Siegfried wins the toss

Letter from Adelaide
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The Independent Culture
Adelaide, the capital of South Australia and the scene of England's latest cricket disaster, lacks the swagger of Sydney and the composure of Melbourne. Its population of 1.7 million places it among the second rank of Australian cities, although the critics say that it has the best restaurant in Australia (at the Hilton, believe it or not), and it certainly produces the best wines. Its contribution to Aussie hedonism - an enchanting phenomenon now in an advanced state - is widely appreciated, but that isn't enough. Adelaide aspires to an international reputation, and last week it achieved exactly that.

There was so much happening here that there was not a room to be had, especially for ready money. (Hotel chains don't trust it.) There was a horde of English people here for the cricket, of course, celebrating the discovery that local cultural icons such as Shane Warne and Mark Waugh were not above pocketing a few thousand dollars each from Indian bookmakers. But Adelaide has always had cricket. A drama with much greater staying power was being played out in the Festival Theatre, just across the Torrens River from the Adelaide Oval. Last Saturday night the curtain fell on the last of three cycles of Richard Wagner's Ring. It was, astonishingly, the first production of the Ring in Australia since 1913, when a touring company performed it in Sydney and Melbourne.

There are some for whom Wagner and cricket taken together are preferable even to oysters and Bollinger. Donald Rich, the former chairman of Hampshire County Cricket Club, for one, was on hand for his 15th Ring cycle and, as a scarred veteran of Bayreuth and Edgbaston, I find myself quite at home here too; since I deal with the cricket elsewhere in these pages, I'll concentrate on the Ring.

One reason the Ring is being performed here is that Melbourne stole Australia's Formula 1 Grand Prix. Adelaide retaliated by mounting an event that could be seen no where else in the country. Boosters produced figures suggesting that Wagner would bring in more well-heeled international visitors than the other German, Schumacher, and the state government agreed to underwrite a budget that had risen, as all Ring budgets are destined to do, from A$5m to $8.6m (pounds 3.4m).

The cycle is not exactly Adelaide's, because the conductor, director, plus sets and costumes, have been imported from the 1994 cycle at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris, but the principals have been here for up to four months, and the production has put down proper roots in South Australia. Jeffrey Tate, the conductor, has transformed the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra into a first-class Wagnerian ensemble, and the French director, Pierre Strosser, has an idea which I found initially irritating, but was sufficiently engaged by in the third act of Siegfried to wonder if my neighbour had any Kleenex.

I have to judge the Adelaide Ring on only one part of the cycle, but that made me think that the audience - 70 per cent from outside South Australia - had not made a wasted trip. Besides, the Ring has become so expensive that whole cycles are becoming rare. The English National Opera has been trying to put one on since 1983. (Thus we have no David Pountney version, which is a shame.)

Strosser, who was born in Alsace and has directed hardly any opera outside France, also designed the minimalist set. The stage slopes gently from right to left, and is divided laterally by a high wall. This rises, apparently, to become Valhalla in Rheingold, and sinks into the floor to create the mountain-top in Siegfried; billowing red silk creates the circle of fire through which Siegfried walks. Props are scarce; in Siegfried we got four rocks, a forge, a tree, a sphere and an old park bench. The backdrop had been painted to show a landscape strongly reminiscent, as chance would have it, of Australia.

Strosser's trick - his conception, if you prefer - is to reduce the Ring to a human scale. There are no gods, no dragons; the giant Fafner emerges from his cave in human form; Wotan's spear is a cane and he wears a homburg. Erda sits on the park bench looking a bit like a bag lady.

Strosser concentrates entirely on the relationships in the extended Wotan family, and this deliberately non-expressionist style produces a masterstroke. One of the great dramatic moments of the Ring is when Siegfried breaks Wotan's spear with his magical sword. The traditional interpretation is that Wotan's authority has been destroyed, and that he trudges away, humiliated. But Strosser has Wotan caress Siegfried's cheek before he leaves. It is a mark of love. Siegfried has been tested. He passes, and receives Wotan's blessing. It works.

The translation actively assists Strosser's conception. A note in the excellent programme reveals that Wagner told an admirer after the first performance of Lohengrin in Melbourne in 1877 that Australians should endeavour to have his works produced in English - to achieve greater understanding. (Vindication for the ENO from the Master himself.) Brian Fitzgerald's surtitles aid interpretation as well as understanding by concentrating on the family, as in the moment when Siegfried wishes his mother were around to tell him how to behave towards his desirable Aunty Brunnhilde whom he had just woken with a kiss. The singing is of a good standard throughout, better than that in the case of Peter Keller's Mime and Liane Keegan's Erda.

Strosser's narrow interpretation is squeezed out of the text at a cost to Wagner's own romantic interpretation of the Ring, but it has worked well with the audience, and the Australian critics. Adelaide seemed to be delighted by it, and rightly so.