As much as I might enjoy the paradox in seeking out real situations that recall a work which is for many the ultimate in escapism, I admired Tankred Dorst’s efforts to bring Wagner’s mythology into our own world. Dorst recognizes that mythology and the divine are present everywhere, largely because of the consistency of human behavior.
I won’t even say that I wish that, in beginning with Katharina Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger, I was starting on a cheerful note. Nothing of the kind. Katharina has studiously avoided her great grandfather’s romanticized Nürnberg, where great artistic, literary, and musical achievement lurked around every corner, where the citizens dressed colorfully, where the men engaged in witty exchanges, while the girls joyfully gave themselves over the dancing, if not to their young men, at every opportunity. She has, rather, chosen to focus on the repressive nature of this conservative society, as embodied in the guild system, the obsessive power of routine in daily life, its neuroses, and, yes, its nightmares. Having a certain penchant for black humor and oddity, I entered with pleasure into my five-hour visit to this frightening and pitiable world, and I laughed, quite a bit, which, I should hope, is the desired result of any Meistersinger production. If my laughter was a trifle sour at times, it’s not entirely alien from the sarcastic wit of Wagner’s libretto. Hence, I am pleased to say that Katharina Wagner won her war, buoyed up by a splendid vocal, orchestral, and comedic performance, which had its own vigorous life, no matter how strange the goings-on on stage. And, if one is open-minded enough not to resist these, one can expect to gain a fair bit of insight into human nature, history, and Richard Wagner’s comic masterpiece.
The production aesthetics of the recent Los Angeles Ring set it far apart from any other North American production of Wagner’s tetralogy to date. One aspect that has divided audiences and performers alike is the director/designer Achim Freyer’s ubiquitous use of masks and puppet forms. Freyer is not the only director to resort in the past quarter century to such devices, which have gained in popularity in opera/theatre production more generally. In the Ring, Wagner himself never called for masks for his singers. His theoretical writings nevertheless alert us to ways he thought about masks and his keen interest in matters of disguise and deception — core elements of the Ring dramas. Many modern critics are appalled by the use of masks for opera singers, both for aesthetic and vocal reasons, and believe that it is antithetical to Wagner’s dramaturgy. Wagner’s theoretical interest in masks undermines this critical stance. Simultaneously, contemporary directors have discovered in masks a powerful expressive tool that reaches well beyond what Wagner recognized as the boundaries of dramatically suggestive costuming.
I had originally planned this commentary simply to let you, our readers, know about the changes in our usual coverage for the remainder of the summer: Larry Wallach, Seth Lachterman, and Keith Kibler will bravely continue their coverage of summer festivals in the Berkshires and Hudson Valley, while I visit Bayreuth, to review the entire 2010 season: Tankred Dorst’s production of the Ring, along with the controversial productions of Parsifal (Stefan Herheim, 2008), Die Meistersinger (Katharina Wagner, 2007), and Lohengrin (Hans Neuenfels, 2010). I left my rat-catching gear at home, not wishing to incur overweight charges and thinking it might be cheaper simply to purchase the necessaries here, but all the ratting supply stores in Bayreuth are sold out of equipment, and I realize that I simply have to remain unrattled, while the rodents run free.
Point taken. Whenever period orchestras venture far beyond the Baroque, they have something to prove. But at last night’s concert of Wagner and Berlioz by the esteemed Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, some of the proof was self-evident. Banished completely are the intonation problems that plagued such ensembles in the past; one felt secure in the technical abilities of every section; the wind soloists played as expressively as anyone could wish. London is a center for period performance, which has become beloved. Sir Simon Rattle has conducted Act II of Tristan, in concert with the forces of Berlin and Vienna, but it’s good to be flexible, and since he enjoys a long-standing rapport with the OAE, they were a comfortable fit.
Dressing up in a monkey suit is a time-honored profession in Hollywood. Many is the young actor or layabout who has earned a few dollars by dressing up as a gorilla — or Batman or Chewbacca — and going out into the streets with pamphlets to spread the good news about some new deli or used car lot or strip show. For a while, gorilla suits were popular in the studios as well. (That’s a whole genre that’s almost entirely forgotten today.) I reflected on this, as, on the eve of Das Rheingold, I drove along Sunset Boulevard, observing the crowds of tourists in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, along with a group of people dressed up as comic book heroes who were available to pose with the visitors. I wondered if any of them thought about the impoverishment of the imagination that these comic book figures have brought to the movies. Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, and Bette Davis all created characters in their own way, even if they remained recognizable as themselves in their parts. We know what to expect from Batman and Darth Vader simply by their costume, their design, or merely the outline of their shadow on a fictitious pavement. Characterization and acting are superfluous, even though some of these characters have human vehicles, who are dutifully provided with origins, relationships, and dilemmas, by screenwriters who know that they can only sink so low.
Although Wagner, never able to give up his bitterness over the failure of Tannhaüser, may have taken nothing but bitter memories of Paris to his grave, his later music, including the Ring, enjoyed a devoted and extensive following in France. At last year’s Bard Festival André Dombrowsky explored the popularization of his music through simplified piano arrangements for domestic use, and Larry Bensky discussed Wagner’s role in Proust’s life and imagination. The French can look back to distinguished tradition in Wagner production, and today Wagner is as alive in Toulouse and Lyon as it is in Paris. Nonetheless, productions of the Ring have been rather sparse at the Paris Opera: the first, sung in French translation and conducted by André Messager, did not occur until 1911 (Rheingold 1909). The second, this time in German and conducted by one of the most authoritative German Wagner conductors, Hans Knappertsbusch, came forty-four years later, in 1955! There was Peter Stein production of Das Rheingold in 1976 under Solti, which never developed into a full Ring Cycle. The Ring production initiated by this Rheingold is a historical first, as the first production of the work for the Opéra Bastille, which opened in 1989, and the first complete Ring by the Paris Opera since 1957. With a German production team and a Swiss conductor, Philippe Jordan, 35, who is now concluding his first season as Music Director, the Paris Opera continues its post-war tradition of gathering its Wagnerian talent east of the Rhine. (It is worth noting at this point that Pierre Boulez, one of the great living Wagner conductors, has never conducted the Ring in his native France.)
This full realization of the Ring as drama became the unifying principle of the production, as it was perhaps meant to be, but unified musical direction was lacking—the greatest challenge the participants faced—since the Music Director of the Staatskapelle, Fabio Luisi, who is now basking in adulation in New York—justifiably, as it would seem from his sensitive reading of Berg’s Lulu—summarily cancelled his engagements with the orchestra, following a set-to with the Intendant, Gerd Uecker. (We are interested in music drama here, and this is not the place to tell this unpleasant story.) In the end, Luisi was not greatly missed, although the most significant shortcomings of the Ring as a whole stemmed from the weaknesses of one of the three conductors who took over the Maestro’s responsibilities. On the contrary, the audience had ample reason to rejoice in Asher Fisch’s energetic and visceral Siegfried, and, even better, in the discovery of an extraordinary new talent, Jonas Alber, who, at 41, is little known outside Germany