Ringside – Special Events Inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle

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To coincide with its full run of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in November, the Birmingham Hippodrome is presenting a series of special, themed events from 25th October until 8th November. Called Ringside, the diverse programme encompasses everything from film to cabaret, concerts to family friendly adventure games.

Kicking things off in The Patrick Centre on Saturday 25th and Sunday 26th October, Reel Access will be screening a film titled Twilightofthefreakinggods, adapted from a play by Stan’s Café, which is in turn based on Wagnerian opera. All in black and white, this striking, wordless movie features a stunning original soundtrack. Twilightofthefreakinggods begins at  6.30pm on the Saturday and 2.30pm on the Sunday, with tickets priced at £6. Check out the Stan’s Cafe website for more information and clips, or click here to book.

Then, on Saturday 1st November, a packed schedule starts at 11am with One Of Our Singers Is Missing, a real-life, interactive game open to all. Participants will be sent to search for a missing opera singer, following clues to save the star and bring them safely back to the Hippodrome. This free adventure will be taking place every 15 minutes until 4pm. To join in, you’ll need to book a place via the Birmingham Hippodrome Website.

At 4pm, Neil Brand, presenter of BBC4’s acclaimed Sound of Cinema – The Music that Made the Movies series, will be discussing modern film scores and searching for elements of Wagner within them. Film Music and the Ghost of Wagner will be taking place in the Patrick Centre with tickets priced at £10. Click here to book.

Then from 5.30pm, students from the Birmingham Conservatoire will be taking over the Hippodrome foyer to play Wagner’s much-loved Siegfried Idyll, conducted by David Purser. Based on one of Brunnhilde’s melodies from The Ring Cycle, the song was written by the composer as a birthday present to his wife. This event will be open to all with no advance booking required.

This beautiful free concert will be followed by an evening of cabaret with West End stars Kit and McConnell, who will be offering their own irreverent take on the opera repertoire in The Fat Lady Sings. A veteran of Radio 4’s Just A Minute, Kit Hesketh Harvey is also well known for his work as one half of comedy duo, Kit and the Widow. The Fat Lady Sings will take place in the Patrick Centre from 7.30pm. Tickets cost £18 and can be booked online here.

On Sunday 2nd November, Birmingham’s Electric Cinema will be running a special screening of Fritz Lang’s Siegfried at 11.30am. One of the classics of early cinema, this 1924 film will be accompanied by an authentic live piano score played by Neil Brand. Tickets cost £10-16.50 and can be booked via The Electric’s website.

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Finally, on Saturday 8th November, leading soprano singers Susan Bullock and Catherine Foster will discuss the challenges of performing in a five-hour-long opera in Brunch with the Brunnhildes at 11.30am in the Patrick Centre. Hosted by Spectator journalist and presenter of Radio 4’s Front Row, Matthew D’Ancona, the event will cost £25 to attend with brunch included in the ticket price. Menu and booking details can be found on the Hippodrome website.

The Ring Cycle will run at the Birmingham Hippodrome in four parts, presented on Wednesday 5th, Thursday 6th, Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th November. Each show will be conducted by Valery Gergiev and performed by the Mariinsky Opera. More information is available here.

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“O word, you word that I lack” – The Welsh National Opera’s Moses und Aron

moses und aron Regardless of how you present it, Schoenberg’s philosophical musing on the ineffable nature of the divine in Moses und Aron could never be an easy watch – or, indeed, listen. An attempt to represent the ineffectiveness of representation, its complex ideas and jarring, often anti-musical score make for a show that is in large part just as dry as it sounds. This is not to say that it’s uninteresting or unengaging, however: in fact, the lack of easy entertainment and straightforward answers, along with the work’s literal incompletion, are not so much failures as active refusals to compromise. Through the dogged, unwavering idealism of Moses, the composer channels his own frustration and inability to convey his perfect “idea”, rendering Act II’s closing statement – “O word, you word that I lack” – all the more poignant.

Given all that, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this is a very rarely performed piece: if you’re not already an opera fan, it’s unlikely to win you over. Yet the very rarity of the opportunity to see this show more than made up for this in terms of bums-on-seats, with enthusiasts apparently willing to make the trip out where they perhaps would not normally. This was the busiest I have ever seen the Hippodrome on an opera night, and for good reason: the Welsh National Opera’s current run is only the second ever production of Moses und Aron by a British company, the last one having been originally staged back in 1965.

wnoBased on what I picked up from other audience members, the design (by Anna Viebrock) and direction (Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito) of this new production are quite radically different from the more traditional, Biblical approach taken by its predecessor. Rising effortlessly to the challenges of the piece and making no apologies for its toughness, the WNO get right to the heart of the opera’s central conflict by both offering and denying us concrete representations of Schoenberg’s great “idea”. Here, the contrast between the two brothers, with Moses’s faltering sprechgesang and Aron’s considerably more palatable tenor melodies, is mirrored in the staging of the two acts, with Act I providing a clear, contemporary analogy for the story as effective as any of Aron’s own metaphors and imagery, while Act II, superficially at least, is much more difficult to follow.

