|Millennium Bayreuth Ring|
August 21, 22, 24, 26, 2000
This was the most unusual Ring that I have ever seen.
My first exposure to the Ring was ten years ago, to a traditionally staged New York Metropolitan Opera Ring on television, featuring James Morris as Wotan and Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde. In those days, as a poor graduate student of Medieval Literature (who did not attend many live operas), I pored over tomes of Icelandic and Germanic Sagas by day and watched videotaped and televised operas by night. One particular week after I come home from my studies, I sit down on the hard wooden floor in my humble apartment, turn off the lights, turn off the phone, and tune in to the televised Ring. Minutes into Das Rheingold and I am transfixed! What wonderful and powerful voices! That divine music which I thought could have come only from Heaven. What magic! This strange and yet wonderful new world I had been drawn into! To this day, I cannot close my eyes and imagine what Wotan looks like without seeing an image of James Morris or what Brünnhilde looks like without seeing an image of Hildegard Behrens. That one production shaped my whole idea of what opera should be like. It's the production that got me hooked on Wagner to such an extent that within the past ten years, I have read almost everything there is on this composer, seen or heard all of his operas in one format or another, and still can't get enough of him! To create as vast and comprehensive a work of art as the Ring of the Niebelung, one must be a unique genius, and Wagner had one of the greatest musical and theatrical minds in all of history. If he had given us nothing else except the Ring, he would still, in my view, be the greatest opera composer who ever lived.
So... Finally I get to see the Ring in Bayreuth, in the theater especially designed for productions of the Ring. What excitement! Not really knowing what to expect of this production, except that it was ultra-modern and controversial, I rushed up to my cozy seat (yes - cozy! - when tickets are as hard to obtain as these for the Wagner Festival, you value each precious moment and learn to ignore minor discomforts - those seats were not as bad as I had been led to believe) in the Festspielhaus and waited in anticipation for that first E Flat Major that opens Das Rheingold. I had heard rumors of a new new modern Ring with computers, cell phones, etc. And some of the rumors were a bit outlandish and off the mark - "Brünnhilde using the Internet to send email to Siegfried." Huh? Where did they get that? Did this production stir up that much controversy that people were exaggerating and adding to Wagner's work? Let's take a look.
"Gods in Business Suits" was the description contained in opera reviews. This Ring certainly did call up visions of some aspects of the modern corporate world. This age-old legend expanded upon and set to music over one hundred years ago is "modernized" with the hope that our 21st Century Society will recognize Wagner's work as a reflection of our culture as well as the culture for which he had composed. In this production, Valhalla was a tall space-age, sterile, unfeeling, steel and glass office complex towering high toward the clouds. Nibelheim was a huge cold gray sterile factory with rows and rows of machines, with Nibelungs working like robotons to the orders of master Alberich. Both Alberich and Wotan were dressed and behaving like a few selfish business executives I know who team up and then betray each other and everyone else in order to reach their goals. In Das Rheingold, Alberich took an elevator to approach the rock where the Rhinemaidens sang. The Rhinemaidens also ride up and down from their rock in an elevator. Hunding's hut in Die Walküre looked like the outside of an abandoned building with eerie street lights and wooden dining room chairs lining the road. Sieglinde wore a white prom dress! The Hall of the Gibichungs in Götterdammerung looked like a giant erector set almost ready to topple over. Actors carrying cell phones and briefcases walked along the beams of this erector set in synchronized rhythm as they march to various cubicles representing sterile offices.
If one wants to consider the more absurd aspects of this Ring, the Valkyries were dressed in greenish-brownish grungy-looking tight body suits and swinging from trapezes to the ground. The dead heroes slowly walked across the stage dressed in grungy rags and the Valkyries went to each one and removed the hats from the heros' heads. Brünnhilde wore black leathers and no armor. Before Wotan began to tell her his story in Act II of Die Walküre, Brünnhilde and Wotan were dancing a jig while she was singing "hojotoho!" Is bizarreness a part of our modern culture? I am not sure what the director and stage designer were trying to do with some of this. Parts of this production were not very credible. If I did not know better, I would not have recognized this as the Ring. As I do not know much German, I had only the orchestral music to remind me that this really was in fact a production of the Ring.
