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Richard Wagner

Wagner and Masks

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Mime and Loge converse in Nibelheim. From Das Rheingold, Los Angeles, 2010, directed designed (together with Amanda Freyer) by Achim Freyer
Mime and Loge converse in Nibelheim. From Das Rheingold, Los Angeles, 2010, directed designed (together with Amanda Freyer) by Achim Freyer. Photo Monika Rittershaus.

[Adapted from a presentation delivered as part of the LA Opera “Ring Festival” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 12, 2010]

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.

Let’s begin with Wagner. Throughout his life, Wagner showed a keen interest in puppetry, and he engaged with two theatrical traditions specifically involving masks: commedia dell’ arte and ancient Greek drama. Many references to Greek tragedy surface in Wagner’s so-called revolutionary writings, the ample essays he wrote in exile as he developed his Ring libretto into a four-part drama. In “The Artwork of the Future” of 1849, for example, Wagner argued for the importance of myth and its Greek foundation. Wagner certainly had a deep and abiding interest in Greek drama, but as John Deathridge has shown he could also overstate the degree to which this was the case. [1] In this phase, Wagner was preoccupied with notions of operatic reform, with finding ways to strengthen German opera in relation to more successful French and Italian essays in the genre. His overemphasis on the value of Greek drama was a way of not acknowledging the more cosmopolitan range of influences which had served him well and continued to do so.

As with any individual theatrical or musical tradition, or philosophical perspective for that matter, Wagner’s interests were always highly selective. He did not advocate a return to the Greek practice of masked performers. Wagner regarded the tragic masks and garb that enabled performers to become gods and heroes as drawing on their symbolic potential rooted in religious and social conventions that lent the performer the aura of a priest. In his view, the human foundation of this communal artwork became too reliant on masks and was ultimately unable to express itself freely. Later in this same essay Wagner refers to masks figuratively, amidst reflections on the theatre of modern public life. In contrast with the real face of nature, he points to the hypocritical mask of the political sphere, with its focus on superfluous art and needless luxury.

In both cases, Wagner regarded masks as the enemy of natural man as they could involve illusions of substance or camouflage contradictory intentions. It is no coincidence that such reflections occurred to Wagner as he was developing dramatic material centered on his natural and vulnerable hero, Siegfried.

A couple of years later, in Opera and Drama, Wagner credited Shakespeare for rescuing the human element of Greek tragedy through the creation of smaller, sharply chiseled roles which cast a range of perspectives on the more central characters. In the hands of later dramatists, however, Wagner found that these character types had become mere stereotypical masks. In this vein opera suffered from a tendency towards generic aria types and melodies. Brilliant historical costumes he considered a further layer of camouflage, which he specifically referred to as the varnish on the mask. Wagner did find masks valuable for pantomime. For the all-empowered drama he was envisioning, however, masks concealed plastic facial gestures and limited the expressiveness of the eyes. The individuality of Wagner’s characters would be conveyed through nuanced forms of speech and music, as well as by the actors’ gestures and expressions.

So much for theory.

In practice, Wagner called for masks in his first two completed operas, but these were works from which he carefully distanced himself as he worked on the Ring. His Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) is based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Wagner’s dramatic re-working retains a focus on the judge whose hypocritical behaviour concerning pre-marital sexual activity is exposed after he agrees to a rendezvous with the beautiful Isabella. In Shakespeare’s play, this meeting takes place in a garden under the cover of night — the quintessential dramatic setting for promiscuity and deceptions of various kinds. He meets not Isabella there but his former fiancée Mariana, and carries out his intentions none the wiser. The audience is not witness to any of this as it is not staged but only relayed indirectly after the fact.

Wagner’s relocation of the action from Vienna to Palermo helped him to completely recast the rendezvous scene. First off, Wagner incorporated the Italian celebration of Carnival as encapsulating all that the judge supposedly opposes. It is thus to an evening Carnival celebration that Isabella invites him. Masks are the main means of disguise, with a little wine-induced chaos to ease things along. Contrary to Shakespeare, this takes place with a full chorus and other figures onstage, most of whom wear half or full Italian character masks. Isabella and Marianna wear the same mask and the latter makes a pre-agreed gesture which signals to the judge that he has found Isabella amidst the sea of disguises. He whisks the masked woman offstage. Soon, shouts are heard and the two are brought back onstage to be unmasked on the spot. There is more Mozart and Da Ponte in all of this than Shakespeare.

