Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Chéreau and Boulez: Nibelungen Ring on DVD - the Bayreuth Centenary Ring

Der Ring des Nibelungen (complete). Bayreuth Festival 1980. Director: Patrice Chéreau. Cast includes: Donald McIntyre (Wotan), Gwyneth Jones (Brünnhilde), Manfred Jung (Siegfried), Peter Hofmann (Siegmund). Conductor: Pierre Boulez. Further information here.

Overview and general comments

Whether by luck or foresight, the decision to hire French director Patrice Chéreau was among the most important and courageous of Wolfgang Wagner´s entire tenure at the Bayreuth Festival. Not that Patrice Chéreau by any means was the Festival´s first choice to stage this Centenary Ring – The Nibelungen Ring marking the 100th year of the world premiere performance of the tetralogy in Bayreuth, as it seems among others Peter Stein and Ingmar Bergman declined offers.
Ultimately, French conductor and avant-garde champion Pierre Boulez brought in 31-year old French actor and theatre director Patrice Chéreau on short notice. He did not know Wagner and had previously only staged two operas, by Offenbach and Rossini. The rest, as they say, is history:

Together Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez created a Centenary Ring in the truest meaning of the word: Simply the finest Nibelungen Ring production in the Centenary history of the work. Even after more than 30 years the power and freshness of this staging is virtually undiminished. As directorial concept and execution it remains unsurpassed, the closest competition, at least on DVD, being Harry Kupfer and Daniel Barenboim´s later Bayreuth Ring.

This Centenary Ring created one of the biggest scandals in the history of the Bayreuth Festival at the 1976 premiere, getting almost booed off stage with tumultous audience protests. The orchestra threatened to go on strike as well, disagreeing with Pierre Boulez´ interpretation of the score, officially complaining to Wolfgang Wagner asking to be allowed to play as they used to (read: Loud as opposed to Boulez´ transparent sound).
Time apparently changes everything: At the last performances in 1980, this Ring was hailed as a masterpiece with unprecedented hour-long standing ovations.

Whether one approves of Patrice Chéreau´s concept or not, one thing remains: In terms of influence in music theater, this Nibelungen Ring is probably the most significant operatic staging in history. To say that it revolutionized staging paradigms, especially in Wagner, for once would almost be an understatement.

What did Patrice Chéreau do that was so special? Something rather simple, in fact: He made the singers act, he brought genuine theatrical drama to the stage, something entirely unusual around that time. To appreciate the difference one just have to take a look at the preceding 1974 Wolfgang Wagner Ring in Bayreuth – small wonder, the audiences were shocked.

While the opera forays of many film directors have been of varied (read: limited) success, Patrice Chéreau is probably the exception that made many of his later film director colleagues attempt opera in the first place.

First of all, Patrice Chéreau´s trademark is the superb individual direction of the singers and an interpretation based on an extraordinarily detailed study of the text. He simply stages what is in the text (as he sees it, admittedly). Combined with his ability to bring alive the interpersonal drama to an extent I have not yet encountered in any other opera director. The interpersonal drama, such as in Walküre, is among the most compelling things ever to have be performed on an opera stage. Secondly, Chéreau just has plain sense of the theatre, combined with the usual French aesthetism.

Debated like few other stagings, some critics labelled this a Marxist Ring, others a Socialist Ring, while others again saw it as an extension of Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite. Patrice Chéreau himself was ambiguous in his comments, not committing himself to one singular interpretation (see his comments below under the individual operas). In any case, the interpretation of any staging ultimately lies with the spectactor.

Personally, I see Chéreau´s Ring as a parable of the 19th century Industrial Revolution and how it has corrupted society. Basically, this Ring begins around the time of it´s composition (1850-70) which does coincide with the Industrial revolution. In a Rheingold set around 1850-60, we see the Old World capitalist Wotan clash with the New World Capitalist Alberich. In Siegfried, the Industrial revolution is at it´s height, facilitating the forging of Nothung and in the cold and lifeless Götterdämmerung of the 1920´s we see the consequences of the industrialized society. Anticapitalistic or just the price of simple greed? Who knows? Patrice Chéreau will not tell. Whether Socialist or Marxist, I will leave others to argue.

Richard Peduzzi, later long-time collaborator of Chéreau was responsible for the sets. Open spaces, tied within the timeframe of the Industrial Revolution – brick walls and giant cogwheels spanning the side of the stage throughout the tetralogy.

The acting is uniformly excellent over the entire line. As pure vocal performances, few of the singers would be judged truly excellent by CD-comparison standards, but in the theater it was a virtually unbeatable cast, with only one (unfortunately major) exception: Siegfried.

Originally, this production was not conceived with television in mind, however these DVDs (as always from Bayreuth) were recorded in front of an empty auditorium in 1980 after Chéreau apparently made some adaptations for television. Video director Brian Large artificially inserted elements of smoke as well as advanced camera shifts during the scene changes.

Pierre Boulez provided a fast-paced, detailed and transparent reading, as such of high quality. However I ultimately feel he reduced the orchestra to simply accompany Patrice Chéreau´s staging (to be discussed in detail below).

An entire DVD (part of some box sets of this Nibelungen Ring) is devoted to the creation of this Ring.

This is not a so-called traditional Ring, of which the Metropolitan Opera Ring is the only available choice on the DVD market. In the overall “ranking” of Nibelungen Rings on DVD, I would place this Centenary Ring second only to Kupfer/Barenboim´s 1991 Bayreuth version, mostly due to Barenboim´s superior conducting and the superior casting of several of the leads (Siegfried, Wotan). Reviews of all seven available Nibelungen Ring versions on DVD may be found here.

The individual operas - Rheingold

In the beginning we see a post-industrial concrete water-dam. The Rhinemaidens (1890´s can-can dancers? Prostitutes?) lure Alberich. The Gods come with 18th century dress and powdered wigs – representing the world in decay? Standing before a Valhalla construction of pillars but otherwise unanchored in time, though is seems already in the process of decay.

Moving down stairs anchored to brick walls as typically seen in the first industrial factories we arrive in Nibelheim. The Nibelungens are an amorphous mass (the rising working class?) slaving for the modern capitalist and factory owner Alberich (for once not portrayed like a complete idiot) fighting the ruthless old-world aristocracy in the shape of Wotan. A true danse macabre is seen at the end of the Rheingold, while Loge pulls the curtain.

In brief, it works more than well. The epic elements are expressed convincingly: The looming, threatening Valhalla, the eerie dam. Very impressively, convincing solutions has been found to stage several of the treacherous elements, such as The Rhinegold: Simply portrayed as glittering gold hidden under the dam; The dragon and the frog: No serious attempts are made to hide the transformation from Alberich into either, which oddly works rather well; Valhalla: An undefined building exterior looming over the stage.

Donald McIntyre´s Wotan is competent, though a tad passive and dry. He commands the stage convincingly as the aged, disillusioned patriach. He doesn´t have the legato-lines and interpretatory depth of James Morris, nor the compelling energy of John Tomlinson, his most obvious competitors on DVD. Nevertheless, his performance is rather fine and fits well within Chéreau´s concept. Accompanied by Hermann Becht´s equally dry-voiced Alberich, Heinz Zednik´s wonderfully energetic and sly Loge and Hanna Schwarz´ virtually perfect Fricka.

Patrice Chéreau: At the beginning of Rheingold, there is this object on stage which could perhaps be a dam but which could also be many other things. It is a menacing construction, a theatrical machine to produce a river, and an allegorical shape which today generates energy. It is perhaps a mythological presence, the mythology of our time.

One is supposed to portray Valhalla – but at the same time such a portrayal is impossible….What is needed is a Valhalla which leaves some doubt as to its exact concrete form, whilst at the same time signifying the material expression of power – the ideology of power..

[On Nibelheim] Violence is also an ingredient of mythology and it is impossible to portray on stage so many struggles – for dominance and for existence itself – so much pressure for change, and so much raw energy without including violence. Yes, the Ring is violent and cruel. Wotan is brutal and unjust, like Lear disowning Cordelia.

[On the Gods ascent to Valhalla]: The heavy, hopeless bitterness which appears with the curse motif and Fasolt´s death and which descends on the gods like the sickly mists of old age…For me this is the dance of death of medieval allegories..It all seems like a defiant flight into the future..Nothing is going right any more, but never mind, let us enter Valhalla all the same – a solution will be found later.

The dam with the Rhinemaidens and the gold:

Gods and Giants in front of the looming Valhalla:

Loge and Wotan in Nibeheim - Alberich just morphed into a dragon:

Wotan and Loge with the captured Alberich:

Erda appearing in front of the almost-treasure-covered Freia:

Freia taking leave of Fasolt:

Inaugurating Valhalla:

The danse macabre of the Gods:

Loge, pulling the curtain at the end:

The individual operas - Walküre

Siegmund, the free peasant, arrives at the home of the wealthy land-owner Hunding. Or is he something else entirely? Clearly Siegmund, this genuine romantic hero does not know how to maneuvre in this world of capitalism and intrigue. Neither does his son, as it turns out in Götterdämmerung. Hunding does not arrive alone, but is accompanied by a group of men, in front of which the Walküre Act 1 chamber-drama is played out. Most importantly where most Walküre´s fail, this one succeeds: The drama is simply compelling.

