THE RING * ABBA * LA CAGE AUX FOLLES * RIGOLETTO * PIAF * DEAR ENGLAND * PATRIOTS * DR SEMMELWEISS*
We have waited sixteen years to get into Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuther Festspiele and finally, in March this year, we succeeded.
The other opera that’s impossible to get into is Parsifal, also included in this year’s festival along with Tannhäuser but we thought The Ring, coming in round fifteen hours over four nights was challenge enough!
Before I go another line further, do any of you remember, years ago a Comedienne called Anna Russell? She had an hysterically funny sketch explaining to a New York audience the story of The Ring.
Have a chuckle, it’s brilliant:
Sixteen years ago it was coyly suggested that perhaps we ought to place money in a Bayreuth Fund, adding a little with each rejection over the years so that when we were finally accepted into the ‘magic circle’, we’d be able to afford to cover the cost – I wish we had taken note!
But, hey, a chance like this is too good to miss, so we grabbed it and planned accordingly.
We’ve been to Bayreuth before, in 2019, managing to get into Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger; they took years too.
Lohengrin and, right, Die Meistersinger
Wagner only intended to show Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal at his expensive, dedicated opera house – it was designed largely of wood and was only meant to be a temporary structure, can you believe, but efforts to raise the funding required from Wagner appreciation societies around the Confederation and latterly Imperial Germany, plus the vast financial input of mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria made demolition after one performance simple lunacy. It stayed. Now we have it for all time and only some of his operas, his German operas, are played there.
The likes of Die Feen, Rienzi and Das Liebesverbot are regarded as “early
works” too affected by Italian opera to be of enough significance, so never shown.
Having prepped ourselves on books, DVDs and CDs liberally provided by Friend John Core, an avid Wagnerite, we set off to Germany via the Harwich ferry to Hoek-of-Holland, driving a 1,288 mile round trip to Bayreuth with a stop each way, there and back, in Kassel and Clervaux (Luxembourg).
I have never experienced such rain – even in Africa. While Italy and Greece burnt and boiled, Germany was engulfed in torrents of rain, hail, thunder and lightening and autumnal temperatures, pretty much the entire ten days we were there. In fact my ageing Merc, Martita is her name – sprung a leak in her roof and we had to wear waterproof clothing some of the way!
The Ring this year is nothing if not controversial. It was met by jeers and boos when it first played last year and when, after the end of Göterdämmerung, Valentin Schwarz, the director, came out for the curtain calls, our audience erupted with jeering and booing such as I have never heard before.
There is no Gold
There is no Ring
The Rhine is a large, private swimming pool presided over by the Rhine Maidens whose charges are not gold
but young children. It is one of these children that Alberich kidnaps and who is in turn stolen by Wotan and handed in payment to Fasolt and Fafner, the giants and architect-builders of Valhalla who are not giants and arrive in a Range Rover.
Are you following this?!
Freia, held hostage by the giants-who-are-not-giants, is released having been raped and assaulted so much she remains a wreck and dies early.
Valhalla is a post-modern, steel, glass and concrete structure on top of a
Wotan has no ‘contractual spear’ on which treaties and agreements are inscribed.
It is a golf club.
Northung, is not a great sword, is not plucked from a tree in Hunding’s hut and is variously a Glock, a toy machine gun, a real machine gun, a knife and a club of sorts.
The kidnapped child transmogrifies into Hagen and eventually murders Siegfried.
I could go on.
None of the original plot, already mystifying, is there; the re-imagined story is even more impossible to understand and bears no relation to the original libretto or to the music overarching it.
The reviewers have had a field day. Sam Goodyear headlines his in the Wagner Journal thus:
Coherent incoherence – a “constructively disrespectful” Ring at the Bayreuth Festival!
Cornelius Meister & Valentin Schwarz :
His was slightly more optimistic than most and I have included the whole, very long, review here for anyone interested:
The message from Schwarz’s production, as Goodyear saw it, can basically be summarised as follows:
Society has been led by greedy men and their families, who have raised their children to be focused on useless, material things.
Over several generations, we have become more and more damaged and false in our priorities, as inherited traumas, poor upbringing and a lack of proper education pile on top of one another.
