Sunday, May 15, 2011
The ultimate Eurovision: Richard Wagner
Around 11pm yesterday, Richmond-upon-Thames was the scene of some strange nocturnal activity, besides the usual gaggles of drunken, semi-naked, apparently cloned teenagers. Along George Street towards the bus stops wandered small groups of dazed and bedazzled pensioners, many of them humming quietly, all of them wearing an expression that suggested they'd been at an ashram retreat and emerged with an altered sense of consciousness. The source? The Met Opera cinecast of Die Walkure.
I was lucky to be there at all, as our local Curzon sold out months ago - some friends had a spare ticket and called in the morning, so I dropped everything and ran. (I was one of just three or four under-60s in the place.) Of all the Wagner operas, this one is my favourite: its passions are the most convincing, its dilemmas the most interesting and its level of inspiration the most consistent. As you know, I have my doubts about opera in the cinema - too many tonsils - but with the prospect of Kaufmann, Westbroek, Terfel and Voigt in the Robert LePage new production...
It wasn't the tonsils that caused the problem - or even the occasional droplets of drool that came across too clearly on the big screen - but the volume. This was cinema volume, flattening out the dynamics at the uppermost level. Across a very big evening of Wagner this can leave you feeling assaulted. Just a notch down would have spared our heads and done the singers more favours - it is hard to get any idea of subtlety or variety of tone. Perhaps in future cinecasts this can be somehow addressed. But apart from that...
It's total surrender. How does one person, one bumptious little 19th-century man, create a work of art like this? How is it possible? Witness Die Walkure - especially in a performance like this - and you're left in no doubt that the potential of a human being is many thousands of times greater than we're usually allowed to believe, let alone aim towards ourselves. He creates a state of enhanced reality, a true raising of consciousness, a natural high that I'd defy any drug to match (not that I've tried any, but with Wagner around, who needs to?). Beside it everything else sounds...so small, so silly, such a waste of time.
Eurovision? You want Eurovision singing? Then see Wagner on screens in every country. Hear Eva-Maria Westbroek singing for The Netherlands as Sieglinde. Hear Bryn Terfel, fresh out of Wales, as the ultimate Wotan - the most powerful operatic performance I've ever seen, bar none. Hear Jonas Kaufmann compete for Germany in an oak-strong, desperate, tender Siegmund. And Deborah Voigt with her shining scimitar of a light-catching voice, flying through the high notes... And there is no need for anybody to win or lose.
Every argument is pallid beside this. All those fine words dissecting every word Wagner ever wrote, all those trendy debates about whether classical music is 'relevant', all the politically correct stuff, social engineering, box-ticking and dumbing-down - forget the lot. Just hear Die Walkure.
This is why we need music. This is the real thing. This is what it's all about. Showing us what a human being can truly achieve and share with others. Talk about Nietzsche if you like, talk about man and superman and Also sprach Zarathustra, but Wagner proves that something superhuman can come from humanity. And if it can, then it should. Don't tell me that anyone who can't hear it or doesn't 'get' it isn't missing out. Yes, they are. Wagner wanted this music to be for everyone. He wanted to reach the widest possible audience because he knew he had something vital to give them. He's still giving.
Down from the cloud, it's possible to dissect things a little more. Robert LePage's production hits many nails fair and square. Keeping a 'traditional' approach to the drama - naturalistic and rather prehistoric, complete with armour for Wotan and the Valkyries - does make the whole thing more engaging and believable than most tricksy updatings can. The set is extraordinary: a string of vast, tall panels, apparently weighing about 45 tons, according to the interval info, on pivots that shift, rotate and transform: they are a forest, a roof, a mountain and even the Valkyries' horses, dipping and plunging in the Ride: the girls dismount by sliding.
But the coup de grace is the final image of the sleeping Brunnhilde on her rock, watched from afar by Wotan: everything swings around until she is upside down, high up, a perspective evoking the sense that we're directly above her, looking down into the flames while rising into the sky with Wotan. My companions thought it might be a trick with a doll rather than the real Deborah Voigt, but if it was, it worked - the possibility never occurred to me. And if it was Voigt - she's brave. Have a look at the slide show of images from the New York Times.
We can pick holes, if you like. Voigt isn't the ideal Brunnhilde - at least not yet - though she may become one. Her middle voice isn't as strong as her high register, as she admitted herself in the interval interviews, with Placido Domingo and Joyce DiDonato as reporters, no less (they'll have Alan Titchmarsh out of a job if they're not careful). But it's her first run in the role - rare to be perfect first go - and in terms of personality and a strongly characterised tone, she more than carried it off. There were occasional things that we saw that we wouldn't have noticed on stage: moments when things get stuck, fail to cooperate or drip spectacularly. And the show started about 40 minutes late due, apparently, to 'machine malfunction'. We were glad to hear in the interval that this was stage machinery, not something inside James Levine, who looked unable to stand without support and didn't go up on stage for a bow. He has now pulled out of pretty much everything but this performance. A few raggedy bits in the orchestral playing, but only a few, in an opera in which scary amounts of stuff can go wrong, given half a chance.
Holes aside, this was the show of a lifetime. People speak of an aeons-gone 'golden age' of operatic singing, but I can only feel grateful to be alive to hear these guys. Terfel's Wotan is utterly superhuman, consumed with self-loathing and conflicting loyalties and with a voice that is a force of much more than mere nature. The way he kills Hunding took the wind out of everyone's sails. One word - "Geeeeeeeeh!" - and the character falls back as if struck in the stomach by a twelve-ton demolition ball. It will be a long, long time before anyone else can match the impact of Terfel's performance.
Westbroek is having one incredible year - first Anna Nicole, now this - and Sieglinde's ecstatic final blessing of Brunnhilde, wild and transported with joy, left us wondering whether it is she, in due course, who will become the next great Brunnhilde. Kaufmann, for all his assertions in his interval interview that he doesn't want to be a Wagner singer and nothing else, is going to be hard-pressed to escape more Wagner roles, so magnificent is his Siegmund. He has a German textual advantage, along with the fact that he was literally born into this music: in the interview, he recalled the days when as a small boy he sat at the piano beside his grandfather who was happily bashing through the piano scores of The Ring. Stephanie Blythe's Fricka was another huge success (in every respect) - every inch a match for Terfel's Wotan, she's a mezzo of glory.
Back to earth now. Let's slide down the Valkyrie horses...and get out to the shops before they sell out of rhubarb. Our fridge is mysteriously working again. Perhaps the energy generated in the cinema last night was enough to power everything up for miles around.