Sunday, September 26, 2010


No sooner had we returned, replete, as has already been noted, with lietmotifs, from the meaning-of-it-all conference, than on the first night out we were up against it again.

On Friday, Mark Wigglesworth and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a beautifully lucid reading of the Shostakovich 15, full of the heightened awareness of a life coming to its end (never mind the strange programme note question of how did he know he was going to die), a morbidly premorbid reflection on mortality against the ever ticking clock. There are moments of lighter reverie in the descent into apparent nothingness, but the most optimistic for me was hearing again the Walküre 'annunciation of death' motif, pregnant with warning but still mysteriously alluring, with an other-worldly warmth and hint of peace, and one of the more magic moments in the whole Ring. If I hear that I'll be off I reckon.

The Robert Carsen /Cologne Walküre in Shanghai, for all its strengths, and there were many, had sacrificed magic and mystery on the altar on concept, locking the story in time and place, and that I don't mind, but leaving no room for, or denying, the essence of, for want of a better expression, the miracle, the transcendent - and that I do mind. Take that extraordinary annunciation of death for example. It was left to Brunnhilde to make a flat-footed amble onto the stage, plonk a sliver framed photograph on the burnt out jeep where Sieglinde and Siegmund slept/dreamt, before taking up an admonitory position upstage, sword in hand. Hardly compelling stuff. Catherine Foster's Brunnhilde was secure, big in voice and body (one of those awkward situations where the more careless might blurt out an embarrassment along the lines of 'when are you due?'), a not particularly distinctive tone, but pleasant and warm and young womanly, no sharp edges here. She was hampered most by what can only be assumed to be little guidance about the stage. We are spoiled here by the likes of Neil Armfield and his productions where every movement has a purpose and if there is no meaning to it, it isn't done. I assume Carsen was a long way from being hands on with cast number whatever.

But, that's the enough of the bitching. And Catherine Foster was about, in a few nights, to pin us to our seats. And she could juggle apples (big bowls of apples in Fricka's House) and Hoyotoho at the same time. Walküre did have one absolutely stunning moment. Actually, a whole scene, and one rarely the highlight in this second night (of the four) of many inspired musical and dramatic highlights - Act 2 Scene 1, Fricka vs Wotan, in residence.

There had been something uncomfortable developing in Greer Grimsley's Wotan, his rather monochromatic baritone with a nasal sounding edge which tended to rob it of authority, inappropriately wooden and two-eyed in a military uniform which neither suited him nor the roots of his power and position (to date, wisdom and negotiated contracts), but the Israeli born Germany based mezzo Dalia Schaechter was about to set their new fortress Valhalla on fire. (Did I just say that?). Her Rhinegold Fricka had been suitably uncertain, worried, a marital balancing act of ambition against risk and loss, her palace still unclaimed. But by the time they had taken occupancy, she strode the enormous floors of her castle, a woman in possession of all she surveyed. It was a tremedous performance, her exacting words, etched with acid, cresendoing with increasing force of argument and personality, completely dominating the stage, and Wotan, and me. I was a mess by the time of "Do I have Wotan's oath on it?". (Subtitles were in Chinese and very old English.) This was more an order than a question and Grimsley's "Take my oath!" was spat out in revulsion and submission. It was right here that this Ring turned, with those three words.

While Astrid Weber and Lance Ryan were fine as the young twins (and Lance Ryan's cries of Walse Walse, downstage at the footlights, were of such endless breath and amplitude, as to be hair curling, for those so blessed), the 'best bits' of Walküre didn't reach great heights. The morality monologue, heros dead in the snow, father-daughter, the summoning of Loge, were all to leave me pretty underwhelmed, but nonetheless I was content, with some new insight, and a new peak. It was already all worthwhile.

(Dalia Schaechter, Fricka; Valkyries)

(Astrid Weber, Sieglinde; Dalia Schaechter, Fricka; Kurt Rydl, Hunding; Valkyries)

(Catherine Foster, Brunnhilde; Greer Grimsley, Wotan)

The white stage is snow. The audience, on appearances mostly Chinese, was wildly enthusiastic if less disciplined than the usual Wagner devotees, with huge ovations all round, and once actually interrupted the performance with applause. That's a first, and now I can't even remember exactly when/where it happened.

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