In the present, we – the well-off opera-going middle class – may consider ourselves relatively enlightened. But in reality, we are like the Gibichungs, content as a group to throw our support behind political leaders ever more craven and self-interested, and then swan off to watch the Ring at Bayreuth. We are fiddling while Rome burns, almost literally.
Consequently, nothing serious is being done about climate change. If we continue like this, there will be no “Liebeserlösung”. And those who led us there, will, like Gunther and Hagen in this staging, never be held to account.
So, take a look in the mirror.
Well all that may be true but I am afraid it didn’t work for us at all and fitted neither the Libretto nor the Score.
But, Friends, many of whom may by now be switched off, since Wagner is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, the overarching music and the singing performances were sublime and worth all the effort.
The most beautiful moment for us was the love duet between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Walküre. The hairs on my arms are still tingling.
The four operas were played out over a week’s stay which gave us time to explore the lovely countryside round Bayreuth, the car giving us great feedom. Not for nothing is this part of Bavaria sometimes called Fränkische Schweiz, Franconian Switzerland; it is reminiscent of parts of Switzerland with its woodlands and steep hills, river valleys and granite outcrops.
We drove over to Waldsassen near the Czech border to see the beautiful Baroque Library, one of the oldest in Europe and the Abbey to which it is attached.
On another day we visited Bamberg
which some of my German friends nickname the B&B Town – Beautiful & Boring! But they live in Berlin so they would say that – it is beautiful sitting as it does on the valley floor by the confluence of the Regnitz and Main rivers, overlooked by Schloss Seehof and the castle at Altenberg. Fairy tale country. A short cruise along the Regnitz River was pleasant.
On the way back we stopped for ice creams at Pottenstein with its Medieval castle dominating the village. You can just see it in the photograph here.
Bayreuth and its surrounding countryside was ruled over by a series of Margraves, sort of Dukes or Princelings I suppose. Plenipotentiaries of the Prussian Hohenzollerns and latterly the Bavarian Wittelsbachs, Ludwig II’s family – Wagner’s great patron.
There was a Baroque flowering under the extraordinarily talented Margravine Wilhelmine (older sister to Frederick the Great of Prussia), the wife of Margrave Friedrich, whose influence in matters architectural, artistic and cultural was immense during their rule, 1735-1763.
They left a brilliant, enlightened heritage and we visited The Hermitage just outside the city, the whimsical Felsspalte or Rock Garden of Sanspareil, the Neue Palais in Bayreuth attached to a park that stretches up to Wahnfried, Wagner’s residence and burial place; the Garden Museum of the Fantaisie Palace was another elegant visit.
We drove back to England via Luxembourg stopping in Rotterdam for the afternoon to visit the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.
The museum is in fact closed for renovation but right next to it is the
amazing Depot Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen – the world’s first fully accessible art depot, built in a public/private partnership where inside and outside are intertwined. It is designed to give visitors an impression of the great scale of the
collection which can be seen from the central staircase and landings. The upper floors consist of exhibitions spaces and the atrium gallery, which has a glass roof, contains collections from old buildings. The construction is built with sustainability in mind. I know I over-use this word but the result is astonishing and the depot is where the entire Boijmans collection is currently housed.
Across the road from the depot is the Chabot Museum containing a collection including works from the 1920s, from the Schortemeijer collection plus 26 very disturbing works from the Second World War.
The white villa was designed and built in 1938 for the industrialist C. H. Kraaijeveld in the style of the New Objectivity, a 1920s German movement.
A very beautiful construction we thought, full of light and space.
It housed the Gestapo and SS Offices during the German Occupation and from it you can see the vast new modern city landscape of central Rotterdam which was completely flattened by air raids. We like the wonderful, brave modern architecture that has arisen from the ashes.
And so to the Ferry at Hoek for the night crossing to Harwich. A great ten days we felt.
And of course……..ABBA!
Yes, dear Friends, I am afraid I am an unreformed, unrepentant ABBAfan, an ABBA-junkie!
