Thursday, 5 February 2015

Canadian Opera surpasses itself - with the ugliest Walküre I've ever seen

Oh dear, oh dear - some poor benighted stage-hand apparently forgot to turn off a light at the back of the stage in Canadian Opera's Die Walküre last night in Toronto. There we all were, back for Act 2 after a rather gloomy, galumphing but beautifully sung Act 1 and there was this lighted area at the back of the stage. The  front of the stage was a sorry sight: Wagner's gods had, apparently chosen to gather around the tree in a sandpit on a pile of rubble that had stood in for Hunding's hut in the dark and dreary 1st act. But now we got to see all the guts of a stage production: scaffolding, arc lights and ladders - the stuff that makes the magic but usually has the good grace to stay out of the magic.

Here, in what I assume was a stab at some 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink' post-modern deconstruction, here it all was - big, irrelevant and ugly as sin. And all lit up by this glaring light at the back of the stage that, as I said above, a stage hand must have forgotten to switch off. At first I thought something marvellous was about to happen back there. Perhaps a backdrop hinting at Valhalla or even a humble old everyday mountain - you know the ones the gods are supposed to be hanging out on. But when nothing happened and the light just shone and shone on what looked like a backstage rehearsal area, well, I started to worry that a stage-hand had forgotten to throw a switch and that perhaps I should tell someone because it was mightily distracting.

That said, there was not that much to be distracted from. The truly wonderful singers struggled through the limpest direction of singing-actors I've ever encountered. I did wonder, since producer Atom Egoyan is such a revered name in his home country's cinema, if perhaps he'd been a bit busy on a film-set somewhere and just phoned in his directions - what there was of them. Extraordinary artists like Christina Goerke as Brunnhilde were left to do the minimum of interacting with their fellow singers.

Act 2, to be honest, is tough for even a director like  Harry Kupfer, who can ignite his singers into almost too much action or the late Patrice Chereau who could make actors out of the most immobile singer. Act 2 is long and repetitive and requires Wotan to spend most of the time giving us a "Previously on the Ring" monologue that lasts for about an hour. There is some extraordinarily beautiful music in that act but if the dramatic action does not feed into it, even that music sags and lags. Here in addition to all the tired design cliches mentioned above, all  Egoyan gave us was Wotan digging Siegmund's grave or perhaps it was his own grave or the  grave of his freedom or some equally tedious symbolism. Oh who cares? He just looked plain daft wielding his shovel. But this production did not on the whole even dare to be daft, it was just dull beyond belief.

I still held out some hope for Act 3. After all the Ride of the Valkyries and all that follows is rattling good theatre and Wotan's Farewell is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. But producers rarely miss an opportunity to muck it up. There are exceptions. Seattle's Stephen Wadsworth actually had the temerity to TRUST Wagner and his stage directions and gave us a moment of great beauty and nobility. As did the much-maligned "traditional" Otto Schenk production at the Met. But 2 minutes into the "Ride" (and yes, it was the same hideous set and that light was still on) and  I knew all was lost. It was time to beat a retreat before, yet again, that glorious, redemptive music was brought down to the level of a producer who can just about  haul himself up to  Wagner's big toe in terms of talent.  I have never, ever missed the third act and I have sat through  good, bad and atrocious Ring Cycles in Munich, London, Bayreuth, New York,  Seattle and Vienna. Those last twenty minutes make me glad to be alive but tonight I knew they would be an unbearable travesty.

I love Canada and Canadians. I wanted to believe that a land whose culture is so enmeshed with the natural world, the climate and the elements would give us a Ring that reflected all that. But it was Seattle who managed that. Canada, instead, could claim the prize for "Ugliest Wagner Production Ever" and believe me I've seen some doozies.

As I left the theatre in search of a comforting cocktail, I was feeling sorry for all concerned. Sorry for those poor, wonderful singers who work so hard and bring such  shining talent to the  dimmest of productions. I was sorry for the orchestra, tucked away beneath the stage doing wonderful work and having it cancelled out by what was going on above them. I was sorry for the audience - all those wolfed-down dinners for the Wagnerian early-start, all those pretty dresses dry-cleaned and smart suits pressed, all those furrowed brows as the more generous, open-hearted among them struggled to show how open their minds were too as they gazed at the mess onstage. I was sorry for Wagner who gave us such beauty but that very beauty seems to drive people entrusted with his dramas to balance it with extreme ugliness. WHY????

But most of all I was sorry for me because as far as I know, I only get one life and well over half of it has gone by and still the rubbish Wagner productions keep coming. What I know for sure, as Oprah would say, is that this music has made my life better, bigger and more beautiful. And I've had a humble hope that I would be able to share that beauty in a theatre where the musical beauty would be matched onstage. But Atom Egoyan, Richard Jones and company, have other ideas. They have had  those ideas for far too long. Back in the 1990s, the great British essayist, Bernard Levin, wrote an open letter in "The Times" asking Wagner singers, John Tomlinson and Deborah Polaski in the atrocious Richard Jones "Ring" why they did not just refuse to sing in such tripe. He did not get an answer. Twenty five years on and still the tripe keeps getting shovelled our way.

