Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Letter From WC 1 (II)

Covent Garden

The English National Opera (the less snooty wing of the London Opera Scene) is currently engaged in a risible “undress for the opera” advertising campaign. Opera is now a democratic art form, open to everyone prepared to spend £800 on a ticket, regardless of whether or not they can afford a dinner jacket.

This might have made sense 50 years ago when there may have been people who wanted to go to the opera, could afford to go to the opera, but didn't think that they'd would feel comfortable at the opera among all the people in posh suits. It makes no sense at all in the democratic twenty-teens when the very rich wear jeans and the very poor wear…well, jeans. It’s a bit like one of those religious campaigns that says “Come to Church! You might like it! We no longer burn heretics at the stake! We have black people and everything!”

Covent Garden is posher, more expensive and more traditional than the English National, but the dress code was very democratic. I did three nights in coloured waistcoat and one night in D.J and didn't feel either over or under-dressed on either occasion There weren't that many penguin suits, actually; although some of the ladies had dressed up. There were men in business suits, men in tee-shirts; a lady in an impressive turban; a young lad of fifteen in a grey suit enthusiastically explaining the finer points of the plot to a long-suffering middle-aged lady companion. Very little evidence of "Corporate Jollies": everyone around us seemed to be keen and enthusiastic Wagnerians. The man in front of us spent the interval studying the libretto. The man next to us had never been to a Ring before and was reading the synopses after the acts finished so as not to spoil it. He told us that he was "all pumped up" before Act III of Gotterdamerung to find out how it came out. 

Covent Garden gave us decent length intervals: around 30 or 40 minutes after Acts 1 and 80 or 90 after Acts 2. There were singletons reading big thick books; groups who had pre-booked the sit-down dinner (we were impressed with the numbers of Lords and Sirs on the reservation list); people who had brought sensible hampers of smoked salmon sandwiches and bubbly and eccentrics who were laying out tablecloths and jars of HP Sauce and Helmans Real  Mayonnaise. I hear that a large number of people beat a course to Zizis Pizza over the road, who carefully laid on timed interval reservations. Opera-buddy and I ate at a Very English Pub before Act I and spent the intervals leaning on the swish bar drinking champagne cocktails that were not quite as expensive as you might have expected under the circumstances.

This is what Wagner meant by gesamtkunstwerk, I suppose. There were no bratwurst to be had, not even for ready money.

Dinner Jacket is the British English for "Sidewalk". May I apologize about a decade late to the person who thought my reviews of  English National Opera Ring were going to be about Brian Eno performing classical music. 

Wagner has a tendency to drive producers crazy, but I am happy to report that some of the prettiest and most powerful moments of the week were the simplest and therefore the bravest. The Great Big Revolving Wall from Valkyrie reprised its role as Brunhilde's rock and all purpose stage-symbol in Siegfried. It tilted on its side and rotated during Wotan’s confrontation with Erda at the beginning of Act 3: Bryn Himself sure-footedly walking around it in the opposite direction while continuing to sing. (Possibly an over-literal interpretation of Erda’s line "wild und kraus kreist die Welt!" ("wild and askew rotates the world") but it worked. Erda herself materialises in her armchair from Rheingold, floating in mid-air. By the end of the scene, we've worked out that it’s actually perched on a big black column, but that doesn't stop the initial effect from being striking.

It has reverted to being a vertical wall for Scene 2, where Wotan does the "No Luke, I am your father" thing with Siegfried. Flames are projected on it while Siegfried is passing through the magical fire on top of the rock. Slightly oddly, Siegfried's finding of Brunhilde is mostly mimed; with Siegfried saying "look, there’s a horse" and "a man in armour, shall I take off his helmet" to empty air. Presumably this was to stop the audience from laughing when Siegfried takes off Brunhilde's breast plate and cries out "This is not a man!" They laughed anyway.  But it also meant that the first we saw of Brunhilde is at "Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!" when she steps through the door in the rotating wall, light streaming behind her; a nice image. She and Siegfried don’t attempt to play the Dreadful Quarter Hours in the love duet as drama: it makes far more sense for them to talk about how they feel the seas raging fire when their blood surges towards them directly at the audience.

Siegfried has to brave Wotan’s spear-point before he can ascend the mountain to Brunhilde. (Opera-buddy and I agree that this is a bit of the opera that just doesn't make sense: if he's already guaranteed that only the Noblest Hero of All will wake her up, why guarantee the destruction of the gods by also standing guard himself?) Tonight, he  put his spear across the door in the rotating wall, so Siegfried has to physically break it to pass: a very cool image. 

