October 2013

Arts & Letters

The ‘Ring’ cycle in Melbourne

By Peter Conrad

Lorina Gore, one of the Rhinemaidens performing in November’s Ring cycle in Melbourne.

© Keith Saunders

A week at the opera

“My children,” said Richard Wagner to his familial brood of disciples after the first performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1876, “here you have a truly German art!” That was good news to supporters of Bismarck’s Prussian empire, which Wagner thought had been created to aid him in his object of spreading his name around the world. It continued to be excellent news during the Third Reich, when the four-opera Ring cycle, with its sword-wielding superhero Siegfried, its slave class of toiling dwarfs and its brawny oaths of blood-brotherhood, was honoured as the apogee of Teutonic racial pride. But where does that threatening declaration leave the rest of us?

Thanks to Wagner’s own xenophobia, the Ring was misunderstood for a century. Productions seldom dared to alter the quaint, shaggy designs he approved for the first Bayreuth festival: every Siegfried wore a bearskin, every Brünnhilde waved a spear, every Wotan sported a winged helmet, and the lecherous, cupidinous gnome Alberich was always a gross anti-Semitic caricature. The operas took place in an ancestral, archetypal fantasyland whose primitivism Hitler admired and imitated. Only George Bernard Shaw discerned the contemporary relevance of this fake antique. Wagner’s Nordic gods, he suggested, were bankers, and ought to wear top hats; their Valhalla was Wall Street.

Wagner claimed to be writing “the music of the future”, but he forgot to explain that the story he told, in a tetralogy that follows the world from gestation to decay, was equally forward-looking. “It seems to me,” as director Neil Armfield put it in a recent emailed conversation with me about the Ring, “that Wagner was creating a great poem about the future of civilisation.” Of course Wagner could only see a certain distance ahead. The scalding fires and battering hammers of the underground factory in Das Rheingold, the epic’s prologue, are his account of heavy industry and its mistreatment of nature – and when he first visited London he believed he was inside “Alberich’s dream”, the mercenary fantasy of “world dominion” that provokes the tragedy. Successive directors have brought the work further up to date. Patrice Chéreau, in his centenary Ring at Bayreuth in 1976, was the first to find correspondences between Wagner’s myth and the actuality of our times: the gold guarded by the Rhinemaidens was here a turbine, a device for transforming innocent water into energy and thence into power. More recently, a Ring directed by Kasper Holten in Copenhagen chronicled the 20th century in four instalments, from the ideological disputes of the ’30s in Das Rheingold, through Cold War paranoia in Die Walküre, the popular uprisings of 1968 in Siegfried, and the chaos of Balkan warfare after the collapse of the Soviet empire in Götterdämmerung. A Lisbon production by Graham Vick ended with September 11 and its aftermath: while Brünnhilde rhapsodically preached forgiveness during her immolation, volunteer martyrs queued up to strap on backpacks of explosives, then filed out of the theatre to blow themselves up. Now it is Armfield’s turn, in a production of the Ring that opens in Melbourne in November, to extend these speculations about our shared fate.

Brünnhilde’s sacrifice supposedly inaugurates a utopia, with humanity’s stained record washed clean by redemptive love as the Rhine overflows. That epilogue needs some qualification nowadays. In 1849 Wagner manned the barricades in Dresden, and he often likened his hero Siegfried to the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin; by 1876 he had given up hope of political change and placed his faith in mystical renunciation instead. Armfield’s agenda is tougher, less optimistic than the last consolatory bars of Götterdämmerung. We have, he thinks, committed crimes against nature, and the only possible response to these greedy ravages is “revolutionary upheaval”. But will it be a man-made revolution, or an upheaval of the abused Earth?

