'That's the first time actually I've ever been moved by the words of The Ring alone...I normally find that the text alone makes you yearn for the music, but that seemed quite wonderful to me.' Thus Michael Tanner, lecturing on Götterdämmerung, about Dame Harriet Walter declaiming Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene in its various incarnations and her husband Guy Paul reading Wagner's stage directions. There they are above in the green room of Birmingham's superb CBSO Centre preparing for the afternoon session, with lovely Daisy Boulton on the right, one of the two young actors with great careers ahead of them (Daisy is shortly to appear in the stage version of Shakespeare in Love). Can it be only three weeks ago? So much has happened since - I've sizzled pleasantly in Setúbal, Berlin and of course Dresden leading up to the great man's 150th birthday.
Looking around for a portrait to do Strauss justice, I was hoping to find the one of him stepping off his first flight in 1947, looking at the camera in naive wonderment. But another from the festival he conducted in the Royal Albert Hall that same year will do. Because we are still struck by the disparity between the frequent look of seeming lassitudinous indifference, and the fires within. But it was Stefan Zweig, his collaborator on Die schweigsame Frau, who wrote in his autobiography The World of Yesterday about the 'particular magic power behind this bourgeois mask' in 'those bright blue, highly radiant eyes...wide-awake...not daemonic but in some way clairvoyant, the eyes of a man cognizant of the full significance of his task'.
I'm very proud and happy with how our 'Discovery Day' grandly titled The German Operatic Tradition worked out. I was given what seemed to me like a not too paltry budget and the brief to cover four operas being performed in Birmingham over six weeks: Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, in concert that afternoon conducted by Andris Nelson and reviewed here; his Ariadne auf Naxos, which the Royal Opera under Pappano brings in concert on 6 July; the last instalment of Opera North's Ring, Götterdämmerung, on 21 June; and Schoenberg's Moses und Aron on Monday in the Welsh National Opera production which opened on the very day we were 'performing'.
I've written this elsewhere, but quite apart from the attentive, responsive and sizeable audience, what I'm left with is a sense of how the actors learned from the lectures - Harriet especially was full of praise in the morning, having had a harrassing start with a hotel bill she wasn't expected to pay and being sent to the wrong venue in the pouring rain - and how we lecturers were indeed moved and sometimes stunned by the actors.
Adding to the riches of the day were superb performances by two recent graduates of the Birmingham Conservatoire accompanied, very spaciously and sensitively, by Shah Johan bin Shahridzuan (a Malaysian prince, I believe, and a princely pianist). Baritone Samuel Oram began with Harlekin's little song to Ariadne and continued with 'Allerseelen', managing the expected breadth of line masterfully, while soprano Carrie-Ann Williams obliged me by learning 'Du Venus Sohn', originally presented to Monsieur Jourdain in Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Le bourgeois gentilhomme (she also did the Echo effect for the Serenade), in a couple of days, then delivering like a Strauss soprano to the manner born in 'Die Nacht' and a delicious rarity, 'Breit über mein Haupt'. Here are the friendly three just before their performance.
I kicked off the day with a tour around Der Rosenkavalier, beginning with the start of the Prelude to Strauss's first opera, Guntram, to point up the Wagnerian element in Strauss's makeup before going on to the Mozart vein (the breakfast minuet-into-waltz and the composer conducting the third movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 39). Then it was time for the Hofmannsthal vein, which is where I introduced Guy to read passages from the watershed Letter of Lord Chandos (1901-2) which the poet uses to characterise his own sense of having 'lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently', of everything having 'disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts' after the seeming wholeness of his precocious early inspiration.
Thence to the Marschallin's monologue and the first part of her scene with Octavian at the end of Act One. Again, it was effective and moving as pure theatre in the hands of Harriet and the very original Joel MacCormack, pictured right here (for I was clear I wanted a young man rather than a girl in trousers to read Octavian, as he is portrayed in the 1926 silent film).
William Mival elegantly encapsulated the complexities of Ariadne's journey from her place within Le bourgeois gentilhomme or rather Der Bürger als Edelmann, from which he played the Overture as conducted - again brilliantly, and in such good sound - by Strauss. The oboe sicilienne also served as neat prelude to Carrie-Ann's performance of 'Du Venus Sohn'. I was amazed to hear William, a composer of no little standing, rate Strauss as the most comprehensive musical voice of the 20th century. Indeed - he had such a far-reaching influence, probably not significantly less than his opposite number Stravinsky.
We also had Guy read Jourdain's last lines as they bring down the curtain on the original Ariadne, with Strauss's first ending. The other playreading here was of the dialogue scene between the Composer and Zerbinetta (Daisy, dangerous rather than merely flirty) as it appears in the original backstage scene of the play. There's no extended love duet here, only a quick jump to the Music Master's call to arms and his easy persuasion of the Prima Donna. Harriet's 'do you think I can?' got a big laugh.