But the most striking image of the third evening is Bryn Himself standing in front of the Revolving Wall holding the two broken pieces of the spear. That's the last we see of Wotan (more or less) and, without any dramaturgical jiggery pokery: it sums up the whole plot of the opera so far. The power of the gods, represented by Wotan’s spear, is over. Wotan has been destroyed by the contradiction in his own being: he has finally created a hero who is independent of the gods, but that hero has (by definition) to destroy him. "Pass on! I cannot prevent you!" The music doesn’t say that Wotan has lost, but that he's won. Or at any rate, that he’s cool about losing. Very possibly it's a Buddhist thang about true being being being non being, or, come to that, a Christian metaphor about the only true messiah being the one who denies his divinity.

Bryn Himself is magnificent throughout. He’s gone from the slightly capricious "Percy, who’s All-Father?" deity of Rhiengold, through the tortured, self-doubting father of Valkyrie, to achieve a godlike serenity in Siegfried: he’s achieved the true divine dignity now he knows that his time is over and he has to be overpowered by his (grand)son. Bryn’s subtle acting is a joy to watch. The "riddles" scene in Act I (when Wotan and Mime spend 20 minutes telling each other things they already know for the benefit of the audience) can be a musical hurdle that you have to get over before the macho magnificence of the sword forging. Bryn Terfel and Gerhard Siegel make it both funny and dramatic; Wotan listening intently to Mime’s questions and nodding to himself when he is confident he knows the answer; tying Mime up and casually pouring petrol over him when the latter fails to answer the third question. 

Opera-buddy and I once again agreed that we didn’t quite understand what Wotan is up to in this scene: if only Nothung can kill the dragon and only Siegfried can forge Nothung, isn't Wotan cheating, yet again, by giving Mime this crucial fact? And did Mime really need to be told — wouldn't Siegfried eventually have done it for himself anyway?

At first, I thought that Stefan Vinke did not have a sufficiently powerful voice for Siegfried. But it grew on me as Act I dragged on, and I was totally won over by the Very Famous Sword Forging Scene (shamelessly ripped off from the scene which Tolkien left out.) He had great nuance, great characterisation, and pulled off the humour pretty well. This was an easy going, nonchalant Siegfried. I wasn't convinced that I was going to like having the Woodbird played on stage by a singer (rather than being a special effect voiced from the orchestra pit.) We first meet her peeking out, like a cherub, from the hyper romantic painted blue sky during the "forest murmurs", dangling a paper bird over Siegfried on a piece of string. I understood why the set suddenly had astroturf grass and warm green lighting — to contrast the pastoral interlude with the dark grim scenes with Mime and the Dragon. But wheeling on stuffed animals when Siegfried starts wondering whether his mother’s eyes were as soft as a roe-dear was, shall we say, a Production Idea Too Far. When Siegfried gets a lick of the magic Dragon's Blood of Birdtalking, the singer comes down from the roof and runs round the stage. There’s a nice running gag about Siegfried forgetting things. The Word-bird beckons him playfully to come and find the fiery mountain where there is a magical companion, and Siegfried runs after her, and then runs back to pick up the Tarnhelm. Which is also a nice piece of characterisation: Siegfried’s power and freedom depend on the fact that he has powerful magic items like the Ring of Universe Ruling and the Magic Helmet of Shape-shifting, Invisibility and Teleportation and doesn't actually care. A bit like that Tom Bombadil, in fact.

Neither ether Opera-buddy nor I quite knew why there was a great aeroplane in the middle of Mime's forge, although there has been Propeller Imagery throughout the opera. I wondered if we were being asked to imagine that Sieglinde and her baby had somehow been flying from Wotan in a plane and crashed in the forest? It didn't matter, though. An aircraft hanger, with tools and vices and blowtorches, is as good a place as any to forge the Perfect Sword. My one quarrel with Phylida Llloyds English National production was that she said that she found the forge scene to be too testosterone-soaked, and toned it town a little. It seems to me that when you are the Noblest Hero of All and the Man Who Has Never Learned To Fear, you are allowed to be a little bit macho. Here it was shown in all its mechanical details. He grinds it, he splinters it, he blow torches it, he plunges it in water, he sharpens it, he brandishes it; and he cries "Hi-ho, hi-ho" and "hi-ho-ho-ho".

Mime is sufficiently smarmy and unpleasant (we see him beating the child Siegfried during the overture) that the Perfect Hero mostly avoids coming off as nasty Aryan bully when he kills him. I even forgave them the man in the teddy bear suit.

“Schau, Mime, du Schmied: so schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert!” Or words to that effect.