The idea of incorporating Carnival into his opera was in part attractive to Wagner on account of its implications for music-making– the singing of songs, dances, and processions. To understand why Carnival and masked figures would be at the forefront of his mind at this stage of his career, we need to take but one step back to the opera he had just finished beforehand, to Die Feen, (The Fairies). For his first complete opera, Wagner adapted a drama by Carlo Gozzi, the 18th-century Venetian playwright who positioned himself as a rival to Carlo Goldoni. Gozzi’s plays were much admired by Wagner’s uncle and by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the idol of Wagner’s youth who recommended Gozzi’s fairy-tales as ideal for an opera libretto. Wagner chose the play titled La donna serpente, (The Snake Lady), as the basis for his opera. He modified the plot in several ways, not the least of which involved the main female character being transformed into stone instead of into a snake.

La donna serpente is one of a group of ten plays that Gozzi wrote in the 1760s which involved the commedia dell’arte troupe headed by Antonio Sacchi. Having been displaced from Lisbon by an earthquake, the troupe returned to Venice and the situation emerged whereby Gozzi could write plays for them that included other actors and would be performed in well-equipped opera houses — stages renowned for their elaborate visual spectacles. This was an uncommon arrangement, for commedia plays were mostly performed in more modest circumstances. By this time, the genre of improvised comedy involving stock masked characters was well past its heyday and was considered a debased dramatic form. Gozzi set out to show off the strengths of commedia afresh in a tensional aesthetic configuration involving material typical of serious drama and fabulous scenic transformations. For his part, Wagner could hardly adopt the practice of actual improvisation and although he absorbed aspects of Gozzi’s commedia characters into his own, he did not have any characters regularly masked and Die Feen is not primarily a comic work.

What impact then did the commedia dimension of Gozzi’s play have on Wagner? Dieter Borchmeyer has shown that the paradoxical notion of “fixed improvisation,” of giving the impression of spontaneity in performance, became a marked feature of Wagner’s ideas about acting. [2] This is not a dead end on the matter of Wagner and masks. Rather, it is a pivot that leads us back to the Ring, via Lohengrin.

Wagner’s Die Feen was first performed in 1888, after his death, and he chose not to publish the libretto or score during his lifetime. It has often been thought that he simply considered the work too immature to bring to light in any form. However, as soon as the score became available around the time of the premiere, many writers commented on the number of ways the music and drama offered select hints of the mature Wagner. At that time, and ever since, there has been only sporadic interest in the Gozzi play that inspired him. (Interestingly, this story is related to a traditional Chinese source which was taken up by librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs and composer Zhou Long in Madame White Snake (2010), an opera co-commissioned by Opera Boston and the Beijing Music Festival Arts Foundation.) The basic plot concerns the union of a mortal man with a supernatural wife — a popular enough theme amongst German Romantic artists and one often revisited by Wagner himself. In Die Feen, the couple’s troubles begin when the hero Arindal fails to uphold his promise NOT to discover his supernatural wife’s name. This obvious point of overlap with the Lohengrin story leads to further connections which suggest that in the later 1840s Wagner was inspired by Gozzi’s fairytale afresh. After all, there was still a good deal of material that he had not used in Die Feen, or that he had used in a different way.