In Das Rheingold we hear and then see the world emerge from nothing, as music – in a hypnotically iterated, throbbing E flat – steals out of silence. Entranced by this regression, the conductor Edo de Waart, during his time with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, tried to interest Armfield in directing “an Australian Ring set on Uluru”. The idea is tantalising: the tetralogy is, among other things, a creation myth, and its multiple narrators – including the Norns in Götterdämmerung, who remember the beginning of things and glimpse the imminent end – are forever brooding about origins. But the geography doesn’t quite fit. The Ring hardly suits a desert, since its version of Genesis is watery, as is its Apocalypse. Das Rheingold starts with the upsurgence of a river, and Götterdämmerung ends with a purgative flood. And Wagner’s imaginative terrain is alpine, with storm-girt peaks like the one on which Wotan constructs Valhalla, or pinnacles inside cordons of fire like the one where Brünnhilde sleeps.

A recent production in Seattle plausibly aligns the Ring’s settings with the hiking trails and pine forests of the Pacific Northwest. Back in the 1940s, a Metropolitan Opera production was nicknamed “the Hudson Valley Ring” because it quoted the granitic topography of upper Manhattan – Valhalla actually resembled a hospital perched on Washington Heights, and the rock where the Valkyries cluster was copied from a slab jutting out of the earth in Fort Tryon Park, near The Cloisters. But Central Australia lacks the sublime verticality Wagner took for granted. Armfield decided against de Waart’s proposal, explaining that the location would have added nothing more than a “decorative gloss”.

Eventually, he accepted an offer from Opera Australia, and began preparing a production that was to be shared with and jointly financed by the Houston Grand Opera. The arrangement persuaded him that his Ring should address contemporary history, rather than being shunted off into some dim primordial past. In the Texan city, plutocrats flush with black gold have raised their own corporate Valhallas, gaudy temples to riches derived from the theft of natural resources. “A Houston Ring,” Armfield told the conductor Patrick Summers and his colleagues in the American company, “has to be about oil.” Buoyed by profits from what Armfield called “the ferocious wealth-generating endgame that the West is pursuing”, the economy of Houston exemplifies Wagner’s fable about greed and the moral ordure associated with it.

Perhaps, when performed on home ground, Armfield’s interpretation would have had to be adjusted: an Australian Ring should probably be about minerals, grubbed from the earth with the same rapacity that Alberich shows when he hounds the Nibelungen and gloats over the ore they are stockpiling. Armfield, however, has promised that Gina Rinehart – who, come to think of it, would be at home in Brünnhilde’s armour, screeching “Hojotoho!” as she hectors the whingeing proletariat – will not be among the equestrian warrior maidens in his Ring.

As discussions with Houston continued, Armfield’s concept seemed ever more topical. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill had befouled the Gulf of Mexico, and ExxonMobil was colluding with the Russians to extract oil from the Arctic Sea. As polar ice caps continued to melt, rednecks scoffed at the predicted consequences of climate change. In Götterdämmerung, the Norns, daughters of Erda, lament the desiccation of a spring from which fertility bubbles and mourn a withered ash tree that was once the rooted, blossoming symbol of life. Armfield doomily applies the Wagnerian metaphors to our own plight: “The species are disappearing. The biosphere is in collapse.” He guesses that parasitical humankind has not much more than half a century of “comfortable habitation” left on this damaged planet.

To Armfield’s mind, Brünnhilde’s acquisition of wisdom is an act of ecological deliverance, though at this point his reading runs into trouble. Wagner’s fallen goddess torches the funeral pyre with nihilistic zeal because she wants to destroy the world, not – as Armfield believes – because she hopes it may start again. It’s difficult to find a recipe for recovery in Wagner; he saw himself as an artist of the West’s exhausted twilight, and his music is a summons to blissful extinction, not regeneration.

Inevitably, the Houston honchos began to have qualms about a proposed Ring that seemed to be accusing the executives who would pay for it of venality and the brutal rape of the Earth’s bounty. Last January the company withdrew from the collaboration with Opera Australia, and it has since chosen to import a staging by the Catalan theatrical troupe La Fura dels Baus. The director Carlus Padrissa agrees with Armfield that the Ring is about “the degradation of nature by technological man”, but the results could not be more different: the Fura dels Baus show is a flying circus performed by acrobats, with allusions to such fantastic sagas as The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.

