By Terence Watson
All 13 of Wagner’s artworks, counting each of The Ring Cycle works individually, are rarely performed together; most Wagner festivals perform the 10 works that Wagner considered his canon: he relegated the earlier works to the status of juvenilia. The program notes for Die Feen, the first completed opera, helpfully informed the audience that the world premiere of the opera was part of a full season of Wagner’s artworks in 1888 at the Royal Opera House Munich. The opera was again performed as part of a “Wagner cycle” in Prague in 1893, as part of the celebrations for what would have been his 80th birthday, and commemorating 10 years since his death. The next performance of the full set of operas was in Leipzig’s Neue Theatre in early to mid-1938, the 125th anniversary of his birth. On the 100th anniversary of Wagner’s death in 1983, the Bavarian Opera in Munich presented the full set.
At the time of writing this overview, the details of the casts, creative teams, and many images of the productions are still available on Oper Leipzig’s website: www.oper- leipzig.de/de/programm/20-06-2022/oper. If you just do a web search, the best way into the details is to pretend to buy a ticket to the operas you’re interested in. Directors: Renaud Doucet—Die Feen; Aron Stiehl—Das Liebesverbot; Nicolas Joel—Rienzi; Michiel Dijkema—Der fliegende Holländer; Calixto Bieto—Tannhäuser; Patrick Bialdyga— Lohengrin; Enrico Lübbe and Torsten Buß—Tristan und Isolde; David Pountney— Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; Rosamund Gilmore—The Ring Cycle; and Roland Aeschlimann— Parsifal.
Seeing again the production of Die Feen I had seen in 2013, reminded me of the benefits of having an opera house with modern staging equipment. Many of these productions used the revolve stage frequently and, in some case, had the revolve separate into sections that could move up and down independently, giving the Directors much scope in the scenic images they could create. For instance, the set is multi-level and multi-modular with a huge façade of the modern apartment block (typical of the modern-historical look of parts of Leipzig) with a cut-away at stage level so we can see inside Arindal’s apartment where he is apparently living with a contemporary wife (who may or may not be a hallucination of his or a memory of his fairy wife!!). Part way through the very melodious overture the windows of the building’s façade light up and we see the fairy kingdom behind. Later in the first act, when the action moves to fairy land the entire 30 metre or so high façade flies up and we see fairy land in all its Munchkinland prettiness with the fairies (male and female) in costumes from about the 1840s, when the opera was composed—and first staged in Magdeburg—and set in a lovely forest glade with a huge tree in the centre. A little later, the scene changes to the fairy queen’s or Arindal’s palace (since they are both royals) depending on the action. Again, this achieved elegantly and efficiently with parts of the sets flying up and new bits replacing them. At times there are elements of the three major sets evident, giving us a sense of all these times and locations co-existing in the “modern” Arindal’s mind.
From here onwards, the scenes more or less alternate between contemporary and fairy/palace settings, depending on the course of the rather complicated plot that has elements of later operas already very evident (along with musical phrases and melodies that pre-figure later motifs). We later discovered a short documentary about the production in which the Director and set designer explained that they had conceived the production to take full advantage of the size of the Leipzig stage and the immense range of machinery and technical effects to give body to their vision of the opera. The opera concluded with a huge reconciliation scene culminating in Wagner himself, carrying a copy of the score, being lowered from the skies by a huge butterfly into the joyful throng!
Das Liebesverbot – The Ban on Love, very loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, this work that is hard to take seriously on any level as it stands. Wagner called it a “Grand Komisches Oper,” but it is hard to tell whether this later comment is to be taken seriously or ironically—probably the latter, as he distanced himself from many aspects of his early life. It seems that the Director was also of the view that it should not / cannot be taken seriously, since he chose to treat it largely as a mixture of Singspiel (like aspects of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte), Viennese operetta, and Dario Fo style farce, with the heroine Isabella and some other characters breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience. The program notes attempt to make a case for Wagner having a serious political motive in writing the text, but this production clearly makes the point that this is the work of a young man (about 22 yo) giving a finger to the establishment, with little interest in a political ideology.