Ideally Patrice Chéreau would have had a more compelling Wotan than Donald McIntyre to pull off the rest of the opera. Though by all standards McIntyre is more than competent, the drama involving Wotan (basically the rest of Walküre) never takes off to the same level as between Siegmund and Sieglinde. He commands the stage, but is relatively dry and monodimensional in vocal colouring as well as in characterization. Especially compared to his radiant daughter (Gwyneth Jones) and his stylish wife (Hanna Schwarz). Which is one reason why the “leb wohl” never truly takes off. The other reason is Pierre Boulez´ distinctly undramatic, uncontrapunctual reading (to be discussed in detail below).

To stage the second act in an unspecific room of Valhalla with a pendulum swaying in the middle almost approaches that of a genius. This is exactly what Wotan´s monologue is: The pendulum around which the Ring sways. Which suddenly stops dead right in the middle of Wotan´s monolong. Das ende. Indeed.
Most fittingly, the Walküre rock is a ruin – a remnant of past glory. The Wotan of The Old World desperately trying to maintain his empire..

The chemistry between Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer is simply unsurpassed. On pure vocal terms neither may perhaps take place among the greatest in history, but when the intensity is like this, I honestly don´t even notice it, much less care about it. The most convincing Walküre Act 1 on DVD. Siegmund´s farewell to Sieglinde and his death is almost unbearably moving. Not to forget the young Matti Salminen as an excellent villainous Hunding.

Gwyneth Jones´ Brünnhilde is radiant. The wobble that later made her performances unlistenable was only incipient and though not always pretty in tone and not always on pitch, dramatically she has no real competition on DVD. As a “complete package” a better Brünnhilde is hard to find.

The home of Hunding:

Siegmund, Sieglinde and Hunding:

Siegmund and Sieglinde:

Siegmund pulling Nothung out of the trunk:

Siegmund and Sieglinde:

Wotan and Fricka:

Wotan, Brünnhilde and the pendulum:

Wotan during the monologue:

Siegmund and Sieglinde on the run:

Brünnhilde foretells Siegmunds death:

Siegmund´s farewell to Sieglinde:

Siegmund´s death:

Ride of the Valkyries:

Brünnhilde tells Sieglinde, that she is pregnant:

Wotan´s farewell to Brünnhilde:

Wotan evoking the fire around the Valkyrie Rock:

The individual operas - Siegfried

Mime and Siegfried lives amidst the cogwheels of industrialisation, conveniently next to a giant anvil. Though Nothung is not forged in the traditional manner, but rather melted in a proces made possible by the Industrial Revoluation. The gleaming Nibelungen gold is hidden among a forest of trees guarded by a giant toy-dragon wheeled in on a cartwright by stagehands. And someone conveniently has placed a bird-cage among the tree-tops. All ends on the crumbling ruins of the Walküre Rock.

Obviously Manfred Jung gives his best as Siegfried, and for this reason it seems unfair to go on at length about why exactly he doesn´t have what is required of this part. In fact his presence is a major draw-back to this Ring – vocally thin and physically unattractive as well as simply boring. A complete non-match for Gwyneth Jones´ Brünnhilde.
Donald McIntyre´s Wotan continues along the lines of Walküre and Rheingold – always the strongest in confrontations and declamations as opposed to the legato-lines dominating the Wanderer. On the other hand, his presence as A Man of The Past is rather convincing.
Heinz Zednik´s Mime is a perfect charicature of the underdog, with impeccably comic sense and timing.

Patrice Chéreau: Like it or not, there is an appalling cruelty in the scenes between Siegfried and Mime..Mime has to be both funny and tragic..
The scene with Fafner illustrates clearly that Siegfried´s freedom is only relative. The dragon warns him of the dangers of the world in which he lives, but the free man is not listening…And the central point of the tetralogy is precisely this: a hero has been created who would actually have had all the attributes of freedom, but that nobody remembered to tell him about them, and this man thus remains unaware and incomplete.

Siegfried, Mime and the forging of Nothung:

Wotan and Alberich meet in front of Fafner´s lair:

Siegfried with the Woodbird-cage:

Siegfried with Fafner:

Siegfried with Fafner, just before he dies:

Siegfried with Mime just before he kills him:

Wotan evoking Erda:

Wotan barring Siegfried´s path to the Valkyrie Rock:

Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde:

The individual operas - Götterdämmerung

Classic columns align the desolate world of the Gibichungen. They may be high-class and well-dressed – Gutrune in couture, Gunther in tuxedo, but all human values have gone. The industrial revolution as an inevitable, unstoppable process, which corrupts society? Or perhaps there are more layers..
Hagen in the crumbled suit is not a decisive factor – the wheels have been pre-programmed for this ending a long time ago. Siegfried, the naïve, obviously cannot manoeuvre in this world.

The images, needless to say, are spectacular. The interpersonal drama, unfortunately, relies mainly on Gwyneth Jones´ Brünnhilde, as neither Manfred Jung nor Fritz Hübner are very strong presences. And a bit more punch from Pierre Boulez would have been much appreciated.

Patrice Chéreau: To be precise, Götterdämmerung undoubtedly presents a world in which no values exist any more..The only possible refuge is in the past..It is hard to avoid seeing Götterdämmerung as a succession of rituals maintained at all costs, celebrated by people in search of a religion or a morality who may now carry on this cult in order to cover up the absence of any divinity.
By now Siegfried is a purely tragic figure…The draught of oblivion does not play a decisive part in this; the essential fact is that his own ego has never belonged to him, for he is programmed and deliberately programmed as if he were not programmed.

The beauty of the Ring is just as challenging today as when it was first performed, and what it has to say is still valid. The message remains aggressive and desperate, bitter and uncomfortable.

The norns:

Siegfried´s farewell to Brünnhilde:

Brünnhilde with The Ring, which Siegfried gave her:

Hagen, Siegfried and Gunther:

Siegfried and Gutrune - love at first sight. The love potion is not important:

Brünnhilde with Waltraute:

Gunther (Siegfried in disguise) overpowers Brünnhilde:

Alberich visits the dreams of his son, Hagen:

Hagen´s Call:

The happy couple - Siegfried and Gutrune:

The unhappy couple - Gunther and Brünnhilde:

Brünnhilde accuses Siegfried of treachery:

Siegfried at the dam with the Rhinemaidens:

Siegfried at the hunting party:

Hagen kills Siegfried:

Brünnhilde and Gutrune when informed on Siegfried´s death:

Brünnhilde takes back the Ring from Siegfried´s body:

Brünnhilde lighting the funeral pyre:

The world of the Gibichungen goes up in flame:

The final scene:

The singers

Generel comments: All singers look their parts and act well, a major contributory factor to the success of this Ring.

Wotan: Donald McIntyre´s Wotan is on the passive side. McIntyre´s tone is rather dry and he lacks both the interpretatory depth and smooth legato lines of James Morris as well as the sheer energy of John Tomlinson on competing DVDs. That said, he more than fits the bill and is an excellent dramatic actor, especially in the confrontational scenes.
Fricka: Hanna Schwarz must be close to the perfect Fricka: Beautiful tone, convincing presence.
Alberich: Hermann Becht´s voice is on the dry side and at points he almost retorts to yelling. His appearance on stage is convincing and, for once, not made ridiculous by the director.
Loge: Heinz Zednik´s Rheingold-Loge and Siegfried-Mime are both perfect examples of multifacetted engaged acting, superb comical timing and nuanced vocalism.
Fasolt: Excellent turnout for Matti Salminen.
Fafner: Ideally Fritz Hübner would have more sonorous ring to this deepest of deep parts.
Mime: Heinz Zednik´s Siegfried-Mime was a superb combination of excellent comic timing as well as plenty of character. Helmut Pampuch has considerably less to work with in the Rheingold-Mime, but made the most of it.
Erda: Ortrun Wenkel´s fine Erda would have be even finer with a more dramatically persuasive ring to it.
Sieglinde: Jeannine Altmeyer´s Sieglinde may be less than thrilling in pure vocal terms, however the on-stage chemistry with Peter Hoffman makes for a compelling performance. Futhermore she looks the part as few others.
Siegmund:Peter Hoffman may be cast as much for his looks than for his singing, but who cares? His singing is fine. Dramatically he is superb as the genuine tragic romantic hero. Best Siegmund on DVD. By far.
Hunding: Splendid performance from the young Matti Salminen
Brünnhilde: Gwyneth Jones´ theatrical radiance is simply unsurpassed. While incipient wobbly on her high notes, it does not seriously detract from her performance, though certain elements of strain are present and she is not always on pitch. She does, however, clearly have the vocal power to bring it off, in Götterdämmerung as well. Without doubt the best Brünnhilde on DVD and as a theatrical performer, one of the best of the century.
Siegfried: Manfred Jung´s underpowered and uninteresting Siegfried unfortunately is a major draw-back to this production, though he obviously makes an effort and gives his best.
Waltraute: Gwendolyn Killebrew´s dark mezzo and convincing dramatic presence is optimal for Waltraute.
Hagen: Fritz Hübner, not a genuine profundo (who is?) has trouble with the lowest notes and his presence is more that of a friendly competitor than the decisive menacing influence, which fits in well with Chéreau´s concept. Though one would wish Matti Salminen could have taken on Hagen in addition to his superb Hunding.
Gutrune: Wonderful performance from Jeannine Altmeyer.
Gunther: Franz Mazura both looks and sings on the dry side, not at all inappropriate for a Gunther.

