Christmas Lunch 2018
On Saturday 15 December, thirty of our members and welcome guests enjoyed each other’s company at the Hillstone St Lucia Golf Club for our annual Christmas Lunch. A good time was had by all as we dined in the friendly atmosphere of the Golf Club’s ‘100 Acre Bar’ and relished the delicious food and drinks and excellent service. Sincere thanks to Sheena Burnell for her organisation and attention to detail which ensured a delightful day out.
Photographs: Damjana Simončič and Adrian Alle
Astrid Varnay – Wagnerian Soprano
24 November 2018
Speaker: Margaret Baker-Genovesi
Last month, in the presentation by Professor Stephen Emmerson, members received a “kiss” from Kundry. At the November meeting, members were fortunate to receive a kiss from the Wagnerian soprano Astrid Varnay. For many society members, Astrid Varnay’s name was familiar but her wonderful achievements were perhaps not well known.
Margaret Baker-Genovesi revealed the life of Astrid Varnay to the large group of members who attended. She was a remarkable singer, born 25 April 1918 – in the same year as her great contemporary and another Wagnerian superstar, Birgit Nilsson.
Astrid Varnay came to immediate and sensational fame when, at short notice on 6 December 1941, she replaced Lotte Lehmann in the role of Sieglinde at the Metropolitan Opera – she was just 23 years of age. Then, six days later, she replaced the ailing Helen Traubel as Brünnhilde in the same opera.
Astrid Varnay was born into an artistic family. Both her parents were Hungarian and professional singers, but she was born in Sweden where her parents were living during part of World War I. She received vocal lessons from her mother and then in New York from Hermann Weigert whom she later married. Vocally, she was a powerful dramatic soprano; European audiences considered her a goddess in her performance of Wagnerian and Verdian roles. She also had a formidable mezzo-soprano capability which she especially displayed in her favourite role as Ortrud.
Margaret Baker-Genovesi presented several excerpts from recordings of Astrid Varnay. These began with a live broadcast of her 6 December 1941 performance of Die Walküre, Act 1, Scene 3, with Varnay as Sieglinde and Lauritz Melchior as Siegmund, and with Erich Leinsdorf conducting.
We also heard a wonderful performance of Varnay singing Verdi: as Lady Macbeth in Act II of Macbeth: “La luce langue”, with the Austrian Tonkünstler Orchestra conducted, interestingly, by her husband Hermann Weigert.
As Astrid Varnay matured, she gave up her heavy dramatic soprano roles and began singing character mezzo roles; Klytämnestra, Herodias, Kostelnicka and others.
Astrid Varnay died in Munich, where she had lived for many years, on 4th September 2006.
Margaret referenced Astrid Varnay’s autobiography: “55 Years in Five Acts: My Life in Opera”. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 2000.
Another interesting autobiography is: ”La Nilsson: My Life in Opera”. Northeastern University Press, translated from Swedish, 2007.
Discussion followed on the nuanced power and beautiful singing of Astrid Varnay. Thank you, Margaret! It was a wonderful presentation and revealed a great Wagnerian singer to our members. Thank you too to Stephanie Hinrichs for her technical preparation and support in this splendid collaboration.
Thank you also to the ‘Nibelungs’ who provided afternoon tea.
Review: Paul Caesar
Photographs: Stephanie Hinrichs
Parsifal: Kundry’s Kiss – Four Interpretations
27 October 2018
Speaker: Professor Stephen Emmerson
A wonderful afternoon and presentation by Professor Stephen Emmerson. Nearly forty members attended – was everyone longing for a kiss from Kundry?
First: Otto Schenk’s 1992 direction at Metropolitan Opera, James Levine conducting with Waltraud Meier as Kundry and Siegfried Jerusalem as Parsifal. This production and in particular the ‘kiss scene’ were faithful to Wagner’s instructions. Waltraud Meier a real seductress, showing ravishingly beautiful looks and dramatic multi-layered singing. Parsifal receiving the kiss experiences the suffering of both Kundry and Amfortas. He, the noble fool, experiences compassion and this is life-changing for him.