The work opens with a crowd of Carnival revellers in Palermo, dressed as rather 60ish countercultural hippies, dressed in a wide-range of non-conventional dress, including 18th century French court attire, the familiar leopard skin patterned dresses, nearly nothing loincloths, flowery headdresses, etc – very colourful, and the cast looked as if they were having fun dressing up like this. Rather more 2000s gender-bent and diverse than 60s hippies. Most of the chorus looked as if they were cross-dressed, and some of the main characters cross-dressed for the final scene that takes place on Carnival night. There was one striking looking young woman in the chorus who had one line in Act 1 that she delivered in a fine, ringing baritone, which gave me a frisson of surprise
The set for Rienzi was composed of a basic grey 3-sided square with a very large revolve; the props consisted of such things as a number of unpadded wooden chairs in two lines (forming a V upstage) for a council meeting, or a series of small models (about chest height) of various Roman buildings of the time of Rienzi. Some of the short scenes (Wagner was still caught up in the French Grand Opera pattern of multi-scenes in a complicated narrative with many sub-plots) were played in front of a non-descript front wall. The opera ends with a battle between the Rienzi-supporters (the people) and the two noble families united for the time being against Rienzi in which Rome burns (foreshadowing the end of Götterdämmerung). In this production, the model of the Senate building bursts into flames, and a single representative of the noble families machine-guns Rienzi and the people to death. The production was set in some vaguely contemporary period with the noble families looking and acting like Mafiosi, although Rienzi, for much of the time, especially in his more megalomaniacal moments, dresses in Roman toga and breastplate.
Der fliegende Holländer
The production of Der fliegende Holländer was generally a hoot, which is not something one can often say about a Wagner opera. It was also, again, technically amazing, as they demonstrated what the stage is capable of doing. The revolve, I’ve mentioned before, now appeared with the central section a big hole representing the hold of the ship, and the two outer thirds the fore and aft of the deck – AND they rose up and down to represent the surging of the storm! Otherwise, the set was relatively simple, with rolled up rigging spars rising and falling at different times. The Director had chosen to emphasise the difference between the version of the legend reported by a character in one of Heinrich Heine stories and Wagner’s version. Heine’s 1835 unfinished novel Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski (“From the Memoirs of Herr Schnabelewopski”), contains an episode where the narrator is watching a performance of a play about the Dutchman in theatre in Amsterdam, but is interrupted by a flirtatious Dutch woman with whom he leaves the theatre for a private room where they “kiss” a lot. Once satiated, he returns to the theatre to watch the final resolution of the story as Senta kills herself to save the Dutchman’s soul. The narrator moralises: “...women should never marry a Flying Dutchman, while we men may learn from the play that one can, through women, meet one’s downfall and perish—under favourable circumstances.” Quotations from the story are projected onto large screens over the stage at appropriate moments in the opera. The primary effect is, for me, to show how seriously Wagner took himself and the story.
The Director, though, seems to have sided with Heine because he injected lots of real, as opposed to fantasy, elements into the production. The sailors are all very credible, with them being very boyo at times, with some shaping up for a half-serious brawl, and drinking lots. At another point, the Steersman and his girlfriend are going for it on the bare stage when his sailor mates and their partners creep up on them and then burst out into the final sailor’s merrymaking chorus. The Steersman did a very credible job of leaping up in fright in flagrante delicto.
The first appearance of the Dutchman, Thomas J Mayer, was very surprising and credible. Since there is a reference in the text to his failed attempts to drown himself in the sea, which spits him out each time, the Director had him sprawled on a beach with 3 model whales around him. To make the point clear, he also had a sketch of beached whales somewhere in Holland from around the time of the legend. This Dutchman is still dressed in 16th century clothing, while the rest of the cast is dressed in costumes of around the time Wagner composed the opera, 1837-39.
