20 Years on. The Dramaturgy of the 2004 Adelaide Ring – Peter Bassett

On 25 October 2001, three weeks after the Adelaide curtain fell on the first Australian staging of Parsifal – also directed by Elke Neidhardt – the creative team for the new Ring began a week-long ‘retreat’ in the Blue Mountains to discuss production concepts and designs. Neidhardt was open to many ideas, but she had a few general guidelines. The story must be told clearly. Extremes were out. She did not want a conventional Ring, nor did she want a self-consciously avant-garde production, one that divorced action from meaning – “a German-style, deconstructed sort of concept where very often you don’t recognise what is on stage … It’s terribly successful” she said. “I don’t know why. I hate this stuff.” Unveiling the four operas as a complete cycle added even more pressure to an already daunting task. Unlike the Bayreuth tradition where a Ring is staged for five or six years running, and directors have the chance to come back each year and refine it, the Adelaide production would not have that privilege. “We have to get it right and successful and acclaimed the first time”, said Neidhardt. Basically, she was working with a clean slate which permitted a fresh – even uniquely ‘Australian’ – vision.

Water and fire are persistent elements in the story of the Ring, and it seemed natural that they should feature prominently in this production. One image that had fired Neidhardt’s imagination was the enormous cauldron which Michael Scott-Mitchell had designed for the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony in September 2000, which rose out of the water and blazed high above the stadium. Might there be some way of adapting this for the Ring? As a direct consequence, a circular platform which rose and fell on a central pillar surrounded by jets of flame became a key feature of Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

An early element of the design process was a conception of the goddess Erda as a depiction of the Rhinegold in its pure state – a fecund Earth Mother representing nature at its most pristine and fundamental. Scott-Mitchell and Neidhardt imagined her seated, Buddha-like, virtually naked but caked with mud and with a vein of gold running down her. I had already told them about Wagner’s fascination with eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, and this connection caught their imagination. Erda was to emerge from the gloom during the prelude to Rheingold and remain visible in the depths of the river. When the gold on her body glowed at the appropriate moment, Alberich would lunge through the water and the golden gleam would be extinguished. The notion of a ‘water curtain’ filling the entire proscenium space also made its way onto the ‘clean slate’ early in the piece, although at that point nobody had any idea how it might be realised. Another idea which gained early acceptance was Scott-Mitchell’s concept of the ‘Rhine frame’ – a frame of blue Perspex panels lit from behind, which would surround the proscenium arch and be a constant reminder of the proximity of the River Rhine in, on, and beside which most of the drama takes place. These images – the primal Erda on her moveable platform, the real water, and the blue Rhine frame – clean, bright, modern, and architectural – provided the visual syntax for the designs still to come.

It was around that time that Neidhardt invited me to join the creative team as Dramaturg. This was entirely her initiative. The position of Dramaturg has its origins in German theatre/operatic practice, and it spread elsewhere, especially to America. The Dramaturg is a provider of information on the opera itself and on performing practices elsewhere. With complicated works like the Ring, stage directors do not have enough time to do all the research that might be necessary, and therefore rely on a Dramaturg to ‘speak for the author’. To give one example, in January 2003 Elke had a query about Loge: “I wonder if you could enlighten me a bit about Loge. I never quite understood why he is so unpopular will all the other gods, why Wotan says he is his only friend. What happened in the past??? As you remember we have costumed him rather like Mr Teflon, smooth and surviving all upheavals. I have arrived at the moment of his entrance in my blocking/production concept and noticed that my picture of Loge is really not clear.”

I replied: “I think that the key to Loge’s character lies in his symbiotic relationship with Wotan. They need and use each other, and the other gods resent this. Like many leaders, Wotan makes agreements of convenience that he has no intention of keeping. Then he resorts to cunning and dishonesty to get around them and, in so doing, undermines the very basis of his own authority. Loge aids and abets him in this. The other gods have little or nothing to gain from such behaviour but everything to lose. If Wotan falls, they fall with him, and so they deeply resent Loge’s involvement with and encouragement of such perilous goings-on. Wotan is playing with fire – literally!”

As early as December 2001, the design team had had preliminary discussions about Die Walküre, but not a lot of progress had been made. In an email to me, Neidhardt summarised in simple terms her vision for the whole work at the outset: “Modern, somewhat politically relevant, clean as against dirt, dark against light, rich against poor, Western World against Third World without necessarily recognizable figures on stage. The gold is not necessarily gold but a substance that the superpowers want. We would like to leave it to the audience to imagine what Alberich is fossicking for rather than have the invariable awful props of gold. So, ours will look more sinister.” Not all of the contrasts mentioned in these preliminary thoughts survived in the finished work, and those that did were represented obliquely and not in any simplistic or obvious way.

On 19 December, not long after the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, Neidhardt commented to me: “Can hardly bear to read the papers these days …. All the more important that people like us try to bring something exciting and uplifting into this world of gloom and threat.” She mentioned that she had been looking at brilliantly executed white cardboard model of Scenes 1 and 4 of Rheingold. So, these designs had been finalised as early as December 2001, three years ahead of the historic performances.

