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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State