The finale, where Senta is supposed to throw herself into the sea to follow the Dutchman and prove her worth to him and God, was also a satisfying surprise. Here, Senta climbs on one of the furled sail spars and is lifted into the flies, the shadow of a body then falls back down, another screen is lifted up and Senta’s body is lying on the stage. We assumed that the person taking the sail lift up was a double. Just as we worked that out, at another climax, the figure we assumed was the Dutchman at front stage centre, collapsed – an empty suit of clothing, so he was gone too—to heaven with Senta, we are to assume. Then there was the coup de théâtre of the production—the appearance of the ship and the Dutchman’s crew!!
The front of the ship not only came out over the first 7 or 8 rows, but also moved sideways over the audience. It was one of the most memorable stage images I’ve seen in a long time, and I felt a real surge of joy and delight at it. This is what live theatre can do, with a decent sized stage and modern machinery. Come on Sydney!!!!!
If Dutchman was taking some of the mickey out of Wagner, Calixto Bieito’s production of Tannhäuser took a strong naturalistic view of the work. This shouldn’t have been surprising as Robert and I had seen his very brutal interpretation of Der fliegende Holländer in Stuttgart in 2013 in which Senta is shown as a young woman so trapped in a stultifying village with a mercenary father and controlling boyfriend that she takes to writing "Rette mich" (Rescue me) on the set! The opening scene and the Bacchanale featured the wonderful mezzo Kathrin Göring as Venus, but sadly she is not a dancer. She had to carry the whole overture and Bacchanale herself, as she cavorted and gambled among the foliage dangling into the grotto to which she has been banished by the Christian Fathers. So, for some 20 minutes she “danced,” but, I suspect, was just asked to improvise. The Bacchanale climaxed with her masturbating herself on various dangly bits of foliage, perhaps as she dreamed of the halcyon days of pleasure on Mt Olympus.
Andreas Schager, a very fine heldentenor, appeared as a very modern minstrel in green fatigues. Rather, unbelievably, he claimed that he was tired of making love to the gorgeous Kathrin (sorry, Venus) and wanted to go home! When he is released into the meadow scene, he is greeted by yet another group of boyos, this time his noble singing mates who seem to be wandering aimlessly around the countryside, rather than having a civilised picnic. After some roughhousing among the boyos, they engage in a bizarre hazing ritual of smearing blood over each other’s bare torsos, which seemed to suggest some not very deeply buried homo-eroticism.
On a very sparse set for Act 2, consisting of columns that suggested the outside of some nameless, characterless business or government office, Elisabeth sang a very convincing “Dich teure Halle” to the hall in which the singing contest had been held until Tannhäuser disappeared.
Act 3 shows not only Elisabeth, but also Wolfram, and then Tannhäuser descending into madness in scenes of great naturalism, and hence quite un-Wagnerian in their brutality and honesty (see below).
I was anticipating this production of Lohengrin because I had heard Klaus Florian Vogt in this role in Bayreuth. His voice seemed magical—light and supple when he was being intimate or quiet, but powerful and rich when needed. And he could act. Fortunately, though he has aged quite a bit, his voice, though a little darker, can still produce those light, floating moments. His Elsa was Simone Schneider, who sang and acted very well her role as another immature girl under great social and personal pressure.
The set is effectively a bare stage with pillared walls on 3 sides, suggesting the interior of a rather drab castle, and 3 large tables. At the start of Act 1 they are end to end across the stage, but in later scenes they are moved about in various combinations, until they are placed side by side to form the bridal bed—no wonder they couldn’t consummate! Elsa spends quite a bit of time under the main table in Act 1, perhaps to suggest her very young age, and her sense of being out of her depth in front of the King. King Heinrich was sung by another blond, blue-eyed hunk Günther Groissböck who I first saw in this role in Bayreuth in a dreadful production. Why oh why was Telramund blind in this production? The answer could be that he is metaphorically blind to Ortrud’s manipulation of him, but that is blindingly obvious anyway! Interestingly, this production gave the Herald, usually just a walk on, deliver, walk off role, by making him Ortrud’s sex/love interest. Their affair could be carried on pretty much under Telramund’s nose, or in front of his blind eyes!, without discovery.