Last night I went with Friend Christoph, all the way from Berlin, to the ABBA Experience for their ABBA Voyage Concert in its purpose built……..I’m not sure what to call it….. concert hall? Film studio? Cinema? A combination of all three I think. Situated in an unlikely corner of London along from Stratford by Pudding Mill Station!
This “Voyage” is quite simply jaw-dropping and combines live music with virtual reality to create a unique, immersive show with Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid appearing as digitally-mastered Avatars – or ABBAtars – in this purpose-built space using cutting edge technology and mind-boggling lighting effects.
It is true to say that you could not see the ‘joins’ in the effects, as it were, they were so real and, at the end the four stars appeared as they are today making the whole project even more impressive.
They sang all their famous songs and some new ones besides and the audience – all ages, from 16 to 76 – were in seventh heaven.
I remember seeing ABBA – The Movie made during their sensational tour of Australia in 1977, in Cape Town where I was living at the time, at the Wynberg SterKinekor cinema which had been specially revamped for the occasion with a new sound system installed! I went with my then girlfriend, Elspeth and my Friend Liz Dick gave me a copy of the record with this same picture on its cover.
I have been an ABBAfan ever since.
Friends, it’s been an up-and-down summer weather-wise but that has not stopped us from two outdoor events, with the “Holland Park Five” – Friends Dave, Susanna, Sarah, Tony and I – seeing an excellent Rigoletto. The “Holland Park Five” meet every year there for a picnic and at least one event and despite whatever weather, has always been a great success.
Then at the Regent’s Park Theatre this year’s musical offering has been La Cage Aux Folles beautifully staged and ingeniously directed by the Artistic Director there, Tim Sheader. This is one of our favourite shows, for fairly obvious reasons!
We both remember seeing Denis Quilley and George Hearn in it at the Palladium in 1986 – I am what I am and what I am is an Illusion was a signature song in those AIDS-ridden days. We also remember during the interval, coming out for a drink at the foyer bar where there was a small family of three, Mother, Father and Daughter standing chatting and we overheard the daughter, indicating Tony and me saying, “Look Mum, there are two!”
Tim Sheader’s production was no less brilliant; a talented cast of dancers and singers and some great choreography by a team under Stephen Mear.
And not a dry eye in the house at the end!
We have walked out of very few plays. In fact you can count them on the fingers of one hand. There is always that nagging feeling that come the interval, a good time to disappear, there might have been something redeeming in the second half and to betray your booking just might be premature!
But we have never not turned up for a show at all, unless by an accident of omission; tickets drawing pinned to a corkboard concealed behind a recipe!
Until The Third Man – A Musical. To our horror Friends Lois and Helen, tennis fanatics, realised that our booking at that clashed with the Wimbledon Women’s’ Finals. In the meantime Tony and I had read so-so reviews and in fact could not understand why we had elected to go to this show in the first place.
But directed by Trevor Nunn, music by George Fenton, lyrics by Don Black and book by Christopher Hampton – an illustrious team to say the least – paused us and we clicked the reservation button while wondering what on earth would possess anyone to turn Graham Greene’s great story, already iconic in literature and film, into a musical? Given that nearly everything these days seems to be converted into musicals, I suppose it was to be expected.
Big mistake. Except that the reviews, actually, were okay: mediocre, 2** and 3 *** ; enough in fact to make the finals match between Markéta Vondroušová and Ons Jabour a more alluring drama than the one at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
And so it proved.
There have been other visits to the theatre: while Tony was off to Ibiza for a 50th Anniversary school reunion – (in his hippy years, in the 70s, he taught English and History in Ibiza at the Morna Valley School for English ex-patriot children) – I was staying with Friend Helen and managed to fit in two visits to the theatre, both excellent, seeing Dear England a new play by James Graham, directed by Rupert Goold with Joseph Fiennes playing the controversial football manager Gareth Southgate and Patriots with Tom Hollander; a transfer from the Almeida Theatre to the West End, written by Peter Morgan and also directed by Rupert Goold – a busy man! He is everywhere.
I specially liked Patriots. It depicts through debate, dialogue and intrigue the chilling rise of Vladimir Putin (Will Keen), his relationship with Boris Berezovsky (Tom Hollander), an early oligarch from the Yeltsin years, and the latter’s part in putting Putin into power, thinking he had a puppet in the Kremlin he could control.
