The great German director Götz Friedrich asserted that the action of Richard Wagner’s Ring takes place not in thirteenth-century Scandinavia nor in nineteenth-century Germany, but here and now in whichever theatre we are currently located. What he was producing was Welttheater, a piece of theatre which holds up a mirror to the world: ‘Every artistic realization must establish its “today” and “here”, the better to understand the time span which Wagner projects from a mythical past through his own epoch and on into the distant future.’
Wagner, of course, remains controversial. He has received a bad press for nearly a century, with much fake news swirling around this complex figure, some of it originating in Wagner’s self-promotion; he was never reticent in embellishing his own legend. While his anti-Semitism is not in dispute – one of his most notorious essays is Das Judentum in Musik (Jewishness in Music, 1850/69) – the misuse of his music has been extensive, particularly during the Nazi era. There is an extensive critical industry surrounding Wagner, but perhaps one of the more nuanced views was advanced by Thomas Mann many years ago; Mann frequently acknowledged his own conflicted attitude to Wagner. With characteristic eloquence while in self-imposed exile from Germany in 1940, he described the Ring’s epic potential for good or evil:
I find an element of Nazism in his music, in his work ... though in a loftier sense – albeit I have so loved that work that even today I am deeply stirred whenever a few bars of music from this world impinge on my ear. The enthusiasm it engenders, the sense of grandeur that so often seizes us in its presence, can be compared only to the feelings excited in us by Nature at her noblest, by evening sunshine on mountain peaks, by the turmoil of the sea. Yet this must not make us forget that this work emerges from the bourgeois-humanist epoch in the same manner as does Hitlerism. With its Wagalaweia and its alliteration, its mixture of roots-in-the-soil and eyes-toward-the-future, its appeal for a classless society, its mythical-reactionary revolutionism – with all these, it is the exact spiritual forerunner of the ‘metapolitical’ movement today terrorizing the world.
Chen Shi-Zheng directed the celebrated epic Peony Pavilion (also known as Mǔdān tíng) of Tang Xianzu, dating from 1598, which achieved international renown in the 1990s. It lasted twenty hours, spread over three days of performance, and the English translation became known as the ‘Ming Ring’. Wagner’s Ring seems small scale in comparison! Chen also directed an acclaimed Turandot for Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on the Harbour in 2016. He insisted that a ‘Chinese Ring seemed kind of limiting … I didn’t want to have Chinese images and costumes, to simply transpose Wagner into China. I wanted to make it a Pacific Ring, and Asian Ring. It is not entirely West and it’s not entirely East. It’s a hybrid ... It doesn’t follow either cultural tradition. It’s more like a mosaic, and I feel people will find many things they like’.
It is fascinating to consider that Wagner left the Ring for twelve years, after completing the second act of Siegfried, to write what he first envisaged as two less demanding, more accessible works, but which turned into possibly the most revolutionary opera of the century: Tristan und Isolde (1865), followed by what he described as a comedy ‘full of melancholy’, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), the most controversial of all his works and regarded by some as his greatest. As he told Franz Liszt when he returned to the Ring in 1869: ‘I had led my young Siegfried into the beautiful forest solitude; there I have left him beneath a linden tree … he is better there than anywhere else. If I am ever to take up this work again, it must either be made easier for me, or else I myself must in the meantime make it possible to bestow this work on the world in the fullest sense of the word.’
The eponymous hero Siegfried is a fascinating, often infuriating character, and provides one of the most challenging roles in all opera. On stage for virtually the whole of the over four-hour work, he sings music of a wide range and variety, including a murderous forging song in Act One, as well as his constant bickering with Mime. He also has music of sublime beauty – the exquisite scene with the Woodbird in Act Two (sweetly sung by Celeste Lazarenko). In the final half hour of the opera, he finds Brünnhilde asleep on her mountain top, protected by the magic fire Wotan has set around her. This scene, as Brünnhilde awakens, rises to great intensity in some of the most lyrical and ecstatic music Wagner ever wrote. In purely practical terms, Siegfried, who has been singing and acting his heart out for nearly four hours, has to match the fresh-voiced Valkyrie, who can give it her all for this sublime half hour.
Stefan Vinke is one of the few tenors who sings this role all over the world on a regular basis and survives to tell the tale! The voice is robust and warm, with an attractive, ringing quality, and has an ease at the top which eludes many Wagner tenors. The opening of Siegfried saw Vinke and Andreas Conrad as Mime humorously sniping at each other – two quite different tenor voices, both at the top of their game. It is a masterclass in the singing of Wagner’s text. The stage revealed a large object downstage, as in Rheingold and Walküre; in this instance, a clump of fossilised tree stumps, which serves as a work bench for the forging of the sword. The scene has subdued lighting, no LED panels, and most of the action takes place around this object.
