The Twilight of Richard WagnerLeft – Eugene Gilfedder. Photo – Margaret Whyte

Eugene Gilfedder
is a thespian shape shifter. Like his contemporary Geoffrey Rush he can channel a raft of chequered characters with shameless persuasion. The other night as the audience filed into 4MBS’ cramped performance space, Gilfedder, looking every bit the nineteenth century gentleman with an authentically fashioned beard, slipped into the Studio. Then sat on a chair at the back of the sepia, dimly lit set appearing to read.

Perhaps others were expecting Gilfedder to present Richard Wagner? It took a few minutes to adjust on realizing the actor was Eduard Devrient, playwright, librettist, singer and theatre director instead. In this incarnation, he spoke of his friendship with Wagner. At one stage, Devrient had been Wagner’s artistic confidante. In 1848, the composer told Devrient he was creating an opera of mythical, romantic themes on a grander scale than the world had ever seen.

Gilfedder seemed uncomfortable and took a few moments to convincingly inhabit the role as he positioned ribbon tied scrolls of cues, prompts and portions of script on a desk. Once he found his stride, the audience succumbed to Devrient’s intelligent, admiring, questioning and bemused perspective on this formidable, complex composer with revolutionary leanings. Wagner was forced to flee Germany when authorities discovered he had been making homemade grenades.

Gilfedder transported the Festival audience to a brave new world of political idealism, Gods, lovers, battling heroines, defeated heroes, dragons and fantastical props worthy of Steven Spielberg’s most extreme science fiction fantasies.

Ever since the State Opera of South Australia mounted a fully staged version of The Ring Cycle in 2004, Australian music lovers have become especially enthralled by this opera of gargantuan scale. Last year, Simone Young conducted the Hamburg Philhamonic Orchestra in a concert version of The Ring at QPAC with Hamburg State Opera’s soloists.

Gilfedder’s angle mined a topical seam as he skillfully intersected the storytelling with extracts from Forest Murmurs, The Ride of the Valkyries and Prelude to Das Rhinegold. As the music grew in volume, Gilfedder became more intense. In moments of repose, he filled the silence or whispered a rhetorical question. When the orchestration adopted a subdued voice Devrient mused alongside.

Cleverly, the score became another character, another voice. Hearing bite-sized chunks out of context the music sounded all the more magical because of it. Ignoring the usual tedious soapy gossip about Wagner running off with Liszt’s daughter Cosima, Gilfedder’s sights were leveled at the mysteries of the Ring and on conjuring a nineteenth century perspective on how alien Wagner’s ambitious operatic dream must have seemed.

And, all too soon this eccentric, eye-opening, entertaining theatre stepped on the brake.

4MBS Festival of Classics
The Twilight of Richard Wagner
Eugene Gilfedder

Venue: 4MBS Performance Studio | 384 Old Cleveland Road, Coorparoo
Date: Tue 14 May

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