At the end of the wedding scenes, Ortrud arrives to push her one last time to put the question to Lohengrin, and then she beats Elsa with her own bouquet—very rude. Finally, Lohengrin and Elsa are alone in the bedroom with the 3 tabled bed, now strewn with petals. Although not as overtly political as the Tannhäuser production, this version of Lohengrin also suggested some feminist, and even broader social, ideas about the wisdom of betrothing women when they are too young to strangers who turn up and, on the spot, declare that they love them. On the other hand, this relatively straightforward production allowed us to focus on the singing, acting, and orchestral playing.
Tristan und Isolde
The set for this production of Tristan und Isolde was the most complicated and weird set we’d seen so far. It reminded me of the castle Gormenghast with its derelict brokenness. The Act 1 set suggested the wreck of the ship on which Isolde, Brangäne, Tristan, Kurnewal and the crew are sailing to Cornwall. I felt for the OHS risks of the cast who had to clamber over broken stairs, through broken doors, etc all while the set was on about a 1:10 slope from stage left rear to stage right front. This set also revolved, so that the “stateroom” (which was in a state of decay) moved to show Tristan in his cabin, then back again. The inner proscenium had thin fluorescent tubes lining it, including across the stage floor, to form a frame of light, but looking at the stage caused us a little eye pain. In keeping with the possible feminist theme running through the productions, Tristan keeps Isolde waiting after she, his superior, has summoned him to her stateroom. More pointedly, while Isolde’s maid Brangäne is delivering the summons to Tristan, his crew crowd around Brangäne leering at her and trying to grope her, causing her great distress. I’ve not seen anything like this awareness of female servants’ vulnerability to assault and abuse in any other productions.
In Act 2, in the inner courtyard of King Marke’s castle, there were again staircases, partial walls and doors that looked as if they had been bombed out or gone to wrack and ruin because Marke couldn’t afford the upkeep. As Tristan sings his hallucination, he begins stepping over the fluorescent tube on the stage onto an apron of the stage, then back into the set proper. I hazard a guess that this is supposed to represent Tristan entering his transcendental world and moving back to “reality.” The separation is reinforced by the, to me, strange lowering and raising of a scrim to, I guess again, further separate Tristan from the “real” world inside. It is from the apron side that he asks Isolde if she will follow him to the world of night, so perhaps she understands that he means for her to leave the “real” world with him. She then steps onto the apron, while two beautiful young actors mimic them inside the now very dark set. I take it that these are the schöne Seelen, beautiful souls, of the lovers, but I couldn’t work out what they added to the production, except to give us aesthetic pleasure not greatly in evidence in Andreas Schager and Catherine Forster, but perhaps I’m too harsh?
