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Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
03 Feb 2006

WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen

It has been nearly thirty years since the centenary production of the Ring at Bayreuth, and the controversy and even scandal that it generated have long since faded into memory.

Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen

  • Das Rheingold
  • Die Walküre
  • Siegfried
  • Götterdämmerung
  • The Making of "The Ring"

Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele, Pierre Boulez (cond.). Staged by: Patrice Chéreau

DG 073 405-7 [8DVDs]


Videos of the production have been available for many years, and certain details—such as the hydroelectric dam which functions as the setting for the Rhinemaidens’ scenes in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung—have become almost legendary. Few, if any, of those who purchase this DVD set will be shocked by its contents, and there might be a tendency to regard this recent re-release as simply another re-packaging of familiar material. And yet it is this very familiarity that is so significant. If 1976 marks the appearance of the postmodern Ring, 2006 marks a different moment, in which post-modernism itself becomes historical.

In the most general sense, Chéreau’s production of the Ring can be called “neo-Shavian.” Like Bernard Shaw in The Perfect Wagnerite, Chéreau interprets the Ring not so much as an amalgam of Nordic mythology and medieval legend, but as a parable about industrialism. From the plush costumes of the gods in the second scene of Das Rheingold to the oversized iron flywheel that haunts the first act of Siegfried, Chéreau’s production is replete with references to the nineteenth century. These references operate powerfully on the contemporary viewer/listener. Unlike what we can call the “neo-realist” materials of the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen production (which has dominated the stage at the Metropolitan for two decades), the detritus of nineteenth-century industrialism is still a part of our visual environment: the references therefore seem both historical and contemporary. Through his collage-like use of these visual materials Chéreau simultaneously locates the Ring in the nineteenth century and in our own time.

rheingold_boulez.jpgThis vision seems clearest in Das Rheingold. Chéreau takes full advantage of Wagner’s “anvil music” in the Nibelheim scene. Alberich’s minions look as if their bodies have been distorted by inhuman work in underground mines. The gods in the second and fourth scenes look not so much costumed as upholstered. If there is any problem with their appearance, it is that they look too decadent, too ripe for destruction. Only Donald McIntyre’s Wotan asserts the tragic dignity of the gods’ situation. Resisting the urge to let the voice fully bloom in the majestic music that opens the second scene (“Vollendet, das ewige Werk . . “), McIntyre presents a Wotan that—from his first appearance—is deeply conflicted. His lower range may lack some of James Morris’s authority, but McIntyre is a skillful singer and a consummate actor who fully inhabits his role. He carries Das Rheingold, and much of the rest of the Ring as well.

walkure_boulez.jpgThe first act of Die Walküre preserves the voice of Peter Hofmann (as Siegmund) before his rapid vocal decline. His undeniable beauty and physical vigor make him a charismatic presence, even if his singing lacks some of the nuance that other tenors have brought to the role. By casting Hunding as a wealthy nineteenth-century merchant, and having him enter with an intimidating group of retainers, Chéreau underscores the danger that Siegmund faces. Indeed, Matti Salminen’s Hunding is so menacing that it is hard to imagine that Siegmund—even with the help of his magic sword—will stand a chance against him. Hofmann also seems to be overshadowed by the Jeannine Altmeyer’s Sieglinde. Altmeyer’s voice is absolutely radiant, and she brings a sense of urgency to the role that at times borders on frenzy. In part because of her energy, the first act of Walküre is perhaps the most successful part of the Boulez/Chéreau Ring, in which musical and dramatic values completely support each other.