The Wanderer (Wotan) appears and displays a rather lighter side of his personality, having shed his elegant white and now dressed in a shiny black coat with hat at a rakish angle; he spars with Mime, who asks him three questions, then the sequence is reversed. Daniel Sumegi was in excellent voice, and the scene had much sardonic humour; Siegfried certainly has the most humour of the four Ring operas. The final part of the act is a relentless marathon for Siegfried as he forges the sword, but Vinke’s voice sailed effortlessly into the hall. As expected, the visual sword motif was prominent: a silver sword swirling on a blood-red background, displayed on five separate LED panels. At the culmination of the scene, the fiery display increased, and the act ended with the vivid image of fire engulfing the stage.
The LED technology came into its own in the second act as the action shifted to Fafner’s cave. On the darkened stage, a dense forest was simulated to great effect for Siegfried’s clash with the dragon. A strongly sung confrontation between brothers Mime and Alberich saw Warwick Fife as fine here as in Rheingold. The dragon was effectively created by means of all the panels with a series of sinuous, scaly coils, culminating in a pair of menacing bright orange eyes glaring into the hall. Unseen but vocally impressive was Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner. One false note was the lowering of a bloodied bag of what appeared to be the remains of the deceased dragon onto the stage – the sudden jarring realism a somewhat unfortunate contrast with the excellent, more abstract depiction of the forest and the events in this act.
The final act trajectory is towards the long-anticipated meeting between Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Sumegi was excellent in his brief scene with Erda, expressively sung once more by Liane Keegan. A now familiar visual leitmotif was the vivid black and red panel which accompanied Erda before – here it provides a background to her doom-laden pronouncements. Siegfried’s confrontation with the Wanderer was moving, and his melancholy exit after his spear is shattered rounded out Sumegi’s fine incarnation of this great role over three nights. The final moments did not disappoint. Here the technology was employed to great effect, providing a vivid backdrop to Brünnhilde’s awakening and underscoring the subtle emotional ebbs and flows as the two characters are finally united.
‘Heil dir, Sonne!’ is one of Wagner’s great vocal events, and Lise Lindstrom provided plangent tone and expressive physicality as Brünnhilde, coming to terms with the loss of her godhead and growing love for Siegfried. Her voice has a steely quality that soars over the orchestra when necessary, but warmth and tonal nuance give depth to the character. Vinke was superb in these final moments – no sign of any vocal fatigue. If anything, the voice sounded fresher here than at the beginning of the opera. His is a superb vocal and dramatic performance. The visual background evolved from the vivid crimson of the fire surrounding Brünnhilde to serene white and blue as the opera draws to its end. Siegfried sometimes has longueurs in performance, particularly in the long, conversational scenes, but the direction was most effective in sustaining interest throughout while whetting the appetite for the culmination of this great saga.
Reactions to the Ring have varied widely over the years. Leo Tolstoy, in 1897, sardonically observed that the Ring will ‘affect the spectator by hypnotizing him …Try sitting in the dark for four days in the company of not quite normal people, subjecting your brain to the strongest influence of sound calculated to excite the brain by strongly affecting the nerves of hearing, and you are certain to arrive at an abnormal state and come to admire the absurdity.’
Götterdämmerung opens with the three Norns weaving their rope and reflecting on the past, present, and future. Director Chen explains his visual strategy:
I was really trying to find the right vocabulary to describe them. In the Prologue to Götterdämmerung, they’re almost telling the mythology’s pre-history. And then I was in this museum and found this African sculpture with a black metal rope as a skirt. I thought: when you tell stories about the past, what is passed on? What ends up being passed to us living today? I feel you almost pull out your heart, your guts – you sort of disgorge the entirety of your body. So when the Norns start talking, they start pulling material from their hearts and other parts of their bodies … All this internal colour starts pouring out. There’s about 15 or 20 minutes of this. It’s almost installation art!
Strongly sung by Celeste Haworth, Angela Hogan, and Olivia Cranwell, the Norns provided an atmospheric opening on a simple, darkened stage. Then dawn breaks, and we are back to the white craggy rock with Brünnhilde (Lise Lindstrom) and Siegfried (Stefan Vinke), who take up where they left off at the end of Siegfried, both in splendid voice.
The castle on the Rhine has a raised throne-like platform with chairs surrounding it in a glowing, white marble as Gunther (Luke Gabbedy) and his sister, Gutrune (Maija Kovalevska) haggle with Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli) regarding Gunther’s marrying Brünnhilde to consolidate his power. To achieve this, a potion given to the new arrival, Siegfried, will cause him to forget his bride and woo Brünnhilde for Gunther. Subtle lighting underscores the fast-moving action of this scene – particularly effective a sudden reddish glow as the potion is drunk. Gabbedy is in excellent voice and creates a rounded and conflicted character, while Kovalevska has a sweet voice and a winning stage personality. Again, Silvestrelli displays the ideal grainy, cavernous bass for Hagen – a textbook villain, and an outstanding vocal performance.
