Essay Review

Wagner and the Secret of Success of the Australian “Walküre“

Notes on Die Walküre premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne on 9 February 2022

By Elena Vassilieva

Die Götter machen auch Fehler und deswegen leiden… Ach, übrigens – was hat für Sie mehr wert: Tugend oder Reichtum? – Words by Elena Vassilieva. The image was taken from the livestream of the opera from Her Majesty’s Theatre, © Melbourne Opera.

On 14 January 1870, King Ludwig II of Bavaria wrote to his beloved composer that Das Rheingold and Die Walküre might be onstage in Munich that year. Indeed, despite the King’s doubts, on 26 June 1870, Die Walküre had the world premiere at the National Theatre in Munich, leaving Wagner in a gloomy mood. Wagner, that Master of the Masters on Earth, was notorious for his capriciousness and rigorousness as for the production of his own works. He was very particular about how his music dramas should be mounted, and every single detail mattered to him a good deal. And if something in the production happened not to coincide with his fancy, he would fall into the bleakness of utter despair at once. He dreaded to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Therefore, every time, when as a spectator, I have a chance and privilege to participate in an event honouring the glorious heritage of Wagner’s, I keep this fact in mind and always play an imaginary guessing game during the event, wondering whether the Master himself would have loved the spectacle or not? And, suppose, he loved it, what would his words be? And if he didn’t, what would he be saying, then? But that’s a rather silly game, of course, pursued by the naïve and unwary mind of mine.

The skeptical Wagnerian in me would probably argue that it makes no sense at all to play such futile games, as it’s all about interpretation and reception of Wagner’s work, which, naturally, largely depends on the will, desire, and talent of those who are preparing the masterpiece for the audience. By no means it’s about his, a priori assumed, approval or disapproval. For goodness’ sake, and alas, the great man isn’t here anymore as a man of flesh and blood for more than a century, that same Wagnerian in me would rage. Why should it still matter what he would have thought or said? In any case, we can only speculate about his possible reaction, based on his writings. I don’t know, I would still disagree. It just matters to me, perhaps, because, like everyone else who loves him dearly, I know perfectly well how much he cared for the nuanced precision of the articulation of his artistic ideas. When one is working on his operatic masterpieces, one had better be mindful of that fact, in order not to upset his spirit. For this very reason, until now I had never uttered a word, not in exhaustive detail, anyway, on any production of his gems, fearing the responsibility of the whole endeavour, although I consider myself fortunate enough to have been able to see his work performed on the most interesting, old and young, stages.

One may remember how disappointed and crestfallen Wagner was after he had read an article about his music by Hector Berlioz, where the latter praised the German titan, but made a costly mistake ascribing to Wagner the notion of la musique de l’avenir in the sense of school in music, which Wagner denied harshly and offendedly, as he believed the term didn’t mirror his philosophy at all. On the contrary, it was misleading and misconstruing his very ideas of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (1849), which, for this reason, he regretted having published at all. Besides, he complained that the notion of la musique de l’avenir was not his invention, but Professor Bischoff’s, a music critic from Cologne and Ferdinand Hiller’s friend. The outrage led Wagner to dedicate many hours of his time to a thorough and exasperated letter to Berlioz in February 1860, in which he had not only scolded the French composer for being inaccurate and even gullible, while using the phrase coined by Bischoff, but also for lacking artistic understanding of the conceptual side of Wagner’s works and his artistic vision. He feared his texts could really be grasped only if read in original, which might have prevented Berlioz from the accurate and full comprehension of Wagnerian aesthetics. In his letter, Wagner tried to explain to Berlioz what his concepts were based upon. He had a great admiration for Berlioz, especially after a closer encounter in London in 1855 where Wagner had some concerts at the Philharmonic Society. One of them even included the Queen Victoria in the audience, who thought highly of his music and made an entry of the occasion in her diary.