The production loses much of its clarity by the third act of Walküre. In the liner notes, the monolith that Chéreau uses for Brünnhilde’s rock is likened to one of the ruins that appear in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. But to this reviewer, its seems more closely linked to Böcklin’s famous “Isle of the Dead.” It seems disconnected from the quasi-industrial visual vocabulary that Chéreau uses for Rheingold: almost like a throwback to the pre-war designs of Emil Preetorius. Brünnhilde’s rock in Chéreau’s production is not merely a symbolic failure, but a dramatic one as well: flattening out the stage and restricting the possibilities for dramatic action. Chéreau seens to recover some of his ground in the first act of Siegfried, where Mime’s workshop gives ample opportunity to recoup the industrial imagery of Rheingold. The forging song, in which Siegfried uses a massive steam press to forge Nothung, is particularly effective. Chéreau also finds a good solution for the second-act dragon, which appears in this production as a clanking steel-plate behemoth rolled around by industrial workers. But like so many other directors, Chéreau seems befuddled by the “fairy-tale” aspects of the plot such as the “Forest Murmurs” and the Woodbird. Perhaps Chéreau lost confidence in his neo-Shavian interpretation of the Ring (this is hard to believe), or perhaps Wagner’s work is simply too diverse to be adequately encompassed by a single directorial idea. In any case, Chéreau’s hand seems to rest more lightly on the final two operas in Wagner’s tetralogy. Our attention is more keenly focused on the singers themselves, on whose abilities the success of the drama ultimately depends.

siegfried_boulez.jpgPerhaps the most welcome departure from the conventions of the Ring has to do with the presentation of Alberich. Unlike so many other interpreters of the role, Hermann Becht for the most part eschews the “Bayreuth bark,” and actually sings the role. His portrayal strengthens the drama immeasurably, highlighting all of those many places in the Ring in which we understand the gods and the Nibelungs as two aspects of the same psychic reality. In this production, more than any other, Wotan’s description of himself (in the Mime/Wanderer scene in the first act of Siegfried) as “Licht-Alberich” rings absolutely true. In the second act of Siegfried, Chéreau underscores the symmetry between Wotan and Alberich by costuming them in nearly identical ways. In the dim light that surrounds Fafner’s cave, the borders between gods, dwarves and men disappear.

Siegfried—perhaps the most challenging role in the entire tenor repertoire—is admirably sung by Manfred Jung. Jung brings to this role not only tremendous vocal stamina, but also keen intelligence. Shepherding his resources, he is able to master even the most difficult sections (such as the long narration immediately before his death in Götterdämmerung). Jung is not afraid to let Siegfried be unsympathetic and unheroic. He is not a particularly subtle singer, but for this interpretation of the role, he doesn’t need to be. Indeed, it is precisely because Jung creates such a brutal, coarse, unformed Siegfried in the third opera of the Ring that his transformation in Götterdämmerung is so powerful and compelling. In Jung’s interpretation, we understand Siegfried as a kind of elemental force similar to the Rheingold itself. He stands for human potential, morally neutral until transfigured by love.

gotterdammerung_boulez.jpgChéreau’s set for most of Götterdämmerung is sparse and not particularly compelling: here the Gibichung court is visually represented more through costuming than set design. In a wonderful touch, Gunther appears in a tuxedo. Hagen is in a rumpled business suit and Gutrune in a slinky white gown. Casting Jeannine Altmeyer again in this role has the effect of drawing attention to interesting symmetries and conventions in the Ring. When in the first act of Götterdämmerung she hands Siegfried a welcoming drink, we inevitably think of the refreshment that Altmeyer offered to another tenor in the first act of Die Walküre. As in the earlier opera, the beauty of Altmeyer’s singing has the effect of elevating the importance of the role that she portrays. This is particularly true because Fritz Hübner, the Hagen in this production, fails to dominate the opera. His acting is overshadowed by that of Franz Mazura (the Gunther of this Götterdämmerung), and his singing is rather monochromatic. This reviewer wishes that Boulez and Chéreau had brought back Matti Salminen (the Hunding of Die Walküre and the Fasolt of Rheingold) to sing this role (as he does in the Metropolitan opera video from the late 1980s).

Brünnhilde is portrayed by Gwyneth Jones, one of the most important Wagnerian sopranos of the twentieth century. Jones’s voice has a steely, hard-edged quality that foregrounds her occasional pitch problems and detracts, in many places, from a “purely musical” appreciation of Wagner’s work (as if such an appreciation were really possible!). Jones is least effective in those passages such as “Brünnhilde’s Awakening” in the last act of Siegfried (“Heil dir, Sonne”), in which her voice cannot completely flower into sonic beauty. But Jones is a consummate singing actor, and the video format, with its frequent close-ups, suits her well. Her performance in Götterdämmerung is absolutely magnificent. Here the edginess of her voice works for her rather than against her. She is a terrifying and formidable woman: Hagen’s call to the vassals—in which he describes approaching enemies and dire consequences for the Gibichung house—seems completely warranted in this production. And yet Jones is also intent on showing us Brünnhilde’s weakness and vulnerability. Her second-act entrance is particularly stunning. Bent over, white against the black formality of Gunther’s tuxedo, shrouded by her own hair, she embodies all the tragedy engendered by the lust for power and wealth.