Act 3 is set in Tristan’s castle in Kareol and it also looks as if it has seen better days long ago. It too consists of broken walls, stairs, doors, and Tristan, for some reason seems to be unconscious as he sits outside in an uncomfortable armchair in a snowstorm with no greatcoat or other protection. I guess, in that castle in that state of decay, there’s probably nowhere dry and comfortable to lie dying! As he waits for Isolde to arrive by ship from Cornwall, he hallucinates again and this time 7 young maidens appear, all dressed to look like a much younger, more nubile version of Isolde—I couldn’t blame him for his fantasy! She finally arrives so he can die in her arms. Tristan then walks (dead or alive, I’m not sure, perhaps we are to take this as his spiritual body) over the fluorescent tubes on the apron, while Isolde begins her Verklärung. She then joins him for the climax of her paean to her now dead lover, but is she also now dead, since she’s standing on the apron? The scrim has also descended again, and the set is dark. However, as we hear the dying bars of the finale, the scrim rises, and they walk hand in hand into the now partially lit set to disappear somewhere in stage rear. Now, I tried hard to understand quite which realm they were inhabiting as their supposed spirits were now walking through the “real” world. I assume that practicality triumphed over logic and symbolism so that we didn’t have Tristan and Isolde standing on the apron when the music ended, and the house lights came up.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Sunday evening was the performance of what used to be my 2nd least favourite Wagner opera after Tannhäuser, until Donald McIntyre in the German bicentennial gift of a production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, showed me that it was indeed a serious artwork. This night’s performance couldn’t have been more different from just about all the other performances I’ve seen. It was light-hearted, joyous, funny, moving, and serious in a very simple production that focused on people’s interactions— another of the common themes of these Leipzig productions. I found myself crying with pleasure and anticipation when the golden-haired, blue-eyed Walther sang the first hints of his Prize song. The singer Magnus Vigilius also appeared very young in his tight hipster jeans, slimline shirt and jacket—all in white, but I suspect from his voice that he was a bit older. However, his appearance pointed toward the more or less contemporary take of the Director, with Eva Pogner sung by Elisabet Strid (for her third major role in just over a week!).
Hans Sachs was the English James Rutherford, about whom I knew nothing, but according to his bio in the program, he had sung this role and many other Wagner roles, including Wotan, many times. He looks like a big, cuddly teddy bear, so I immediately warmed to him, and his interpretation of the role just added to the joy of watching him sing and act. The Sextus Beckmesser Mathias Hausmann we had also seen a few times already, but I wasn’t prepared for his presentation of the rather nasty character who is often taken to be a Jewish caricature (of a Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who became a critic of Wagner), with the singers often affecting a nasal whine, presumed to represent Jewish cantorial singing style. Hausmann, fortunately, sang with his full, rich tenor voice, while dressed in a drab, black official garment, which contrasted dramatically with the full mediaeval splendour of the Mastersingers’ costume, carefully based on drawings and paintings from the 16th century. Despite Hausmann’s singing, the character comes across as spiteful and pedantic, something of a blight on the traditions of openness and camaraderie of the Mastersingers, who claim to welcome everyone, regardless of class (but not gender or sexuality or colour, of course), to try out for membership by singing a great song.
The set was remarkably simple. A huge amphitheatre dominated the back 2/3rds of the set. On the small space stage front centre is a small reproduction of the town itself. Again, some of the cast face OHS problems in wending their way through that set, as if they were giant figures from Nuremberg’s mythological past. Some parts of the set are taken apart and form seats that are placed on some of the steps of the amphitheatre for the Mastersingers to sit on. Other parts of the set are sat on by other characters during the first 2 acts. Act 3 opens with a new set. On the site of the small town set is now a small room representing Sachs’s cobbling workroom. In this room happens Walther’s dream song, Sachs’s writing it down, and Beckmesser’s appropriation of the text.
When the song competition is due to start, the room simply sinks into the floor and another section of set descends from the flies to form the podium on which the competition is to be held. On top of the podium is a model of a building I don’t recognise as from Nuremberg. More wonders of the Leipzig opera house technical possibilities. The townspeople assemble on the steps of the amphitheatre. The various guild members dance and sing their way onto the stage and then the steps, with all of them having a jolly good time as they advance the claims of cobblers, bakers, and tailors to having the most heroic and important role in Nuremberg’s fabled history.
By this time, I was snuffling quietly into my mask at the sheer joy in this finale and Vigilius’s impressive delivery of the final version of the Prize song, despite the dubious ethics with which Wagner handles the character of Beckmesser, and the puzzlement about Eva’s behaviour. Overall, I felt this to be one of the most humane and direct productions I’ve seen. Robert and I agreed that we would be very happy to sit through this production again.
From Wagner Quarterly 166, September 2022
To be continued in March 2023 Quarterly