View: When a dozen Wagners in a quarter (Feb - May 2019) is barely enough

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Ruminations on almost a full cycle of the oeuvre

By Esteban Insausti and Agnes Brejzek

I am writing this almost a year to the day when I completed the 12th production of a Wagner music drama in a calendar year – a quarter of a year to be precise. It was Frankfurt and the production was the wonderful Die Walküre by director Vera Nemirova. And very lucky to have seen it as the news is that we may never see that “Ring” production again - a shame.

What prompted a concentrated and self-indulgent attempt at (almost) the complete oeuvre of Richard Wagner in a short space of time? After the Bayreuth Ring in 2016 (Castorf – loved it), three productions (Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Der fiegende Holländer) around the Wieland Wagner symposium held at the Deutsche Oper Berlin to mark the centenary of his birth in 2017 and a sole Meistersinger in Melbourne in 2018, Agnes and me had hankerings for more. Specifically a Ring. So we started “shopping” for a Ring in the European Spring of 2019.

We flirted with the Dusseldorf/Duisburg production (dates too extended), Chemnitz (clashing with some offerings in nearby Berlin) but quickly settled on Leipzig because of the lure of the Gewandhaus orchestra in the pit and an opportunity to spend time in the city of Bach and Wagner. After locking that into our diaries we (or rather obsessive me) started looking to see what else was on offer, particularly Wagner or Wagner related. To our surprise there was quite a lot. Add to that the two Melbourne productions of Der fliegende Holländer and Parsifal in February and lo and behold an idea to attempt all the music dramas quickly became a challenge. With the assistance of Dr Google it didn’t take long to piece together what became a challenging schedule. The tickets were purchased, the timetable locked in, all that was left to organise was accommodation and transportation.

I set a special challenge for myself as Agnes rested in her hometown of Stuttgart between Ring weekends. This was to travel from Leipzig (after Die Walküre) to Stuttgart (rest) then onto Amsterdam (Tannhäuser), Munich (MPO under Gergiev with Anja Harteros) back to Stuttgart (Nixon in China) and onto Leipzig again (Siegfried and Götterdämmerung to round out the Ring). 4 events in 4 days across 4 cities. I think it was a way to test whether I still had the stamina to sustain the crazy travel and event endurance from my 20s. I did......at some cost.

So the schedule for the self-organised Wagnerfest, including some parallel events related to Wagner and the Ring, ended up looking like this:

  • February 7 Melbourne – Der fliegende Holländer (1)

  • February 22 Melbourne – Parsifal (2)

  • April 6 Leipzig – Das Rheingold (3)

  • April 7 Leipzig - Die Walküre (4)

  • April 10 Amsterdam – Tannhäuser (5)

  • April 11 Munich – Münchner Philharmoniker under Valery Gergiev (Bruckner 5) with Anja Harteros (Mahler Rückert Lieder)

  • April 12 Stuttgart – Nixon in China

  • April 13 Leipzig – Siegfried (6)

  • April 14 Leipzig – Götterdämmerung (7)

  • April 18 Berlin (Deutsche Oper) – Rienzi (8)

  • April 19 “Good Friday” Berlin (Deutsche Oper) – Parsifal (9)

  • April 20 Berlin (Volksbühne) – Die Edda

  • April 21 Berlin (Staatsoper) – Meistersinger (10)

  • April 22 Berlin (Berliner Ensemble) – Dreigroschenoper

  • April 24 Munich – Turandot (birthday present)

  • April 25 Munich – Der fliegende Holländer (11)

  • May 1 Frankfurt - Die Walküre (12)

And that is just the part that covers sitting in a theatre. The parallel joys that take the experience in the theatre into the realm of the memorable are the meetings with friends or colleagues or making new friends, the meals in wonderful establishments, exploring places for the first time or rediscovering/reassessing ones that are familiar. This is the privilege of chasing Wagner (amongst other things) around the world.

