Die Walküre

Shanghai, 17 and 22 September.

Die Walküre is the most popular episode of the Ring. More than the others, it can stand on its own as almost a romantic opera.

That’s how I first heard it, in effect, as an instalment in the then Australian Opera’s cut-off-at-the-knees cycle, which was done with cut-down orchestrations prepared by Stuart Challender.

That production was the occasion of a rather charming (even if just a little self-serving) anecdote offered by Simone Young in her recent interview (no longer available directly) with Norman Lebrecht. Simone was called in at short notice to play (she says she was sightreading) the first act of Die Walküre, which, apparently (ie, according to her), she did triumphantly. Challender was the conductor (which suggests it was not the opening season, unless he himself was assisting Cillario). Afterwards, Challender said to her “The last person to do that was me. I think I hate you.” A mere transcription does not capture the slightly camp inflection but simultaneously entirely friendly tone which Simone gave to the last sentence. (I just mention that because of the subsequent drama which Challender endured as a result of his forced coming out in public when the press moved to publicise his HIV-positive status in 1991.) After this Young was engaged as Challender’s assistant or as a repetiteur (I forget the exact details), and Challender offered her his support and encouragement, taking her off to second-hand record shops (my guess: Ashwoods) to scout out recordings by great conductors of times gone by and ultimately encouraging her to head to Europe to further her experience.

I can still remember the excitement of the opening of the Vorspiel/first act of that performance, which was probably also an early time when I got to sit relatively close to the orchestra.

I also have favourable memories of the Sydney Symphony’s concert performance of 1997 conducted by Edo de Waart and including the mighty Alessandra Marc as Sieglinde.

Since then, I saw it as part of the whole cycle in Beijing in 2005 (I am a completist: I have seen all the Chinese performances of the Ring cycle) but at least until I recently reread Andrew Byrnes’ (abridged) account, bore few particularly specific memories, apart from the failure of Wotan’s spear to ignite the fire round Brunnhilde in the last act. Of course, as my first Ring cycle the whole occasion remains wreathed in a first-time glow. Cheryl Studer was Sieglinde.

During the first run of Das Rheingold in the Shanghai Grand Theatre I felt that I was missing out on the detail of the string articulation. From Die W onwards I sat on a riser of sorts (a rolled-up towel if you must know) and whether or not that really made a difference, I found the situation much improved.

Oddly, in the first performance of Das Rheingold there had been constantly audible prompting. This did not recur subsequently.

The curtain rose on Hunding’s hunting party rushing about and then finally returning to his snow-swept camp, which looked as though it was somewhere on the Eastern Front in the winter of 1943 or 44. This was one of a number of occasions where the production chose to “bulk up” the stage picture by the addition of non-singing characters, including one a distinctly unfearsome and scarcely grown german shepherd dog. The meal when served was heated up military rations.

There was some pantomime-ish comedy when Siegmund searched for a weapon in various spots, even finding a gun at one stage. (Hunding of course was armed with a gun which lead to the usual anachronistic ridiculousness of sword versus gun when it came to their showdown.) To the right of the stage, a large log was draped with a piece of cloth of sort. I wanted to shout out (this is the pantomime-aspect) “Over there!” or “Look behind you.” as Siegmund looked everywhere but the right spot, even if, at that point, the odds were that he might only find a golf putter or cane a la Donner and Wotan’s implements.

Spring, when it came with love, was a distinctly muted affair. Snow falling at the back of the stage was obscured by a fire-curtain; no gate blew open or tree sprouted.

Up in Valhalla (now, furnished, even more Berchtesgadenish) Wotan and Fricka’s domestic was a cracker. Given that it appeared that Wotan presumed to keep framed pictures of all his bastard Walsungen on the coffee table, Fricka’s indignation was either surprising or justified, depending on how you look at things. Fricka had some devastating business with lipstick and handbag at the end of the argument which made the outcome of the argument clear to the returning Brunnhilde. Catherine Foster as Brunnhilde displayed the mannish side of her nature by tossing (overarm, not underarm) apples of eternal life whilst hoi-o-ho-ing. Fortunately, some Miss-Piggy-ish faux-shy-girlish mannerisms were toned down by the second run.

On the run, Siegmund and Sieglinde rested in an abandoned and shot-up jeep, still somewhere on the snow-swept notional (my notion) retreat from Stalingrad (satisfying flurries of snow from the leaf blowers in the wings – obviously if so it couldn’t actually be a Jeep per se). I didn’t feel Wotan was quite fearsome enough when he appeared: Greer Grimsley is better at suave than angry – there was nothing to match the baritronic sneer with which I still recall John Wegner dispatching Hunding in the SSO concert performance (“Geh hin, Knecht! Knie vor Fricka”), for example.

In the last act, the Valkyries (who can never fail to please) assembled on a battlefield, selecting from a stage full of the fallen (more bulking up of the stage action) heroes for Valhalla, who then rose and ascended the ladders at the back of the stage or, as time ran short, wandered off into the wings. Not all were chosen and some corpses remained. At the end Wotan (apparently a non-smoker) searched through their pockets to find a lighter to set of the fire around Brunnhilde, by now draped with his military greatcoat for her long slumber. This is the way the world ends, I thought, not with a bang but a Zippo. The fire itself was real and right across the back of the stage.

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