The experience in Houston persuaded Armfield that Wagner’s cautionary tale had been co-opted by the Gibichungen, the clan of moneyed sybarites who beguile and corrupt Siegfried in Götterdämmerung. In Germany, Wagner’s work has kept its critical edge: any Ring staged there is obliged to apologise for the way the work was made to serve the purposes of Nazi propaganda. Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, remarked that Nibelheim with its sweatshops for enslaved workers was the first concentration camp, and described the paranoid, sulking Wotan as Hitler self-interred in his Berlin bunker. But in the US, the Ring can still make unashamed propaganda for capitalism. Francesca Zambello’s San Francisco production in 2011 began during the Gold Rush, with Alberich, who steals the precious underwater ingot, as a boisterous ’49er. Even when the allusions to American folklore are less literal, the work, as Armfield says, is still crassly “presented as a vast display of wealth, indeed a celebration of power itself”. Robert Lepage’s current production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York is best known for having cost US$16 million, part of which had to be spent on strengthening the stage floor to support a cumbrous, clanking 41-tonne set. Armfield squirmed through the Met’s Rheingold and Walküre, then dismissed the productions as mere technological exhibitionism.

I sympathise with Armfield’s grief and rage about the poisoning of our land, air and water, though I wonder if Wagner isn’t being coaxed a little implausibly onto the side of the angels. There are elemental symphonies in the Ring – a journey to the centre of the Earth and then a thunderstorm in Rheingold, an aerial cavalcade in Walküre, a boat trip down a shimmering river in Götterdämmerung – but I’m not sure that Wagner possessed an ecological conscience: natural law in his world is flouted by the devious miracles of art, like the shape-changing made possible by Alberich’s magic helmet. As for wealth and power, he coveted both rather than spurning them, and thought of these rewards as the prerogatives of the pampered, dictatorial magus. “I need,” he once told his father-in-law, Liszt, “a lot of money.”

No longer required to please the Texans while exposing the source of their dirty wealth, Armfield seems to have thought again about the Ring, and enlarged the scope of his production. He continues to worry about what he calls “the God problem”, which crops up in every myth. Wotan constructs a system of global order, then resigns responsibility for it: if there is a creator, why has he left us to our own calamitous devices? I doubt that Armfield will resolve this conundrum before opening night; luckily, apart from metaphysics, he is also taking a more humanitarian approach.

What Armfield always looks for, as he says, is “human revelation”, which in opera is not necessarily a virtue. When I saw his Tristan und Isolde in Melbourne in the 1990s, I thought he had humanised Wagner with a vengeance. His Isolde was neither a sorceress nor a Germanic Venus, and certainly not a reminiscence, as Wagner intended, of Titian’s levitating Madonna; she was just a reckless, rampant woman in love, only too earthly. Verdi once remarked that the characters in the Ring were all either superhuman or subhuman – deities, giants, dragons, nymphs, together with a menagerie of flying horses, talking birds, rams and even a hopping frog. “Verdi was wrong,” Armfield flatly replied when I mentioned this. “They’re human. I see the Ring as being only about human society. Our world.”

That world, in his production, will be more populous than usual, considering that the Ring is for the most part a series of dialogues. For the prelude in the depths of the Rhine, Armfield has recruited 150 extras, transforming the river that for Wagner was a tributary of nationhood into a more ecumenical “sea of humanity”. Later, if he has retained one of the ideas he developed for Houston, the Valkyries might descend from above to succour a crowd of refugees, not – as Wagner directed to select corpses of heroes from the battlefield for redeployment as Wotan’s sentries.

After the final conflagration in Götterdämmerung, Wagner specifies that a few lookers-on emerge from the ruined Gibichung hall to watch, with “the utmost apprehension”, as the blaze in the sky ignites Valhalla. I’ve never seen a production that bothered with those spectators, who survive Brünnhilde’s act of cosmic arson. I suspect they’ll be present in force at the end of Armfield’s cycle, addressing a mute question not to the universe but to their fellow human beings in the audience. Anyone who is not exhausted by 16 hours of Wagner’s most turbulent music, which veers harmonically between exalted heights and morose abysses, will be left with plenty to think about.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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