By Terry and Julie Clarke
Over 24 days from the third week in June there occurred a unique experience for lovers of Wagner’s music. For the first time in known memory an opera company performed all the operas completed by Richard Wagner in chronological order of performance. This magnificent achievement was produced by the Leipzig Oper under the direction and inspiration of their chief conductor Ulf Schirmer. We were fortunate enough to attend all the performances being part of a group organised by Hayllar Tours. This was exceptionally well organised and enhanced by the lectures delivered before each performance by Heath Lees, a most eminent Wagnerian scholar.
This extravaganza opened with Die Feen, Wagner’s grand opera in the French style with a strange mish-mash of ideas; a woman half mortal, half fairy in love with a mortal, a ‘do not ask my name or a curse will happen’, a mad scene and a happy ending out of nowhere. Nonetheless, there were some jolly tunes and the production itself was clever and lavish. Sadly, Covid laid its ugly hand on this performance and both the principals and the conductor had to be replaced that day. Fortunately, the New Zealand soprano, Kirstin Sharpin, lives in Berlin, knew the part although not the production, so she raced to Leipzig and was superb at such short notice. Sadly, for her, she tested positive for Covid two days afterwards having escaped the virus for the last two years. (Kirstin sang Fidelio for Melbourne Opera in 2020).
Covid struck again the next night for Das Liebesverbot. This time we were informed that twenty-one members of the chorus were unable to perform but at least the principals were fit. In the event they put on a vigorous performance of this piece with lots of choruses, carnivals, cross-dressing and Donizetti-like duets. At the age of 22, Wagner’s dabble into comedy.
Two days later we had Rienzi, a definite change of the Wagner composing style. Stefan Vinke, a familiar singer in Australia, sang the title role with his customary vigour. The costumes were largely tailcoats for the men and 30’s dresses for the female chorus with a few nuns and drab workers. There was a revolving stage and models of Roman buildings which caught fire at the end.
The opera we most enjoyed came next. A superb rendering of Der fliegende Holländer which could not be faulted for quality of the singing and direction of the drama. Elisabet Strid, who played a number of major roles during the festival, was outstanding as Senta and Thomas J. Mayer was fine as the Dutchman. At one moment the Dutchman’s ship complete with red sails emerged above the orchestra and over our heads in the front rows of the stalls. A stunning effect.
After four operas which were straight productions, we finally had a shocker - Tannhäuser. The director, Calixto Bieito, is well known as an enfant terrible of the opera world with a penchant for orgiastic scenes in the simplest of operas. In this instance he completely ignored the Venusberg orgy opting for Venus, Kathrin Goering, to wander dancing through a leafy forest. The first act ended with the Tannhäuser and the knights stripping off and smearing themselves with blood. There was plenty of applause for the singers and orchestra but little enthusiasm for this dire production.
Katarina Wagner was supposed to be the director for Lohengrin but she had pulled out quite late so the production was the responsibility of the house director. The presiding personality of this production was Ortrud who loomed menacingly over the whole set-up and at one point had sexual relations with the Herald. Telramund was played as a blind man and Elsa spent much of her time under a table. Klaus Florian Vogt arrived in a tracksuit with a swan in a plastic bubble. He sang reliably.
Tristan und Isolde. Our Isolde called in sick at the last moment and, to our joy, was replaced by Catherine Foster who arrived in haste from Bayreuth rehearsals. She was in superb voice and significantly helped out her Tristan, Andreas Schager, when he lost his way during the second act duet. René Pape was luxury casting as King Marke, and the final Liebestod was especially moving.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was another fine performance. The director, David Pountney, had covered the stage with models of old Nuremberg which the poor singers had to negotiate with some care. Nonetheless James Rutherford was a commanding Hans Sachs and the ever-present Elisabet Strid was a fine Eva. Kathrin Goering, as Magdalene, deserves special mention. The finale presented an unusual approach. After Walter had rejected the offer to join the Meistersingers, he was given the usual talking to by Sachs, whereupon he quickly turned round and started to embrace the masters. Seeing this Eva began to walk up stage to the top and as Walther engaged more and more with the masters, she finally ran off the stage in her wedding dress as it became clear that he had become one of the old men himself and embraced the guild rather than go with her. The patriarchy won out.
The Ring was performed on four consecutive nights which meant that we had two Wotans, three Brünnhildes and two Siegfrieds. The performances were relatively straightforward although a troupe of ten dancers in unisex, grey body socks who writhed around the stage causing a distraction and very little benefit. Lise Lindstrom and Stefan Vinke were superb in Götterdämmerung.
Finally, Parsifal. Sadly, this whole performance was conducted behind a scrim which always seems to distance the action from the audience, so much so that one hardly noticed there was no swan. The singing of René Pape as Gurnemanz and the Parsifal of Andreas Schager was very fine.
We were treated to a talk with Heath Lees and Kirstin Sharpin after she recovered from Covid and a party after Götterdämmerung with Stefan Vinke and Lise Lindstrom.
It really was a unique experience to see the whole set of operas and great credit is due to the staff of the Leipzig Oper for this massive undertaking. The Gewandhaus Orchestra played superbly throughout, and Ulf Schirmer, the retiring musical director, conducted most of the performances superbly. We consider ourselves very fortunate to have been present at this once in a lifetime festival.