Review: Travelling North: Succumbing to the Lure of the Rhinemaidens, 2012

Das Rheingold, Queensland 2012

By Katie French
Beguiled yet again by the promised charms of Wagner’s Rhinemaidens, and with the additional prospect of being seduced once more by the spell of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hamburg State Opera ensemble conducted by Simone Young in concert performances of Das Rheingold, hundreds of Sydneysiders, and many from nether regions even further south, flocked to summery Brisbane in late August for a ‘long weekend’ of superlative performances, and a most stimulating Symposium on that fascinating Prologueto the Ring. There we were, like elegantly black-clad wildebeest, migrating over the Brisbane River and herding down Southbank with just one thing in mind – Simone’s concerts at QPAC.

These two concert performances bookended value- packed opportunities in Brisbane, including a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition of paintings from Madrid’s Prado Museum, and a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2, Resurrection.

Additionally, and of particular relevance to lovers of Wagner’s music, the Wagner Society in Queensland, in co-operation with the Queensland Conservatorium, presented a full-day Symposium focussing on Das Rheingold. This was a significant opportunity, considering that in Simone Young’s own words, the Prologue is considered the ‘unloved’ Ring opera, being thought to be ‘too dull and too long.’ Both the concert performances and the Symposium itself proved it to be otherwise.

Peter Bassett, as Symposium Co-ordinator, drew together a range of fascinating speakers and performers. In his own presentation, What Price Love? Wagner’s Ideas at the heart of Das Rheingold, Peter outlined that this was more than a myth: this was a cosmic morality play, an allegory of politics and power, of love and vengeance, of great ideas concerning humanity - all motivated by Wagner’s own politics. Swept up in the reform movements sweeping through Europe focussed on the self-interests of the state, the subversive power of the propertied classes, the rise of capitalism, and the often devastating effects of the industrial revolution, Wagner highlights the lust for wealth and power at the expense of all else, including the renunciation of love.

As the backdrop to his presentation, Peter included various images of the Industrial Revolution which had been depicted in the Opening Ceremony of the recent London Olympic Games. With their smoggy atmosphere highlighting the polluted mines and factories of the nineteenth century industrial cities, they were wonderfully evocative of the authoritarian state committing crimes against Nature, and captured so aptly the slaving dwarfs in Nibelheim, their ‘home of mist’. Equally evocative was Peter’s outlining of the plot as an extended metaphor for George Orwell’s 1984, the tyrannical Alberich, the epitome of that novel’s terrifying Big Brother.

In preparation for Simone Young’s speaking to the audience of the Symposium, we then viewed excerpts from a documentary, Simone Young: Die Dirigentin, by German film-maker, Ralf Pleger. And what an insight it provided into the impact this talented Australian has had, and not just in Hamburg! It included an unforgettable briefing of the press, her first after her appointment in 2005 as Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Hamburg State Opera, and the Hamburg Philharmonic. She sat confidently behind a desk, and then in German stated, ‘We’re going to push our sleeves up and get down to business’, and then she pushed up the sleeves of her suit, and showed them all what she meant by ‘meaning business’. It was masterful! And they sat, stunned.

Then, for almost an hour, it was ‘Simone and the Audience’. In what proved to be virtually a Masterclass for participants, the renowned Wagner interpreter took to the keyboard and proceeded to show why those who were dismissive of Das Rheingold were wrong. A wonderful communicator, both verbally and at the keyboard, her fingers rippled effortlessly across the board whilst she gave us a lesson on why she sees Wagner as, (dare we say it?) ‘a musical genius.’ In doing so, she demonstrated early modal systems up to Monteverdi, outlined with multiple examples, the tonic dominant system, and then showed how Wagner, with that notorious ‘Tristan chord’, left audiences dangling with no means of anticipating where to go: and from there on we were literally in his hands. Importantly, she emphasised how Wagner usedRheingold to ‘set up’ so much of what follows – the leitmotifs for example, and the significance of certain instruments, particularly the brass, and those Wagner tubas, which she emphasised, provided ‘the colour’ of the entire Ring. It was dazzling stuff.