Wagner said personal unhappy circumstances and his creative quest for a most wholesome and rounded art led him to the key concepts of his Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, a manifest of the philosophical ideas based on the inevitable and necessary interdependence of life and art. On the other hand, Wagner was tremendously bothered by the triviality and lack of depth of the performed pieces at the opera houses throughout the Old World at that time. He believed the theatres had distanced themselves from the genuine art that, like the classical Greek tragedies, is supposed to overwhelm (erschüttern) the audience on so many levels and make theatregoers want to connect to this art and consequently reflect on it on their own, without the help of critics. Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, or das Gesamtkunstwerk, should not be lowered and degraded by the artist to the trivial mentality and frivolous taste of the “Publikums großer Städte” (read bourgeoisie), he insisted, but instead be desirous and desirable, even by the above mentioned audience, cultivating a taste for a much finer and deeper art than the one this audience is used to.

He desperately wanted to avoid the superficial quality of the artistic piece. Therefore, the seeming simplicity of such a multifaceted Gesamtkunstwerk would appeal not only to a connoisseur of music, but also to an inexperienced spectator or even a simpleton without repelling and leaving the latter in need of a translator or a critic. The emotional and intellectual Erschütterung of the audience by the Gesamtkunstwerk’s aesthetics, so much relatable to any man’s life experience, can only be achieved through the synthesis of different arts, as he wrote it in the letter to Berlioz, “so frug ich mich auch, welches die Mittel zur Hervorbringung jener außerordentlichen Wirkungen waren, und ich erkannte, daß sie eben in der Vereinigung aller Künste zu dem einzig waren, großen Kunstwerke lagen.“ Aristotle’s notion of catharsis, obviously, was very important for him. The main purpose of his famous letter was to be understood by Berlioz the way he meant it, but by everyone else as well, as the context suggests.

I often, therefore, wonder if a performing success of Wagner’s work depends much on the prioritising of his immense desire to be interpreted the way he imagined it? It may well be the case with the most recent Australian production of Die Walküre which turned out to be victorious just because they seemed to have followed closely the Master’s script. Contrary to what Wagner’s music dramas may seem to require, say, grandeur and opulence of space, of décor and of costumes, Her Majesty’s Theatre’s modest size accommodated the opera so well that not for a second the audience missed the larger spatial scale of the setting. The proportions seemed to be just right, whether it’s the material and symbolic centrality of the giant ash tree in the opera, or the magical place where the gorgeous Valkyries dwell and fear no one but their powerful and yet vulnerable father, a victim of self-inflicted curse. The set designer (Andrew Bailey) even thought of a very clever trick to make the Valkyries look as if they were really riding, bravely crossing the stormy sky to and fro. Luckily, the real horses were left in their stables, but the ones they used so splendidly, featuring the two lovely sway pole performers, Emily Ryan and Ashlee Grunberg, not only made the space appear much larger, but also very multidimensional, where realism and magic blend so harmoniously.

‘Less is more’ seemed to prevail in the style of the Australian Walküre. I didn’t notice any unnecessary or superfluous details in the ornamental stylistics of the production. Every single thing seemed to justify the music and libretto of the opera. The lighting design (Rob Sowinski) was very smart, stressing the symbolism of the few main colours in the opera: the dark blue along with the imagined pitch black with the contrasting paleness of the characters’ faces and the red flame in the end. The only thing that might have been avoided, and whose absence wouldn’t have been noticed, was the occasional neon light thrown on the sword, Nothung, on the ash tree; the neon was a tiny drop of tackiness to my eyes. The costumes, designed by Harriet Oxley with great care and love for the libretto, accentuated the characters’ main traits, yet did not seem to overburden and weigh the opera singers down. For instance, Fricka’s fanciful dress reflected her attractiveness behind which wickedness was hiding. The Valkyries’ dresses were tremendously handsome with the right amount of gold and silver not to be considered gaudy or tacky, let alone the most charming headpieces. In fact, the costumes and accessories in the production, slightly reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelite style, were so elegant that I would love to wear them as a spectator to Wagner’s event myself if I could. No doubt, the decorative part of the production, aside to the plot, must have inspired the singers’ acting which was such a convincing and organic affair that it moved one to tears (speaking from my own experience), be it the first act when the twins (Lee Abrahmsen and Bradley Daley) exchange tender glances with each other and share love at first sight, or the second act where Wotan (Warwick Fyfe) and Fricka (the marvellous Sarah Sweeting) have their fateful argument, or the scenes with Wotan’s and Brünnhilde’s (Zara Barrett) tumultuous personal matters in the second and third acts. Those were very memorable moments.