At a meeting on 11 January 2002, a question was raised as to whether Wotan might be involved in some way in the events in Act I of Die Walküre. I pointed out that, unlikely as it now seemed, there was indeed a precedent for Wotan’s presence in this Act. In Wagner’s early drafts, he had Wotan entering Hunding’s hut during the meal and thrusting a sword into the ash tree. It seems that the composer’s main reason for dropping this visible intervention was to allow the dramatic tension to build gradually towards the exciting business with the sword at the end of the Act. For the Adelaide production it was decided that Wotan (or Wälse, as the twins remembered him from childhood) would appear just as the great door to the hut burst open, and he would draw the coming of Spring across the scene in the form of a gorgeously painted curtain. And this is what happened.

When the discussion turned to the depiction of Hunding’s hut on stage, I mentioned that behind the action in this Act had been Wotan’s plan to prepare Siegmund to claim the sword, defeat his enemies and do what the god, bound by his laws and treaties, was unable to do alone. That had been the whole purpose of the boy’s tough and tragic upbringing. The hut therefore might be likened to a hunter’s trap set for Siegmund. Wotan could not simply give his son the sword, for that would have compromised his own authority and the cosmic laws, but he could lure him to it and leave it to the heroic nature of the young man to do the rest. Since the spear was the instrument and symbol of Wotan’s will, it seemed appropriate to conceive of the hut as a circle of spears that would fly up out of the floor and stop the fleeing man – in the way that a trap might catch a fleeing animal. Scott-Mitchell and Neidhardt quite liked this idea, and this was how the hut was depicted in the final staging.

The main idea for Act II was to divide it into two scenes, the first one being in Wotan’s ‘office’ in Valhalla, surrounded by the trappings of executive power. He is also accompanied by life-size statues of heroes in suspended animation pending future use to defend Valhalla. The challenge was how to move the heroes in and out on a lightbox floor. The result was highly dramatic, and it mirrored the power of the music.

In respect of Act III of Die Walküre, some observers of the Valkyries’ scene considered the Neidhardt/Scott-Mitchell ‘punk’ treatment of the warrior maidens disrespectful, but it certainly had the desired effect of providing emotional release after the long and, at times, gruelling second Act. The Valkyries’ exchanges as they arrive are flippant and coarse, and often pass unnoticed amongst the fast and furious music and overlapping voices. One of the mythological functions of the Valkyries was to serve drink to the heroes in Valhalla as ‘cup bearers’, so the ‘Wunderbar’ associations did have some justification.

For several weeks in February/March 2002, Neidhardt and I corresponded about aspects of Siegfried as she marshalled her thoughts and decided on an approach to this, the trickiest of the Ring dramas to stage convincingly for a modern audience. I made the point that “it would be a mistake to imply that Wotan’s ultimate intention is to make possible the birth of Siegfried. At this stage, it is Siegmund who is intended to be the saviour of the gods. Siegfried, by contrast, will be genuinely independent of his grandfather and doesn’t figure in his plans at all.” Elke was surprised to hear this, but I was able to demonstrate its accuracy with references to Wagner’s actual text.

In May 2003 Neidhardt turned her attention to rehearsal plans for the Wotan/Alberich scene in Act II of Siegfried, prompting me to offer my belief that this scene was written as homage to Carl Maria von Weber. Its opening, with the spooky musical atmosphere, soft timpani beats and lights in the forest, is reminiscent of the Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz. The latter had made a great impression on the young Wagner, and Weber had been a visitor to the Wagner/Geyer household. The Wolf’s Glen’s mood of German romanticism fitted perfectly with the Grimm-like spirit of Siegfried. In the Scott-Mitchell design, developed a year earlier in March 2002, the forest canopy was to comprise hundreds of green helium-filled balloons, swaying gently in the breeze (I had shown the designers photos of the Bayreuth canopy of upturned green umbrellas from the Rosalie-designed production I had seen in 1998). The balloon canopy suggested both the fragility of the natural environment and the child-like vulnerability of Siegfried.

Neidhardt asked about the Woodbird in Act II, noting that the ring and Tarnhelm would have escaped Siegfried’s attention had it not been for the Woodbird advising him to take them. So, she asked: “Who was manipulating the Woodbird? In Kupfer’s [Bayreuth] production it was Wotan and that makes sense to me. Or was the Woodbird intending that through Siegfried, nature would be repaired, ie the ring returned to the Rhinemaidens?”

