a night at the opera, at the cinema

The twenty-first century phenomenon of the live HD broadcast was of course a way away when Wagner developed his idea of the gesamkunstwerk, or all-embracing synthesis of the arts.  The first season the New York Met did the live relays into cinemas, I saw a couple of  performances screened at the Cameo in Edinburgh, then didn’t quite manage  to follow them up with some dance and straight theatre in this medium. Nor did I go to see Borgen on the big screen. Birgitte / Sidse Babett Knusden was beguiling,  the supporting cast excellent, and the visuals of Copenhagen not as desolate as those of The Killing, but I have paid for my TV licence. After I even missed David Tennant’s  Richard II recently, a friend  who stays just east of Dunbar offered to take me to Berwick upon Tweed to see the Royal Opera House’s screening of Parsifal for my birthday.

I decided Parsifal  was my favourite opera when I heard the Prelude and Good Friday Music as a nipper (on vinyl and cassette), and this didn’t change once I started listening to whole performances on the radio and CD, or after I’d seen productions in theatres and on DVD. Not difficult now for me to see why: time becoming one with space; suffering relieved through compassion; healing balms and springs and pathless ways; those glorious, endless sonorities; a deconstructed eucharist or two that celebrate mystery and ritual at the same time as testing the concept of  an institutionalised, hierarchical faith.. . what was not for me to like? (That’s a rhetorical question: I have  no problem with selectivity when it comes to the appreciation of Wagner.)

Wer is gut?, who is good?, is a question posed verbally in, and implicitly throughout, the opera. In the  case of this production by Stephen Langridge, evidently not the grail brotherhood, who quite literally released their blood, with syringes, before piercing the side of a pre-pubescent Christ figure who – rather than the usual translucent lighting plus or minus wine goblet – represented the actual grail. Then some of them donned masks and seized firearms. I was diverted for a moment into wondering if there should have been a warning for needle-phobics like myself, and hoping there was no screening in Lockerbie that night. In Act III the knights bullied Amfortas into performing his office with more menace than I’ve seen before. All of this worked beautifully to make additional sense of a text that has engaged me creatively for several decades now, not least because it superbly pointed up the moral ambiguities of holy wars, closed societies and spiritual rituals.

 If the protagonist is Parsifal himself, the redeemer; and Gurnemanz, the elder and chorus / commentator has – by a considerable margin –  the most lines, what purpose in this trinity is served by Amfortas? This character is punished for his lust for Kundry, the only main female character, with  a unstanchable groin wound. Usually, as per stage direction, he’s wheeled on on a hospital trolley or somesuchlike in order to sing his lines about his night terrors, before being wheeled off again for the bath that might provide some temporary alleviation of his symptoms. If the singer / actor is good-looking, cue some audience indulgence in the eroticism of the wounded male body. Here Amfortas was on stage from the start, in a white cube of a hospital room that, as would be expected, served other functions in the production (shrine of the grail, bed of seduction). He was on a drip, and the grail knights were his medical as much as spiritual attendants. He walked, first with extreme difficulty, then with a zimmer frame.  The medieval setting can make this opera feel very remote from our world: this, literally clinical,  modern staging reminded us of the pain of being a hospital visitor, or relative or carer of a very sick person. And the imagery made it  seem  very much a post-AIDS Parsifal, too.

One of the problems a director of Parsifal always faces is how to represent the eucharistic grail scenes. Some, like Langridge,  invent new symbolic and gestural languages for the ritual  which critics in their turn  hate.  Instead of a processional mass, or holy communion, the knights and acolytes queued up to touch the wounded side of the christ-boy. Other stylised movements and poses were interpolated throughout. I don’t mind if something looks silly – this didn’t – because it just points up the actual arbitrariness of adopted styles and practices. If an act(ion) is repeated  often enough and you believe in it and it comforts you – nothing wrong with that – it becomes normal, traditional, important. When it becomes unchallengeable,  you start to get problems, so you have reformations and schisms and disruptions. Life goes on. My friend, a big fan of dance and physical theatre who was new to Wagner, said she could happily have watched the choreography in silence, and I agree. The whole opera was beautifully staged, and the staging was beautifully filmed. Nowadays the arts of singing and acting for the camera, and of filming  stage acting and singing, are becoming more specialised and refined. The gesamkunstwerk redefines itself.

Berwick upon Tweed’s arts complex, The Maltings, was chromatically warm and thermally cold, with a quirky and comfortable bar. Inevitably the sonorities and subtleties of Wagner’s final opera were rather lost in its small auditorium, or by its audio equipment: you really need to be, if not in Bayreuth, in a space with a live orchestra in the pit, to get the full sonic benefits of  this one. Outwith the theatre, you can’t of course achieve that visceral connection with a resonating voice that I find to be one of the greatest pleasures of being in it, either. The singing nonetheless  sounded pretty impressive throughout. Tenor Simon O’ Neill‘s Parsifal  had a rich and lovely lower register, but he was unable to bring an appropriate luminosity to the higher passages. Maybe even that was a good thing – others overdo it; and he securely landed the final sung note, where many  have faltered, before the sublime closing orchestral passage, when the audience gets to see the director’s solution to the ending of the drama. Amfortas and Kundry, suitably redeemed, possibly embarked upon a feasible partnership, though my companion thought it a more spiritual assimilation, after death. The sacrificial christ-boy has gone; the shrine is empty. (If nothing else, this is a great compression of the gospels.)   Several reviewers seemed to think that this symbolised how the brotherhood, under the direction of its newly-annointed leader Parsifal, had relinquished its selfish monopoly for the benefit of humankind. It could equally say something about the emptiness and superfluity of symbolism. I think that’s a more compelling initial reaction, whatever later reflection yields.

