Wednesday 28 December 2016

Ring of Achievement?

Amalie Materna, the first Bayreuth Brünnhilde, with Cocotte, the horse donated by King Ludwig to play her horse Grane
Amalie Materna, the first Bayreuth Brünnhilde, with Cocotte,
the horse donated by King Ludwig to play her horse Grane
The first complete performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle took place in Bayreuth, in a theatre built specifically for the purpose, under festival conditions. And the cost was so great that it was four years before Wagner held the second festival. The stupendousness of Wagner's achievement with The Ring, with its 15 hours of concentrated musico-dramatic argument combined with moments of sheer theatrical genius, can blind us to how much the work had in common with contemporary opera theatre.

Not only is Wagner's work based on a re-invention of the theatrical myth-making of Weber, Marschner and their contemporaries, but the work's length and festal nature have links to contemporary opera performance. In the 19th century nights in the theatre could be long, short operas would be supplemented by ballets. As a young man in Paris, Wagner experienced the theatrical grandiosity of French grand opera, where operas by Halevy and Meyerbeer can reach a length which we now think of as Wagnerian.

Wagner's musical background, though, was not in the state-subsidised opera house in Paris, but in the German Hofoper, the court opera where opera was staged as part of court festivities and the sense of a festival event (rather than run of the mill season) was great. This was, of course, changing and part of the story of 19th century opera is the replacement of royal and aristocratic patronage with other forms of more public support.

The sheer size of The Ring means that it remains something of a festal event. And in the modern opera world, the extremely long operas are rare. Few companies would consider mounting Halevy's La Juive uncut, and Verdi's Don Carlos is usually performed in the more compact later versions. Wagner is one of the few composers where the sheer amplitude of his vision is routinely preserved uncut.

Berit Lindholm as Brünnhilde in Götz Friedrich's Ring Cycle at Covent Garden
Berit Lindholm as Brünnhilde in
Götz Friedrich's Ring Cycle at Covent Garden 
When I first started attending opera regularly at Covent Garden in the early 1980s the limitations of the theatre meant that large scale operas were often reserved for the opening of the season. So The Ring in Götz Friedrich's production was given in a very festal atmosphere in advance of the main season (we saw the production's final revival in 1984).

This was very necessary as Friedrich's production supplemented the limited Covent Garden stage machinery with a huge hydraulic platform which was hardly conducive to repertory performance in the theatre. There are in fact still very few companies which have the technical facilities and the resources to do The Ring in repertory, the Vienna State Opera and the Met in New York spring to mind.

Performing The Ring represents a pinnacle and often is an aspiration rather than achievement. If a company doesn't have a Ring Cycle then the aim of many music directors seems to be to have one, but recent history teaches us to be wary and Ring Cycles can often pair artistic achievement with financial penury.

Having given a Ring Cycle in 1971 as the culmination of the company's first 10 years under Alexander Gibson, Scottish Opera failed to achieve complete a Ring Cycle under John Mauceri (directed by Richard Jones), performing only Das Rheingold (1989) and Die Walküre (1991, notable for Jane Eaglen's appearance as Brünnhilde). And the triumphant cycle in 2003 under Richard Armstrong (directed by Tim Albery) contributed to the financial penury and virtual extinction of the company.

Rita Hunter, Reginald Goodall, Alberto Remedios
Rita Hunter, Reginald Goodall, Alberto Remedios
Similarly, English National Opera having successfully completed and recorded The Ring under Reginald Goodall (1973-1977), failed to achieve a cycle under Mark Elder (directed by David Pountney). The production of The Valkyrie (the only opera to be performed) had a set so spectacular and complex that other performances in the theatre had to be cancelled to allow get in and get out.

ENO's later Ring Cycle under Paul Daniel (directed by Phyllida Lloyd), built gradually via concert performances with operas being staged in 2004 and 2005, made artistic sense (though Lloyd's production came in for some criticism) but the company never had the resources to perform all four operas together, and regime change at the company consigned the project to the dust-bin.

Opera North has perhaps been the canniest. Their Ring Cycle came about because the Leeds Grand Theatre was closed for renovation and the company took advantage of performances in Leeds Town Hall to give works, in concert stagings, which were too big for the stage of the Leeds Grand Theatre. The first foray proved popular with other venues on the tour and the project continued, developing a Ring Cycle conducted by Richard Farnes, which was been toured extensively in May/June 2016. The staging was more than a concert but much less than a full staging and so less of a challenge to resources.

For its recent tour of the Ring, Opera North also brought an interesting solution to another problem with the operas of The Ring. There is virtually no chorus part, so whilst orchestra, soloists and the entire technical team of the theatre are stretched to the ultimate, the chorus is somewhat left behind. Whilst Opera North took its Ring on tour this year, the Opera North chorus collaborated with the West Yorkshire Playhouse to perform Sondheim's Into the Woods, a creative solution indeed.

This however did come at a cost, and recent Opera North seasons have shown heavy reliance on popular music theatre to help balance the books.

The demise of the regular ensemble in UK opera companies, means that casting The Ring is a challenge too. In Germany, where the ensemble system survives to a large extent, there is a pool of regular singers to draw on for many of the cast, but this is not the case in the UK where casts are employed just for specific operas.

So next time you see an opera company planning a new Ring Cycle, be wary. The result may be an artistic achievement, but what will be the long term cost.

Update: A correspondent has pointed out that I have missed out Fulham Opera's excellent 2014 Ring Cycle at St John's Church, Fulham, where the company got over the Ring Cycle's stupendous difficulties by adopting a more intimate scale for the staging and using reduced accompaniment (mainly piano), with striking effect (see the review on 

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