Oh and if I have made a horrible mistake and a stage hand really did leave that light on, well, I'm sorry for him or her too because, even in a country with strong unions and lenient employment laws, that must surely be a sackable offence.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Wagner's Mysterious Monument in the Woods

Not far from the "Lohengrinhaus" where I've been staying recently and where Wagner sketched out his opera "Lohengrin", there is a monument to the composer - a "Denkmal" as the Germans call it. I suppose that translates as ''thought time".  I needed some Wagner 'thought time". I'd been in the house for a couple of weeks and had not yet connected with the great man in any noticeable way.  I'd imagined myself communing with his spirit in some mystical way. I'd thought, when I walked up the stone steps to the first floor where he stayed,  that I'd have a strong sense of him and Minna  walking up those steps - they'd be weary after a day's hike - ready perhaps for a beer or the fine Saxon wines that he favoured.  Perhaps at night, his ghost would even wander up to my apartment under the eaves for a friendly chat. My German is lousy but I kept a phrase book by my bed just in case he popped in.

But any Wagnerian spirit had failed to show and I was signally failing to commune.  I did hear one lone horn outside the window one warm evening but that was after Germany hammered Portugal 4-0 in the World Cup.  If Wagner approved of that result, he certainly wasn't telling me.

Action was needed. I decided to trace the composer's steps on some of the hikes that he undertook. Time, construction and modern transport have rendered some of his adventures quite banal but there was one that intrigued me. About 45 minutes from the Lohengrinhaus was the Liebethaler Grund -  a "narrow, deeply incised valley of the Wesenitz river" according to its Wikipedia entry.  Since 1933, the biggest Wagner monument in the world was constructed in this dark, dramatic valley that marks the beginning of that remarkable, surreally mountainous region of Saxony known as "Saxische Schweiz" or "Saxon Switzerland". I'd tried once before  to find the monument but I was travelling by car with a German friend and we got nothing but shrugs or dead-end directions. I had, however, seen a signpost pointing to a "Liebethaler Grund" trail so I set out one Saturday afternoon. I walked past the Schloss and past pretty half-timbered houses their English-style gardens opulent with delphiniums, poppies, lupins and loose-strife. I crossed a busy highway and walked along an unpaved road, passing a few more fairly banal modern houses when suddenly, dramatically, the landscape changed.

Massive, craggy brown rocks rose up on either side of the road. Older, wearier looking houses huddled against them. A loud, powerful stream
carved its way through the hamlet. A little bridge led into deep woods. Without thinking I crossed it, headed towards the woods but thought to check with an old man who was passing.  "Sie sind falsch," he replied and my long-forgotten 'o' level German told me I'd gone the wrong way. He pointed back to the main road. I managed to ask if there were a pub or caf in the area. "Not in the east," I understood him to reply. And then I think he added, "They're all dead here." And off he went.

He was right - the little village that had managed to squeeze into the ravine between the rocks had only a few houses. I walked on, asked a fisherman unloading his van and he pointed to another path into the woods, explaining that it was a good 25 minute walk but very beautiful. Then he frowned, thought for a minute and added something else that my German was not fluent enough to understand.

This path followed that same turbulent stream. The rocks rose higher and closer. The forest was thicker. I'd heard a few things about this monument, hidden deep in these woods.  An American Wagnerian had told me he found it 'creepy' because of its scale. It's the biggest Wagner monument in the world, standing 12.5 metres and, as he emphasized, was brought to this secretive spot in 1933. However, as Christian Muehne, the curator of the Lohengrinhaus pointed out, it had been planned to stand in Dresden but run into the usual city council conflicts. And even if it was installed when the Nazis were coming to power, they had not, he emphasized, paid a penny towards it.

Now I was drawing closer. I did not yet know if the monument was 'creepy' but the forest certainly was despite its beauty. I was alone in this dark chasm - the fisherman had followed at a safe distance but he was no longer visible so it was just me and the birds and the high dense trees and those immense rocks.

Wagner came here long before he wrote any of "The Ring" and it's tempting to think that when he walked here, those lofty rock summits inspired his "Walküre". His Siegfried would have found forest birds galore here although the busiest, most visible bird on my walk was a dipper, bobbing across rocks on the stream and diving down into the coppery depths.

I'd come to what looked like the end of the path. A small boardwalk with a rail, curved away from me and I increased my pace quite sure that I would turn this corner and confront 36 foot of difficult, complex, German genius.  But instead I was faced with a delapidated bridge across what was now a rushing river - and a locked gate with a sign that I now realized said more or less what the frowning fisherman had tried to tell me an hour earlier. T
he bridge was unsafe and crossing was forbidden . So there he was, the colossal  genius in stone - so near and yet so far.

Later that evening when I returned home and translated the rest of the sign, I understood that there had, in fact, been an easier route by driving further along the main road and taking a short walk and crossing another, safe bridge.  Oh well, Wagner always did make you work for his rewards. And, in one way or another, it is always worth it.