Wagner needed a dramatic model to flesh out the medieval version of the legend of Lohengrin, introduced in the briefest of outlines at the end of Eschenbach’s account of the life of Parzival. Elements of disguise and deception and the transformation of a boy into a swan are not to be found there, nor is there a clear instigator figure along the lines of Ortrud. One can find traces of relevant metamorphoses in the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales and in sources such as Ovid. In Gozzi, such elements are embedded in a dramatic structure that was more readily useful to Wagner. For example, in Lohengrin Ortrud advises Friedrich that he only needs to cut off a piece of the grail knight’s finger to undo his supernatural powers. This is strikingly similar to a story sung to the mortal hero Prince Arindal in Act I of Die Feen. Arindal is distraught by the disappearance of his fairy wife Ada, whom his compatriot Gernot completely distrusts. Gernot sings a ballad about a witch whom he likens to Ada. In his song he claims that if one managed to cut off the witch’s finger bearing a magic ring, her powers that make her appear young and beautiful would fail and her old ugly self would be revealed. Although Arindal does not immediately think his wife is like the witch in the song, the seed of disbelief has been planted and is actively nourished–the modus operandi for Ortrud in Lohengrin. Musical allusions to the song underscore its lingering potency already in the very next scene, when two more of Arindal’s colleagues arrive both wearing disguises, including masks. The first appears as an old priest who tells Arindal in an elevated, authoritative tone that his wife is deceptive, along the lines of the witch about whom he has just heard. The next disguised friend presents himself as the ghost of Arindal’s father. He relays that he has died while his son has been away enjoying the pleasures of the supernatural world and their land is now besieged by an oppressor. Although the disguises are undone, his father has in fact died, and this devastating reality encourages him to return to his people — the aim of the charade from the onset.

Gozzi’s version of these disguise scenes is a little more complicated, involving two layers of costuming on account of the commedia masks–additional items included as different styles of beards, symbolic hats, and robes. Also, because Gozzi’s masked actors always used characteristic language in Venetian dialect, he employed an offstage voice — that of a magician — to project a more noble kind of language while the disguised characters gesticulated onstage. In each instance, the extra costuming elements fall off, revealing the characters’ usual masks. The commedia characters however are initially unaware of this development and think themselves still disguised. When the offstage voice ceases at this point, the commedia characters try to continue the deception using their own all-too-revealing voices. This scene is relevant to the Ring, where Wagner went out of his way to mould his literary material to focus on moments involving disguise and deception, and transformations.

As is well known, Wagner’s Ring began as a single opera, the one that we know as Götterdämmerung. The very basis of this drama is a transformation of character so marked that the hero Siegfried does not appear as a hero at all. The potion which Gutrune gives him, at Hagen’s urging, disguises his real nature until he is given the antidote. Without memory of his union with Brünnhilde, Siegfried is easily encouraged to behave in ways which contradict the promises he makes to her in their brief happy scene in the Prologue — all literally undone at the end of the first act when he revisits her disguised via the Tarnhelm. In that chilling scene, half of his face is to be covered, leaving only his eyes free, while the rest of him appears in the form of Gunther, a further matter of costuming. Wagner also directed the singer to disguise his voice, to make it rougher, and somewhat unsteady at first, before becoming more confident in the role-playing. Siegfried is not experienced at such deceptions.

When Wagner decided that he should expand his drama to outline Siegfried’s youth, he incorporated further disguises. Up until this stage, the dragon or Lindwurm that Siegfried slays was simply a dragon — the Tarnhelm now came into play again as the dragon became a metamorphosis of the giant Fafner. Wagner’s solution for the staging of Fafner the dragon involved an elaborate costume onstage while locating the actual singer just under the stage, singing through a loudspeaker in order to enhance their voice. As in the disguise scenes in Gozzi, the deception is not particularly successful. Fafner is anything but a fear-inspiring dragon (except to Mime), a persona that he sheds almost with relief. In wonderful operatic fashion he is allowed to sing past the point of being fatally wounded and Wagner directed the singer to move to a trap door closer to the front of the stage for his more intimate exchange with Siegfried. This general dramatic structure whereby a more genuine form of the character is revealed is similar to the way Wagner handled Siegfried’s own death scene, with a key difference being that Siegfried is completely unaware that he has been drugged or given an antidote. Fafner calculates his own disguise and Wagner builds in a critique of its transparency which extends back to Das Rheingold, when Alberich is goaded into displaying the powers of the Tarnhelm for Loge and Wotan.