It is a well-known fact that Wagner was a passionate perfectionist to the degree of being a rather intense and trying person at times, and he certainly knew how to move passions in his masterpieces as well. The subtle and romantic eroticism is another significant attribute of his music dramas, which certainly wasn’t overlooked in this production, but fulfilled with superb acting, both dramatic and vocal. The love duet, Sieglinde (Lee Abrahmsen) and Siegmund (Bradley Daley), excelled at it. Lee Abrahmsen effortlessly repeated her dazzling success of the last year’s Rheingold. The ease and beautiful crystal-clear freshness of her vocal style, complimented so nicely by Bradley Daley’s very attractive nervous sensibility, was great pleasure to watch. Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding, that insufferable exemplar of Wagnerian machohood, was portrayed very skillfully and brightly by Steven Gallop; he added so much dramatic energy to it. Wotan (Warwick Fyfe) and Brünnhilde (Zara Barrett), both immensely strong and perspicacious performers, impressed the operagoers a great deal, breaking their hearts with their remarkable vocal dialogue. The brilliance of the famous Ride of Valkyries (Walkürenritt) will stay with the audience long after they had left the theatre. Everything in this scene seemed to excite the spectator’s imagination to no end. Brünnhilde and the eight Valkyries (Rosamund Illing, Eleanor Greenwood, Jordan Kahler, Olivia Cranwell, Naomi Flatman, Caroline Vercoe, Sally-Anne Russell, and Dimity Shepherd), that captivating troop of the most sprightful warrior maidens, brilliantly showcased their mythological qualities with such an awe-inspiring singing and acting. The orchestra, led so gracefully and expertly by Maestro Anthony Negus, who today, after so many years of engagement with the German composer, probably knows every whim of Wagner’s as well as his own, did carry Die Walküre on their wings unfailingly and securely, producing an astonishingly genuine dramatic soundscape. The chosen tempo throughout this tempestuous and passionate music drama seemed highly suitable and desirable, keeping the operatic tension on stage appropriately high, yet, under control. Energising everyone, the singers and the audience alike, the orchestra played breathlessly from beginning to end.

Given his utter strictness, one is left guessing, of course, whether Wagner would have been as pleased as I, member of the lucky audience, was. On the other hand, his passionate nature might have been tremendously satisfied and thrilled, as this production was by no means short of delivering human emotions so tastefully wrapped in the right attire of the sound and spectacle. Besides, the opera seems to have been produced according to his precious ideas of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, keeping his heritage as much intact as possible, and that is the key for a successful performance of his masterpieces, in my – some would argue rather conservative – view. Also, it is a laudable, heroic even, achievement by Melbourne Opera to manage to raise funds for the production of the opera independently, from private sponsors, in such challenging times (Henkell Brothers, Lady Potter, Dr Alastair Jackson, The Ian Potter Foundation, The Angior Family Foundation, The Robert Salzer Foundation, The Sylvia Fisher Fund, Dr Douglas and Mrs Monica Mitchell, Roy Morgan). Thus, Wagner’s opera in Melbourne, with Suzanne Chaundy as a director and Greg Hocking as a producer and with all Australian cast, crew and creative team, is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a truly moving piece of art, but also a formidable team of talented and enthusiastic people.

One thing is certain: the audience left home wanting more. Luckily, we have something to look forward to in the future. Siegfried will already be onstage in September this year. And as Lady Primrose Potter, Melbourne Opera’s patron-in-chief and one of the principal sponsors, said, there are plans for three full Ring Cycles for March and April 2023. This is a marvel that would lure a whole lot of Wagnerians to Australia. For those who are unable to travel, I hope a livestream will be graciously offered by Melbourne Opera to the audiences around the globe, just like last (the spectacular Das Rheingold) and this year, for which we all are very grateful.

An excerpt from Wagner’s letter to Hector Berlioz from February 1860 was cited here from Wagner, R. (1871) Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, Leipzig, E.W. Fritzsch, p. 118.

Written on the windy night of Saturday, 12 March 2022, in the Sky Control Room on Cape Cod.

Copyright © 2022 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.    

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