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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism