Music, Stage

Love the music, hate the set: The Ring divides audiences

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In most theatres, the audience changes every night while the show remains the same for the season. When a full Ring cycle’s on, the reverse is the case. Among the punters at Opera Australia’s Ring at the State Theatre, you spotted a few new faces on each of the four successive evenings, and there was an ever-changing parade of outfits (at Siegfried a hitherto demure dowager in the balcony suddenly flared in brilliant orange shantung, as if in solidarity with the flame-encircled Brünnhilde. At Götterdämmerung a young pair turned up in full lederhosen, with those pert green caps stuck to their heads. Less appropriately, if you observe strict cultural boundaries, there was also the gentleman in the stalls who sported a kilt.) But it was pretty much the same bums on the same seats night after night.
The audience’s responses from night to night remained fairly uniform, too, at least on the surface: generous, sustained applause at the end of each act and then again at the final curtain calls – with slight variations, of course, according to the particular singer taking a bow, but no boos or catcalls that I could discern from my little eyrie in the balcony. (In the stalls, I’m told, there was one customer who made his displeasure clear with much tut-tutting and hand-wringing throughout – but only prompting those around him to wonder why on earth he kept coming back for more.) At the same time, there was no rapturous foot-stomping, little whooping, and (until the last night at least) only the odd cry of “bravo” here and there. Compared to the eruptions of excitement – or disapproval – that can overtake European opera houses, it was all a bit subdued.
You could put this down to Melbourne middle-class sedateness (though the audience was wider than that). Or to some kind of reverential awe at what was achieved in the circumstances – or at least of grateful relief that the gamble of the whole venture had come off, proficiently enough, for all of the hitches and tensions that had threatened to derail it in the preparatory stages. It was probably a mixture of these things: no audience, however uniform, is a monolith.
You might also want to give the audience credit for a measure of critical reserve and discrimination. You could gauge this best from the snatches of conversation in the foyer during the intervals or as people filed out into the night at the end of each performance. It was clear from these that there was general satisfaction with the orchestra and with most of the singers most of the time. (Applause for the orchestra – and chorus — mounted steadily throughout the four evenings: they emerged as the real star of the whole event.)  But the staging – sets and costumes in particular – divided audience opinion much more. Yes. I overheard some defences of Armfield’s “Australianization” (or what in my last blog I called “remorseless  democratization”) of the settings and the action: “bold”, “fresh”, “innovative”, etc. And – a more arresting epithet – “necessary”: presumably meaning that it was the Ring we had to have, in reaction not only to the fustian of “traditional” horn n’ helmet  productions (against which there’s been such a long reaction anyway) but also to the cosmopolitan chic of the previous antipodean incarnation: Adelaide, 2004.
But these were defences, against the more pervasive murmurings of unease or scepticism or disappointment or plain hostility. Why was it all such a “patchwork”? Why did so much of it look “on the cheap”? The budget could stretch to those clunky cranes that hoisted the giants up and down or to that sheeny gym equipment in the hall of the Gibichungs. None of this technology was prescribed by Wagner, so why did we have to do without any but the barest suggestion of some of his most potent visual motifs: the ash tree, the rock, the dragon, the doomed towers of Valhalla?
I didn’t concur with all these objections: bringing out the Brighton yuppies in Gunther and Gutrune, pacesetters of the Gibichung crowd, was a suitably witty touch, I thought. But I baulked with virtually everyone else at the bogan Mime in his fluorescently blazing back shed, when Wagner (in the music if not the text) insists on a darkened cave. In the glare, it was difficult to feel any mystery, any sense of menace. Siegfried’s K-mart sweatshirt in the same and subsequent scenes fitted with Brünnhilde’s Target-tomboy look, but again this seemed perversely dis-ennobling. Siegfried may be a tearaway teenager to start with, but his heroism proves to be of the world-historical, not the local, Ramsay Street variety.
If allowed to proliferate, such incongruities and trivializations can end up not challenging but grating on an audience, and it wasn’t surprising that amidst the well-deserved ovations at the end of the last evening, the only voluble boos were reserved for the design team when they filed out on stage with Armfield.  (They’d not made an appearance on any of the previous evenings.) Maybe this won’t bother or deter them, but they are never going to carry those sections of the audience – much larger than just the booers – who crave for some cohesiveness of vision, especially in such a vast and sprawling and heterogeneous opus as The Ring.
Cohesiveness doesn’t have to mean conformity across the board, or lack of daring, and Armfield may have had more of a chance of achieving it if he’d worked not with a team of designers but with a single, and singular, artist. The stage designs for opera that have lingered most in my memory are those of David Hockney for Die Frau ohne Schatten (seen at the Melbourne Festival in 1996) and of Sidney Nolan for Samson et Dalila at Covent Garden in the early 1980s. Nolan’s dead. Hockney’s deaf, and unlikely, anyway, to be very biddable for a protracted sojourn in Australia. But there are artists of comparable talents and brio in our midst. A work by one such artist – and it couldn’t be more pertinent – is hanging in the very midst of the State Theatre at the moment. Juan Davila is no stranger to daring and, as so luminously attested in this work and the others in his series of meditations on Wagnerian themes, he also possesses a sure sense of the poetic logic behind The Ring’s kaleidoscopic dazzle, an intimate and erudite appreciation of its interlocking psychological, spiritual and mythological symbolism, and a keen empathy with its transnational, transhistorical  applications. Who knows if he’d have been any more biddable, but it might have been worth a phone call to find out.

5 responses to “Love the music, hate the set: The Ring divides audiences

    1. Irrespective of the author’s intention, there is a word called cohesiveness. I’m not sure I would have used the word, but it does signify sticking together.
      ergo uniformity or viscidness-which brings in tackiness and ropiness.

  1. I’m glad now that we didn’t get to see the Melbourne Ring. The last thing I want with such lyrical and uplifting music is to be distracted by the sets and costumes. As students many years ago we saw the Reginald Goodall production with Koltai as the designer and the staging was simple, evocative, but dramatic: the final scene of Gotterdammerung was breathtaking. Again, this year, we were fortunate to see the more intimate production at Longborough, UK. A small privately run opera house, it did not have the space for grand statements, but it didn’t need to. The conductor and the singers carried us along on the journey, settings and dress were simple, so we weren’t distracted. So it seems we had a lucky escape from Melbourne.

    1. Directors these days seem to concentrate on being different and making their own personal statement rather than realizing the work as it was intended by the composer/librettist. I once attended a performance of The Masked Ball at the ENO where the opening scene was the male chorus members (dressed in modern suits) all seated in toilets with their trousers down around their ankles. Unbelievable. I give up!!

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