The Ring cycle: Dead silence at the opera

In contrast to the boos at Bayreuth, at the end of Die Walküre during the Longborough cycle, there was a dead silence lasting at least a minute.

In the early 1960s, an enterprising grammar school boy started buying and selling secondhand cars. By the time Martin Graham was 21, he had bought half an orchard for £750 and borrowed the money to build a house on the land, now worth £800,000. After converting a barn on his Cotswolds property into an opera house and fitting it with seats acquired from the Covent Garden renovation in the late 1990s, things began to take off. Now, under the name Longborough Festival Opera, it fields new productions every summer: in June and July, it staged Britain’s only full-scale Ring production in Wagner’s bicentennial year.

Four days of opera – amounting to 14 hours of music, not including intervals – is a huge undertaking. Surely the Ring cycle, with its sprawling tale of gods, giants and heroes, requires vast resources? Perhaps a contemporary equivalent of Wagner’s patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria, or a major opera house with substantial funding to get it all going?

Compared to other bicentennial productions in more grandiose locations, it stood up extraordinarily well. The definitive venue is Wagner’s opera house in Bayreuth, opened in 1876 with the first ever staging of the Ring. Apart from during the dark periods from 1914 to 1924 (the First World War and the subsequent lack of money) and 1945 to 1951 (de-Nazification), it has delivered numerous productions of the Ring and the six other mature Wagner operas each summer. No other composer’s work has graced the Bayreuth stage; it is the holy grail for Wagner productions.

Unfortunately there has been a gradual decline at Bayreuth in recent years and several top Wagner singers and conductors are no longer willing to work there. For the 2013 Ring, the film director Wim Wenders dropped out amid arguments about what he wanted to do. The “bad boy” theatre director Frank Castorf was then brought in, though his intentions were also circumscribed, and with time running short the sets had to be built off-site rather than in-house. Though they were magnificent, the production was not and it was furiously and roundly booed.

Here’s the problem. In opera, particularly with Wagner, the music is the essence. This can be a problem for theatre or film directors who lack depth of musical appreciation – it’s not that they have bizarre new conceptions, which can be good or bad, but that the desire to give the audience something unconventional sometimes forbids the music to speak for itself in moments of pure emotion. No one goes to the Bayreuth Festival unless they love Wagner’s music, and bringing in intrusive video and crocodiles to poke a stick in the eye of sublime moments, such as the union of Siegmund and Sieglinde in the second opera, or the union of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the third, is bound to fail. By contrast, Stefan Herheim’s extraordinary recent production of Parsifal at Bayreuth was immensely thought-provoking. Herheim is an opera director, originally trained as a musician.

The Berlin State Opera’s Ring cycle earlier in the year was much better, even if Lance Ryan as Siegfried failed to show up for Act I of his eponymous opera. Yet here, too, the Belgian director Guy Cassiers demonstrated the problem of bringing in someone from the theatre world. His use of dancers was unmusical and intrusive. The saving grace was the singing and Daniel Barenboim in the orchestra pit, as anyone who saw him at the Proms this summer will understand.

Those who don’t know the cycle might suppose it to be loud and bombastic and I’m reminded of the story of the upper-crust lady who was asked how she was enjoying a performance of Die Walküre and responded that she was looking forward to “The Pride of the Balconies”. The quiet moments – and there are many – are like chamber music and the Royal Albert Hall is a terrific venue for Wagner’s music, with plenty of the acoustic space the huge dynamic range demands. So do we really need an opera house for the Ring, with all the expense and directorial intrusion that it engenders?

At Longborough, the answer was a resounding yes. Everyone I know who saw the production was bowled over by its atmosphere and musicality, to say nothing of the lustrous singing of Rachel Nicholls as Brünnhilde. The conductor Anthony Negus brought huge emotional commitment to the enterprise and an unusual depth of experience in Wagner productions, having worked on the music staff at Bayreuth in the early 1970s and been assistant to the great British Wagner conductor Reginald Goodall.

The director Alan Privett used simple props and clever lighting to create a magical atmosphere. The whole thing was done for about £1.6m, including costs for sets, costumes, backstage staff, singers and musicians – by comparison, the sets alone at Bayreuth cost €4.3m (£3.6m).

In contrast to the boos at Bayreuth, at the end of Die Walküre during the Longborough cycle, there was a dead silence lasting at least a minute. Those who saw the Ring at the Proms may recall a similar silence at the end of Die Walküre but that was slightly different. Everyone could see that Barenboim had kept his arms raised and the applause started only when he dropped them. At Longborough, hardly anyone could see the conductor: the feeling in the audience was electric.

Unfortunately, 500 seats was the limit and tickets were not easy to come by. Nor were they at Bayreuth, or even the unstaged version at the Proms. So we still need our big opera houses to make staged performances of the Ring more accessible, but what Longborough showed is that dedication can count for more than money, something too often forgotten in the opera world and beyond.

Outside view of the Bayreuth opera house, where the Ring was memorably booed. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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