03 January 2007

all that fire and music

The 2006 Bayreuth Ring was supposed to be directed by Lars von Trier, which is why I got it into my head that 2006 would be the year I would make the hajj; Lars of course withdrew so I missed out on his scampish stylings and Bayreuth had to hustle to find a substitute, Tankred Dorst. This shuffle may account for a slightly underdone feel to the production, though I had always imagined that German directors grew up dreaming of Ring productions the way some American girls grow up planning their weddings, using the pre-fab irony of their Barbie and Ken dolls to deconstruct various ideal stagings. As I mentioned earlier Thielemann was the acknowledged hero of the production, and the orchestra was the best part, despite some flubs by Siegfried's horn and a few overly slow patches (I have to mention these things to show I'm paying musical attention). The singers were mostly solid but not really outstanding (though I mentioned earlier the disaster of the ill Siegmund and Robert Dean Smith's rescue of Act 2; he even maintained his composure during what has to be one of the most unfortunate possible prop mishaps, the premature snapping of Notung). Falk Struckmann effectively used movement to undercut his blustering, macho Wotan, as when his shoulders gave a defeated slight slump forward when he announces that retrieving the Ring will be left for one freer than himself.

The production was an odd combination of different standard approaches; the sets were mostly of the industrial/economic/modern-world style and the costumes were mostly from the mythic/timeless style. Sometimes a scene would start one way and end in the other, as when Nibelheim appeared looking like an industrial plant only to reveal an interior cave of naturalistic style. The outfits of the gods were fluted and pleated in a sort of retro-futuristic style, as if a costumer from the 1930s was trying to design a future race who would eventually be taught democracy by Buck Rogers. The costumes were identical in the first two operas except for color, being white in Rheingold and black in Walkure. Siegmund wore heavy furs and Siegfried wore sort of a mountain-man/Robinson Crusoe get-up that made him look more oafish than necessary. In Walkure the second act took place around a large reclining head of Richard Wagner, lifted no doubt from Syberberg's film of Parsifal. Various scenes were accompanied by groups of children or adults either imitating the action or just sitting in the background, which was sort of an interesting idea but not used consistently enough to have much effect; we'd see tramps camping out beneath the underpass while Brunhilde announced his death to Siegfried, and then hours would go by without any added spectators at all. At the end of Rheingold a group of children rushed on at the end and imitated the murder of Fasolt by his brother, which would have had more effect if the "murdered" child hadn't jumped right up.

Speaking of Rheingold. . . . this production was one of several I've seen that uses the same bizarre staging of the moment in which Freia is hidden by the Nibelung treasure to persuade the giants to accept the gold in place of her. I find this scene very moving in a way similar to Siegmund's refusal to enter Valhalla without Sieglinde, because Fasolt too cannot be persuaded to give up the woman he yearns for until the flash of her golden hair and the sparkle of her eye are completely hidden from his sight (by adding the tarnhelm and the Ring to the pile). It seems pretty obvious to me that Freia is supposed to stand there, the giants plant their spears on either side of her, and the gods pile up the gold to block her from their view. This production, like several others I've seen, inexplicably has Freia lie down on the ground during the scene. Here's a little science shout-out: gold is incredibly dense, which means it's too heavy to be piled on anyone; yes, she's a goddess, but these are gods who grow old and weaken and die. And if she's lying there obviously they can't cover the singer up completely, which makes nonsense of the scene: how can Fasolt complain that he can still see the gleam of her eye when he can clearly see her whole damn head, plus large portions of her torso, hands, and feet? I'm being very literal about this, but the giants are very literal fellows, which is both why they insist on the letter of their contract and agree to change only when the object of desire is blocked from their direct sight.

I did mention earlier that Fafner was the Worst. Dragon. Ever. When he appeared there was lots of smoke and little lighting, so I thought that what was supposed to be the mouth of his cave was actually his mouth (as if he was so large all we could see was his gaping jaws: a bit of a cop-out, but it can work). Then a longish silly neck with what looked like a seahorse head appeared, waved around a bit, and was promptly stabbed. That was it? He looked as if he could be taken by a couple of boy scouts out for a merit badge. There was another bizarre bit of staging, at the end of Gotterdammerung Act 1, when Siegfried, disguised as Gunther, is about to go in to the conquered Brunnhilde and he announces that Notung his sword shall separate the two of them. He sings this, then sits down outside and sends in Gunther, who has accompanied him. All this makes nonsense not only of his statement that Nothung shall lie between them but also of the entire second act: Gunther can't fear that Siegfried betrayed him with Brunnhilde if he knows perfectly well that he was there and not Siegfried. Gunther is not a coward and a cheat, but a king and a warrior: but he's still no match for the might of Siegfried and Brunnhilde. Rather than making Gunther worse, the point should be that Siegfried is just better. Forget the bunnies in Parsifal; it’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if the director is paying any attention at all to what's happening.

The ending of Gotterdammerung was lackadaisical. Lots of sophisticated types in evening clothes stood around Gibichung beneath banners showing the gods; they continued to stand around while allegedly Valhalla was burning and then the Rhine was flooding. I thought at least the banners of the gods would, if not burn – probably not a good move in a theater with a canvas ceiling – at least drop dramatically down. If the reign of the gods is over, why are the banners still standing? Maybe Dorst was making a point about the continuing hold of gods no one believes in any longer, but that's not what's going on at the end of this opera. And the staging could have used some action. When you listen to that music you feel certain that something vital is happening, but if you were watching this staging with, as it were, the sound turned off, you'd pretty much just see a bunch of people milling about, so that the end of the world looked considerably more sedate than the Munich railway station I arrived at the next day.

But I have to say, it is a thrill to hear the Ring in Bayreuth – Tankred, all is forgiven, almost.

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