There was also charming ‘chatty’ gossip about the careers of her singers since many of us had seen them performing in her Ring in Hamburg, and straight ‘organisational’ stuff, like how she had not wanted the singers in the concert performance to sit ‘like ducks in a row’, but to enter and exit when appropriate, to stand, and be able to move, virtually ‘in role’ (which was just loved by audience members on both nights).

There were also insights into the cultural differences between conducting her orchestra in Hamburg, and conducting Australian orchestras, on the different levels of professionalism, on expectations of formality, on the German striving for perfect performances, as opposed to the Aussie attitudes of ‘the show must go on’.

Dr Graham Bruce’s following presentation, The Birth of Film out of the Spirit of Music: the Cinematic in Das Rheingold, highlighted how and why the Ring can be such a success in the cinema. Graham showed how Wagner’s written ‘instructions’ for performance read like a modern Film Director’s notes on stage  direction. And Wagner then proceeded to transfer these directions into music.

Wagner prided himself on his ‘transmutations’, on his ability to depict musically, location changes such as the movement from the bed of the Rhine to the bed of the Gods, or the trek from Nibelheim back to the world of the Gods. And we saw wonderful film depictions of such ‘transmutations’.

Also highlighted was the power of Wagner’s musical metaphors, his musical imagery which could see transitions from the Ring motif into the Valhalla motif, from major key to minor, used like a film editing technique – like a ‘dissolve.’

Another dedicated Wagner enthusiast, Dr Stephen Emmerson from the Conservatorium, was also determined, like Simone Young, to highlight that Das Rheingold was not just a prologue to the Ring. In A Most Original Mind – the Convergence of theory and practice in Das Rheingold,he outlined how, in the five years between Lohengrin andDas Rheingold, Wagner had churned out over fifty (‘largely unreadable’) essays as a means of clarifying his musical ideas and their political motivation. Loathing the ‘decadent triviality,’ the ‘entertainment’ quality of French and Italian operas, he wanted his art form to say something important to society. Wagner also wanted to break away from the traditional ways of ‘saying’ things. He saw his libretto as poetry, and wanted to break away from the usual iambic pentameter, which he called ‘five-footed monsters’, and to create a new rhyme scheme. He formulated what was called Stabreim with its internal alliterative qualities and free rhythm, which permitted a freer, declamatory style. Such clarification of ideas saw the radical differences audiences now see and hear between Lohengrin and Das Rheingold. Not just a Prologue after all, it seems!

It was a relief to return to earth with the very grounded and practical Lisa Gasteen, now Professor of Opera at the Queensland Conservatorium, who took us through the nuts and bolts of it all in her conversation, Preparing Major Wagnerian Roles. Oh dear: who’d want to be Brünnhilde? Birgit Nilsson felt a pair of comfortable shoes did the trick. However, it seems ‘monster works’ require a lot of time to prepare, and the ability to dissect those works into practical ‘clumps’. For an Australian, in particular, an expert in diction is vital to transform the language (and breathing) into ‘Wagner Deutsch’ (which, it seems, in no way resembles German), and not to destroy the vocal line! Stamina, which is a given, comes from confidence in one’s good preparation, but vital is a ‘thick skin’. (Just imagine preparing in front of a panel of at least twenty ‘experts’ – the director, the conductor, the movement specialist, wardrobe, and their assistants, often a film crew, and patrons being given an insight – all offering ‘criticism’, en masse.)

Her major dislike? Directors of Regietheater, who play ‘designer tricks’ on singers, such as a high gloss black stage (which forces singers to move ‘blind’ against reflection), a highly raked stage (which make movement difficult, and causes physical agony), and requiring artists to ‘perform silly Regie stuff’ when they are singing really difficult, big, philosophical roles. A major problem? With her success in Wagnerian roles came ‘type-casting’: she was refused the roles she really wanted to sing.

Earlier, we had heard students of the Conservatorium sing Seven Pieces for Goethe’s Faust, written in 1831 by a young Richard Wagner. One can only hope that those students stayed to hear what it really means to have a career in opera. One might also hope that they are fortunate enough to be selected for the Lisa Gasteen National Opera School, where, with the assistance of internationally renowned experts, including Siegfried Jerusalem, students are provided with both coaching, and practical tools for handling the nuts and bolts of their own future opera careers.