Act I is set in a sort of parliamentary chamber or lecture hall, where a white-haired and formally suited Moses is off-set by a profusely sweating Aron in a hoodie and trainers, played impeccably by John Tomlinson and Rainer Trost respectively. Revolution hangs in the air above the oppressed and discontented chorus, who are promised freedom and a better life if they agree to follow the one true God and his servants on Earth, in scenes overlaid with instantly recognisable echoes of the Arab Spring and recent Middle Eastern conflicts. Flamboyant Aron eggs the people on to their “destiny”, setting fire to an Egyptian flag and showing them wondrous “miracles” which, as far as the audience can tell, take shape only in their over-eager imaginations. Moses is unhappy with these tricks and displays that he believes debase the purity of his faith and ideals, but he eventually has no choice but to go along with them, since his own attempts to explain God’s inconceivable power and the reasons why he should be trusted prove futile.

The revolutionary fervour that Aron’s smooth-talking whips up in the people is the zenith of the show’s action: by comparison, the frenzied orgy promised in Act II is (to steal a term used by a fellow audience member during the post-show discussion) something of a “damp squib”. Rather than a barbaric mess of sex and violence around a fearsome pagan statue, we’re instead presented with the remarkably unerotic fumblings and pointless fisticuffs of a bunch of bored teenagers in the darkness of a cinema. Their “golden calf” is an apparently graphic movie whose content we can only guess at: as the audience watches the crowd onstage gazing back at them, they see the reflection of their own restlessness. The refusal of Wieler and Morabito to show us what they’re seeing or to gratify our senses has much the same effect on the audience as Moses’s similar resistance to visual representations and simple answers has on the Israelites. Like them, we’re left frustrated at the invisible, impalpable nature of the idea we’re being presented with, wondering when Moses will return to lead us out of this wilderness. Even the so-called orgy offers no relief: Aron’s permission of the indulgence of baser instincts is clearly not the right solution to the problem, a conclusion that both Moses and Schoenberg would doubtless appreciate.

There’s plenty of contemporary political commentary woven throughout the show: the rashness and disorganisation that are all too common in times of protest and revolution, the renewed restlessness, power vacuums and vulnerability often left in the wake of uprisings, the political naivety of the young and uneducated, and their uncertainty about what it is they actually want are all cleverly and subtly tackled. More obviously, of course, there’s also the out-of-touch intellectualism of would-be leaders and idealists, contrasted with the slippery real politik of rabble-rousers and “people’s politicians” who tend to fuel and feed on ignorance. Needless to say, neither of these seem like particularly appealing options, though no clear alternative is presented.

This is definitely not a show for anyone who’s after a night of easy entertainment, but if you want something to really make you think, then make sure you catch this in London next month: after all, it could be another 50 years before a new production comes along!

The Welsh National Opera’s Lohengrin

Last night’s performance of Lohengrin by the Welsh National Opera was my first experience of a professional opera. Though at university I’d seen friends direct and perform The Magic Flute, as well as having been involved in a Gilbert and Sullivan Society, this was also my first experience of what might be considered a “serious” opera. That being said, the story of Lohengrin is as silly a fairy story as you might find in any of the comic operettas with which I’m more familiar, but it’s remarkable just how easy it is to fully engage with the melodrama. By the end, I was completely emotionally involved.

I definitely enjoyed the second and third acts more than the first, and I can’t quite be sure how much of this was to do with increasing quality and ambition of the opera itself, and how much of it was just me taking a while to “get into it”, but overall I’d probably agree with the assessment of Adrian Mourby in the programme that it might be seen as a piece with “uneven promise”. It’s not universally perfect, but some of the music is breathtaking. In the programme, conductor Lothar Koenigs is spot on when he describes the “unearthly” sound of the high-register violins at the start of the overture, which is later repeated when Lohengrin makes his big revelation. It’s spellbinding – a Romantic reaching for the sublime.

I think my favourite part of the show was near the start of Act 2, when Ortrud (I always love a good villain) plots Lohengrin’s downfall with Telramud, which was engaging both musically and dramatically. Partly, of course, this was down to Susan Bickley’s great talent: she, more than anyone else, really conveyed a clear sense of her character right from the start. Plus, she definitely had the best outfits – though Emma Bell (Elsa) did look spectacular in her wedding dress, and costume was very much a strong point throughout.

The rest of the cast were generally excellent, especially Peter Wedd as Lohengrin. I was impressed by Simon Thorpe and Rhys Jenkins, both of whom had to step up to new roles at the last minute due to John Lundgren (originally cast as Telramund) being unable to sing. The orchestra were perfect, and conductor Koenigs positively radiated enthusiasm, a passion for Wagner which also comes across clearly in his programme article.

The set was incredible, particularly during Act 2, which saw Ortrud and Telramud plotting in a dingy alley at night, then transformed into a processional area before the church as Elsa walked past the windows of a beautifully constructed castle and out into the streets. Act 2 also featured some brilliant lighting, as night was turned very gradually into day.

It was an interesting to discover that the famous, traditional wedding march actually originates in what is essentially a tragedy: at the risk of spoilers for anyone who doesn’t already know the story, it all ends badly for the apparently perfect couple. That’ll be one to avoid at your wedding, then.

Lohengrin is showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome until this Saturday (15 June). A pre-show talk will be held on Saturday. Click here for more information or to book tickets.