Transparent masks, or unconvincing role-playing, also came to dominate Wagner’s development of the character Mime. In the first scene of the opera Siegfried, Mime adopts a musical mask akin to a lullaby when he attempts to portray himself as a loving parent. Without suggesting that fathers don’t sing lullabies, Mime’s song does imply a maternal role which is later problematized when he tries to convince Siegfried that he is his mother and father simultaneously. What leads to that awkward moment is Mime’s unconvincing attempt to answer Siegfried’s question why he always returns to the dwarf despite not being able to stand his presence. Mime then switches gears and asserts a more authoritative stance, although one couched in seemingly supportive tones as he tells Siegfried he ought to curb his wildness and wickedness and that he is always drawn back to Mime on account love, for all children must love their parents. In his production of Siegfried in Tokyo (2003), director Keith Warner gently accentuated this aspect of Mime’s nature. Having unsuccessfully attempted to make a meal for Siegfried, Mime folds up his frilly cooking apron and temporarily abandons his efforts in the kitchen. When Siegfried subsequently poses his tricky question about what draws him perennially back to the dwarf, Mime assumes a calculated response in which he plays the role of analyst.

This kind of role-playing leads to Mime’s death in a scene that has no dramatic precedent in the traditional Ring sources. Recall that in Gozzi, the commedia characters attempt to continue their deceptions after their visual identities have been revealed, using their own voices. With the translation assistance of Fafner’s blood, Siegfried understands from the Woodbird that he must listen closely in order to detect Mime’s hypocrisy. What he must do is separate the truthful text from the musical disguise, which is much flimsier and inconsistent than before. Mime’s overconfidence grows as he nears his goal and he perseveres even when his deception has become transparent, astounded by what Siegfried manages to perceive. Wagner’s handling of this final encounter between the two is sophisticated but also deeply unsettling in the way its sinister thrust is laced with comedy. Gozzi’s scene too is an unnerving blend of comedy and tragedy, with the end result that the hero realizes that his father has died and he must move on to a more mature station in life.

Another character that Wagner developed using a physical disguise akin to a mask is Wotan. As the Wanderer, he wears a long dark cloak which conceals his normal attire and a wide-brimmed hat partially concealing his face. Wotan like Mime often deliberately tries to conceal his real identity and intentions. Physical disguise and figurative masks abound in the Ring. The sheer number of characters who may present a human dimension but are ostensibly giants, dwarfs, water nymphs or the like invite creative responses that depict them not as merely human. Wagner had in mind a more differentiated approach to the costuming of his sprawling cast of characters than was achieved in Bayreuth in 1876. Froh, for example, was to have an effeminate clean-shaven face, unlike his more aggressive brother Donner. Beards of course were then the norm for men, and unusual theatrical beards could also be worn. Photographs indicate the singer declined to shave off his natural facial hair for the premiere, but the matter was addressed in Cosima’s production of the Ring in 1896.

From Cosima Wagner's 1896 Ring
Mime and Alberich in Cosima Wagner's 1896 Ring
Mime and Alberich in Cosima Wagner's 1896 Ring
Fafner and Fasolt
Fafner and Fasolt

At the same time, the costumes and makeup for Alberich, Mime and Fafner and Fasolt involved elaborate wigs and facial hair including false eyebrows, and the giants wore padded shoes.

From the Bayreuth 1933 Ring
Mime and Alberich
Mime and Alberich
A Giant
A Giant

By the time of the next new Ring production in Bayreuth, in 1933, costuming and makeup had become even more elaborate for these characters, with the singers’ natural faces almost fully concealed — solutions encouraged by the use of brighter lighting sources and greater expectations of detail bound up with the close-in imagery of the film industry.

Following Wagner’s death, the widespread adoption of electrical stage lighting also stimulated experimental shifts away from realism and naturalism. During the tumultuous and disillusioning early decades of the 20th Century, masks and puppets drawn from Western and non-Western traditions left their traces on every art form. Before the end of the 19th century, commedia characters had been brought to life on the operatic stage in I Pagliacci. In 1919, Prokofiev turned to one of Gozzi‘s hybrid commedia plays for his Love of Three Oranges. An increased self-awareness of theatre within theatre emerged with a greater profile on popular forms of entertainment, such as fairs and circuses. This perspective could involve a fresh sense of playfulness. At the same time, the actor or artist was often profiled in a tensional way to the mask he or she was wearing, offering darker perspectives on the relationship between the artist or the common man to the public realm. Issues of freedom and constraint or obligation came to the foreground and these issues only became more complex with the years of the Great War and their aftermath.

