Saturday, October 9, 2010

DAS RHEINGOLD review, part one: the road to this production

The music-dramatic spectacular of Wagner's RING needs re-staging from time to time, sometimes even re-thinking. But during the Postwar, not to say since the days of Adolph Appia, this has in fact been happening. Are re-think ideas endless?

European Personenregie is a dead-end: even if a encasing Wotan's head in a birdcage somehow does tell us something, it's more likely to be something the director learned in Europe's endless grad-school culture than anything Richard Wagner meant to narrate.

The "neo-Bayreuth" style of Wieland Wagner was beautiful in its austerity, but its quarter-century reign on the Green Hill (longer elsewhere) was a long inning indeed, and in any case, it had two flaws: it underplayed the role of color in Wagnerian staging (or do I just think so b/c those productions were mostly photographed in b&w? I think they were photographed that way b/c they were that way); and they depended on a generation of singers so great in both their vocalism and their dramatic sense that their like cannot be depended on.

Wieland Wagner defended that lack of literal-looking trees in his RING sets with the remark, "Why do I need a tree when I have Astrid Varnay?" Meaning, not that this great (American!) soprano was a tree, but that her vocal and dramatic presence made sets kind of beside the point. But is there a new Varnay today? Enough of them to supply the (growing!) demand for RING productions? Frak that! -- even Bayreuth is now employing Linda Watson; an estimable lady (I've seen her Brunnhilde at the Met), but not a Varnay, or a Flagstad, or a Moedl, or a Nilsson.

What else? Well, there's the type of Konzeptproduktion that doesn't deserve to be dismissed as "Eurotrash"; productions that impose an interpretation, but do so with consistency and evident intelligence, and work with the text and music, not against them or in apparent ignorance of them. Ultimate example: Chereau. Archetypal term of praise from reluctant admirers (like me): "It works." Yes it did -- but how many such ideas are out there, w/o tipping over into Eurotrash? And, even if they were abundant, do we really want every RING to come with some director's Konzept? Can't we have some "pure" Wagner somewhere, some time?

The Met thought so. After a 1967-1982 experiment with a neo-Bayreuth style (the complete cycle was last given in 1975), James Levine realized that "conservatism" had become radical, and took to the barricades. Everyone said you could never again have literal spears, shields, and sets that represent the forests and mountains of mythical ancient Germany. Levine said, why the hell not? Who sez?

No need to change set designers: the clever and versatile Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, who had designed the broken-ring world-disc, abstract buildings, and sky-swirls for the 1967 "Karajan" production, was re-hired to work with director Otto Schenck on a panoply of ultra-realistic sets, such as might have been seen in Wagner's day, but enhanced by modern stage technology.

The result was right out of New York opera-world master-plots: fans loved it, critics hated it, it drew generations of new Wagnerian singers to the Met, and it put paying butts in seats, wall to wall, for a quarter-century. And that's not counting earnings from the DVD and (not identical) CD releases.

But 20-25 years is about the average life-span for any RING production at the Met. Ask me, I'd have kept the Schenck version indefinitely. But I can't honestly complain it got stiffed, lifespan-wise. And besides, it is on DVD.

But -- what to do next? As my survey above was meant to suggest, the best options are all either just as "done already" as ultra-realism, or else they're simply bad. (I admit I haven't seen the LA Opera's hyper-modern production, which I've already ragged on a bit in this essay; but, to judge from their ticket sales, hardly any one else has either, and that should tell you something. In the age of the internet, people can find multiple reviews and see both still pictures and video clips, and decide whether they really want to see a stage full of laser beams and Wotan with a birdcage on his head, or not. Evidently, most don't.)

(The idea behind LA RING director Achim Freyer's wire-encasement of Wotan's head may be -- just guessing here -- to show the audience, who would never otherwise have guessed, that Wotan is imprisoned by the choices he has made. Oooooooooo, deep, man. "Ah, symbolism," as Martin Bernheimer might say.)

But if we don't want old and we don't want bad, what is there? Well, there has not yet been "fusionism" in Wagnerian staging: that is, anchoring certain aspects of a production firmly in tradition and the composer's narrative -- costumes and props, say -- but fusing that traditionalism with a non-representational (and to that extent, non-traditional) set, which will dispense with representationalism not for the hell of it, but in order to achieve scenic effects in a new way, a way made familiar by theater phenomena such as Hal Prince (how "representational," really, are his classic productions of SWEENEY or PHANTOM?) and Cirque du Soleil.

Only one man for that job -- a man with experience in both CdS and opera -- by name, Robert Lepage. And by 2005, Peter Gelb was talking to him about taking charge of a new RING production at the Met.

And now, RHEINGOLD is here. For my money (and I think I've shown my traddy cards clearly enough) it is a triumph. It's a long way from a traddy production: e.g. the gods assemble, not on a set that looks like the grassy mountain-top called for in the score, but in front of a row of vertical slats that pivot, turn, and re-form to change scenes or to make necessary adjustments within a scene. These slats are highly reflective, and both light and images (e.g. bubbles coming from the mouths of the Rhinemaidens, fire around Loge's feet) are projected on them constantly.

But notice -- the slats move around to tell Wagner's story, not some new one invented by the director. And what's projected on them are elements directly or indirectly from Wagner's libretto (after all, Scene One does take place "in the River Rhine -- in it," as Anna Russell pointed out, and Loge is the god of fire). Revolutionary means to conservative/preservative ends. Or, if you prefer (as I do) to can the political metaphors: a kickass new way to tell a familiar story (or to tell as afresh to those not familiar with it).

In the previous production, Schenck and Schneider-Siemssen gave us at the finale of their RHEINGOLD a beautiful Rainbow Bridge leading to a visible Valhalla. But it was done entirely with light-tricks, so no opera-singers-portraying-gods could actually "cross" it and "enter" Valhalla.

What does Lepage give us? An aurora-borealis of color in the sky, representing the rainbow; a laser-light "bridge" hiding an escalalator that enables the "gods" actually to rise slowly up the steep "bridge" behind the lasers; then the slat that had been raked to make all this visible horizontalizes, so that the "gods" can continue their walk (sans escalator) into Valhalla. The slat then verticalizes behind them, solemnly shutting Valhalla (Loge, by choice, remains outside); lights projected on the slats show Valhalla to be built of black alabaster with much white marbling (the Giants use quality materials).

Frakkn' amazing.

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