The conductor and orchestra

Already in 1980 Pierre Boulez had conducted in Bayreuth for many years, since his 1966 debut with Parsifal (released on CD). Pierre Boulez is a masterful conductor in that he knows what he wants and how to execute it. Transparency is the operative word and in avant-garde works as well as in composers such as Debussy this leads to revelatory performances of immense clarity and entirely devoid of sentimentality.
This is essentially what Pierre Boulez brings to the Nibelungen Ring: A fast-paced, transparent, crystal-clear reading. However, while this approach adds to the understanding of the above-mentioned composers, in Wagner, in my opinion, it doesn´t add anything. Pierre Boulez essentially provides background music to Chéreau´s drama, where ideally the orchestra would have turned out an equally influential contribution.

In brief - The highlights and lowlights

The highlights: The theatricality and immensely compelling drama. The asthetic settings.

The lowlights: The casting of Siegfried.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average)

The ratings are given in comparison to the other Ring DVDs available. As ever, the acting skills of the singers weigh in heavily.

Donald McIntyre (Wotan): 4
Hanna Schwarz (Fricka): 5
Hermann Becht (Alberich): 4

Heinz Zednik (Loge): 5
Matti Salminen (Fasolt): 5
Fritz Hübner (Fafner): 4
Heinz Zednik (Siegfried-Mime): 5
Helmut Pampuch (Rheingold-Mime): 4
Ortrun Wenkel (Erda): 3-4
Gwendolyn Killebrew (Waltraute): 5
Peter Hofmann (Siegmund): 5

Jeannine Altmeyer (Sieglinde): 4
Matti Salminen (Hunding): 5
Fritz Hübner (Hagen): 4

Manfred Jung (Siegfried): 2
Gwyneth Jones (Brünnhilde): 4
Jeannine Altmeyer (Gutrune): 5
Franz Mazura (Gunther): 3-4

Patice Chéreau´s staging: 5
Pierre Boulez: 4

Overall impression: 5


lgarbarini said...

Terrific review. Brava!

Beckmesser said...

I concur ! You have written your most insightful review, Mostly, full of passion and yet well-balanced. Well done !
One slight disappointment: after reading you all-too deserved comments about the historical importance of Chéreau's production both in wagnerian and operatic history, I expected a 6 ! Why give him only a 5 ?

A.C. Douglas said...

Like all Konzept stagings of the Ring, the Chéreau Ring is a horror as a staging of WAGNER'S Ring. Chéreau's Konzept takes that universal, timeless, cosmic tragedy, and hugely diminishes it by fixing its meaning, and by fixing its action to particular times and places. By so doing, it robs Wagner's great tetralogy of precisely that which makes it the great cosmic drama that it is — or would be without the self-involved, self-indulgent, self-important corruptions of directors like Chéreau: it's universal, timeless, multiplicity of meanings and levels of understanding. And that's not to even speak of Boulez's absurdly passionless, chamber-music-transparent reading of the score which is one of the very worst readings on record.

There really ought to be a law — literally! — prohibiting the perpetration of such monstrosities.


A.C. Douglas said...


My, "...it's universal, timeless, multiplicity of meanings...." should, of course, have read: "...its universal, timeless, multiplicity of meanings...."


Ste said...

Someone would have been very glad to live in Germany between 1933 and 1945...

Will said...

Quite the epic review and a pleasure to read. For my money, the scene that is the most impressive in the whole enterprise is the Annunciation of Death where Chereau created the ritual of the preparation of the body for burial during the question and answering between Siegmund and Brunnhilde. The moment where Siegmund stops the wrapping of his body in its shroud, opting out of Valhalla, opting out of Nordic religious belief, for love of Sieglinde is simply stunning.

The work Chereau and his singers do in this scene takes a normally static quarter hour on stage and allows it to crackle with totally appropriate drama.

daland said...

No one can dispute the genius of Chéreau... the question is: was this Wagner’s Ring, or Chéreau’s? I personally share ACD’s position, that I find reinvigorated by the following analysis of prof. Färber (here translated in French):


Note that it was written after the 1976 performances, while reportedly Chéreau made some changes to his staging, after the big scandal of the première.

I happened to listen to an interview to mr. Peduzzi, earlier this year, on an italian Radio channel. I was astonished in learning from his own words that he had come to dislike his rendering of some crucial scenes of that Ring, e.g. Hunding’s death and the final burning of Walhall!

Will said...

Daland, an even more apt question is: Was Wagner's RING (at the premiere) actually Wagner's RING? He told the company after the run had closed that next time it would be all different--and he was the creator. He changed his mind about a lot of his stagings over the course of his life.

Art changes and evolves and is always in response to the conditions of the day in which it is presented. No production is ever "definitive" because no production of a true masterwork can ever contain everything that exists within the work. That's why we keep going back again and again. Every RING can only explore ASPECTS of Wagner's work; Chereau's exploration, and revision of the first year's production, was thoroughly in accord with Wagner's own.

Parsifal said...

Monumental post! I have printed it at work and will read it before going to bed! Brava Mostly.

A.C. Douglas said...

As I begin to get a whiff of the favorite straw man of defenders of Eurotrash, ("[Wagner] told the company after the [first Ring] had closed that next time it would be all different--and he was the creator. He changed his mind about a lot of his stagings over the course of his life"), let me put a stop to it right now.

First, as Wagner was the Ring's creator, he had the right to alter anything in any way he saw fit. Postmodern vandals such as Chéreau do not. An opera director has the obligation — the duty — to present on stage NOT his own concept of the work to hand, but the concept of the work's creator — which is to say, the composer — in the most effective and vivid way possible. That does NOT mean the opera director must slavishly follow a composer's stage directions, most especially when those stage directions were written to accommodate a stage and stage techniques that existed over a century ago. What it does mean is that in staging an opera, the director most stage the work so that it embodies as fully as possible the composer's concept as expressed in an opera's text and music. In the case of the Ring, that means, first of all, that it must be staged in such a way that the staging is absent any indication of an identifiable time and place as that was Wagner's specific intent. It's no accident that Wagner chose a mythological subject and placed it in "a cultural period that is remote from any experience or reference to an experience" as he put it in his instructions to his costume designer, Carl E. Doepler; instructions Doepler, to Wagner's extreme displeasure, flagrantly disregarded.

Wagner arranged things so that everything in the Ring plays itself out on a world stage that can't be located in any identifiable era or in any identifiable location beyond being set in the deep prehistoric (literally pre-historic) past in the vicinity of the Rhine river. That was a purposeful creative act on Wagner's part; a creative act that's responsible for much of the timeless and universal resonate power of the Ring. Any staging of this work that places it in a specific identifiable era, past or future, or in a specific identifiable location is fundamentally faithless to Wagner's intention and to the dictates and requirements of the score (text and music). Further, the central player in the world-drama of the _Ring_ is Nature itself; Nature in its most primal state and at its largest scale and in its most profound depths; Nature in direct contact with man. Any staging of the Ring that doesn't realize that in its staging -- either representationally, abstractly, or by suggestion – is, again, fundamentally faithless to Wagner's intention and to the dictates and requirements of the score.

Chéreau's grotesque Konzept fails on all counts. His staging is instead a rank act of vandalism; a hijacking of Wagner's text and music to put on stage Chéreau's own, postmodern "vision". In short, it's a horror, as I've already termed it.


daland said...


If you are saying that Richard Wagner himself was unsatisfied with his own staging of the “first” Ring cycle, that’s true. Unfortunately he did not live to give it a second time!

But the point is the adherence of the production to the inner essence of the masterpiece.

Just one single example: Chéreau himself says of Wotan “Wotan is brutal and unjust”. Now, as prof. Färber pointed out, this is simply “false” (because it takes a small part for the whole) and totally extraneous to Wagner’s Wotan, as depicted in the Ring’s score (music, words and captions). You can like Chéreau’s Wotan, well, as one could very much like, paraphrasing James Levine’s words, the incipit of Beethoven’s fifth played by the horns, instead of the strings!

José Quintela Soares said...

Simply...the best "Ring" ever.
My opinion, of course.

A.C. Douglas said...


In my last above, my, "Any staging of this work that places it in a specific identifiable era, past or future...," should have read: "Any staging of this work that places it in a specific identifiable era, past, present, or future...."

Also, there's a typo in the sentence that begins, "What it does mean is that in staging an opera, the director most stage the work so that it embodies as fully as possible the composer's concept...." The "most stage the work," should, of course, have read, "must stage the work".


Joaquim said...

Ring fantastic, and fabulous post Mostly. Congratulations, you've done a great job.

Paul Steel said...

All that begins with: "Like all Konzept stagings of the Ring..." to the end, should have read: "crap, crap, crap, crap, crap".