I wanted to go to this production especially to hear my favorite tenor, Placido Domingo, as Siegmund. He was sensational as always. He seemed a bit "off" during the first Act of Die Walküre. Yes, he acted the part of Siegmund well, but his voice was different. It did not have the resonance I am used to. Perhaps I was looking for the sound I hear coming from him at Washington Opera productions. As the Bayreuth Festspielhaus has different acoustics (which are supposed to be superior to anywhere else), perhaps that was what was making the difference. But nooooo!! Fortunately during the next act, his voice recovered and he let forth the grand, heroic sound that I am used to hearing here in Washington. Wagnerians are fortunate that Domingo is going more and more into singing Wagner operas. Too bad he will NOT be singing in Bayreuth next summer.
Waltraud Meier, another of my favorites, and who also unfortunately will not be singing at Bayreuth next summer, did an outstanding Sieglinde. Meier is an excellent singing actress and has no trouble getting the emotions across to the audience. We learn to sympathize with her Sieglinde character. I tried to ignore the prom dress, as it detracted from the abused sorrowful woman she is supposed to portray. Meier seems quite versatile in almost any role.
Gabriele Schnaut has a great Brünnhilde voice, but in this performance, she did not come off as a strong Valkyrie Maiden. Maybe it was the leather body suit and lack of armor. I just could not visualize her as a Valkyrie, at least not as Wotan's favorite daughter, the warrier maiden with a conscience who is determined to set the world right, even at the risk of disobeying her father the all-powerful. Schnaut has become a legend at Bayreuth, and I eagerly wanted to see and hear what others had said about her ability on stage. Brünnhilde is a very important character and such a powerful and difficult role to do properly, and after seeing and hearing operatic giants such as Hildegard Behrens, Jane Eaglen, Birgit Nilsson (recording only) sing this role, I was looking for a similar heroic dramatic soprano. Yes, I found one in Schnaut, but a subdued one. To see what I mean, here is a description of the last scene of Die Walküre as Wotan is getting ready to put Brünnhilde to sleep and unleash the Feierzauber. Where Hildegard Behrens and Jane Eaglen emote and vocally fight Wotan's power to the last moment, in this production, Schnaut as Brünnhilde does not emote or plead or argue. She just stands motionless as Wotan removes her breastplate and shield and she steps out of her black leather jumpsuit to reveal a white nightgown. She remains motionless as Wotan calls out "Loge, horre…!!". Instead of a fire image, there is a cylindrical cone-shaped wall that slowly moves around Brunnhilde. When she is finally hidden behind the walls of the cylinder, a reddish light seeps out from the tip of the cone. It looked as though Brünnhilde was being put to sleep in either a time capsule or abandoned furnace. It was hard to tell what that "thing" was supposed to be. This Brünnhilde was too placid, too accepting, too willing to accept what Wotan willed for her. Where was Brünnhilde's fiery nature that Wagner wants us to admire?
Alan Titus as Wotan was a bit disappointing, and in his role, acted a bit silly at times. Remember he was dancing a jig with his Brünnhilde before telling her about his sorrows. He did not come across with heroic fervor. He did not appear or sound "godlike," however that is to sound. If you have heard James Morris and Donald McIntyre in the role of Wotan, you know what I mean. Their Wotans do not need to move around much but they project through the fire in their voices. Titus just stood there at times. Danced at other times. Drank martinis and talked on a cell phone at even other times. The fire was missing from his voice. He was just a corporate executive with a bunch of daughters, a nagging wife, and other problems he preferred to address. At times when he was standing with the Alberich character, I could not tell them apart. No, Wotan in this production did not have the black eyepatch.
Siegfried is another extremely difficult role to sing well and I have deep admiration for the heroic tenor who can pull off this role convincingly. The character is supposed to be about 16 years old, but the vocal ability of the singer must be that of a much more mature voice. Can you imagine Lauritz Melchior or Siegfried Jerusalem, two fine Siegfrieds, in their prime, trying to make their voices sound like that of a 16 year old? They don't, to my ears, but they do come off very well, with the right amount of flexibility, gravitating from the macho roughneck brat talking sassily to Mime and later to Der Wanderer to the tender lover who has just learned fear from falling in love with a sleeping warrior maiden he has just kissed. This is what I expect from a Siegfried. Wolfgang Schmidt in this role fell short of what I expected. I am used to hearing a booming resonant yet sweetly melodic voice that will carry. Schmidt had none of these and was hard to hear. He sounded as if he were swallowing his voice. His acting was fine, though. I just wish there were more "fire" in his voice.
Although I found this production odd and at times absurd, I still enjoyed every moment. After all, this was The RING, and I was in Wagner's Festspielhaus, a rare treat that I definitely urge everyone to try to take advantage of, even for just one opera, just one evening. It's an experience not to be passed up.
Stay tuned for more of Jan's adventures (non-operatic) in Bayreuth!
by Jan Rosen
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