Back on Brünnhilde’s rock, she greets her sister Waltraute (Deborah Humble). The emotional turmoil of this powerful scene is provided by Wagner’s surging orchestral accompaniment, and these two fine voices provide a highlight of the opera. Brünnhilde refuses to yield the ring to the Rhinemaidens and Waltraute rides off in despair. Siegfried arrives, disguised as Gunther by the Tarnhelm, and wrenches the ring off her finger. Philippe Auguin’s tempi have been on the brisk side throughout the Ring, but in this act particularly so, creating a strong sense of tension and momentum.
In Act Two Wagner almost reverts back to Grand Opera with its huge choral forces, and formal numbers. After an eerie, brief exchange between Alberich (Warwick Fife) and Hagen, we have an extended scene with Siegfried, Brünnhilde, Hagen, Gutrune, and Gunther as the previous plotting reaches its denouement in a large-scale, choral scene with surging orchestral accompaniment. Lindstrom was superb, her voice dominating the choral and orchestral forces, while the costumes for the large chorus in the scene call to mind Game of Thrones. The use of the LED panels is effective, acting as conventional flats to create flexible playing spaces on the stage, and then suddenly doubling as vividly effective scenery when needed. Much of the imagery consisted of slowly changing geometric shapes, oscillating through a wide range of colours. The final moments of this act are pure Grand Opera – echoes of Meyerbeer! – as Brünnhilde, Gunther, and Hagen plot revenge in a trio of tremendous energy and momentum. There were occasional moments when one felt a certain level of fatigue crept into the orchestral forces, but the balance between the stage and pit was never compromised.
The final act commences with the Rhinemaidens as they attempt to convince Siegfried to return the ring to avert catastrophe. The scene is even more beautifully staged than the opening of Rheingold, with the body doubles swimming through the swirling, aquamarine water. As the hunting party arrives, Siegfried, in a long and vocally challenging monologue, describes his youth and the events with the dragon. Vinke is superb here, a hugely energetic stage presence; again the top of the voice rings out heroically. The scene ends with Hagen plunging the spear into Siegfried’s back, the only way he can be vanquished.
The body of Siegfried arrives in the Gibichung Hall as events spiral out of control. Hagen kills Gunther, but all is interrupted by Brünnhilde, who orders a funeral pyre for Siegfried. She takes the ring which she promises to the Rhinemaidens and as the fire mounts, she steps onto the pyre. As might be expected, the visual response to these final moments is stunning. Brünnhilde sings her final, great monologue, accompanied by some of the most prominent earlier visual leitmotifs, with the glowing, fiery ring dominant. One had a sense of technology and staging coalescing in Götterdämmerung; a culmination of the many excellent aspects of performance preceding it.
The final moments of the great work belong to Brünnhilde. Wagner wrote his fair share of female characters as victims: currently a much-debated issue regarding the staging of nineteenth-century opera. But perhaps more than any other composer of the period, he created female characters full of agency, the prime example being Brünnhilde. She, in fact, brings about the end of the world – follow that! Along the way she potently intervenes in the ‘men’s business’ of running the world. In this, as in many other aspects, Wagner has parallels with Shakespeare; John Ruskin observed that Shakespeare ‘has no heroes, he only has heroines’. In many ways, this might be said of Wagner, who, with Shakespeare, created some of the most memorable female stage characters in all of Western culture.
So the great journey has come to an end, and it must be regarded as a great success. Mention must be made of the surtitles writer, Stewart Spencer; most impressive, with the English text at times echoing Wagner’s curious, alliterative German, they created a distinctly appropriate archaic flavour. The prospect of minimal sets and wall-to-wall LED technology was daunting at the outset, but the production has done much to convince many doubters, this reviewer included, of the effectiveness of its use, while the benefits in terms of costs alone could provide a possible path for the art form to remain financially viable. What unfolded was a coherent, abstract, uncluttered, yet very human interpretation of the Ring by musical forces of the highest quality led by the magisterial Philippe Auguin. Great credit is due to Opera Australia, including the determination of former artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, despite the frustrations of the Covid pandemic, to see the project through to fruition. One hopes that Chen Shi-Zheng’s production will be enjoyed elsewhere. It certainly deserves further success.
Siegfried will be performed on 12 and 19 December 2023 (performance attended: 5 December) and Götterdämmerung will be performed on 14 and 21 December (performance attended 7 December) by Opera Australia at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.