All that begins with: "As I begin to get a whiff of the favorite straw man of defenders of Eurotrash..." to the end, should, of course, have read: more crap, more crap, more crap, more crap, more crap, obviously, annoyingly, fastidiously, bothering, definetively even more absolutely not worth reading crap.

lgarbarini said...

In the gesture alone of Wotan's removing the bandage from his eye during Walkure's II act, there is a more deeper insight of the meanings of the Ring than in all the other, traditional, fairy-talish productions put toghether.

And Chéreau's Ring is full of these gestures showing his understanding of the meanings of Wagner's drama.

Joaquim said...

This ring is musically exceptional, but the singers protagonists, for the most part, indicate a lack vocal, very important.
Nonetheless, teatralment is so powerful, it will remain as an absolute classic.
Mostly, thank you for letting us memory of the most important opera production in the second half of the twentieth century.

Chris B said...

Thanks for the review that I agree with totally.

I remember seeing the Chereau ring for the first time on BBC television over several nights around 30 years ago. It was the first complete cycle I'd seen as opposed to heard. I was utterly captivated by the production (and fell in love with Hanna Schwarz). I have not subsequently seen a ring cycle that, taken overall, is as convincingly acted (bar the odd individual) and better sung.

Of the 8 ring cycles I own, this is the one I play again and again (my CD favourite is the Solti).


daland said...


Wotan’s removing the bandage from his eye is indeed another small example of Chéreau’s groundless interpretation of Wagner.

NOWHERE in the entire Ring’s score can we read of any bandage covering Wotan’s eye, but just of his hat’s brim pulled on his missing eye... Therefore Chéreau invented the bandage and then its removal, whatever significance he might have in mind for this!

The deep insight of the meanings of the Ring can be reached first following Wagner’s own words, music and captions: to me, nothing else, surely not brilliant, let alone lunatic, inventions of the directors, can improve Wagner’s masterpieces.

Robert Levi said...

At the first performance of Rheingold, Wagner had Wotan to pick up a sword when the schwert-motiv was played. This was not written in the text but he felt it necessary to clarify the meaning of the music (and after he made it written in the revised score).

Wagner's text is not the Holy Bible. He who thinks differently risks to make confusion between Wagnerism and Talibanism. Wagner's works have already beneficiated enough by people like Wolzogen, Houston-Chamberlain, Winifred Williams & co, haven't they?

lgarbarini said...

I don't see any hat's brim, in the pictures of Frantz Betz as Wotan in Rheingold and Walkuere...-I'm just kidding! I do not want to offend or insult anybody like others have done, I do not feel the necessity of laws and so on...

Bandage and hat's brim are only props and one would have to ask to himself what lies behind the props, otherwise one ends to believe that there existed really a little girl named red hood or that Orpheus went to the Ade to regain Euridice.

So, the hat's brim covers the empty space of a lost eye. During his Walkure II Act monologue, Wotan starts to regain what he had lost with his eye. By the end of Walkuere he sees clearly and firmly his fate and what must to be done.

Why did Wotan lose an eye? What did he gain by this loss? What did he lost? When does he re-gain what he has lost? Read and listen to Rheingold, to Walkuere and to the Prologue of Gotterdammerung. It is all in the works. Nobody can improve a masterpiece (I never heard directors like Chéreau or Ronconi sustaining this), but it is possible to improve our understanding of it.

Gandharva said...

With regard to "crap, crap, crap" leveled in the direction of ACD, he needs no defense from me. His contributions to the Wagner knowledge base here (where PS made none) and elsewhere are significant even if one does not wholly agree with him. I have disagreed with him - notably on the cause of Hunding's death - but in matters of the Ring stated here, I find little lacking. I might only add that the challenge for every production of the Ring is to present for an audience that which is timeless within the necessary boundaries of time and space. If the Ring is truly an epic of virtually infinite proportion, it must also be locatable within boundaries. Just as an electron can be seen as either a particle or a wave depending on how it is viewed, that which is infinite can also be found in its point value, which is also infinite. Whether that point value appears as the dawn of the industrial revolution or in a prehistoric setting along the Rhine is a matter of artistic interpretation. One may certainly prefer one over the other as truer to Wagner's intention, but today as the debate rages on, the universal and timeless nature of the Ring that ACD conveys so well, ultimately has transcended even its own creator.

Robert Levi said...

I'm annoyed by the "crap litany" for obvious reasons, but I'm also annoyed by what ACD writes.

Our host is an intelligent and sensitive woman who writes original and insightful reviews. She writes with passion and curiosity and to read her is always a pleasure, even when one does not agree with her. And even when we do not agree with her, we should anyway show some RESPECT.

ACD is not original: more or less, we can find the same things he writes, variously declined and more politely written, starting from Cosima Wagner to B. Magee and M. Owen Lee.

ACD begins his post insulting:

"As I begin to get a whiff of the favorite straw man of defenders of Eurotrash, ("[Wagner] told the company after the [first Ring] had closed that next time it would be all different--and he was the creator. He changed his mind about a lot of his stagings over the course of his life"), let me put a stop to it right now."

and he ends invoking a law against him who does not share his opinions:

"There really ought to be a law — literally! — prohibiting the perpetration of such monstrosities."

Is this passion? No, this is violence, this is the arrogance of him who thinks to be the only owner of truth and, even worse, the arrogance of him who would like to make shut up him who has different opinions.

ACD could be even the smartest of his town, could have his points, could write well, but, nevertheless, he is and remains an arrogant, petulant and ill-mannered guy.

NV said...

The problem is not that Mr ACD’s text is ill-mannered. The problem is that it is completely meaningless.

« Wagner (...) has the right ». He is dead… And his work is no more legally protected He has no right anymore.
« Postmodern Vandals (…) do not ». They are alive. They have plenty…
« an opera director has the obligation… ». To produce operas…
« the duty… » The argument is not better with two words.
« the director must stage the work so… » Must ? But WHY ? Yes, « there should be a law… » But there is no law. No law, no must.
« It must be staged in such a way… ». ACD likes musts.
« fundamentally faithless… » If there is a rule in History, it is that living men never respect dead one’s wills. Art is living in real time. It has nothing to do with faithfulness or faithlessness… And nothing to do with fundamentals.
« fundamentally faithless… » The argument is not better with italics. Claus Guth’s Nozze transforms a Beaumarchais’s drama in a Ibsen’s drama...Of course it is faithless to Mozart because Mozart never read Ibsen. And so what ?
« Hijacking » YES. A good word ! And a good idea…

And so on…

I don’t like rules but we need basics. And in art there is (only ?) one « basics ». It works or it doesn’t work. ACD, who, as far as his ideas are concerned, could be dead long ago, but seems still alive (the way Titurel does, it seems) has the right- I use his word - to think that Chereau’s concept doesn’t work. It seems a lost battle. He has the right to think that most Regietheater concepts don’t work. Arguing that, he would be on firmer ground. (A lot of Regietheater producers have the same wrong approach as ACD… they feel in the obligation to be faithless…) But he needs no « must », no « laws », no « obligations », no « duties », no « respect », to do that…

Falparsi said...

"ACD, who, as far as his ideas are concerned, could be dead long ago, but seems still alive (the way Titurel does, it seems)..."

Great NV! This is the most insightful definition for people like ACD. Bravo!!!

daland said...


Why did Wotan lose an eye? We have two reasons: 1. to gain Fricka (this is Wotan’s explanation in Rheingold) and 2. to gain wisdom at the Yggdrasil source (this is what Norns tell and what the Eddas tell)

What did he gain by this loss? Fricka (1) and wisdom (2) hence: power

What did he lose? His eye, or what else? His innocence?

When does he regain what he has lost? regain his eye ? or his innocence?

“During his Walkure II Act monologue, Wotan starts to regain what he had lost with his eye.” What does he regain? Here Wotans gets to the point of bitter despair in his future, what is he regaining? His innocence?

“By the end of Walkuere he sees clearly and firmly his fate and what must to be done.” What has this to do with his eye and bandage? And why, in Siegfried, is Wotan still covering his missing eye? Did he put on again the bandage between day 1 and 2 of the Ring?

lgarbarini said...

Wotan went to the well of wisdom. His desire for knowledge being satified, he made from the tree of life a talisman of power conditionated by law, which was the spear; but first he had to lose an eye and thus become blind to the claims of love, and the result impoverished nature through the dryng up of the well and the whithering of the tree. His remaining eye is fixed on World, as somethign to dominate. He is blind to the claims of love.

At the end of Walkuere, Wotan recognize that Brunnhilde, as she herself told him, is the better part of himself that has understood what he, blinded by his obsession with power, has been incapable of understanding. She has in fact restored him from the old Wotan, in despair, to the new Wotan, with great hopes for the future of his world, by solving for him his apparently insoluble problem of finding a free hero. He has been made to understand, through the self-sacrificing love of Brunnhilde (his better self) for Siegmund, that he must sacrifice his own power, and let his world be taken over by the power of love (what finally convinced Wotan is Brunnhilde's inspired idea that she should be surrounded by fire. Fire means Loge and Loge is the god of demonic mental inspiration. This mental inspiration makes him realize how the power-dominated world can be redeemed)

A.L. said...