Chéreau’s visual materials have become so famous that they have at least partially obscured the musical values that this production presents. As we might imagine, Boulez’s conducting stands in opposition to that of Levine’s which—at least to this reviewer—all too often lapses into self-indulgent languor. And yet many of Boulez’s tempi seem equally idiosyncratic. The Giants’ motive in the second scene of Das Rheingold, for instance, is played so quickly that it sounds almost like a limping can-can: Fafner and Fasolt do not lumber so much as shuffle their way into the presence of the gods. Perhaps the greatest disappointment—in musical terms—is Wotan’s Abschied. The magic fire motive sounds dry and mechanical: Loge’s mischievous energy reduced to the monotony of a typewriter. We may understand, and even sympathize with Boulez’s desire to bring more transparency to the score, and one is often grateful that he thins out the wash of orchestral sound that frequently overwhelms singers in other productions of Wagner’s works. The Boulez interpretation is always clear, and under his baton the singers are able to sing the most delicate piannissimi without danger of being lost. Donald McIntyre, in particular, uses this potential in order to bring a wonderful depth to his portrayal of Wotan. But the orchestral chestnuts of the Ring: the Ride of the Valkyries; Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; Siegfried’s Funderal Music, are likely to disappoint. In sections such as these, Boulez does not seem to fully trust the score. Unwilling either to press forward or to broaden the tempo. Boulez all too often settles into a tepid and lifeless interpretation. Great mid-century conductors such as Furtwängler and Stokowski were able to use tempo variation in order to convey the grand sweep of the music. Their interpretations are occasionally “sloppy,” but they always have a sense of direction and purpose. Boulez’s interpretation frequently loses this sense of direction. The supposed “clarity” of Boulez’s Ring; its stricter tempi and reduced orchestral sound, ironically have the effect of making the Ring less clear.

Boulez’s conducting is at its best in those sections that frequently present the most challenges to listeners (and perhaps to conductors as well): namely, those long discursive sections such as the Norns’ scene at the beginning of Götterdämmerung, or the two long Wotan/Brünnhilde duets in Die Walküre, in which Wagner’s Melos seems to press closest to recitative. Here Boulez’s metronomic approach to the score serves him well, lending the drama a sense of urgency and meaning. Boulez’s musical leadership, in short, has a defamiliarizing effect on the score: foregrounding certain motives, sections, and relationships awhile causing others to recede, forcing us to hear Wagner’s work in radically different ways.

Included along with the four operas of the cycle is a special documentary “The Making of the Ring,” that gives an account of the 1982 filming of the production recorded in this set of DVDs. The material in this hour-long documentary is not particularly well organized, but it includes some fascinating footage of earlier Bayreuth productions. One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is the sections in which we see and hear Brian Large, the chief videographer for the Boulez/Chéreau Ring. In much of his other work, Large seems to take on a largely “transparent” role: letting in the television/video audience maintain the illusion, perhaps, that they are actually watching a stage performance of an opera. In this Boulez/Chérea Ring, however, Large takes on a more active role, not merely in the more-or less conventional camera work and fadeouts, but also in unusual effects such as those that we see during the “Descent to Nibelheim” music (described above), or “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.” During this latter segment, se see Brünnhilde’s rock shrinking slowly against a black background, until it appears as nothing more than a glowing square in the middle of the screen. It is a simple, but highly effective idea, symbolizing both the physical and the psychic distance that is opening up between Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Large is clearly committed to the aesthetic values articulated by Chéreau and Boulez, and deserves credit as along with them as one of the co-interpreters of this production.

The flaws of the production are many, but it is deeply felt and passionately argued interpretation with tremendous significance. All serious Wagnerians should have access to this release. Although it documents a period, namely the late 1970s and 1980s, that has passed into history, it stands as a living testament to the power of reimagining Wagner’s works, and the imperative that we all share: to make them perpetually new.

Stephen Meyer
Syracuse University

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