One thinks of the myriad of examples of the ways Pierrot and above all Harlequin percolated  in such personal ways through Picasso’s career. As inter-disciplinary experiments waxed, masks and puppetry had an especially strong influence on modern dance, triggering a new repertoire of physical gestures as well as approaches to character interpretation. Consider also Petrushka, Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet project with the choreographer Michel Fokine in which the puppets at a popular fair seem to come to life with tragic consequences. The dancer Nijinsky explored the nebulous boundary between art and life, reinforced by the rougher-hewn and explicitly painterly appearance of Alexandre Benois’s sets.  Such a work plays out questions of autonomy and fate, and asks the performer to work with a partially fixed and mechanical exterior akin to a marionette.

More experiments involving concrete masks and puppet forms flourished in the 1920s, including several projects undertaken by Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer. Jean Cocteau refined his use of Greek masks in his production of Antigone before working with Stravinsky on their opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. In the sphere of opera or musical theatre, it was much more unusual for a singer to wear a mask that concealed most or all of their head. It was this approach, combined with a sort of restricted physical motion that gave the effect of living statues, that Stravinsky most desired.

In the realm of Wagner production, a renewed focus on the importance of Greek drama proved central to Wieland Wagner’s aesthetic reformulation after World War II. Wieland’s simplified stage sets, a large acting area (or Scheibe) framed by a cyclorama and involving a complicated lighting plan, have had far-reaching impact. He did not entertain the use of masks but his blocking of large choral groups, similarly costumed and in symmetrical arrangements, overrode any sense of individuality. Not given the credit she deserves, Wieland’s wife Gertrud Reissiger brought her pre-war experiences in modern dance to help shape the stylized visual dimensions of Wieland’s productions. Earlier efforts in the direction of abstract and symbolic scenic designs had often yielded wild disjunctions, with costumes and gestures still obviously dependent on 19th-century practices. This was certainly the case with Adolphe Appia’s production of Die Walküre in Basel in 1924. Wieland offered a vastly more coherent approach.

A noteworthy development of Wieland’s ideas can be traced in the premiere production of the Ring in Mexico City in 2007, directed by Sergio Vela. It is, to my knowledge, the first Ring to use masks for characters throughout. As might be suspected, some singers felt uncomfortable with this idea of singing while masked; the originally contracted Siegfried did not remain part of the production. The director Vela expressed in an interview how he was moved to learn that many of the cast discovered positive dimensions of the masks, and that some felt liberated to concentrate on their vocal performances. Three short excerpts from this production demonstrate the different types of masks used for different groups of characters. The first concerns Mime’s death. His overt facial disfiguration is similar to the mask worn by Alberich and stands in sharp contrast to Siegfried’s smooth, white, and almost expressionless mask.

The second from the opening of Götterdämmerung features similarly classic, blank masks in the service of the Norns as relatively timeless figures.

Visual contrast is effectively profiled at the end of Act II of Götterdämmerung. Hagen, like Mime, has also clearly been influenced/distorted by Alberich, whereas Gunther preserves his sympathetic identification with Gutrune, expressed here as the plan to kill Siegfried becomes firm. In the Mexico City Ring, characters wore the same masks for the duration of their roles, conveying something basic about their character even as they undergo substantial transformations.

Masks, whether make-up based or more physically concrete, conceal part or all of an actor’s face, replacing it with another image which may or may not be human in orientation. A mask can also be mainly organic, simply involving face muscles. Some masks cover the whole head and they may be connected to a costume that also transforms the actor’s body. The range of possibilities are broad, as are the ideas behind employing masks. In performance, the expressive potential of a mask is tied to other physical gestures and dramatic contexts, which may align or even potently contradict a mask general expression. Marcel Marceau poignantly played upon this idea in his pantomime skit “The Maskmaker” when his stage character Bip has fun trying on two contrasting masks until the comic one gets stuck. Despairing and increasingly frantic gestures result at the thought of eternally having to wear a joyful expression. Marceau created his mask through facial muscles, but capitalized on the fact that his face was already painted white as Bip. In the course of his struggle, we can even sense that Marceau is unable to fully maintain his comic expression, which seems to soften slightly towards ambivalence in the course of his struggle.