Lest I get caught up in the brawl, let me just say:

1. Thank you for the thoughtful review.

2. I needn't go into often praised aspects of the production, but, I will heartily agree with you and Chris B above in that Hanna Schwarz is one of my favorite things about this production, an absolutely beautiful and powerful Fricka. Thanks to this production the beginning of Walküre Act II is one of my favorite scenes in the cycle.

Also am I the only one that disliked Gwendolyn Killebrew? I can't stand her voice.

3. I find it a little funny that Chéreau's production is STILL getting this much attention when the traditionalists have so many other considerably more radical productions (Konwitschny, Warner, Kupfer, etc etc) to complain about. Compared to them the Chéreau staging is, to me, pretty tame. And in contrast to a lot of Regietheater spectacles (not all of them of course), the Chéreau project shows, to my mind, a devotion to the seriousness of the drama. Talk all you want about whether or not Wagner would have liked it, but you can't say this isn't an extremely compelling piece of drama.

And one of the strong points ACD seems to have against this "Konzept" is assignation of a specific time to something that should be timeless. I thought one of the really striking things about the Chéreau Ring was its timelessness, or at least, the way it manipulates conventional aspects of time. Yes, the gods are 19th century aristocrats, and the Gibichungs are in eveningwear. But how do you explain the Valkyries, first in their warrior costumes and then Brünnhilde in her myth-worthy robe in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung? The giants? Erda?

I can't explain it very well but I love the collision of these elements in this production, the timely and the timeless. Somehow it works.

NV said...

There is another interesting (imo) point :

ACD writes « Further, the central player in the world-drama of the _Ring_ is Nature itself; Nature in its most primal state and at its largest scale and in its most profound depths; Nature in direct contact with man. Any staging of the Ring that doesn't realize that in its staging -- either representationally, abstractly, or by suggestion – is, again, fundamentally faithless to Wagner's intention and to the dictates and requirements of the score. »

Well, as I have already said, I don’t care if a staging is fundamentally faithful or faithless, if it provides emotion as well as aesthetic and intellectual pleasure, but what strikes me is that Chereau precisely did what ACD reproaches him not to do ! He described, by suggestion, the symbiosis between man and Nature, and particularly the consequences of the loss of this symbiosis, in the context of the industrial revolution.

The Ring is effectively (among other interpretations of course) the story of how man get estranged from himself, as he get estranged from nature. And this message has a particular and specific meaning in the middle of the XIXth century, the moment when Europa begins its process of homogenous urbanisation and industrialisation and takes the first steps toward the situation of universal ugliness we know nowadays. To put a dam on the Rhine is particularly meaningful in this perspective. It is our relationship to nature, which has become a relationship of systematic exploitation, which is symbolized by the gold theft. (I do not pretend to have discovered it myself…) In Chereau’s view, at the beginning of Rhinegold, there is already something rotten in the kingdom of Wotan. Alberich can come, steal the gold, and fulfill the world’s destiny. Wagner couldn’t modernize his story of gods and giants because the cultural context of the romantic era didn’t permit him to do so. But Chereau could. He could convey, to the modern eyes and ears, precisely the message the Wagner of the middle of the XIXth century adressed to the public of his time. But our minds, our cultural tools, our environment have changed since this time. You can’t say the same things the same ways to different people. And Chereau’s staging tells us, among other things, the story of the loss of innocence mingled with the estrangement from nature. For modern minds, the absence of nature on stage is a way to speak about nature. By suggestion, as ACD said it himself.

lgarbarini said...

Deceptively for the ones that have not yet seen Chéreau's Ring, Daland wrote:

"And why, in Siegfried, is Wotan still covering his missing eye? Did he put on again the bandage between day 1 and 2 of the Ring?"

as everybody can see:


after what happened in Walkuere, in Chéreau's production of Siegfried, consistently, Wotan does not wear any bandage.


Daland wrote:

"Why did Wotan lose an eye? We have two reasons: 1. to gain Fricka (this is Wotan’s explanation in Rheingold)"

The German:

"Um dich zum Weib zu gewinnen/mein eines Auge setzt' ich werbend daran"

is ambiguous: in English it has been more or less translated as:

"I sacrificed one of my eyes to woo you",

but it could also mean:

"To win you as my wife/my single eye/I gave as a wooing-pledge".

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, in viewing Chéreau's production of Siegfried, the bandage was on both eyes of Daland...

Falparsi said...

It is striking that people like ACD seem to write without even have ever seen what they are writing about.

Henry Fitzgerald said...

The lengths to which people go, the logical knots they tie themselves in, to defend the indefensible!

NV wrote: “Wagner couldn’t modernize his story of gods and giants because the cultural context of the romantic era didn’t permit him to do so. But Chereau could.”

Is NV seriously suggesting that Wagner – Wagner, of all people! – was just itching to modernise his story, but had to tamely submit to the [i]zeitgeist[/i] because he might have been viewed as unconventional? The real reason Wagner didn’t modernise his story is that he didn’t want to – and he had good reason not to want to. Modernised myths are always less mythic; they look tryhard and flat, whatever you do, and they date in about five weeks.

NV’s claim about Wagner makes about as much sense as: “Chereau couldn’t present the story of gods and giants in its distant mythical setting because the cultural context of the late 20th Century didn’t permit him to do so. But Wagner could.” It’s just as true that Chereau is a prisoner of the fashion of his time as it’s true that Wagner was – which is to say, true in only a loose sense in either case. Wagner could have made his singers wear tuxedos if he’d wanted to; luckily, he didn’t want to. Chereau, more daringly, could have place his Ring in its proper mythic setting if [i]he’d[/i] wanted to; and alas, he didn’t. Both were as theatre directors influenced by the fashions of their day, but they weren’t [i]literally[/i] forced to follow it, and Wagner’s career as a whole (unlike that of Chereau, a mediocre and tedious film director) demonstrates this.

NV said...

I am happy (for them) and a little be terrified to learn that there are still people able to enjoy myths the way people could and did 150 years ago. As if Frazer, Levi-Bruhl, Levi-Strauss, Barthes and Girard had never existed. What Chereau perfectly knew is that it was impossible for cultivated men at the end of the seventies to take seriously wagnerian myths because those myths had been deconstructed by decades of ethnological and sociological researches. But Wagner is a genius and it would have been a pity to stop staging his operas only because one aspect of the dramatic language he used had fallen in the dustbins of History. Saying that the Ring must be staged only in universality and intemporality is condemning Wagner to tackyness and, ultimately, oblivion. The very concepts of intemporality and universality are meaningless for a modern mind – intemporality and universality are historical concepts and the products of a specific social and cultural environment-. So Chereau had to get rid of all the mythological pararaphernalia that only philistines, whose intellectual environment resembles Alfred Rosenberg’s, seem today to regret.

Concerning Chereau as a mediocre film director, Queen Margot is one of the most extraordinary french film ever made. And I had the opportunity, last Sunday , to see in the Louvre the video Bernard Sobel made of Boulez/Chereau’s production of Berg’s Lulu. The copy-audio and video- is awfully bad. But the strength and the intelligence of this production can’t be doubted. Chereau’s critics here only ridicule themselves.

curzon said...

I find it sad that there are still people around who feel that great works of art should be preserved in amber. If they had their way the only legitimate productions of the Ring would be ludicrous, moribund excercises like the Met Ring which for me have as much dramatic validity as a bus timetable.
The point about any great work of dramtic art is that it can be endlessly re-interpreted and still survive.The Chereau ring has it's faults but it also has enormous strengths. Everyone is entitled to their opnion of it or any other interpretation. However nobody has the right to force their opnions on us as if they were gospel truth. Also, while we are on the subject, isn't tit time to bury this idea of Konzept as a bad thing? do you think that Wagner didn't have Konzepts too?

Henry Fitzgerald said...

NV continues to put his foot in by writing: “What Chereau perfectly knew is that it was impossible for cultivated men at the end of the seventies to take seriously Wagnerian myths because those myths had been deconstructed by decades of ethnological and sociological researches.”

Who are these “cultivated men”? That is, is there any independent criteria for what counts as “cultivated” by your lights, apart from a tendency to snigger and say “Oh my dear how very passé” when presented with a Valkyrie that is actually a Valkyrie?

It’s true that people who have been steeped in pseudo-scientific twaddle have a harder time responding directly to Wagner’s mythological world. That is their failing, and it’s the opera director’s job to do what he or she can to snap them out of their self-imposed aesthetic funk. Wagner’s myths have not been “deconstructed” in the sense NV seems to mean. Perhaps we now have a better idea of how they arose – when I say “we” I do not, of course, include everyone – and what makes them have the effect they do; and of course we know there is SOME causal explanation for their creation. But there’s some causal explanation for everything – including Chereau’s tomfoolery. And for THAT, we have a much clearer idea what the explanation is.

Chereau’s staging, like countless similar stagings of Shakespeare, relies for effect on the fact that the audience knows it’s doing violence to the text. A few people in the audience get off on – and the rest simply sigh and put up with – the cheap frisson between what we know is meant to be happening (this is a god placing an enchantment on a patch of ground) and what our eyes tell us is happening (this is a merchant banker ordering a cocktail). Truly cultivated people grew tired of this moustache-drawing flippancy at or before the age of thirteen.