Second: A Nikolaus Lehnhoff 2004 direction. It is rather confusing: Kundry tries to seduce Parsifal; he violently rejects her, upon which Kundry emerges ‘free’ from her stylized chrysalis-like costume.
Third: Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s 1982 film. This moved beyond realism and towards symbolism. A lip-sync acting, radical and controversial film. Stephen Emmerson was very enthusiastic about this production and many members agreed with him and were quite excited with the concept. Syderberg regarded Kundry as the centre of the opera – mother, seductress and penitent. It was an intense piece of performance.
Fourth: Francois Girard, director at Metropolitan Opera 2013, with Katarina Dalayman as Kundry and Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal. Kundry is not to the forefront in this production. It is the effect of the kiss on Parsifal that is made paramount – it opens up the wound of Amfortas in Parsifal, literally – and that brings compassion to the noble fool. Just terrific singing by Kaufmann; he overshadows Dalayman.
And let us not forget the afternoon tea provided by our members, during which the talk was mainly discussing Syderberg’s symbolism.
Review: Paul Caesar
Photographs: Stephanie Hinrichs
FRIEDRICH SCHORR, Wagnerian baritone (1888-1953)
15 September 2018
Speaker: Colin Mackerras
Colin Mackerras, who as well as being an eminent sinologist is also a passionate lover of Wagner, presented – lovingly indeed – the singer who in his opinion was the greatest ever bass-baritone of the Wagnerian repertoire: the Hungarian (later U.S. citizen) Friedrich Schorr.
Schorr was born in 1888, and his career thus centred largely on the 20’s and 30’s of the last century, both in Europe and in America – principally at the Met. Indeed, Schorr was the Wotan in a historic performance of Die Walküre broadcast live on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbour, and the interpretation we heard of Wotan’s farewell was a perfect example of the singer’s approach to Wagner, with his smooth legato line (the opposite of what many years later would be defined as “park and bark”, which mistakenly became the hallmark of so many otherwise fine singers who sang this repertoire).
But I digress: Colin’s first excerpt was the only one that did not feature Wagner: it was the dramatic vengeance aria of the villain Pizarro in Beethoven’s Fidelio, sung by the then 34-year-old; there followed the great, moving monologue of the Dutchman, “Die Frist is um”. Then we heard the scene from Siegfried in which Wotan as Wanderer solves Mime’s riddles; this showed a very different aspect of Schorr’s style, and I also found the previously unknown to me Heinrich Tessmer as Mime very impressive.
But the height of Schorr’s art, according to Colin, was his interpretation of the role of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and the two great monologues of this role, followed by the presentation (the baptism, as it were) of the Prize Song, and the marvellous quintet, were undoubtedly the most sublime moments of the afternoon.
Colin’s presentation was followed by an animated discussion, motivated by Schorr’s Jewish heritage and subsequent banishment from Bayreuth. Several of our members offered personal observations based on their recent journeys (I would almost say “pilgrimages”) to Bayreuth, and the afternoon ended far too soon for this member.
Thank you, Colin, for presenting a singer who was perhaps eclipsed by the fame of later singers, but whom we heard in wonderful moments thanks to your research and enthusiasm.
Review: Margaret Baker-Genovesi
Wagner’s Choral Music and Opera Choruses
25 August 2018
Speaker: Graham Bruce
Our Vice President Graham Bruce presented a most interesting aspect of Wagner’s music, which concentrated on excerpts from his choral compositions both for concert and for opera.
Graham began with an early work, dating from 1833, Das Liebesmahl der Apostel, with an a cappella male chorus from Dresden, followed by the entry of the orchestra, which vividly depicted the descent of the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost. The work presented some, for me, unexpected harmonic modulations.
Graham reminded us that Wagner revered Carl Maria von Weber, and we heard a most beautiful aria from Weber’s Euryanthe, sung sublimely by Jessye Norman.
When Weber’s remains were transported from London, where he died, to be interred in Dresden, Wagner composed Trauermusik (funeral music, long and moving), on motifs from Euryanthe, to accompany the burial rites. After this, once again we heard a male chorus, this time from the Vienna Chamber Chorus, with Wagner’s An Webers Grab (At Weber’s Grave).
