Richard Wagner assumed that his Ring des Nibelungen would become merely a memory after his death, for he could not conceive of anyone else taming his tetralogy’s sprawl or tending to its complex mythology. But the composer’s wife, Cosima, was not easily discouraged. As her husband’s most ardent champion, she could not allow his grandest creation to deliquesce into legend, as the world of the gods does at the conclusion of Götterdämmerung. Thus in 1896, thirteen years after her husband’s death, and twenty years after the cycle’s premiere, Cosima Wagner began a tradition that would over time become one of music’s most enduring rituals: reviving the Ring at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the theater Wagner constructed expressly as a showcase for his oeuvre.
Of course, productions of the Ring have proliferated outside of Bayreuth practically from the cycle’s earliest days. London saw its first Ring in 1882, and the American premiere occurred at the Metropolitan Opera in 1889. In the United States, the cycle has enjoyed exceptional popularity, with committed productions cropping up in such unlikely places as Seattle and Arizona.
San Francisco and its well-regarded opera company have their own Ring tradition, going back to 1935. And though it took the San Francisco Opera until 1972 to remount the complete cycle, it has been staged three times since, in each case employing Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s largely traditional production. Over time, however, his conception has been modified. Lehnhoff was supposedly inspired by the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the production as interpreted by the Romanian-born director Andrei Serban, placed in charge of staging the latest revival of Lehnhoff’s Ring.1 Serban is a director with avant-garde aspirations, and handing him the reins of a fairly traditional production smacks of willful perversity. (Some years ago, Serban directed a post-apocalyptic version of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in Los Angeles that called to mind a game of chutes and ladders, so steeply raked was the stage and so spare were the sets.) Naturally, Serban wanted to place his own stamp on the Ring, but his options were limited. The Lehnhoff/Serban hybrid Ring was thus inevitably something of a muddle, a frequently tired-looking conventional staging punctuated by scenes, or occasionally just props, of decidedly modernist bent. But Serban’s alterations unexpectedly made a positive impression. Cool and clean, the new designs aptly conveyed Wagner’s dramatic vision. It is hard to imagine the enigmatic Erde’s downbeat prophecies in Rheingold and Siegfried having greater impact than they did here, in the shadow of a large, half-submerged oval mask of vaguely Japanese sensibility. And Serban’s vision of the Norns’s prologue in Götterdämmerung was a model of elegant clarity, with white-robed, white-faced Norns weaving the fraying rope of destiny as darkness enveloped the stage.
Unfortunately, these streamlined high points were uncharacteristic of this production.
Unfortunately, these streamlined high points were uncharacteristic of this production. More often, fussiness and even silliness carried the day. Part of the problem was that Lehnhoff’s original production had already been tampered with over the years. Tinkering can improve flawed stagings, of course. But the integrity of a production—good, bad, or indifferent—often falls victim to the intervention. Lehnhoff’s effort was a throwback not so much to the brutally spare designs of Wieland Wagner, the postwar touchstone, but rather to the stark naturalism envisioned by Emil Preetorious, whose allegorical designs in the 1930s helped define Winifred Wagner’s reign at Bayreuth. Such allegorical ploys, however, can hardly help seeming pretentious, especially in a mishmash realization such as this one. In act I of Götterdämmerung, for example, Gunther’s castle looked more like an office occupied by Mussolini than the domain of a Gibichung king. And why Serban retained a pair of Baroque portals, thirty feet high, is anyone’s guess. A legacy of Lehnhoff’s staging, they figured in every one of the four operas’s scenes and at no point served to illuminate the action.
Lehnhoff’s backdrops, ultimately more reminiscent of Albert Bierstadt’s oil paintings than anything by Friedrich, were equally out of place in Serban’s conception. Even more damaging were design choices that actively interfered with Wagner’s vision. When the giant Fafner, now a dragon (but looking more like the Tyrannosaurus rex in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park), was slain by Siegfried in act II of Siegfried, Serban had him metamorphose back into a giant. It’s an interesting idea, to be sure, but one in no way hinted at in either Wagner’s music or his libretto. Moreover, as Serban opted to employ two enormous puppets to represent Fafner and his brother Fasolt in Rheingold, a limp puppet had to be deployed as the dead Fafner, an effect hardly worth the trouble. (And speaking of things not worth bothering over, a San Francisco Opera fact sheet informs us that Fasolt, at fifteen feet tall, stood a foot shorter than Fafner. In both cases, the singers, Reinhard Hagen and Eric Halfvarson, respectively, occupied the top part of the puppets while stagehands cumbersomely wheeled the edifices about.)