A.C. Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.C. Douglas said...

When reading NV's last, one tries hard to imagine it's a spot-on caricature, even burlesque, of the postmodern mindset. Sadly, one comes quickly to the realization that it's nothing of the sort, but is instead an earnest, dead-serious expression of that mindset.

Is it any wonder that Eurotrash outrages such as the Chéreau centennial Ring, and the even more grotesque outrages that followed over the following more than three decades, are today gaining mainstream acceptance in major opera houses worldwide?

No, not a bit of it.


NV said...

Of course I am dead serious. Of course I think that myths, ethics, God and the most important probably, Art itself, have nothing to do with what they were in Wagner’s times –Wagner himself was probably a latecomer, Nietzsche perfectly saw it- because consciousness that there is no back-world beyond the world has completely changed the deal. It has nothing to do with pseudo-science. The french thinkers I mentioned in my previous post, and who seem to exasperate bible-belt traditionalists, only drew the consequences of a philosophical revolution initiated by Darwin and Nietzsche and achieved by Heidegger (before die Kehre) and Wittgenstein. Art is no more possible in the way it was because the relationship to otherness it was supposed to convey to its audience has disappeared. There is no otherness. We are plunged- for the better and for the worse, and probably for the worse- in immanence. In this perspective, art is only a nostalgic activity, a way to evoke the dim traces God left in quitting this world for ever, with all his mumbo-jumbo of values. And the pathetic attempts to replace him with humanism or with renewals of religious feelings won’t dissimulate very long the fact that we are only animals submitted to violence.

Knowing that, Brunnhilde’s sacrifice can’t be the sign of hope it was for Wagner. It is only the remembrance that in the past, sacrifices could reconcile the community in a religious myth. But it can’t work this way now. And Chereau shows, after Walhalla’s fall, a numbed mob, lost people, who have lost the guidance tools myths had given them before. But Walhalla has fallen and humanity is alone in nature. MM. Fitzgerald and Douglas believed themselves still in Walhalla. But, here, we can only see their ashes.

Please, mostly opera, if you want us to stop, just write "stop!"

Henry Fitzgerald said...

NV has a curious reason indeed for supposing that a straight reading of Wagner (and by the sounds of things, anything written before, say, 1850) won’t do. It’s because we now know the content is false: there are no gods.

Well, duh. NV must think of nineteenth-century audiences consisted of complete morons. Most of them knew as well as we do that there were no such things as water spirits, magic spells and dragons; and even if they didn’t, that’s beside the point. The Ring is a work of [i]fiction[/i]. What we believe isn’t what matters. The work is inviting us to [i]make[/i]-believe.

In any case, this defence of Chereau’s re-jiggering concedes most criticisms: it concedes that it’s not really an interpretation of Wagner’s work at all. It’s an act of substitution. “Wagner’s story won’t go down at all well today, I fear;” (so goes Chereau’s thought processes); “if only he’d written something more [i]modern[/i] and [i]contemporary[/i]. Well, no matter: I’ll just re-write the story for him, and put in place of his conception something that is much more in tune with the 1970s [i]zeitgeist[/i].”

Then, of course, the actual music and lyrics are left as is, so they neither support nor are supported by the stage conception – and audiences, presumably the same audiences that were such unsophisticated rubes that they couldn’t get over the fact that they were being asked to accept a fictional representation of things that didn’t really take place, will somehow be Byzantine enough in their thought processes to confabulate some post hoc justification for the discrepancy between the work itself and the perverse way it’s being staged.

Why is it the greater works of stage art – like Wagner’s Ring, or Shakespeare’s plays – that are most subject to this vandalism, and subject to this vandalism in its most severe form? It’s ludicrous to suppose that it has anything to do with the supernatural elements in these works (many of Shakespeare’s plays contain none whatever). It’s because the greater the work, and the stronger the original conception, the more it can be vandalised without actually being destroyed – the more, that is, modern audiences will still be able to get what the work, as it was originally written, is expressing, not because of the silly contemporary interpolations, but in spite of them.

NV said...

Sorry M. Fitzgerald, but your rhetoric completely misses my point. I never wrote-nor thought- that the XIXth century public took literally the characters – gods, dwarves, giants…- they saw on stage. I said that to enter someway Wagner’s purpose, they had to take literally what those characters symbolized. And when some of them refused to do so,-Nietzsche was the most famous of them- the entire Wagner system began to jam. Gods, dwarves and giants have a scenic credibility -even now- only when they refer to things –values, hopes, purposes- that make sense for the audience. When it is not the case, they are only figures of children’s tales. The problem is not that you can’t stage supernatural elements (of course you can). The problem is what those supernatural elements are supposed to stand for.

The main subject of Wagner’s works is redemption, from the Dutchman’s appearance to Amfortas’ healing. The problem is that nobody – ok you’ll find exceptions- is interested in redemption nowadays. We have the same problem with Spinoza whose main concept is substance. Spinoza is a genius, but what to do with his philosophy today is a real challenge because the concept of substance, like the concept of redemption, has become completely irrelevant.

Contrary to what you are trying to make me say, I don’t think that this question applies to anything written before 1850. But Wagner is a real problem, because, if he was a musical and dramatic genius, he was not the artist of the future he figured himself to be. And that is precisely why the words you ironically put in Chereau’s mouth (Wagner’s story won’t go down at all well today, I fear) are to be taken seriously. There is no doubt that Meistersinger is a hymn to German art and an appeal to the eviction, out of the German community, of all foreign elements (and when I say foreign, I don’t refer to official identity papers). There is a chilling paragraph in Cosima’s diary where Wagner says that the Frankfurt Jews, who had booed the opera, were the only people who had understood what it was all about. Parsifal, I had already the opportunity to say it here, is an opera about racial purity and the way this purity is threatened by the mixing of races. I always regret that those two operas are never staged for what they are really, but you can’t do it always and everywhere. « It won’t go down at all well today, I fear ». I don’t deny that Europe (particularly) has now an identity problem but it would be ludicrous-I take your word- to face it in Wagner’s terms.

The question is more complex with the Ring because the mix between revolutionary purposes and reactionary ones is particularly tricky to disentangle. But the basic features of Wagner’s deep personality appear there, as in Meistersinger and Parsifal.

There is no question of audiences accepting or not « fictional representation that didn’t really take place ». Chereau’s Ring didn’t more really take place than Otto Schenk’s one. Chereau’s Ring tells a story that makes sense. Otto Schenk’s one doesn’t.

The question you ask about whether it is acceptable to stage another story than Wagner’s one is more serious than you think. (I wouldn’t ask it on the ground of vandalism because Wagner is dead and his works belong to everybody… Anyway, if you intend to dig out vandalism in modern culture, there is plenty of work to do, and beginning by Chereau seems a little bit strange.). The risk of music and lyrics not being supported by stage conception is really there, and it is the only point where we agree. But it is a question that can’t be answered generally. Because there are stupid producers. Because Wagner’s genius effectively makes that his works are still there, even with a great deal of what you call vandalism, and what I call interpretation. Because pretending that artists such as Chereau tell us a story that has absolutely nothing to do with Wagner’s one seem far-fetched. Because Gesamtkusntwerk is Gesamtkunstwerk and you are supposed to take it globally. And the cultural environment of the audience is a part of the equation. Wagner knew it perfectly. He wrote it in Opera and Drama. Art is nothing if it doesn’t enter in symbiosis with the public. And symbiosis implies to take into account cultural, ideological, political, social evolutions. I’ve already written I don’t care about faithfulness. But I begin to think that the best way to be true to Wagner is to be unfaithful to him.

Henry Fitzgerald said...

To NV:

Aha! So you don’t object to the supernatural elements of the opera – that “the problem is what those supernatural elements are supposed to stand for”.

This contradicts the reasons you gave in support of Chereau’s mangling: that our “consciousness that there is no back-world beyond the world has completely changed the deal”. You also said it was the revolution initiated by Darwin that put an end to the possibility of an audience interpreting Wagner straight. But Darwin had nothing to say against what the supernatural elements in the Ring are supposed to stand for – assuming that what they are meant to stand for is not itself something supernatural.

You mention redemption as being a main theme of Wagner’s work – which makes the work “irrelevant” (I’m inclined to think, “big deal if it’s irrelevant”) because – and I have difficulty quoting this without giggling – “nobody is interested in redemption nowadays”. So you’re conceding that the trend of staging Wagner in all manner of silly ways really is due to nothing more than temporal parochialism – that it IS just a matter of fashion?

We don’t need religion to take the idea of redemption seriously (and indeed we have neither more nor less reason to do so with religion than without). But the main point is, we don’t need to take the idea seriously in real life, to do so in imaginative response to a work of fiction. Failing to respond to Wagner’s fiction because we don’t take the idea of redemption seriously in real life is as foolish, and as much a mark of philistinism, as failing to respond to his fiction because we don’t take seriously in real life the existence of gods, dragons, or love potions. The same goes for whatever you think Wagner’s works are about.