Before we broke for afternoon tea, Graham invited us to observe with a critical eye what was to follow ¬– three choruses from Wagner’s operas – from the point of view of the director’s and the conductor’s perspectives. This drew our attention to the placing of the chorus in relation to the solo singers, and the instructions clearly given to the chorus members as to how to react and participate in the on-going drama. We heard and watched excerpts from Götterdämmerung, Parsifal, and Der fliegende Holländer – respectively a filmed excerpt from the Chéreau Ring, a live performance from Bayreuth with the direction of Wolfgang Wagner, conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli and, lastly, a very interesting version specifically devised for the cinema, with the mariners’ chorus and celebration (we even saw the ghost crew in a very frightening, close-up moment, something that would hardly have been possible on a live stage).
For me the highlight was the Act I, Scene 2, of Parsifal, with a magnificent and despairing Falk Struckmann as Amfortas, and a bemused Parsifal, motionless, trying in vain to understand what was happening. Graham underlined Wolfgang Wagner’s approach to a symmetrical setting, which was reinforced by the procession of the Knights of the Grail in this scene. It was a splendid afternoon, with much new information to reflect upon.
Review: Margaret Baker-Genovesi
Photographs: Stephanie Hinrichs
28 July 2018
Magic Fire (1955)
Screening of the film on the life of Richard Wagner
This film, directed by William Dieterle, dates from 1955, and is based on the life and works of Richard Wagner. It mostly follows what we know of Wagner’s life, with a few episodes invented for the sake of greater dramatic effect – for instance, Wagner’s spending some time in a debtor’s prison – but on the whole it sticks to history.
Among the more authentic episodes featured was the Paris première of Tannhäuser, known to have been a disaster, the probable reason for which was his placement of the obligatory (for Paris) ballet in the first act, too early for the members of the wealthy and influential members of the Jockey Club to turn up to the theatre. This rowdy scene was staged with great dramatic effect, as was Wagner’s distress on cancelling all performances after the third night saw a similar debacle.
Wagner was played convincingly by Alan Badel, perhaps too handsome, and certainly much taller; Carlos Thompson had all the charisma we expect of Liszt. The women in Wagner’s life (Yvonne de Carlo as perhaps a too attractive Minna, Rita Gam as Cosima and Valentina Cortese as Mathilde Wesendonck) were all three impressive – I particularly liked the Italian actress, whose scenes with Wagner were of great effect. (As was the scene where Wagner’s arch-rival Giacomo Meyerbeer held court in his bed over breakfast.)
Throughout the excerpts from Wagner’s operas (traditionally and splendidly staged by Rudolf Hartmann, later General Manager of the Munich Opera) I found myself wondering who the singers were. The production had evidently aimed at excellence in this respect, since my investigation revealed that among the singers were Hans Hopf, Otto Edelmann, Leonie Rysanek, and – for me very moving – my very last singing teacher, Annelies Kupper, all famous stars of post-war Bayreuth. And it was interesting to see Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who was responsible for the musical accuracy) briefly in the role of the conductor Hans Richter.
I have no doubt that this film in its day will have contributed to reaching an audience that otherwise would never have heard, or perhaps even heard of, Wagner, thus rendering a great service to the dissemination of his works. And still in our day, with our further knowledge of subsequent events, it proved to be a really entertaining afternoon, and we are all very glad that Peter Bassett offered it for our enjoyment.
Review: Margaret Baker-Genovesi
Photographs: Stephanie Hinrichs
Lohengrin Acts 1 and 2
23 June 2018
DVD recorded at Dresden’s Semperoper.
This was a great afternoon’s entertainment for members to see a recent performance of Lohengrin from Dresden.
The Conductor was Christian Thielemann; we saw why he is considered the foremost Wagnerian conductor today. The prelude was taken at a deliberate tempo – rather slow. The volume of the orchestra never competed with the singers. He created the sense that the voices literally rode above the instrumental music, clear and free. The singers did not have to force their voices, allowing them to sing softly when required.
Lohengrin was sung by Piotr Beczala, making a role debut. We heard his bright, firm tones and he sang with warmth and confidence. This was a really good muscular and lilting performance.