As with much of Wagner, the orchestra itself is a key protagonist. When I was sitting in the upper circle slip seats in Glasgow’s Theatre Royal a decade ago, shoreless waves of cellos in the final act seemed to reverberate against the auditorium wall . . . the other night I remembered  the previous times and places where I’d heard Parsifal before: isn’t that one of the things Wagner is meant to do, anyway? In a womb-red new cinema/theatre space,  wrapped up in my warmest coat, with – according to the weather forecast, and the next day’s news – a storm raging outside, I  re-lived who I have been, and revelled in where I was. Zum Raum wird hier die Ziet, now time is made one with space.

So, one of the lovely things I did for my 49th birthday was to go to the opera at the cinema, in the country next door, no matter that it was also showing on three screens in Edinburgh.  I hadn’t actually set a foot in England since 2012. As we drove back to Dunbar on the A1 I was also reminded of a youth spent travelling between England and Scotland at night, and, more prosaically, of the etiquette of using the beam. Coming home the following day, in low and cloud-diffused light a couple of days before the shortest one, the surrounding fields of the Lothians and Fife across the firth, and the buildings on Edinburgh’s shore-front ahead looked stunning, unfamiliar, transformed.

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ring cycles and the appreciation of opera

This morning I got a postcard from Scottish Opera, advertising their upcoming production of Massenet’s Werther, and claiming that ‘having joined us for 2009’s Manon, we know you appreciate a good French opera’. I’m not sure that they are qualified to comment on my appreciation with such certitude. I’m not actually convinced of my connoisseurship of ‘good French opera’. Cheeses and chocolate, maybe.

Radio 3 similarly claimed proprietorial knowledge of audience tastes when it broadcast Wagner’s Ring Cycle at a rate of an act a day over Christmas ‘for those of you for whom the prospect of the whole thing is too daunting’ – or for those who don’t enjoy  having too much on their plate, or something, as though it were  a turkey and plum pudding dinner. At least on previous outings of this occasional tradition of offering a Ring Cycle by installment over the festive period, the BBC  had the decency to present it as a concession to those not embosomed in twelve days of nuclear-family jollity, rather than to those of short attention span. A Ring Cycle, like a Test Match, is best savoured  not in bite-size chunks or edited highlights. It’s like a slow sea passage, a continuity experienced at the pace of its own unfolding. That, bah humbug, being said, there is something to be said for hearing it in a range of atypical formats, and the act-a-day version is not an uninteresting one. We can listen to CD recordings in ‘real time’ (actually, I rarely do) or attend a live performances if we can afford to do so. The radio schedule can offer something other to these, and intriguing.

The strangest Ring Cycle that Radio 3 has presented in my time was when it broadcast the whole 17 or so hours  one Easter Monday a few years ago. I contemplated the prospect of waking up to the birth of everything at the beginning of Das Rheingold, and set my radio alarm, but I slept through the quiet opening bars. I cleaned the kitchen floor during the colloqies of Loge, Wotan and Alberich later in the preliminary opera, but I started to follow the text during Die Walkure. By the time I made some dinner at the end of  Siegfried I was mesmerised; by Act II of Gotterdammerung I’d entered an altered state of consciousness and disorientation, no longer certain which recording I was listening to, or whether I recognised themes because I knew them, or because I’d heard them earlier in the day, rather than earlier in the week, which would be the case with a conventional performance, or at some point earlier in my life.  Afterwards  I ranted a bit over drinks and meals – I think this was before blogging took off – that this was silly, because it was unperformable. But even at the time I appreciated the opportunity radio gives to experience these strangenesses, just as I quite like snatching an hour or so of The Ring between feeding and visiting times  at Christmas.

It’s now ten years since Scottish Opera’s own magnificent Ring Cycle, which remains the cultural highlight of my life so far. We saw each of the individual operas rolled out over a three year period at the Edinburgh Festival, before transferring to Glasgow, before the whole cycle was put together in 2003, first in Edinburgh, then in Glasgow. Prior to the searing final performances at the Theatre Royal in November, we were able to sit at home and listen to  Radio 3’s  broadcast of a cycle that we’d attended, where we were among the enthralled audience, recorded in Edinburgh a couple of months earlier.

Even 2009 seems quite a long time ago now: I think I was impressed by Werther, but I can’t really remember.  2013 will also see  the centenary, and bicentenaries, of the births of Britten, Verdi and Wagner respectively, so I shouldn’t be short of performances and broadcasts  of good operas that I do appreciate.