Too Fast Too Furious, which I didn’t quite get, and then he took me to see a Charlie’s Angels movie. After that, I was overflowing with enthusiasm – “Wasn’t Too Fast Too Furious a fantastic film”, I exploded. Which in context, it was.
And so it was in the Melbourne -Adelaide Ring bake-off. I had reservations about the 2004 Neidhardt Ring. The hero of that production for me was Nick Schlieper (lighting designer and associate set designer) and the moments of that production that I cherish are of the vast empty spaces he lit with such subtlety. I wasn’t convinced by the Wunderbar, and Elke Neidhardt’s refusal, presumably on political grounds, to handle the magical or divine realistically had always been a stumbling point for me. Turning Don Giovanni into a coked-up freak to avoid having a singing statue actually come to dinner never worked for me. And so the Neidhardt Ring was my local Wagnerian Too Fast Too Furious.
And then I saw the Armfield Ring, and I realized just how fantastic the Neidhardt Ring had been. But by then it was too late, with the sets having long ago decayed and been sold off to defray storage costs, and Neidhardt herself now dead, the Adelaide experience would never be repeated. The custodian of the video recording of the final cycle, which was broadcast live and free to an audience in the adjacent Space Theatre, may one day release it, after everyone with a claim to royalties has died or the required span of years passed, but I fear that I may have passed by then too, or become too ga-ga to appreciate the genius of that production.
I also wondered at the sincerity of Opera Australia’s embrace of Neidhardt after her death, dedicating Melbourne cycles to her memory, given the rumours that their relationship had been rocky at best.
Next in 2016?
If OA is staging this Ring again in 2016, as the publicity in 2013 stated, I would have expected that there’d be an appeal for donations in 2014 to start the process of building the excitement. Not everyone who sang in the 2013 Ring will be able to reprise their roles in 2016, so there’s a new cast to recruit, and rumours to start. But so far, there has been a deathly silence on the subject of another series of cycles in 2016, let alone 2019. Will Melbourne become the southern hemisphere’s Ring capital, as was expected, or will the ArmfieldRing be a one-off? Someone should ask Mr Terracini.
[It seems that Roger has not heard the rumour that has reached your Editor’s ears that the 2016 Melbourne Ring Cycle has been postponed to 2017, making Roger’s final comment even more pressing Editor.]