Not all of the effects were disappointing. The third scene in Rheingold, during which the avaricious Alberich uses the potent Tarnhelm to transform himself first into a huge serpent and then into a toad, was wondrously evocative. Still, this production of the Ring left one feeling that a host of competing design schemes (the Valkyries in midnight-blue evening gowns cavorting as if directed by Busby Berkeley!) unnecessarily distracted from Wagner’s attempt at an art form at once overwhelming and cohesive, and that a more uniform and carefully considered series of choices would have better served the tetralogy.
The singing, too, was something of a mixed bag, though a handful of outstanding performances lent much luster to this Ring. The seemingly ubiquitous English soprano Jane Eaglen gave audiences a Brünnhilde of impressive sonic power. In Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, her voice sounded fresh, attractive, and full. Lesser mortals might have betrayed strain at some points, but not Eaglen. And yet her portrayals were for the most part interpretively shallow. In the immolation scene near the end of Götterdämmerung, her singing was heartfelt and beautiful, but elsewhere Eaglen seemed uninvolved. Her acting was consistently disappointing, her stand-and-deliver approach to the drama a decided drain on excitement. By way of contrast, Deborah Voigt, as Sieglinde in Die Walküre, proved an invigorating singer. Her vaunted bell-like sound enriched the music, of course, but just as importantly her ardent involvement in stage business enhanced the production. The tenor Mark Baker, as Siegmund, complemented her superbly. He projected well, sang richly, and enunciated crisply.
This production’s biggest disappointment came in the form of Wolfgang Schmidt’s small-voiced Siegfried. Good Siegfrieds are famously hard to find, but surely the San Francisco Opera could have done better. Throughout Götterdämmerung, Schmidt sounded dry and strained. Occasionally, he was even off pitch. In Siegfried, Schmidt was slightly better. He even came across as sensitive and almost sweet-voiced in the scene right before Siegfried engages Fafner. Yet the way he ran about after capturing the magical Tarnhelm from the dragon nearly negated the moment. As Mime, Siegfried’s protector-cum-nemesis, the Canadian tenor Gary Rideout offered one of this cycle’s most memorable portrayals. His crookback Nibelung summoned not only pity, but even sympathy at times. His characterful singing was matched only by that of the baritone Tom Fox, singing Mime’s even greedier brother, Alberich. Looking every bit like the ghost of Jacob Marley without the chains, Fox downright inhabited his central role, expressing himself with rich, clarion tones.
The chief rival to the Nibelung brothers, Wotan (disguised as the Wanderer in Siegfried) is in some ways the cycle’s keystone, for it is as much through his actions as anyone’s that matters in the Ring come to such a pretty pass. In the bass James Morris, this production had a gifted, nuanced Wotan. Morris has now sung this role (or roles, as Wotan appears in three of the Ring operas) in all three incarnations of Lehnhoff’s production, and his aptness for the part was everywhere apparent. Indeed, in addition to his deeply satisfying singing, he brought to Wotan a kind of consummate resignation, recalling to some degree the tortured Boris Godunov he offered San Francisco audiences back in 1992.
In the pit, the San Francisco Opera’s music director Donald Runnicles, a Wagner specialist, handled the protean demands of Wagner’s music with skill and more than a little insight. He proved especially effective at highlighting the vaunted leitmotivs within the scores. Occasionally, dryness crept into the string playing and the brasses flagged a bit, but these are quibbles. Michael Boder led the production’s third cycle, and he infused Die Walküre with tremendous energy, especially in the opening storm music, which was taut and propulsive in his hands.
Perhaps it is unrealistic to hope that we will ever see an ideal production of Richard Wagner’s Ring. Too many factors conspire against perfection. Wagner termed the Ring a Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total work of art,” whose ambitions were as much mythic or religious as aesthetic. A complicated saga links the constituent parts of the Ring, but the four operas can be viewed as distinct works, making it unlikely that one director will possess sufficient vision to realize a Ring that simultaneously serves several sometimes contradictory goals. And the vast forces required to mount all four operas in quick succession further work against a unified whole. It is no mean feat to find an excellent Brünnhilde and Siegfried at any time, but to match this couple with an equally fine Sieglinde, Siegmund, Alberich, Mime, and Wotan, to name but a few of the principals needed, requires a degree of good fortune rare in this world. The great pianist Artur Schnabel used to refer to music that is better than it can be played. Wagner’s Ring is opera better than can be staged. In that light, San Francisco’s latest traversals of the cycle were a brave undertaking, necessarily flawed.
- Four complete cycles of the Ring were staged at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House between June 9 through July 3. I attended the second cycle’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, the third cycle’s Die Walküre, and the fourth cycle’s Das Rheingold. Donald Runnicles conducted cycles one, two, and four; Michael Boder led cycle three. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 1, on page 53
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