The radically different approach whereby the head is fully surrounded has not been adopted widely in opera; singers prioritize the ability to hear themselves well. All the more striking then is the use of full head masks by a cluster of directors at the often engaged with Wagner in recent years. Claus Guth employed overblown, caricature-like full head masks in his production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride in Zurich. The title character literally split her mask head open at the peak of the opera‘s musical introduction in time to launch her thrilling vocal entry. Similarly masked actors then enacted the characters of the traumatic dream she narrates. In his subsequent production of Holländer, Guth more fully integrated a plethora of strategies involving masks and puppets. The premise of his interpretation lay in a dangerous portrayal of the Dutchman as a strangely inanimate double of Daland. His growing control over Senta was conveyed in Act III when a gigantic skeletal captain‘s puppet descended from above with a likeness of the young girl in its bony clasp. A spooky carnivalesque tone prevailed onstage with the masked drunken sailors’ chorus. Guth has not pursued this approach with his Ring in Hamburg, but the large head masks resurfaced in Katharina Wagner‘s production of Die Meistersinger. The masks were not used for singers but for historically allusive figures, including Wagner, who were presented as degenerate, representative of an era needing to be overcome.

Stephan Herheim has become one of the most active Wagner directors today. Following his Parsifal at Bayreuth, he recently directed a production of Lohengrin in Berlin that exploited the notion of puppets to its absolute fullest. Wagner was presented as a puppetmaster presiding over his artistic creation, and as a puppet himself. The chorus wore body leotards with wood grain design on their limbs. Herheim has not yet directed a full Ring but he staged the production of Das Rheingold that launched the Ring in Riga in 2006 (Viesturs Kairiss directs the remaining installments). The presentation of Wagner as a figure within his dramas was key to Herheim‘s Rheingold. Not only Wotan but Loge, Mime and Alberich are depicted wearing a characteristic smoking jacket and beret. The large full masks for Fafner and Fasolt give them a sense of being taller while alluding to the historical figures of Marx and Engels.

The second scene takes place in a Wahnfried-like salon with a view of Valhalla\the Festspielhaus, and the room is populated by various other historical figures including Liszt and Beethoven just prior to the arrival of the giants. By the time Fafner and Fasolt have returned, their focus on the ring and the gold has intensified and they too take on the appearance of Wagner.

When Fasolt approaches Wotan to confess that his affections for Freia are hard to outweigh with gold, he removes his mask — a gesture that suggests a truer layer of his character is being revealed. At the same time, the ease with which characters adopt and remove different personae undercuts the sense of any stable or truthful layer of meaning.

Freyer, working with his daughter Amanda, designed a wide range of mask types and elaborate costumes for the Los Angeles Ring. Freyer’s production stands on the shoulders of many experimental post-World War II Ring productions while drawing much of its inspiration from early 20th-century uses of masks and puppetry that became part of the Brechtian toolbox. Freyer’s experience of staging the 2007 premiere of Unsuk Chin’s surreal opera Alice in Wonderland likely paved the way for some of the ways he approached the LA Ring. His pervasive use of masks and character multiples and the obsession with time and races against it are a more natural fit with Chin’s opera than Wagner’s. Each character in the LA Ring has a multiplicity of varied forms but also characteristic imagery. Fricka and Freia, for example, wore exaggerated grins, not as masks, but as daubs of red makeup, although they are rarely happy figures when onstage. Fricka’s yearning, extended hands often convey an underlying discontent that problematizes her smile.

Freia and Fricka Das Rheingold, from Achim Freyer's Ring, Los Angeles, 2010
Freia and Fricka Das Rheingold, from Achim Freyer's Ring, Los Angeles, 2010. Photo Monika Rittershaus.

In a rare effusive moment that draws energy from her grin, she raises her arms upwards as in a victory “V” at the end of her great debate with Wotan in Act II of Walküre — we know who has won! Loge’s Cheshire grin and diabolical touches make one instantly wary. The full and not quite opaque head masks for Alberich and Mime imply deception and deterioration.

Mime and Loge in Das Rheingold, directed by Achim Freyer, Los Angeles, 2010
Mime and Loge in Das Rheingold, directed by Achim Freyer, Los Angeles, 2010. Photo Monika Rittershaus.

