I should most likely not distract you from giving a subscription to The Berkshire Review as a holiday gift. We need subscriptions to carry on our work, but there are a few items that have come in for review that I can warmly suggest as excellent gifts. These are not systematic, and they are not always serious, but we do recommend them. Some of them will be reviewed in detail over the following weeks.
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.
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.)
[Reprinted with thanks from From Beyond the Stave, The Boydell & Brewer Music Blog, originally posted May 5, 2009] Wagner’s operas repel some people and strike others as simply ridiculous. [ … ]
Just as the last major events of the spring season approached, including the final performances of Otto Schenk’s production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen at the Met, I realized that [ … ]
The 125th anniversary season of The Metropolitan Opera concluded this month with a final curtain for Otto Schenk’s production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. The commemorative farewell, while heavyhearted for many, was historically befitting for an opera house that established its inaugural season in the year of Wagner’s passing in 1883. The retirement of Schenk’s 1989 staging after six revivals not only makes room for a new Ring directed by Robert Lepage to be unveiled in the 2011-12 season, with Das Rheingold set to premiere in advance during fall 2010, it also furthers the new course charted by Met general manager Peter Gelb toward revitalizing the current repertory for a broader audience.
Three aquatic maidens, whose squirt-gun breasts hose down a lurking sexual predator, are hoisted above the stage in glass tanks. Behind them, a giant, digitally projected image of a golden [ … ]
When, in my review of his recent performance to Haydn’s Creation, I was reflecting on Sir Colin Davis’ career, I mentioned the Ring Cycle he conducted at Covent Garden in 1976. I thought that Siegfried was the most successful of the performances, because Sir Colin seemed to have fallen in love with its spectacular score. In no other work are the beauties of Wagner’s composition so constantly and so openly present. As I sat raptly in my seat, the orchestra and all the wonderful qualities Sir Colin could reveal in it were without a doubt the focus of my attention. And so it is for most of us in most performances, past or present, whether it is Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Solti, Böhm (whose splendid Bayreuth performances, available on Philips, should be better remembered), Boulez, or Levine. The orchestra functions as storyteller—a surpassingly eloquent one, with all the resources of Wagner’s musical imagination.