From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part One)

“Magic Fire Music” from the Centenary ‘Ring’ production by Patrice Chereau (Photo: Bayreuth Festival 1976)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders

Wagner’s Ring is back. And with a vengeance! On alternating Saturday afternoons, the Metropolitan Opera presented Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) — complete and uncut — to radio audiences and Sirius-XM satellite affiliates around the world.

The Ring cycle floated up to the top of the Rhine River, first with a live performance on March 9, 2019 of Das Rheingold, then on March 30 with Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), followed two weeks later on April 13 with Siegfried, and concluding on April 27 with “The Twilight of the Gods,” or (in the original German) Götterdämmerung.

People new to opera, and to Wagner and his world, often ask a pertinent question: “Who are the real heroes and villains of the Ring?”

We meet both protagonists and antagonists in Das Rheingold, which Wagner called a “prologue” to his stark tale. With the subsequent work, Die Walküre, the characters we thought of as heroes don’t always act the part. In fact, things turn ugly rather quickly in Acts I and II. And in Act II, the gods, so-called, are a lame bunch, but the humans are no different. What about the dwarfs in Das Rheingold? Slimy and sinister. And the giants? No better! One brother slays the other (the Cain and Abel story in disguise), while one god (Wotan) trades in his sister-in-law (Freia) in lieu of payment for a botched real estate deal.

Pushing on with the cycle, the titular Siegfried is often touted as the nominal hero. But what does he do that smacks of the heroic? First, he’s a boorish lout whose petulance and wild mood swings, along with constant temper tantrums, would put to shame many of today’s teenagers. And second, he wakes the sleeping beauty Brünnhilde from her slumber, woos and “marries” her, then betrays the woman he loves to another pretty face and, most unheroically of all, lies about it. Oh, sure, it was the “potion of forgetfulness” that did all that. In compensation, he dies a “heroic” death by getting stabbed in the back. But does all that justify what came before?

Siegfried awakens the sleeping Brunnhilde in Wieland Wagner’s 1954 production of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Bayreuth Festival 1954)

“Geez,” you say to yourself, “what a bunch of losers!” This doesn’t give us listeners much to root for, does it? Ah, but you would be mistaken to assume that good triumphs in the end and that evil is punished. To be honest, no one comes up smelling like a rose in this four-part family drama. Which is all to the good for opera lovers.

Wagner, no shining example of humanity, crafted a spectacular Game of Thrones series for the ages. Beginning with Das Rheingold, audiences are introduced to the giant Fasolt, a love-starved brute in need of understanding. Along comes a double-dealing, conniving and shiftless real-estate developer who refuses to pay Fasolt and his brother, Fafner, for their labors. Hmm, now where have we heard that one before? It’s all downhill from there, fellow Wagnerites. And then we have Alberich who, right from the start, has love on his mind (or, rather, sex). But who does he approach to alleviate his lust? A bunch of mermaids, that’s who. We know what happens to him: he gets spurned, which leads him to steal their gold.

As the old saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is the prevailing theory of Wagner’s vision. But what were the means by which power can be attained? Why, through politics, of course.

Politics, as most politicians will tell you, is a dirty business. If that be the case, then Wagner was mired in it, although he wasn’t particularly adept at playing the game. Too brutally honest, that was his problem. And much too self-indulgent! He believed that what was good for him in terms of creature comforts would be good for Germany as a whole and for everybody else as well. His woefully ignorant efforts at changing the politics of his time led to his fleeing his native land for more (politically speaking) temperate zones.

Richard Wagner’s grandson, director-producer Wieland Wagner (1917-1966)

Wagner’s genius, besides his unquestioned musical abilities, was in basing his operatic themes on the corrosive, all-corrupting influence of power — absolute power, we should be clear. Hand in hand with power came that oft-associated connection to the political. And the characters that Wagner created and developed and eventually set to music were themselves enslaved to it. And to destiny, a destiny that could be traced to that primal act of thievery, i.e., Alberich’s pilfering of the Rhine gold so casually guarded by those witless Rhine Maidens.

Another facet of the composer’s genius was accomplished by crossing Norse legends and Teutonic myths with Greek tragedy and Biblical creation stories. Was not Siegmund and Sieglinde the first man and woman? Did they not commit original sin against the law? And were they not punished for their crime? There are literally dozens, if not more, examples of the familiar and not-so-familiar passages from all these various sources. That Wagner managed, through limitless trials and personal tribulations, to complete his vision and bring it to fruition is a textbook example of obsessive compulsion.