I won’t go into a review of each production but rather give an overall impression of experiencing all of the Wagnerian output with the exception of Lohengrin (a favourite) and Tristan und Isolde (not so keen on it) in a short space of time. The first thing that becomes obvious is the consistent quality of the work, from the music to the dramaturgy. I will include Rienzi in this as well, although an early work it has the imprint of the mature Wagner in the making all over it. Each music drama is set in its own sound world which influences the way a director and designer respond to the work. For me the biggest quality, one that Wagner shares with that other genius of the stage, Shakespeare, is the depth and breadth of the characters and the scenario. He allows for a multitude of interpretations, there is room for different points of view, conjectures and suppositions, as well as historical and political polemics. Which is why we can withstand good, bad and indifferent Ring productions but always come away with some new insight or discovery.

It was interesting to have expectations turned on their heads as well. Productions that on paper seem to be rolled gold turned out to be disappointing whilst others surprised with their ingenuity and sheer quality. On the disappointing side was the Deutsche Oper’s Parsifal. The production set out to antagonise from the Prelude with a vivid reproduction of the crucifixion complete with a laughing Kundry in what looked like a Hollywood sound stage. Anachronisms together with odd scenic choices made for an unsatisfactory time. However, the singing and in particular the playing from the pit under Donald Runnicles was just divine. And we got to experience a Parsifal on Good Friday – that’s special. For my taste Victorian Opera’s Parsifal in February was far more enjoyable and the playing from the Australian Youth Orchestra under Richard Mills more than matched the Berliners. Humility, attention to ritual and modest means with superb musicianship went much further than a big budget mainstage production from a major company. Similarly Melbourne Opera’s Der fliegende Holländer was a surprise because of the fiery committed playing engendered by Anthony Negus whilst the Bayerische Staatsoper production, full of contradictions, was only saved for me by the star power of Bryn Terfel and Anja Kampe.

I am not advocating that we stop travelling overseas to see quality productions of Wagner. Rather we shouldn’t be surprised that our local artists can conjure with more modest means magical experiences that match and sometimes surpass what you can see on foreign stages. However, where else but in Leipzig can you lunch in the space where Goethe’s Mephistofeles first takes Faust on their travels (Auerbachs Keller*) and follow up with Götterdämmerung later that afternoon? Or dine at Berlin’s Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt* after a monumentalMeistersinger at the Staatsoper and have Siegfried Jerusalem, who just sang Zorn, being feted by a group of young fans a couple of tables away? Or have the privilege to see something like Die Edda at the Volksbühne, three and a half hours of magical superb theatre from the Schauspiel Hannover directed and conceived by a rising star Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson (from Iceland), bringing an insight to the Ring we had just concluded a few days before. Pre theatre dinner with friends for the Die Edda was at Cafe Sauers* opposite the theatre and afterwards crossed the street to the Volkscafe* for a debrief over drinks. Where else but in Berlin can you see, hear and wallow in the artistry of living legends of the stage – the meisters in the Meistersingers included the 95 year old Franz Mazura (in his final appearance on stage). Whilst Robert Wilson’s Dreigroschenoper was a star studded affair (we concluded the luxury of that performance with a fine dinner at Ganymed Brasserie* around the corner from the Berliner Ensemble).

It was a privilege and very rewarding to experience all that. To meet members of the Wagner Society in Leipzig and Andy Rombakis of the Northern California Chapter at the Amsterdam Tannhäuser. 12 productions in three months. Done. 2020 was going to be a more modest and spread out 11 productions including the Chicago and Brisbane Rings and the beginnings of a new cycle in Melbourne under Anthony Negus. Alas Covid-19 smashed that plan. The recent spike of Covid cases in Brisbane will put Queensland Opera’s Tristan und Isolde on ice. Hopefully the current pandemic crisis will abate and life will normalise, as best it can, so that once again we can go to the theatre and companies plan, rehearse and present work. I am already plotting a Wagner feast for 2021 and even 2022. See you at the theatre.

*The subject and enjoyment of food and drink after attending the theatre is something I would like to encourage our members to write in to share their experiences. We have mentioned some iconic establishments in this article and in future Quarterlies we may expand on this as a regular culinary/gastronomic aside to all things Wagner/theatrical.

[From the December 2020 Quarterly]