I was pleased with how my second set of translations sounded - I tried to effect them with the actors' delivery in mind, so it was exciting to hear how they were interpreted. Below: the great Jeritza as Ariadne. Curious that the creator of the role in Dresden was Eva van der Osten, the first (and perfectly plumptious, careful with the wording) Octavian. Other portraits: Marschallin by Alfred Roller, the original designer, Brünnhilde of course by Arthur Rackham, Moses by Ribera.
I've dealt with the post-prandial musical intermezzo, but not the coda: Harriet, Joel and Daisy reading their parts in the Rosenkavalier Trio separately, because those beautiful words so often get smothered in the sheer heady beauty of the vocal writing. Sophie's lines are specially worth quoting:
I feel as if I were in church,
It feels sacred and frightening.
And yet I feel unholy too.
I don't know how I feel.
I want to kneel down before the lady
And do something to her,
Because I feel she gives me to him
And at the same time takes something of him away from me.
I just don't know how I feel.
I want to understand everything
And not to understand anything.
I want to ask and not to ask,
I feel hot and cold.
(looking into Octavian's eyes)
Yet I feel only you and know only one thing:
That I love you!
So on to our distinguished afternoon speakers. Michael's precis of the entire Ring saga up to and including Götterdämmerung was absolutely masterly and wryly funny: I've not heard him speak before, and was captivated by a master storyteller. It was also a dream come true to hear Harriet read two of Wagner's very different drafts for the original ending of the drama before the one we know and love. Stephen Johnson and I were both struck afresh by lines in the most essential of all Wagner's letters on The Ring, the one of 23 August 1856 in which he writes to Röckel how 'I had (unfortunately) never really sorted out in my mind what I meant by this "love" which, in the course of the myth, we saw appearing as something utterly and completely devastating'. Which explains the change from 1853's 'Let there be only - love' to the annihilation of the final version.
Michael stunned us all in his choice of recorded Immolation Scene, or at least the part of it he played: Flagstad as I've never heard her before or since, with Furtwängler in Milan, 1950. The recording came up with incomparable vividness on the transfer he played. I don't know if this is as fine, but here it is on YouTube. The entire opera is also available there in the same performance, all four hours and 15 minutes of it.
Stephen had the hardest task with the least easy to love of our four operas, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, but energetically explained both his own reservations and what he admired about the achievement. He started by announcing that we were to have a complete performance of Act 3 - which is to say, the page or so of text Schoenberg never set to music. Cue Harriet in more austere mode as Moses - after all, this is the woman who's played Brutus and wants to play Macbeth - with Guy as Aron and interjections from the young 'uns.
SJ demonstrated the nature of 12-note rows both consonant, up to a point (Berg's Violin Concerto), and dissonant, as they mostly are in the opera. Also reminded me what a superb piece the Second String Quartet is, and how convincing Moses sounds with the firm rhythmic underpinning of Boulez's interpretation.
Then it was time for a few questions and gratifying votes of thanks from Stephen and the very supportive Roger Neill who was in the audience (and has written a more succinct account of the experience on his blog). My thanks too to the indefatigable Hannah Baines of the THSH organisation which organised the event, a delight to deal with throughout.
So off we rushed to the concert Rosenkavalier. This is Stephen, looking a bit 'oh God, do we have to' as J snaps, and me slightly paunchy with the vivacious Mrs Johnson, Kate Jones, beaming between us after a meal during the long interval.
I'll say no more about the ultimately dizzying performance, duly written up on The Arts Desk, other than to add that our rather distant seats up top gave an interesting perspective both visual and aural (the orchestral woodwind sounded unbelievably vivid). Here's the view of one of many 'curtain calls'
And a closer-up with Sophie Bevan, Alice Coote a little in the shade, Andris Nelsons, Soile Isokoski, Franz Hawlata, Bonaventura Bottone and Pamela Helen Stephen.
So nearly 12 hours after we'd gathered in the CBSO Centre, we reeled out happy and drove back to Stephen and Kate's place in Sutton St Nicholas near Hereford. The final shot should go to the most vocal, sensitive and personable cat in the world, their Agatha. I'm much more of a dog person but I'd give Agatha house room any time. Mind you, even though she's more of a mouser than a birdcatcher, I'm glad she's not here at the moment because we have a deliquescent blackbird family nesting somewhere in the ivy on the back yard fence. An hour ago I caught the infant staring at me impudently from the weeping mulberry a few yards away as she brazenly consumed the fruit.