Unlike A.C. Douglas, I don’t have a problem per se with infidelity to Wagner the man. But like him, I do have a problem with an incoherent mishmash on the stage. If Chereau wants to write and then stage opera about the navel-gazing funk of postmodern pseudo-sophisticates, then he can go right ahead. Very likely an artistically coherent work (if not a great one) can be written in this vein using the same basic story Wagner used. But attempting to press gang Wagner’s music and lyrics, both of which are about something very different, to this cause, will result in something at war with itself – an embarrassment – a Frankenstein creation: music and words about one thing, costumes and action and inflection about something else.

NV said...

There is no contradiction. I can perfectly accept the use of supernatural elements to illustrate natural ones. I can perfectly enjoy a work of fiction with gods, dragons, or love potions.
There are no speaking animals for instance. Yet, I have no problem with the Cunning little vixen. Because Janacek tells me things about this world. The problem is not the gods, the dragons, and the love potions. It is the dusty romantic ideology they carry with them.

Darwin was only an illustration. Of course he didn’t write anything about supernatural elements. But he contributed to the secularization of the modern mind. (Maybe I did not get correctly your point.) Anyway -I repeat- I have NO problems with gods on stage. I have a problem with the Wagnerian values –well I accept some, but I find some others terribly outdated- they are supposed to convey and I supposed Chereau had the same problem and he chose to face it by a secularization of the Ring. And I think he was right to try this.

Thus I am not CONCEDING “that the trend of staging Wagner in all manner of silly ways really is due to nothing more than temporal parochialism – that it IS just a matter of fashion.”

I am PROCLAIMING that not only the different ways (silly or not) to stage Wagner’s (and Mozart’s, and Verdi’s) works, but the works themselves are determined by temporal and spatial circumstances. You can call those circumstances parochialism or fashion. I find it slightly derogatory but in fact I don’t really mind. We are the product of local circumstances and not of eternal values. The way we live, the way we love, the way we die, the way we create or admire art are just matters of circumstances. Or fashion, if you prefer. Yes.

But there is effectively a point I must concede. Supporting Chereau (he doesn’t need my support, I know) I let you believe that I could accept only trashy modernization of Wagner’s works. But I perfectly concur –I regret not having written it myself- to the fact that « we don’t need to take the idea seriously in real life, to do so in imaginative response to a work of fiction. »

And in this perspective, I do not even deny the producers the right to take seriously the idea of redemption! I even can be deeply moved, in a nostalgic way, by a production taking seriously the idea that there is something in us that need to be redeemed and that there is a way or another to obtain this redemption. I am ready to enjoy good first-degree interpretations of Wagner’s works. But I don’t understand why I should deny me any aesthetic pleasure at good second (third…etc…) –degree interpretations or even good anti-, contra-, meta- or para-interpretations.

I didn’t think you or ACD were defending a personal fidelity towards Wagner the man. I perfectly understood that your fidelity was to the Work. But I can’t share your essentialist conception of a Work of art, the characteristics, the meaning and the message of which would be written in marble for eternity. And I didn’t see any incoherence in Chereau’s global conception (the fact that a some lyrics don’t exactly fit is not a problem for me) and any need for him to write an opera of his own. But I am probably a pseudo-sophisticated post-modern (my friends who know me as a grumpy conservative would find it very funny)...

A.C. Douglas said...

Henry Fitzgerald wrote: Unlike A.C. Douglas, I don’t have a problem per se with infidelity to Wagner the man.

Excuse me? By what twisted reading of anything I wrote could you arrive at the perverse idea that I "have a problem per se with infidelity to Wagner the man"? What an absurd idea. Wagner the man is nothing; his artwork everything. It's Wagner's artwork I defended, not Wagner the man about whom the less said the better.

Next time, read more carefully, please.


NV said...

Was gleicht, Wotan,
wohl deinem Glücke?
Viel erwarb dir
des Ringes Gewinn;
daß er nun dir genommen,
nützt dir noch mehr:
deine Feinde – sieh! –
fällen sich selbst –
um das Gold, das du vergabst.

mostly opera... said...

In response to some of the above comments, I find it only fair to add, that while I may disagree wildly with A.C. Douglas on Patrice Chéreau´s Ring (and on Regietheater in general), I do not find his comments offensive in any way.
On the contrary, comments like his make for excellent debate and are most welcome.

I plan to write an entire series on Regietheater in the near future, so there should be plenty of opportunities for the "opponents" to have their say..

Henry Fitzgerald said...

Apologies for misreading AC Douglas – but I thought I caught him saying that the author’s intentions should be respected simply because they happen to be the author’s intentions; that’s what I disagree with, and what I badly expressed as “loyalty to Wagner the man”. Like him, I think we should be loyal to the works, not the artist: so even if we uncover an authentic letter from Wagner saying that next time round he plans to stage an unmagical, modernised, postmodern-ironic version of the Ring cycle, I see no reason to respect this intention of his, because it runs contrary to the intentions implicit in the work. Whether the intentions implicit in the work happened to be consciously entertained in Wagner’s head is not important.

NV said...

We now learn that a work has implicit intentions. Umberto Eco - of course nobody is obliged to agree with him but I find his analysis very convincing- demonstrates -as far as a demonstration in this field is possible- in « The Limits of Interpretation (Advances in Semiotics) » -Indiana University Press (March 1994), that there is no such thing as an intrinsic meaning – and a fortiori intention- of a text or a work. Interpretations have limits (yes…) but those limits are determined exclusively by the logical, linguistic and cultural background of the community of interpreters. And in opera, this limit is very seldom overstepped and certainly not by Chereau, who, in a way, as somebody already noticed here, stages rather conservative productions… Maybe Schlingensief with Parsifal, as nobody seemed to have understood what he had tried to communicate to the public… But I am not even sure of that !

Henry Fitzgerald said...

I haven’t read this particular piece of Eco, but “there’s no such thing as intrinsic meaning” is either an empty tautology, or – the way you’ve paraphrased the thesis – an obvious falsehood (the thesis that constraints on interpretation are determined “EXCLUSIVELY by the logical, linguistic and cultural background of the community of interpreters”, for instance, is clearly insane). I’m willing to bet good money that Eco is pulling the common trick of equivocating between a claim that’s true but vacuous, and a claim that’s interesting but false – and Eco is certainly at good at this sleight of hand as anyone else.

In any event, arguments about what behind-the-scenes mechanisms make it the case that the implied intent of Wagner’s Ring is (among other things) mythological grandeur, are beside the point. Whatever these mechanisms are, whatever the explanation for WHY the Ring is the way it is, and whatever field (sociology, biology, philosophy, etc.) this explanation belongs to, the fact remains that the meaning and implied intent of Wagner’s Ring is what it is – however much Chereau may wish it were something else.

NV said...

My point was not about « what behind-the-scenes mechanisms make it the case that the implied intent of Wagner’s Ring is » this or that, because I don’t care about such an intent. The interesting mechanisms are those which make the case that WE (and Richard Wagner himself belongs to the WE, among others) interpret the Ring this or that way. The Ring, in itself, is not about anything special. Every spectator can decide about what the Ring is about. Some of those decisions will make sense for other people and some will not… And concerning tautology… I am beaten. You wrote : « the fact remains that the meaning and implied intent of Wagner’s Ring is what it is » … I am very impressed.

What strikes me is that you can’t even accept the consequences of a very moderate relativism –absolute relativism (Feyerabend’s) states that « anything goes » but nobody, except Feyerabend, thinks that ; moderate relativism states that every sentence takes sense only in the logical, linguistic and cultural context of locutors and interlocutors- without calling that insanity.

I myself have immense difficulties to fathom what can happen in the mind of somebody who thinks that constraints on interpretation can be determined by the object of interpretation or that things are only what they are. But as I know that it is the way children are taught in school – where there is a complete confusion between things, images and words, convincing most of them that good and evil, truth and falseness are real things - I have abandoned the idea of sending the majority of my fellow humans to psychiatric asylums. Anyway , it is a difficult question, which concerns all the fields of knowledge- even physical science-, as the debates which flourished after the Sokal hoax have proved… I know that this blog is only mostly about opera but I fear, if I go on this way, to be taken too far from the main interests of the readers here. But it is funny to notice that the debates about questions of taste hide most of the time huge conceptual divergences.

Henry Fitzgerald said...

NV writes: “But it is funny to notice that the debates about questions of taste hide most of the time huge conceptual divergences.”

Or more often, conceptual confusion.

What you actually said – which may not have been what you meant – was indeed insane. You said, or seemed to be saying, that constraints on reasonable interpretation depend entirely on facts about the interpreters (including their social context and all that blather – I notice, by the way, that you didn’t mention innate tendencies, presumably since these don’t change with the winds of fashion), and not at all on facts about the thing being interpreted. That’s mad. Facts about the thing being interpreted also impose constraints on reasonable interpretation.