I had never agreed with Kupfer’s interpretation and responded as follows: “The bird takes fright when it sees the Wanderer in Act III, which shows it is aware of who he is. But why would it be so clearly alarmed (flattert ängstlich hin und her – [flutters anxiously to and fro]) if it is merely doing Wotan’s bidding? The Wanderer’s own remark: ‘Ein Vöglein schwatzt wohl manches’ [‘A bird may chatter all sorts of things’] also suggests that its advice had nothing to do with him. … I am inclined to the interpretation that the voice of the Woodbird is ‘nature’ caring for its own. In the abandoned text for Der junge Siegfried [dating back to 1851] when listening to the Woodbird, Siegfried exclaims: “It is as though my mother sings to me!” Again, at the end of the music for the Woodbird’s warning about Mime’s treachery, we hear the Wälsung motive. Wagner explained this in a note to King Ludwig: “We hear, softly, softly, mother Sieglinde’s loving concern for her son.” So, it could be said that the Woodbird is also the voice of his mother’s (nature’s) love, warning her son of danger and leading him to Brünnhilde.” Neidhardt replied on 5 March 2002 that many German commentaries referred to the Woodbird as Wotan’s tool, but: “Your argumentation makes colossal sense.”

When discussion turned to depicting Fafner in Siegfried, we considered the prospect of a huge prosthetic hand, leaving the audience to imagine the nature and size of the creature to which it belonged. After further discussion this hand became an enormous articulated claw – a splendid and sophisticated piece of machinery – but it cost in the vicinity of a quarter of a million dollars to build!

I drew Neidhardt’s attention to Kupfer’s depiction of Erda in Siegfried Act III, in which she had appeared beneath a raised stage, entangled in luminescent yellow fibre optic rope against a deep blue background– a solution that was copied in Adelaide for the three Norns in the Prologue to Götterdämmerung.

By the end of August 2002, the scenic plan for the entire Ring had been mapped out, but the director continued with the painstaking business of conceptualising the production and analysing the characters. She emailed me early in September: “I am struggling with some things in Götterdämmerung. Brünnhilde’s last monologue, for example, when she mentions that Siegfried put the sword between herself and him. After all??? Did he or didn’t he?” I replied that the strongest evidence suggested that Siegfried (as Gunther) and Brünnhilde spent the night with Notung lying between them … not out of respect (his brutal action under Hagen’s influence had already put paid to that) but because of his commitment to his ‘blood brother’.

As work on the 2004 Ring continued, our attention turned to Götterdämmerung and to ways of depicting the hall of the Gibichungs. A few years earlier, I had visited Beijing and had been impressed by the Forbidden City. I suggested to Michael Scott-Mitchell that because the Gibichungs existed in a different social and cultural world from the earlier characters of the Ring, the Forbidden City might offer a suitable inspiration. He liked this idea, and the result took the form of grand red lacquered arches that could be extended for the full depth of the stage, moved back to a half-way position, or stacked up against the rear wall like Chinese boxes – one inside the other. The resulting scene was unforgettable and highly dramatic. During the funeral music, the hall of the Gibichungs was in a half open position with space in front. Later, it moved upstage for the final conflagration. Siegfried lay ‘in state’ with the people filing past, and he was then carried upstage and through the partially opened screen doors and out of sight. Brünnhilde remained alone for her long peroration and, after throwing the brand (metaphorically) on the funeral pyre, she disappeared through the upstage opening. A fire batten was lowered and ignited behind the mesh screen, illuminating the red portals of the hall; other fires sprang out of downstage vents. When Hagen dashed for the ring, the water curtain was activated, and the downstage rake (riverbank) rose, sweeping him beneath it. Fire remained visible through the water curtain, before both fire and water ceased for the final, sublime ‘herschtes Wunder’ music of hope and renewal.

The production concept and designs of this historic production won consistently glowing reviews. The Adelaide Advertiser critic was extravagant in his praise for the opening night of Die Walküre: “This is, without reservation, the most astounding night of theatre the Festival Centre has ever witnessed. It is probably without parallel in Australian opera history for its courage and audacity. Each act was greeted with tumultuous applause, and the final scene with a ten-minute standing ovation.” The interstate media was just as enthusiastic. The Sydney Morning Herald critic described the whole Ring as “one of the finest occasions in the history of Australian music, opera and theatre”. Overseas, London’s Sunday Times lauded it as “one of the most visually resplendent Rings of recent times,” and Opera Now magazine said: “The results were so dazzling that the sets often won loud applause on their own.” Hugh Canning in Opera magazine (UK) wrote: “Elke Neidhardt, with her team … [has] come up with one of the most beautiful, thoughtful and spectacular stagings of recent times…. It is unthinkable that it should not be seen again in Australia. Indeed, this Ring could well establish Adelaide, like Seattle, as one of the world’s Wagner Meccas.”

Peter Bassett

For the complete PDF text of Peter Bassett’s PhD thesis on the Adelaide Wagner Decade, including the 2004 Ring, click below:

Peter Bassett’s PhD thesis on the Adelaide Wagner Decade

Adelaide Ring 2004 Production Team

Conductor         

Director 

Set Designer

Lighting Designer/Associate Set Designer 

Costume Designer

Dramaturg/Artistic Administrator

Asher Fisch

Elke Neidhardt

Michael Scott-Mitchell

Nick Schlieper


Stephen Curtis

Peter Bassett.