Freyer has of course seen and been a part of a great deal of theatre in his lifetime, and he claims to draw from a fusion of those experiences rather than consciously alluding to any specific production. Nevertheless, the Ring staged by Ruth Berghaus in Frankfurt (1985–1987) seems an important backdrop to Freyer’s work in Los Angeles. Berghaus was married to Paul Dessau and like Freyer had also worked with Brecht. Berghaus and Freyer also worked together in 1968 on a production of Barbiere di Siviglia at the Berlin Staatsoper (which is still in the repertoire, about to celebrate its 300th performance this season). In 1968, Freyer’s contributions were confined to stage designs: Berghaus had began as a dancer/choreographer and has assisted Joachim Herz in that capacity. Such different initial spheres of orientation colour and distinguish the ways Berghaus (d.1996) and Freyer have directed singers onstage but points of overlap remain. The use of masks in the Frankfurt Ring had few if any significant precedents.

Together with her designer Axel Manthey, Berghaus established a playful and irreverential tone in her Ring. Theatricality was paramount in the imagery. Berghaus introduced masks at the end of the second scene of Das Rheingold: tragic masks in the form of shields that could be carried by the gods when they suddenly began to age, after Freia‘s departure.

Wotan carried his mask-shield with him to Nibelheim, where dozens of masks representing the anonymous community of Nibelungs occasionally peered through holes in a broad cave wall. The most prominent mask of all was the tragic one for Fafner — an image that also profiled his human dimension. This was not Manthey‘s original conception for Fafner but rather a much simplified solution that nevertheless involved a major piece of movable stage equipment and was fully integrated into the way masks were used elsewhere in the production.

Berghaus also developed a coordinated visual image involving the Tarnhelm that made its full, ironic impact in Götterdämmerung. Part of Brünnhilde’s armour was a shimmering silver cloth-like head dress that was draped fully over her head and face as a helmet-mask as she yielded to her long sleep and was enveloped by fire. The Tarnhelm was similar in form, but gold. Waltraute brings Brünnhilde’s head covering to her in Act I of Götterdämmerung, when she makes her great appeal to her sister to satisfy Wotan’s wishes once more in. Brünnhilde fails to reclaim it as a Valkyrie but dons it to wait for Siegfried’s return, in the same position in which he first found her. He soon returns but wearing his silver mask, an instrument of deception. As Brünnhilde becomes aware that her visitor is not the Siegfried who loves her, she resumes her stance of sitting an waiting for the right suitor to unveil here. Meanwhile, at the moment Siegfried separates himself from his role as Gunther, introducing Nothung as a guardian of his allegiance to his Gibichung friend, he removes the Tarnhelm. Finally glimpsing his face we can sense unease in Siegfried. Perhaps, even if he doesn’t remember Brünnhilde, he feels uncomfortable in his role as deceiver.

From Götterdämmerung, Frankfurt, 1985-88, directed by Ruth Berghaus, Axel Manthey, designer
From Götterdämmerung, Frankfurt, 1985-88, directed by Ruth Berghaus, Axel Manthey, designer

Several aspects of Berghaus’s production strike me as relevant to Freyer’s work in Los Angeles, if unconsciously perhaps. Berghaus dressed her gods with block-shaped boots, an odd twist on the idea of the Greek cothurnus, the strapped elevated shoes intended to give actors the illusion of height. The boots were deliberately unnatural and awkward, reflecting something strained about their aspirations. Nevertheless they were coveted by others such as Mime and Alberich. Freyer uses raised block-like shoes to show the Nibelungs’ efforts to be taller, perhaps more like the gods. The boots are integrated into the legs of the costumes so in effect make the real actor look shorter than he actually is.

Das Rheingold, Los Angeles, 2010, directed by Achim Freyer. Note Alberich's raised boots.
Das Rheingold, Los Angeles, 2010, directed by Achim Freyer. Note Alberich's raised boots. Photo Monika Rittershaus.

For the giants, Berghaus employed giant puppet doubles to extend the presence of the regular-sized human singers onstage. The death of Fasolt was poetically rendered with his large puppet slowly descending to the ground. In Freyer’s Ring, Hunding’s malevolent presence gained a pack of extras wearing wolf masks. At Hunding’s death, a row of these figures supported by guy wires slowly lowered to the ground while their feet remain fixed in position.

