Highs and lows

A trio of new productions of operatic masterpieces suggests that less is more.

Julian Close in Gotterdammerung.
Julian Close in Gotterdammerung. Credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis

It may come as a surprise to those familiar only with such uncharacteristically bombastic flourishes as the Ride of the Valkyries, that the great stage works of Richard Wagner are essentially chamber music – and should be treated as such. After all, much of the 14 or so hours of the Ring Cycle consists of conversation between characters about what is, what has been, and what will be. Gotterdämmerung, the last and longest of the cycle, begins in just that manner: the three Norns, daughters of Erda, Earth mother and lover of Wotan, leader of the gods, weave the rope of destiny as they spin their narrative of past present and future (a helpful guide to those new to the cycle). When the rope snaps, as the leitmotif of the Ring’s curse is heard, they return to the earth. From then on, the end of the gods is inevitable, climaxing, after shenanigans fuelled by magic potions, in the fiery – literally – immolation scene, the finest portrayal of the end of the world ever imagined, and ever likely to be.

It is no surprise that the conductor Anthony Negus, the presiding genius behind Longborough Festival Opera’s latest Ring Cycle – its second, to be performed in full in 2024 – should cite Clemens Krauss’s 1953 Bayreuth Ring as a major influence. Krauss, a celebrated Straussian, pared his Bayreuth forces right down, to an intimate level, with the emphasis on clarity, of music and text. Such a feat is achieved similarly at Longborough, the Cotswolds’ Bayreuth, the only other private house beyond Wagner’s Green Hill to have staged a Ring Cycle.

The theatre at Longborough is a 400-seater, converted cattle shed, where ‘less is more’ not so much by choice as by necessity. And it works. Negus has a remarkable young band, with a heavy CBSO input, and a cast of fine singers. Julian Close is an outstanding Hagen – vocally and theatrically – the scheming, mortal, master-manipulator of all on stage. He shares the highest plaudits with the divine – in every sense – Brunnhilde of Lee Bissett, a Longborough stalwart, having played Sieglinde, the ill-fated mother of Siegfried, in Die Walküre first time round. Both are masters of vocal framing and the physical gesture, and there are no weak links in the rest of the cast and choir.

Amy Lane’s production – little more than projections and simple stage sets – never hinders the action (there’s a little more of that in Gotterdämmerung, especially the death of Siegfried and the work’s sublime symphonic end). One can only hope the Royal Opera House, which begins its latest Ring Cycle later this year, takes note and excises the excess to which it is prone. Oh for an austere Wieland Wagner setting.

Covent Garden does the right thing in its new production of Wozzeck, Alban Berg’s atonal masterpiece of 1925, arguably the twentieth century’s finest opera. Deborah Warner, returning to Covent Garden after a triumphant Peter Grimes – Britten was surely influenced by Berg in his portrayal of another rank outsider – keeps things simple. Effective expressionist transitions between scenes that recall the early days of German cinema, contemporaneous with Wozzeck’s creation, leave us to focus on the lugubrious, ultimately heartbreaking performance of the great German baritone Christian Gerhaher in the title role.

With its dense system of leitmotifs – apparent from the off, in Wozzeck’s first utterance, ‘Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann’ (yes, of course, Captain), Berg owes a debt to Wagner, though his concerns are not with the gods but man, downtrodden man. Arnold Schönberg, his teacher – Berg, also like Wagner, was late to his musical education – warned him that ‘music should concern itself with angels rather than orderlies’. Thank goodness he ignored him.

In Wozzeck, adapted from Woyzek, Georg Buchner’s fragmented, unfinished, nihilistic drama of 1836 (also filmed in 1979 by Werner Herzog, with a memorable title performance by the suitably deranged Klaus Kinski), Berg manages to merge music and text so effectively that they absorb one another. Poor, weak and exploited by his military and medical superiors, Wozzeck is ultimately abandoned by the mother of his child (portrayed movingly by soprano Anja Kampe). For Marie, the gift of ear-rings from the priapic Drum Major proves a temptation too far. Plagued by wretched visions, and paranoid about mushrooms and freemasons, Wozzeck murders his Marie before submerging beneath the waters of the lake, leaving their only child to repeat the cycle again. It is a harrowing experience, made endurable thanks to the mastery and harsh beauty of Berg’s musical structure – three groups of five scenes each, divided into sonata, fugue, rondo, passacaglia and other traditional forms – embellished with glimpses of Mahlerian marches and folksongs, which sprinkle magic on the wretched surroundings.

Wozzeck, though groundbreaking in its realism, is also in touch with opera’s past. When, in a brief moment of worldly success, Wozzeck mentions to Marie that he has earned some money from the captain and doctor, a C major chord is heard, a reference to the moment in Das Rheingold, the prelude to Wagner’s Ring Cycle, when the Sun’s ray’s catch the soon to be cursed gold. Elsewhere, he quotes the minuet from the finale of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

The second of Mozart’s operas with libretti by the peerless Lorenzo da Ponte is one of Glyndebourne’s new productions for 2023, and, unlike Longborough’s Gotterdämmerung and the Royal Opera’s House’s Wozzeck, it is far from an unqualified success. That comes as a surprise given Glyndebourne’s affinity with Don Giovanni over the years – from the 1936 rendering by Fritz Busch (the first recording of this work I owned) to Jonathan Kent’s thrilling Mafioso setting of 2010 – but director Marianne Clément seems hampered, as might anyone be, by the sheer challenge of humanising the Don – a rapist, after all – in a post #meToo world.

The setting, a hotel-cum-brothel, is confusing and hinders the narrative. The leads seem similarly constricted; nothing in the drama flows. Only the excellent Zerlina of Victoria Randem, zingy and sassy, generates any energy, apart from the whirlwind, pacy – and often wayward – conducting of Evan Rogister. Thankfully, it was the first of these three operas I saw. It feels odd that both Gotterdämmerung and, especially the brutally challenging Wozzeck – for goodness sake – felt more life affirming than a Mozart-Da Ponte masterpiece and cleansed this operatic palate.


Paul Lay