Big Mistake! But a riveting evening in the theatre.
Dear England was equally riveting though not chilling at all; really rather warm and at times, moving. It traces the England Football team’s fortunes from the moment their diffident, upstanding and quietly revolutionary manager, Gareth Southgate (Joseph Fiennes, bearing an uncanny resemblance), comes into their lives. It traces real world events, from penalty shootouts that bring a life-like tension to the aftermath of losing a game.
The National Theatre audience for this was different from the usual clientele – all, I think, football lovers! Gina McKee
When I was 15 I won a prize at Speech Day for Reading & Recitation; these prizes were always books and, that year, one of my books was a Compendium of Famous Lives in History. I read all the lives but the one that most stuck in my mind was the story of the life of Ignaz Semmelweiss, the Hungarian physician and scientist who pioneered antiseptic procedures.
Described as the “saviour of mothers”, he discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be drastically reduced by requiring hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. Puerperal fever was common in mid-19th-century hospitals and often fatal.
He proposed the practice of washing hands with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847 while working in Vienna General Hospital’s First Obstetrical Clinic, where doctor/surgeons’ wards had three times the mortality of midwives’ wards.
Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 2%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community, who treated him appallingly.
He was eventually tricked into a lunatic asylum where he was so badly beaten by orderlies that he died of his wounds which, ironically, became infected with sepsis.
He was only 47 years old and his work remained unrecognized for decades by the Establishment, until the advent of Louis Pasteur who confirmed his “germ theory”, and Joseph Lister who enforced his practices with great success.
A great story for a play which one of our National Treasures, Mark Rylance, thought too. He collaborated with writer Stephen Brown and Tom Morris, the Artistic Director of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre.
I couldn’t wait to see it but – oh dear, what a terrible disappointment.
I am a great fan of Mark Rylance but sometimes he does not deliver; he didn’t with this, I’m afraid; here I am in disagreement with all the reviewers who have praised it to the skies. It was a polished and perfectly staged production but Mark Rylance phoned-in a mumbled, incoherent performance in a concept that did not do justice to either the medical debate or the actual story – riveting in itself – and seemed more like a rather overbearing first year drama school workshop, very “up” itself as we’d say!
It made me impatient to leave though one stuck it out of course; interesting that there were a lot of departures at the interval and the usual standing ovation now de rigueur, irritatingly, for all performances of every description everywhere, where not forthcoming here. A couple in front of us stood up and then looked round at our non-compliance, frowned in disbelief then looked sheepish when they realised how lonely they were!
I want to close with An Audience with Édith Piaf because this was special. I am also a great fan of the great French Chanteuse whose life was a huge drama, filled with passion and sadness. The tiny little sparrow.
I was for forty years a reader of audio books and on the panel of the Royal National Institute for the Blind’s Talking Book Service, variously in Great Portland Street and now at Camden Lock.
There I met Andrew Farr – or “Dex” as we all called him. He was one of the ‘engineers’ who produced the recordings and sat for hours listening to all our efforts, running two suites at a time. The four recording studios had two actual studios attached, making eight recordings going at any one time. Quite a feat I can tell you.
Anyway Dex finally left, moved to Brighton and went into the travel industry, was stationed in Tunisia for years, came back, has always dealt with people and is a keen singer/entertainer in his spare time.
He discovered Édith Piaf when he was little and been in love with her memory every since to the extent that he has worked up a one-man show simply called Édith Piaf – Live at Niegue, an affectionate re-telling of her life and re-imagining of her last ever filmed concert in 1962.
Andrew – Dex, as I will always know him – wheels out this wonderful show every so often and had one lined up for the Guildford Fringe Festival. We have never been able to go to any of his others so we hot-footed it there and had the most wonderful, moving, sensitive, enthralling evening – made all the better for the Piaf-junkies that filled the place!
Pure pastiche but in the best taste.
FRIENDS – IT’S BEEN A LONG ONE! THANKS FOR STAYING WITH ME AND FOR ALL YOUR WONDERFUL COMMENTS AND MESSAGES.
NO EXAMS THIS TIME!