Wednesday 2 January 2019

Memories of the Ring

Wagner: The Ring - ENO - Rita Hunter, Reginald Goodal, Alberto Remedios
Wagner: The Ring - ENO - Rita Hunter, Reginald Goodal, Alberto Remedios
My first Wagner opera was Der fliegende Hollander which Welsh National Opera (WNO) brought to Manchester in 1974, but I must confess that I have few memories of it. As a student in Manchester I was keen to learn, and try every opera going. This was a period when English National Opera (ENO) still toured, and did so lavishly. So that in addition to WNO and Glyndebourne Touring Opera (as it was then), ENO they brought the complete Goodall Ring in 1974 with Reginald Goodall conducting, and Rita Hunter as Brunnhilde. Economics meant that we could not manage the whole Ring, so one hot July afternoon we took ourselves off to the Gods at the Opera House in Manchester and emerged six hours later having experienced The Twighlight of the Gods.

What do I remember?

Rita Hunter mainly. Her gleaming sword of a voice in the Immolation Scene, her raising her arms in triumph like a wrestler when taking applause at the end. Another moment has stayed with me. One where Rita Hunter showed a telling grasp of stage-craft. In the Act Two scene where Gunther brings the captured Brunnhilde into the Gibichung's Camp, Brunnhilde is furious. Now Hunter was a large woman, and knew how to do nothing expressively. Just by whirring her arms and her facial expression she conveyed far more than more mobile sopranos.

That 1974 Ring was the first in Manchester since Sir Thomas Beecham and ENO would repeat the experiment (without Hunter but with Alberto Remedio as Siegfried) in 1975 when we saw The Valkyrie with, I think, the estimable Katie Clarke as Brunnhilde. Has anyone dared to do a complete Ring cycle in the city since then?

Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, The Royal Opera, 1982 © ROH, photograph by Donald Southern
Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, The Royal Opera, 1982
© ROH, photograph by Donald Southern
My first complete Ring was in 1982. In those days, Covent Garden only did Rings in September before the main season started, so complex were the logistics of mounting the Ring in the old theatre. This was particularly true of Götz Friedrich's 1976 production (the First Götz Friedrich Ring to distinguish it from his 1991 production). Reputedly Götz Friedrich, brought in by Sir Colin Davis, had been horrified when he discovered quite how primitive Covent Garden's stage facilities were. His solution was a huge hydraulic platform which rotated and lifted, starting out bare and gradually accumuating debris and becoming less mobile as the operas progressed.

For the very opening of Das Rhinegold the stage was bare, cue the E flat chords in the orchestra. Nothing happened - have we paid all that money for this? Then the platform starts to move, imperceptibly at first then fast and faster. It made for some great scenic effects, Friedrich knew how to create a theatrical moment. When Donald McIntyre's Wotan went to see Erda, he walked downstage and the platform tilted back so McIntyre was walking up hill. When he came to the edge of the platform he was now lying down, his head perilously close to the proscenium, far below in the innards of the hydraulics was Erda. Sheer magic.

Sir Colin Davis conducted, Brünnhilde was Gwyneth Jones with Alberto Remedios as Siegfried, Donald McIntrye as Wotan, Linda Esther Gray as Sieglinde, Richard Cassilly as Siegmund, Anne Evans as Gutrune. A terrific cast. Gray's performance gave hints of her future as a Wagner soprano, and I treasure having been able to hear her in action. The Valkyries were crow-like creatures, with the opening of Act Three of Die Walküre taking place perched high on the steeply raked platform, again a striking image.

I remember the interaction between Jones and Remedios in Siegfried, their childlike joy in their encounter, throwing Brünnhilde's armour into the air. Friedrich's production had the virtue that at the end of the whole cycle, all detritus was gone leaving just Gwyneth Jones on a stage in incandescent form.

I have seen other Rings, other Brünnhildes but it is these moments that stay in the memory.

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