Elsa was sung by Anna Netrebko, also making a role debut. Her lush, coloured voice was at home in the Wagner universe. She played a mature Elsa, with a trajectory from helplessness to devout conviction and then to despair. It was a wonderful acting interpretation, something that is the essence of Netrebko. She sang with openness and unleashed waves of beautiful sounds and lingered – luxuriously – over her notes. This was a different style from some other Wagnerian sopranos in their Elsa roles that one may have seen, where a more virginal, clear sound is heard.
Netrebko’s and Beczala’s appearances in their debut roles were widely anticipated events at the time of this production. They had already charmed the world with their onstage chemistry igniting Puccini and Tchaikovsky – seen by many members no doubt at Metropolitan Opera simulcasts.
Telramund was sung by Tomasz Konieczny. Believe it or not, this was also a role debut. Full praise again to Christian Thielemann for bringing these debut dynamics to such success. Konieczny let loose with robust and exciting singing.
Ortrud was sung by Evelyn Herlitzius who was outstanding and perhaps the highlight of the recorded performance. She has striking stage presence; everything she did on stage was full of tension and drama and her singing was the perfect foil for both Konieczny and Netrebko. Herlitzius voice is not the most beautiful but it has character and is a powerful one that cut through the orchestra and forcefully expressed the character’s evil.
Heinrich was sung by Georg Zeppenfeld. His voice has great dignity and power.
The King’s Herald was sung by Derek Welton. He has a forceful, beautiful voice; he is a young Australian baritone who is making a big name for himself in German opera houses.
The production was a revival of Christine Mielitz’s 1983 traditional production.
Members experienced an unforgettable musical performance. The DVD was released in July 2017 on Deutsche Grammophon and is easily available on internet classical music sites.
Review: Paul Caesar
Photographs: Stephanie Hinrichs
Wagner and Liszt: The Anxiety of Influence
16 May 2018
Speaker: Ammiel Bushakevitz
The visiting international pianist and Wagner specialist Ammiel Bushakevitz was the Society’s guest on 16th May, and offered us an insight into the musical and personal relationship over long years between Wagner and Liszt, in a presentation entitled ‘Wagner and Liszt: The Anxiety of Influence’.
As we know, Liszt eventually became father-in-law to Wagner, but less than two years in age separated them; over the years, and well before Wagner’s marriage to Liszt’s daughter Cosima, Liszt was an enthusiastic and powerful sponsor of Wagner’s music.
Ammiel indeed gave us many examples of Liszt’s amazing generosity to fellow musicians, and not only to Wagner, throughout his life. He even revealed that Wagner once appealed, successfully, to Liszt to finance a holiday in Italy at Lago Maggiore, because he was ‘tired’.
Ammiel referred in some detail to what was to be known, in the 19th century, as Lisztomania, citing also Ken Russell’s film of 1975 (which I remember as interesting but grotesque) about the hysteria that surrounded the great pianist, including extraordinary manifestations such as the wearing, on a necklace, of Liszt’s discarded cigar. But he also spoke about Liszt’s decisive contribution to the evolution of the modern grand piano – very different at the end of his career from what he had found at the beginning.
A consummate pianist, Ammiel played us several examples of the links between Wagner and Liszt, one of which I found particularly touching: Liszt’s composition At the grave of Richard Wagner, which owed its inspiration, which he illustrated, to a theme from the opening of Parsifal.
As pianist rather than lecturer, he presented two major works by Liszt, both brilliantly performed – The Fountains of the Villa d’Este, and his transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod.
Our Vice-President Graham Bruce, who had introduced Ammiel and commented on his illustrious career, thanked him in our name, after which we all adjourned to celebrate (albeit a few days ahead of time) Wagner’s 205th birthday – our thanks go to Sheena and her team for the catering! And thanks also to Jennette for the excellent printed program that was distributed at this event.
It was good to see that so many of our members were present, and we thank Professor Scott Harrison for the hospitality of the boardroom of the Conservatorium.
Our good wishes will follow Ammiel Bushakevitz as he continues his Performing/Lecturing tour in the Southern Hemisphere.
