Welcome to the third Wagner Quarterly for 2013.
I have to confess that I have missed some of our Society's more recent events, as I have taken my Wagner enthusiasm overseas. I am really sorry not to have attended these events, as on all accounts they have been outstandingly successful. Some fifty people, including her Excellency the Governor, attended the Dutchman seminar. This is described later in this Quarterly, as are the Lisa Gasteen meeting, the "Swords and Winterstorms" concert, and the more recent Neil Armfield talk, which I believe was fascinating.
In June this year, I was fortunate enough to attend Ring Cycles in Riga, Milan and Longborough. And in August I went to the third and last cycle of the new Ring production in Bayreuth. Unfortunately, because of the decisions relating to ticket allocations, there were many fewer Sydneysiders in Bayreuth than in previous years. But a small ray of hope on this issue remains. In November the matter will again be discussed at a meeting of the Administrative Board, and it is possible that there might be a different outcome. We can only hope!
Given that most of my recent Wagner experiences have been outside the country, I shall describe them briefly here. I do not include the Milan Ring Cycle, which is discussed elsewhere in this newsletter.
The Riga Opera House is a jewel of a 19th century opera house at one end of a park which divides the mediaeval section of the city from the modern city. The standard of opera there is extraordinarily high. The Rheingold was directed by Stephan Herheim (of recent Bayreuth Parsifal fame), and was full of metaphors. For example, Wotan was Wagner, and Valhalla was the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The giants wore masks which depicted Marx and Engels. Alberich in Scene 3 was Hitler, and the Nibelungen were his soldiers. In general, the metaphors worked well, and it was a very engaging production. The orchestra was conducted throughout the cycle by 32-year old Cornelius Meister. The following three operas were directed by Viesturs Kairišs, and lacked continuity and, sometimes, cohesion. The orchestra was consistently good, as were most of the singers, almost none of whom I had previously heard of. Deserving of special mention are Marcus Jupither as Alberich and Gunther, and Katrina Gerstenberger as Brunnhilde in Walkure and Gotterdammerung. Roger Cruickshank’s review of the cycle is included in this edition.
Most people have never heard of Longborough in the UK. Nor had I until I read Terry Clarke’s rave review of last year’s Gotterdammerung in our Newsletter. It was this which encouraged me to apply for tickets for this year’s performance of the entire cycle, and I am so glad that I did. Terry and Julie’s description of the event is contained elsewhere in this newsletter, so I will not repeat it here, except to say that it was a wonderful experience in every way. In particular, I must endorse what Terry and Julie said about Rachel Clarke’s Brunnhilde. She was extraordinary. I think that we will be hearing a lot more about this young soprano.
The Ring in Bayreuth had very mixed responses from the audience. Musically it was generally extremely good. The orchestra, under the baton of Kirill Petrenko, was of a uniformly high standard, only exceeded by the same orchestra under the baton of Christian Thielemann in The flying Dutchman. Wotan was Wolfgang Koch, known to many of us as Alberich in the 2011 Hamburg Ring Cycle. He was good, but not as outstanding as I had expected after the Hamburg experience. Lance Ryan was Siegfried, and made it easily through to the end of the opera Siegfried, only to be booed when he made his curtain call – something which amazed me. His voice was flinty, but he did not deserve this! Catherine Foster was generally a very good Brunnhilde, although her lower registers almost disappeared in the earlier operas. She came into her own at the end of Gotterdammerung, when her voice rang out beautifully. It was just as well, because virtually nothing else was happening on stage at this time, when – according to the text – the existing world order was meant to be coming to a dramatic end. This takes me to the Frank Castorf production, which was by far the most controversial part of this Ring Cycle. This is not the place for an analysis of this extraordinary production. It was based on the proposition that oil is the modern form of gold, and is thus desired by all people in search of power. This makes some degree of sense, but in much of the cycle it was very difficult to discern any connection at all with oil. Nor, sometimes, with the original text. Nevertheless, I enjoyed much of the cycle, obviously a great deal more than most of the audience. The end of each opera was met with resounding boos from throughout the auditorium.
In addition to the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth, there were performances of The flying Dutchman, Tannhauser and Lohengrin. Now is not the time to describe them, except to say that – for the first time ever, to my knowledge – two of these operas were interposed between the major Ring operas. This meant that the total experience was almost too concentrated: instead of seven operas spread over nine evenings, we had seven operas in seven evenings. It also meant that the Ring journey was broken up, which I thought was a very great pity.
Back to matters directly relating to our Society. During the first six months of this year we received donations from 37 people, totalling $4,545.00. I would like to express our deep thanks to all of them. During the same time we have committed ourselves to scholarships or sponsorships to the tune of $22,700 (in addition to the $41,000 paid to Opera Australia, which was subsidised by individual donations from members). This might sound as if we have exceeded our financial allotments, but in fact the Society is in a very healthy financial position, as the overall figures show. It is opportune to add here that the Wagner Society has, for the first time, awarded a prize to Rachel Bates in the 2013 Sydney Eisteddfod for a singer of Wagner works as part of the Society’s fostering of local singers and Wagner performance. Our congratulations to Rachel, who has promised to perform for the Society in the future. The Society looks forward to being able to award a similar prize for Wagner singing in future Eisteddfods.
The Hon Jane Mathews AO
President Wagner Society in New South Wales