It’s All in How You Interpret It

Siegfried faces the dragon Fafner in the 1951 Wieland Wagner production of ‘Siegfried’ (Bayreuth Festival)

After his death, Wagner’s legacy continued with his widow Cosima, and later his son Siegfried Wagner, who begat two sons of his own, Wieland and Wolfgang. The two W’s eventually inherited the Bayreuth Music Festival by birthright. In the early 1950s, Wieland made the fateful decision to purge any and all Aryan (read: Nazi) influences from the Festival by stripping his grandfather’s works to their essentials.

As a matter of fact, he eschewed all manner of props and decor, to include helmets, shields, tables, chairs, thrones, even sets and scenery, for subtle lighting effects and pseudo-classical wardrobe. Armature was pared down to a minimum which made the look he gave his cast akin to Greco-Roman fashion.

The tragedy itself took place on a circular-shaped disc that stood-in for the all-powerful Ring (or the world, if you will), while the stage was set ablaze by modern lighting techniques and appropriately dark shading to highlight the ups and downs of the plot. Wieland’s second Ring production from the late 1960s (captured live on CD by Philips and conducted by Karl Böhm) took another giant leap forward by incorporating Jungian archetypes and totemic set designs.

French director Patrice Chereau at Bayreuth Festpielhaus directing the Centenary ‘Ring’ cycle (Photo: Bayreuth Festival, 1976)

This ultimately gave rise to the iconic Centenary Ring cycle production by French director Patrice Chéreau. Conducted by the iconoclastic Pierre Boulez, with Richard Peduzzi responsible for the set designs, Jacques Schmidt as the costume designer, and André Doit as lighting director, the story was placed during the Industrial Revolution, on or about Wagner’s time.

Director Chéreau, who had little to no knowledge of the composer’s work (or of opera, for that matter), patterned his ideas after George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite, a minor classic in the “Marxist struggle” field of writing and a credible capitalist interpretation of the Ring. The production proved illuminating in that the director, along with his Gallic colleagues, took a remarkably fresh look at the story. They introduced a theatrical basis for their views by padding the drama with singing-actors who could dive head-long into the polemics, yet preserve the all-important human element so far lacking in earlier versions.

Chéreau brilliantly and, I might add, perceptibly employed Brechtian distancing techniques, such as the bursting of the fourth wall — specifically, during the finale to Götterdämmerung when what’s left of the Gibichung contingent stares accusingly out into the audience — in order to convey the folly of mankind’s pursuit of material matters.

Gwyneth Jones as Brunnhilde in the Immolation Scene from ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Bayreuth Festival 1976)

He also took advantage of the Victorian setting by having many of the characters pose as individuals from music history. For example, Wotan was made up to look like Wagner himself. The Rhine Maidens pranced around an industrial waterworks as if they were floozy prostitutes looking for clients. And Mime was played as a cringing old fool who resembled Wagner’s father-in-law, the composer and concert pianist Franz Liszt, and so on.

Although the singing, in general, was below the quality of Bayreuth’s heyday in the 1950s to 1960s (what artist could hope to compete with the likes of Hans Hotter, Martha Mödl, Astrid Varnay, Wolfgang Windgassen, Birgit Nilsson, Hermann Uhde, Josef Greindl, and Gustav Neidlinger?), the acting was of a level previously unseen in prior Festivals.

Among the participants who gained positive notices by their association with this production were Donald McIntyre as Wotan/Wanderer, Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde, René Kollo and Siegfried Jerusalem alternating as Siegfried, Heinz Zednik as Mime, Zóltan Kélemen and Hermann Becht as Alberich, Jeannine Altmeyer and Hannelore Bode as Sieglinde, Peter Hofmann as Siegmund, Matti Salminen as Fasolt, Fritz Hübner as Hunding, Karl Ridderbusch as Hagen, and many others.

What other Ring production of the past 40 some-odd years, with the “possible” exception of Harry Kupfer’s “Road to History” version from the 1990s, has made such a revolutionary impact in the way we envision Wagner’s epic? Certainly not the Robert Lepage cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, which, despite the millions spent on bringing it to the company’s reinforced stage, needs to be mothballed posthaste before further damage is done.

End of Part One

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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