Wagner at the Venusberg
28 April 2018
Speaker: Peter Bassett
Our President Peter Bassett gave a stimulating and interesting presentation on the background influences experienced by Richard Wagner and how he assembled his thoughts to compose Tannhäuser.
Peter showed some great pictorial and musical illustrations of these influences. A 1978 Bayreuther Festspiele production of Tannhäuser – conductor Sir Colin Davis and director Götz Friedrich – formed the major sequence of illustration. The singing in this production is just ravishing – an adjective that Tannhäuser would enjoy.
Spas Wenkoff was in the title role of Tannhäuser – wonderful casting with the good looks of a Tannhäuser and a superb heldentenor. Gwyneth Jones performed both Venus (in this role quite lasciviously) and Elisabeth (here as the redeeming angel). Her voice and acting was just wonderful to watch. Bernd Weikl was Wolfram von Eschenbach, a beautiful baritone voice.
Interesting questions were asked of Peter at the end of the discussion, such as ‘Was Wagner being religious or dramatic?’ Opinions on the set designs were expressed.
Afternoon tea followed and much thanks again to members who brought the sandwiches and other items for us to enjoy.
Study Day: Wagner in Italy – Its influence on Wagner, and his influence on its composers.
24 March 2018
Speakers: Graham Bruce and Peter Bassett.
Our Study Day on Wagner in Italy reflected the fact that although Richard Wagner is usually regarded as the archetypal champion of German music, he had a life-long love affair with Italy and its musical traditions.
When composing his earliest operas, he was inspired again and again by the Italian sense of melody: ‘Song, song and yet again song, you Germans!’ he implored his countrymen. He visited Italy on many occasions, taking refuge from the dark clouds of the north in the sunny climes of Naples, Venice and Sicily and in many places in between. He even considered migrating there.
Graham Bruce examined Wagner’s visits and compositions with Italian connections up until about 1861, and Peter Bassett continued the story until the composer’s death in Venice in February 1883 and his influence on Italian composers who were his contemporaries and followers.
Die Meistersinger, Act 3 screening
24 February 2018
This meeting featured the 1984 Bayreuth production of Die Meistersingervon Nürnberg directed (including set design) by the composer’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner – from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
Our President Peter Bassett initially welcomed new members, and then reminded us of all of the various aspects of the Society, with its website showing events, reviews, links to fellow societies, etc.
Peter also illustrated the concept of the Mastersong (which, in fact, Hans Sachs explains in detail to the somewhat bemused Stolzing), and alerted us to the idea that the whole opera is conceived along the lines of the Mastersong, with the first two acts of equal length followed by the third act whose length is equal to the other two combined. This was new to me and I found it extremely interesting.
The DVD viewing began from the third act entrance of Walther von Stolzing (a splendid and convincing Siegfried Jerusalem) in the workshop of the Meister cobbler-poet Hans Sachs (an exemplary Bernd Weikl), and took us through, with no interval, to the end of the opera – a long but memorable performance. Speaking as someone who is heartily sick of today’s Regietheater travesties (witness the appalling Don Carlos from Paris recently), I was delighted to see a set that really looked like a neat, sunlit German workshop, followed by genuine, crowded merry-making on the Festival Meadow.
The attention of our large audience was captured from the first minute. Amusingly, a goblin-like figure in modern dress appeared for a split-second on stage at the end, and proved to be Wolfgang Wagner.
The viewing lasted to about the time we had available for the use of the theatre, so the usual post-performance discussions were curtailed, but over afternoon tea (thanks to the Nibelungs Susan Treloar, Carol Bassett and Peter Jansen) we discussed our various impressions. It seemed to be the general opinion that the men – Weikl, Jerusalem, Prey (Beckmesser) and Clark (David) were excellent, whilst the Eva (Mari Anne Häggander) was mostly found to be of a very different level. A pity, since the whole production should surely have passed into history as the most authentic ever, given the horse’s mouth factor. If I may express my own preference, I found that Bernd Weikl was a peer among all the other magnificent interpreters of Hans Sachs, with not a flaw in his portrayal of this immense role. Sachs’s famous defence of German culture and its poetry and music was declaimed by Weikl from the heart with total conviction – I found it spine-tingling.