Berghaus’s intensely self-conscious style of theatre often absorbed imagery drawn from the theatre itself, such as the traditionally red external theatre curtain. The Norns, for example, peeked inquisitively but also surely with a hint of unease behind a half-drawn curtain as they asked each other who of them knew what was going to happen next. Freyer carries such gestures into the more specifically musical realm. In scene 2 of Rheingold, the arrangement of the Nibelungs is not unlike that of an orchestra pit, with Alberich as the conductor, and Mime as, say, concertmaster. As in Berghaus’s production, the masks for the Nibelungs emphasize their anonymity — an effect made all the more striking as the scene is one of the few in the Ring to feature a crowd. (See above.) Freyer capitalizes most on masks and elaborate costumes that erase human individuality in Götterdämmerung. The malleable figures of Gutrune and Gunther bear naïve and blank expressions, while Hagen is openly maneuvered by Alberich as a ventriloquist’s puppet.

Gutrune, Gunther and the Gibichungs from the Ring, Los Angeles 2010, directed by Achim Freyer
Gutrune, Gunther and the Gibichungs from the Ring, Los Angeles 2010, directed by Achim Freyer. Photo Monika Rittershaus.

Rather than having the male chorus to make its entry to Hagen’s ominous call to arms, Freyer scatters them across the stage already at the beginning of Act II and they remain for its duration. A forest of nobodies that only rarely call attention to their presence, the silent community is nevertheless privy to all of the plotting and strangeness. Such broad gestures of depersonalized visual uniformity and the sense of manipulation are deployed pointedly in Bayreuth’s newest production. The chorus in Hans Neuenfels’ Lohengrin is first presented as rats in a laboratory, wearing full wire head masks together with rodent-like paws and tails.

From Hans Neuenfels' Lohengrin at Bayreuth.
From Hans Neuenfels' Lohengrin at Bayreuth. Photo Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath.

In Freyer’s Ring, most of the principal characters have a wide variety of mask and puppet-related forms, none more so than Wotan. His great urge to control the fate of all things is given vivid visual expression in figures of varying sizes that fly and frame the stage. When Wotan decides to take a decisive stand on Brünnhilde’s fate at the end of Die Walküre, for example, he descends from above as a giant puppet. As noted earlier, this pervasive use of multiple related forms for an individual character links Freyer’s work to that of Stefan Herheim and Claus Guth. His approach intersects less with other exotically, multi-culturally charged productions involving masks such as David McVicar’s Ring in Strasbourg, or the Nürnberg Ring that went on to be performed in Beijing.

There is simply no shortage of supply of Ring productions that readily draw on older theatrical traditions involving masks, puppetry, and the like. The means and aesthetic objectives simply vary widely. The new Ring just begun in Milan/Berlin offers further variations on the idea of puppet actors within a technologically dominated atmosphere. In different ways from Freyer, and without the use of facial masks, director Guy Cassiers restricts the singers’ gestures, whose emotional and psychological depths are often acted out via dancers. Fafner and Fasolt for instance are presented as rigid business-suited men who scarcely move. Behind a scrim, using shadow play, their dancer doubles grow to enormous height before our eyes, while Freia’s shadow remains small and vulnerable; Fafner bullies his brother and Fasolt reaches out to tenderly clasp Freia’s tiny hand. Layers are then added to this image so that a dancer double onstage supports Loge’s role and projections of writhing human bodies are superimposed onto the giants’ shadows. The context for Freyer’s mask- and puppet-rich contribution to the production history of the Ring is rich and growing.

[1] John Deathridge, “Wagner’s Greek and Wieland’s Too” in Wagner: Beyond Good and Evil (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2008, pp. 102-109.

[2] See Borchmeyer’s discussions of Wagner’s paradoxical theory of “fixed improvisation,” in his chapters “‘Absichtliche Zufallsproduktion’—Wagners Theorie der fixierten Improvisation” and “Improvisation und Metier—Die Poetik der Meistersinger” in his Das Theater Richard Wagners: Idee-Dichtung-Wirkung (Stuttgart, 1982), translated by Stewart Spencer as Richard Wagner: Theory and Theatre, Oxford, 1991.

About Katherine Syer

Musicologist/Theatre historian at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign).

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