There’s a good reason why Wagner’s epic, 15-hour tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen (otherwise known affectionately as “The Ring”) is often described as the Mount Everest of the opera canon. Reaching the summit of this behemoth cycle requires experience, stamina and exhaustive preparation, and even then, conquering this quartet of grand operas is an act of single-minded confidence; put a foot wrong and it can prove a fatal tumble for the whole endeavour.
At the risk of exhausting the metaphor, a director attempting to climb Wagner’s mythological saga needs to be something of a theatrical outdoorsman – pragmatic, ambitious, seasoned and fearless. Celebrated Australian director Neil Armfield is an artist such as this.
“You need to sit very comfortably across the kind of theatre you make,” Armfield explains as we discuss his Melbourne Ring, premiered by Opera Australia in 2013 and now receiving its first revival. “There are so many minefields in these works and the way you approach them. How am I going to solve the dragon? How am I going to solve the disappearance? How am I going to solve the ring of fire? If you’re not absolutely clear about your vision you could potentially end up with a grab-bag of special effect instead of the kind of theatre that is genuinely surprising and powerful. It would be easy for it to become a series of cheesy gestures.”
With its fantastical story of Norse gods, terrible giants, diaphanous nymphs, scheming dwarfs, and even a magical ring, conjuring this legendary universe on stage is an understandably awesome task and one that arguably seems to demand a sophisticated array of technical wizardry. However, this carnival of special effects can be astonishingly pricey – an irony, given the work’s themes challenge materialism and the accumulation of wealth. Needless to say, staging a Ring Cycle is a double-edged sword for an opera company. Boasting a world-class staging is a point of international prestige, and yet the extravagant financing required to do these works justice can be a nerve-wracking gamble if a season flops. The pressure on a director to get it right is duly intense.
Armfield might readily spring to mind as an ideal choice. With a long and highly distinguished career directing stage works, films and operas both in Australia and overseas, his track record is reassuringly glowing. Yet, despite the kudos of his impressive creds, Armfield had declined several invitations to direct a Ring Cycle before finally accepting the challenge from Opera Australia Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini, in 2012.
“I was always very relieved when, for whatever reason, various requests for me to stage a Ring fell through,” he candidly shares. “I suppose it was a bit about fear in a way, but I think you just want to be on top of your craft and on top of your conceptual approach. Because this work is very open to interpretation you could end up forcing something on it that becomes extremely limiting. I just don’t believe in the whole, ‘Oh, let’s set it in Hungary in 1937’ kind of idea. I think if you set foot into that kind of naturalism, you’d be very quickly be consumed in the quicksand of that horror! There is no end to the kind of bad taste that would rain down upon you.”
By contrast, Armfield has taken a non-literal stance to his production, working with long-time collaborator, designer Robert Cousins.
“We looked at each opera individually rather than trying to get a singular architectural space that might work for all four operas. The only constant is the stage,” he explains. “That was our base point really; revealing the stage as this epic space that holds the massive world of these works, without necessarily have to render every moment literally. Hopefully, that means that the moments we have chosen to render have this unforgettable power. Above all, we wanted to avoid any empty pomp. Our storytelling had to be disciplined and use gestures that were strong. We didn’t want a production that was all glitter, heaping riches upon riches to the point it becomes endlessly tacky. When we do go there – for example, the unexpected arrival of 24 showgirls with rainbow coloured fans – the effect takes your breath away, because you haven’t been loaded down by other bells and whistles before that.”
Resisting any stifling specifics or garish showboating extends beyond the production’s look. Armfield’s direction has taken a similarly clean, symbolic stance.
“I hope the defining feature of this production is its humanity. It very deliberately takes these gods and giants and dwarfs and uses them as a metaphor for the power and control we have as human beings and the structures that exist in our society. These operas aren’t just fantasies – they speak very powerfully about the world and our understanding of life and mortality,” he notes. “Quite a well-known German critic saw the cycle when it was first staged and he told me it was the most human Ring that he’d ever seen. I took that as a very gratifying comment indeed.”
The four operas of Wagner’s Ring are not just a titanic challenge for those tasked with staging them. Coming in at 15 bum-atrophying hours (with some productions reaching almost 20, depending on tempi, stage transitions and other idiosyncrasies), the cycle requires marathon endurance from its audiences as well. But could viewing habits in the so-called golden age of TV be upping our tolerance to mammoth productions such as this?
“That’s a very funny suggestion. I’d not thought of that before, but I think you’re absolutely right. The Ring is built for binge watching,” Armfield responds. “These productions are about total immersion. You go in one end and you are given this experience; the growth of this entire world. It’s a great exploration of the loss of innocence and the commodification of natural resources, the growth of wealth, the division of labour. There’s also a great shift of tone across the four operas. It can be very comic, there’s great tragedy, there’s love. I think if you find the right tone and the right performers, you can connect all those dots in quite a delicious way.”
Featured image by Jeff Busby