All of the ‘Hamburg in Brisbane’ activities had been brought together by ‘Entrepreneur Extraordinaire,’ Leo Schofield, who beamed like a Cheshire cat over the entire proceedings. And why not? He also presided over the Forum which brought the Symposium to a resounding conclusion. The panel, consisting of Professor Emeritus Colin Mackerras AO from Griffith University, Dr Robert Gibson, Dr Graham Bruce and Victoria Watson, fielded a range of intriguing questions. Was the Cult of the Director over? No, because of the limitless possibilities in Wagner’s music; because such Directors can draw startling performances out of singers; because today’s technological developments open the doors to interpretations so radically different.

All went swimmingly until the panel faced the question about whether Opera Australia should get over complaining about costs, and the inadequacy of the facilities at the Opera House, and just get on with putting on concert performances of Wagner, of which we had just witnessed the most splendid example! Victoria Watson offered the somewhat defensive response that opera companies should do what they are there for: present opera as it should be, the Gesamtkunstwerk – a most purist, protectionist response! (A somewhat ‘precious’ response one might also have thought, in a season where OA had just ‘floated’La traviata on the Harbour, and delivered South Pacific, a ‘miked’ Broadway musical masquerading as an opera.)

Then came the moment Symposium participants yearn for: Leo Schofield delivering the proverbial broadside. Arts organisations were ‘petty and bitchy’ he bellowed. Their ‘lack of collegiality’ and ‘guarding their own patch’ were the reasons there was no money for the arts! They were divisive, not supportive of each other. So, SSO is presenting a concert performance of The Flying Dutchmanin its 2013 Season. Get over competing: disrupt people’s expectations!

It was wonderful, because it was heartfelt, and spoken by the voice of extensive experience. And a good time was had by all: and what a coup for the Symposium organisers.

So, what about the Concert Performances of Das Rheingold,which were the main reasons for our being there? 

‘Splendid’ and ‘magnificent’ were the words on everyone’s lips. Has anyone ever been to a Wagner ‘opera’ production where the reaction has been so positive? Uncluttered by Designers and Costume and Production, this wonderful concert performance permitted the audience to focus on the singers, and the magical music.

What amazingly nuanced performances they were, both musically and physically. Powerful in both voice and stature, Falk Struckmann’s Wotan was a perfect foil, whilst at the same time being cunningly complicit, with the capriciously suave, mercurial Loge, in the form of Jurgen Sacher. Hayoung Lee was as delicious a pre- pubescent Rhinemaiden as she had been in Hamburg, so controversially making a jumping-castle of her bed! And members of the Wagner Society in NSW should feel very proud to be sponsoring Deborah Humble in the Ring in Melbourne in 2013. She has developed the most elegant gravitas in her portrayal of Erda. The delightful aspect of all the performances was the manner in which the singers ‘were’ the characters; just a split second before they sang, seemingly alchemically, they became the person they portrayed.

And just as magically, Simone Young and the Hamburg Philharmonic conveyed us through a whirlwind of emotions, through a range of environments, swirled us headlong through that two hours and forty-five minutes, while time just stood still. When it concluded, members of the audience drew breath, and then leapt spontaneously out of their seats. This was no fashionable response: this was an irresistible urge to get up and cheer. We had experienced something very special indeed.

In the same week as this excitement, the SSO launched its 2013 Season, which includes a number of Wagner highlights celebrating the Wagner Bicentenary, especially the concert performance of The flying Dutchman, andThe Ring – An Orchestral Adventure. Hoorah for the SSO! Opera Australia also announced its Season. There were red-tabbed pages of fabulous photographs announcing all the operas included in the ‘Verdi Festival’, but only a paragraph in the introduction on the presentation of theRing Cycle in Melbourne. How disappointing. There was nothing fabulously pictorial to be seen! Where was the excitement and eager anticipation?

It was also the week when Tourism Research Australia submitted its report on the impact of Major Blockbuster Events (in the ACT). The Report quantified how cities presenting remarkable, world-class events, such as we had just experienced in Brisbane, attract visitors from all parts of Australia. (SMH p12, Wed, 22/8/2012.) Maybe, as Leo Schofield suggests, if only these two arts organisations could show more ‘collegiality,’ lovers of Wagner’s operas from all around the country might flock to Sydney, as we had to Brisbane, to experience equally outstanding concert performances of those major works.