Yes, it sounds fine to say interpretation depends on context, and in a way it does depend on this (among other things). But as a matter of empirical fact works of art carry most of their context with them; this dependence on “context” plays almost no discernible role in the real world. To expect Wagner’s Ring to mean X but not Y in the 19th Century, and Y but not X in the 20th, is like expecting a novel written in one language to have a completely different meaning when exported untranslated into another – as though the words “My dog has no nose; how does she smell? Terrible!” - just so happened to correspond with words in Finnish which coherently, grammatically and unproblematically meant something else. It’s a lot to ask of coincidence. In the real world, the English words carry their implied context with them from place to place; just as in the real world, a work of art carries its implied viewing context and audience expectations with it from place to place.

NV said...

I exactly meant what I said-and what you think is entirely mad ! I don’t understand how the thing to be interpreted could impose constraints on interpretation. And there is a good reason for that. The good reason is that the question of the mere existence of a « thing » to be interpreted, and of the mere existence of an action you can call « interpretation » are themselves cultural constructions. « I » am (is) a cultural construction. « You » are (is) a cultural construction. And the notion of cultural construction is itself a cultural construction.

Innate tendencies don’t follow different rules. There are the products of history (biological history) and history is a cultural construction (and nature too).

Your thesis that « To expect Wagner’s Ring to mean X but not Y in the 19th Century, and Y but not X in the 20th, is like expecting a novel written in one language to have a completely different meaning when exported untranslated into another » is really interesting and believe me, I am not ironical saying that. And in an abstract world it would be exactly the case. But we do not live in an abstract world and I think that there is a difference of degree ( not a different of nature) and a difference of purpose between what makes a language a language and what makes a work of art a work of art. Transpositions are much more difficult in the first case than in the second because what binds letters, words, grammatical structures and punctuation in the first case is much tighter that what binds ideas, meanings and images in the second one.

That means that coincidences are much more likely in the second case !

But I wont shun your problematic.The same word may have completely different meanings through space and time and yet have a meaning (meaning meaning « use » and not « sense »). Liberal is a leftist word in the US. A rightist one in Europe. Nationalism was a leftist value in the XVIIIth century, a rightist (mostly ) one in the XXth. A locutor has to deal with those problems, as a producer has to deal with the fact that the basic content of a work of art is evolving through space and time. And in a pragmatic context, we can’t use (because art is not something special, it is like cooking or carpentry, it is a way to deal with the world ) a work of art the same way people did in other places and in other times. It would be ridiculous to state that we enjoy (or hate) Nô or Kabuki the same way the Japanese do. So I can’t share your view that « work of art carries its implied viewing context and audience expectations with it from place to place ».

Could somebody stop us and say we are old bores ruminating their own obsessions in a context of general disinterest ?

Henry Fitzgerald said...

NV: I stand by my claim that you're bonkers - but since you "don’t understand how the thing to be interpreted could impose constraints on interpretation", allow me to explain.

What I actually said was that artworks impose constraints on what counts as a reasonable interpretation. Context cannot do the job alone - and this is obvious if you think about it. If you watch a movie, say King Kong, it's reasonable to interpret it as being about a giant ape. If the projectionist had got reels mixed up and shown you Lawrence of Arabia instead it would not have been reasonable to interpret that film as being about a giant ape - even though the cultural, social, biological, etc., etc., context in which you had seen the Lawrence of Arabia would have been identical - not just similar; identical - to the cultural context in which you saw King Kong.

By the way, in order to help me understand your gibberish about "cultural constructions", would you be able to name one thing - anything at all - that is not a cultural construction? If not, I'll simply assume that you don't attach any meaning to the term - or at best use it as a highfalutin synonym for "thing". (If you mean anything concrete by the phrase, chances are you're using it to say something false - but so completely mad it's impossible to argue effectively against. I'm with David Stove on this one: The best thing you can do with someone who thinks the Pacific Ocean is a cultural construction, is to throw him off the side of a boat somewhere between Dunedin and Tierra del Fuego, and see if he still thinks the Pacific Ocean is a cultural construction.)

NV said...

I never thought King Kong was a movie « about » a giant ape. If I enter your logic and ask myself « about » what King Kong is, I would say it is a movie « about » exotism, different beings, tolerance, and conflicts between nature and civilization. Roughly the same subject as Lawrence of Arabia.

I can’t name a thing that is not a cultural construction because naming something implies the use of language and language is a cultural construction. Words are not models of the world. They are tools to deal with it. And using tools is a contextual activity. I am perfectly conscious that my position is a tautologic one, and that it is not a particularly interesting tautology, but I feel it is sometimes useful to crash open doors when I meet talibans of thought who are pretending that those open doors are closed. And the reproach of triviality can easily be returned. You obviously think that all things are objects that have special characterics that can be described accurately with special words adapted to the business of describing those objects. But I can ask you the question : can you name me a thing that is not an object that has special characteristics… If not, you are simply using such a definition as a highfalutin synonym for « thing ».

You can’t speak about the Pacific ocean independantly of a cultural context. You can die in it. May be dying is not cultural. But speaking about death certainly is. David Stove completely misses the wittgensteinian distinction between what can be said and what can be showed. There is nothing to say about love in itself, death in itself. Maybe you can love and die (in the Pacific ocean) but the meaning of what you say about it is completely cultural.
Bertrand Russell tells this story about Wittgenstein : Wittgenstein said that Russell couldn’t prove him there was no cow in the little room they were sitting in in Cambridge (around 1912). Russell was a little bit cross and told Wittgenstein « just look around !». And Wittgenstein answered !« it is not enough for me ». Maybe Wittgenstein was bonkers but I agree with him on this special point : living something ( seeing no cow for instance) and saying something (There « is » no cow) are two different things. I can perfectly die in the « Pacific ocean » and think that the Pacific ocean, as an object of speech, is a cultural construction. And what is true with language is obviously true with art. And here, we are « speaking » about « art ». We are using conventions do describe conventions. The fact that you can hit me with a stone is not enough to convince me that a stone is something in itself. The fact that Wagner composed « The Ring » is not enough to convince me that the Ring is something in itself…

Sieglinde said...

This was my first full Ring, and it's wonderful despite its flaws. As flaws I count the casting of Siegfried, Hagen (yes, if they had Salminen, damn they should've been cast HIM! He's the best Hagen ever), and Erda.
But the staging is really beautiful. Suddenly all these gods and heroes became human and lovable.

Of the singers:

- Gwyneth Jones, in her prime, is a perfect Brünnhilde. She looks the part too - I'm simply tired of "fat ladies". Brünnhilde is called the world's most beautiful maiden, so she must at least be pretty.
- Salminen is perfection is all of his roles - too bad he didn't sing Hagen.
- Peter Hoffmann - yes, best Siegmund by far. Vocally, none of the DVD-Siegmunds is close, and his looks... oh, why wasn't he born a baritone so he could sing Billy Budd? He's gorgeous.
- McIntyre - for me, he is THE Wotan. So human, so sensitive, so tragic. I want to hug him. Most Wotans are either unsympathetic criminals (Copenhagen)or play the God till the end and they are too majestic to be touching (Aix, for example) - but he breaks in Die Walküre. He doesn't want to be a God, he only want the end. Surely there are singers with better voice, but he's absolutely not dry.
- Zednik - simply the best Mime ever. And one of the best Loges. I haven't seen a bad Mime or Loge yet. But most Mimes try to copy Zednik. As for the Loges - each are different, but all I've seen perfect on their own way. (Seen: Zednik, Christian Franz, Philip Langridge and Michael Christensen)
- Hanna Schwartz - perfect Fricka. And maybe the only one who seems to love Wotan.

Anonymous said...

What I don't get is why the same people who hate modern Wagner productions are generally quite happy with seeing the same modernist elements in a Shakespeare play. (i.e. machine guns in Hamlet)

Why is it okay with Shakespeare but not with Wagner?

(Also, you might want to check out the pre-1976 ring productions at Bayreuth to have an idea of what Chereau was actually rebelling against and what the audience thought was a "standard" production. Personally I'm very happy that Chereau got us rid of that style)

Anonymous said...

Great post; I just want to point out, though, that Chereau wasn't the first successful film director to make forays into opera. In 1955 Lucino Visconti directed Maria Callas in La Traviata at La Scala. The production was controversial (the setting was moved up several decades), but it was a watershed moment. The reason it's not better known, perhaps, is because it's in the Italian opera ghetto (i.e. not as easily decorated with intellectualism as the Ring) and it wasn't captured on film.

Will said...

Let me point out, though, that Lucino Visconti wasn't the first successful film director to make forays into opera. Max Reinhardt who directed his first movie in 1911 and attained world fame as a film director in 1912 with The Miracle. He directed opera, including the phenomenally successful premiere of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier a production so influential that it was copied almost verbatim by opera houses for decades after its 1912 premiere.

Henry Fitzgerald said...

The anonymous post above saying...

What I don't get is why the same people who hate modern Wagner productions are generally quite happy with seeing the same modernist elements in a Shakespeare play. (i.e. machine guns in Hamlet) Why is it okay with Shakespeare but not with Wagner?

Who are these people? I, for one, hate modernisations of Wagner (such as Norse gods in tuxedos) and modernisations of Shakespeare (such as machine guns in Hamlet) to pretty much the same degree, for much the same reasons. Can you name a single one of these "some people" who object to the former but not to the latter?

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