We are all looking forward to the next Study Day on 24th March, which will take us to Wagner in Italy. Not to be missed.
Review: Margaret Baker-Genovesi
Photographs: Hal Davis
A Wagnerian Antiques Roadshow Afternoon with contributions from six members of the Society
Saturday, 20 January 2018
Margaret gave us a most interesting story of two concert performances of the Ring Cycle she enjoyed in Rome in 1968 and later in 1988. They were concerts performed in the Auditorio della RAI and broadcast over the Italian radio. Margaret was fortunate to be in the audience for both these performances.
The orchestra playing for the 1968 concerts was the Rome Orchestra conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. Some of the 1968 cast were Nadezda Kniplova – Brünnhilde, Janis Martin – Fricka, Hildegard Hillebrecht – Sieglinde, Eberhard Katz –Siegmund and Theo Adam – Wotan. (Interestingly this performance is available on a Myto CD set.)
The 1988 concerts were so popular that some women were dressing in black dresses and men in tails, borrowing violin cases and ‘sneaking in’ through the orchestra players’ entrance. Wagner makes one take extreme steps! Margaret has great memories of these concerts because they introduced her to the music of Wagner – still aflame today.
Graham recalled his great experience of attending the second year’s production of the Chereau ‘Centenary Ring’ in 1977. His intriguing tale – and much luck – of how he obtained tickets was a story by itself. Graham saw director Chereau’s own considerable acting skills in this year. Rene Kollo (Siegfried) broke his leg and was obliged to sing his part from the wings and sometimes secreted in the folds of the sets. The director – Chereau – acted the role on stage.
The other interesting observation Graham highlighted is how productions at Bayreuth respond and evolve to criticisms made regarding sets and direction. Amongst the singers Graham saw that year were Rene Kollo, Gweneth Jones (Brünnhilde) and Siegfried Jerusalem (Siegmund).
A very personal recollection was given by Theo. He was a young boy living with his family in Bayreuth in the immediate post-war years. Theo told members of the adversity of living and going to school amongst the ruins of the city and his family’s hardships. Theo’s delightful positive character and sense of humour engaged members. Imagine a boy’s Lederhosen (shorts made of leather) that in the bitter cold become stiff and can stand upright on the floor!
Theo remembered the revival of the Festival post-war and how, with some young friends, they would sit roadside near the “green hill” and watch dignitaries arrive.
Jennette read an extract from a quite remarkable, lengthy and very emotional obituary from The New York Times, 14 February 1883, entitled DEATH OF RICHARD WAGNER. (Wagner died on 13 February 1883.) The opening sentence was, ‘Without a word of preliminary warning the announcement was telegraphed all over the world last night of the sudden death, in Venice, of Richard Wagner’.
There was also an obituary in the ‘Brisbane Courier’, Friday 16 February 1883. News travelled fast even then and perhaps Brisbane was more sophisticated at the time than one imagines! See Trove Digitised Newspapers: DEATH OF RICHARD WAGNER.
With great conviction and personal feeling Colin explained why he considers the first act of Die Walküre one of the most perfectly constructed of Wagner’s music scores. Wagner is now dealing with real humans – the Gods of Das Rheingold are out of the picture; elemental love was composed; and there is sublime tenderness between the twins that reaches a very human climax. It is very intimate music, including one-on-one conversations; the score has both beauty and delicacy.
Cosima wrote, with similar feelings, “The most emotional, the most tragic of all his works”. Colin showed members his considerably old (and tattered, verifying its frequent use) piano score of Act One. He described his recollections of reading this score with his brothers whilst listening to the opera on vinyl records and on the radio.
Colin sincerely conveyed to members his passion for this particular section of the Ring.
Peter also played some remarkable antique recordings which included the voices of Johannes Brahms in 1889, Lilli Lehmann and Siegfried Wagner conducting Siegfried Idyll, 1927.
Members were given a handout explaining these six recordings which also included a Mandolin Cylinder Musical Box of 1880.
All in all, the afternoon was just wonderful.
Review – Paul Caesar
Photographs – Stephanie Hinrichs