This review is part of a four week collection of the Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle.
GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG / DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN, BAYREUTH 1976 / PATRICE CHÉREAU
By the time Patrice Chéreau’s production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung rolls around, it has become abundantly clear that the French director of the “Centenary Ring” at the 1976 Bayreuth Festival has turned the prevailing standard of opera productions on its head. With his setting the story during the Industrial Revolution and his encouraging the singers to take advantage of their newfound freedom of expression, he is a prime example of an emerging concept of the time: Regietheater. Some claim the concept was founded at the Bayreuth Festival of the 1950s, when then-director Wieland Wagner imagined his grandfather’s operas set in abstract landscapes, but others argue it was in fact Patrice Chéreau’s Ring who cemented the importance of Regietheater. Until today, Regietheater detaches operas from their original context and grants the director wide-ranging freedom to change core elements of time, setting, plot, and more, often drawing parallels to another time or making a political point. Regietheater was obviously not without controversies then and now, but Chéreau’s grasp of his own ideas remains masterful, as does the work of the singers, orchestra and conductor Pierre Boulez.
The Gibichungs are a part of the capitalist world that Wotan advocates for as well, profiteers of this system that try to expand their influence by any means necessary. Unfortunately for them, Siegfried wears the clothes of a mythical hero that don’t belong between dinner suits and black marble pillars. He doesn’t fit from the beginning; his world and that of the Gibichungs compete rather than coexist and both burn at the end. Deciding moments of the story are excellently choreographed, such as the wedding scene, in which the chorus encircles Siegfried until he swears his oath.
Manfred Jung as Siegfried has acquired an audible vocal maturity along with his character’s adulthood. He sounds fuller and steelier compared to his beginnings and changes his voice into a pressed, lower tone when kidnapping Brünnhilde. When cornered by the Gibichung men at his wedding and exposed to mounting pressure to rid himself of the accusation of deeds he can’t remember, he finally swears his false oath with skyrocketing panic channelled into his voice and adds an element of insecurity to the fatally confident hero. His beloved Brünnhilde (Gwyneth Jones) is fatally lovelorn until betrayed, after which she never once breaks the intensity of her gaze. Her rage oscillates between calm and barely controlled after being defensive and almost cold to her sister Waltraute. With the betrayal, she turns vocally indestructible until she jumps into the flames and her “Ruhe, du Gott” during the immolation has all the weary heaviness that comes with the inevitability of the end of the world. The aforementioned Waltraute (Gwendolyn Killebrew) may wear the same dress as her sister, but she noticeably comes from a different world. There is a divide between the sisters – their relationship seems to come together only when they reminisce in memories of Wotan, but even then, they do so separately. It essentially renders her delicately sung warning futile from the beginning and thus takes away some suspense from it, but adds tragedy in hindsight. On the antagonist side, Fritz Hübner as Hagen took his line “frühalt, fahl und bleich” very seriously and looks exactly as prematurely aged, pale, and grey as the libretto demands. He’s tired of everything, including despising Siegfried even before they meet, though unfortunately, this expands to his voice. While capable of confronting his father, the strength of his lower register pales during his “Hoiho!”. Ultimately, he’s effective, but doesn’t bring the full amount of possible loneliness and tragedy to the role by far. The same could be said about Hermann Becht’s last outing as Alberich – he could pressure his son much more strongly, also acting-wise. Alberich’s single appearance can be a short, intense glimpse at the hellish pressure he exerts on his son, but the scene falls flat, mainly because it’s sung too loudly and lacks that hallucinatory quality from the realm between sleep and waking that perfectly suits Alberich’s nightmarish visit to his son. Among the Gibichungs, Franz Mazura’s Gunther is an increasingly insecure, stiff-looking man who doesn’t understand what he’s gotten into until realisation dawns intensely and far too late. He looks delightfully uncomfortable with a red drink spilled on his hands, and vocally he holds his own against Hagen and Siegfried.
Pierre Boulez’ ebbing and flowing style suits Götterdämmerung very well. He still adds staccato very selectively, and the Valkyrie motif when Waltraute approaches sounds unusually metallic, perhaps indicative of the emotional distance between the sisters. While the Hagen-Alberich dialogue in Act II is rushed and excessively loud, the murder trio, pardon, the Act II finale shines, allowing the distinct voices to ring out clearly instead of sounding soupy. Most importantly, Boulez’ distinct sound is stylistically continuous throughout the entire cycle but never static, making its mark with great consideration.
Compared to the length of the discussions it provoked, the Centenary Ring was performed for only five short years. In 1980, Chéreau’s initial work was done, but the echo of his ideas is still heard today. The most suitable farewell to Chéreau’s Ring is no critic’s review, but the Bayreuth audience’s reaction at the last performance of his Götterdämmerung: forty-five minutes of standing ovations.
GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG / DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN, BAYREUTH 1988 / HARRY KUPFER
While Harry Kupfer’s Ring is starkly different from his predecessor Chéreau’s, Kupfer interestingly belongs to the same of school of directors that made great use of Regietheater. The concept, after all, is very broad. Now that the dust from the explosion of revolution has settled just a bit more, the singers are visibly comfortable with the concept throughout the production, and in the final Ring opera, both Kupfer and the cast aren’t ready to let the world burn without giving it their all one last time.
Siegfried Jerusalem’s Siegfried remains a youthful, laughing hero, even though he’s matured slightly. Even when not singing, he radiates a well-meaning cheeriness wherever he goes. He ends up perfectly confused in the world’s most dramatic wedding party, and his convincing anger at Brünnhilde’s accusations make his death genuinely heartbreaking, especially because his earlier words of love to her in the libretto translate into lovely, gentle lyricism in his singing. Meanwhile, Brünnhilde (Anne Evans) grows with her character’s experiences and vocally slices through the orchestra without any sign of tiredness until the fiery end. Again, complaining about a musically excellent Brünnhilde is madness, but after her lover’s betrayal, she’s missing a certain, indefinable something – perhaps a last spark of resolve to actually burn down the world or that elusive blend of steeliness and a shattered heart. Gunter (Bodo Brinkmann) carries a very well-done self-important air around with him onstage, but vocally pales in comparison to Siegfried and Hagen. The latter, sung by Philip Kang, wears sunglasses the entire time. As the only other character who wears glasses with eye-obscuring lenses is Wotan, may one assume the implication is that Hagen is a trickster as well? If so, he’s a charismatic one, smooth-voiced and completely snarl-free in his low notes. His voice sounds almost noble and despite its weight also displays a distinctive airy tone. In any case, his confession of Siegfried’s murder is towering, as is the “Hoiho!”, and he visibly enjoys stabbing people with spears. His father Alberich (Günter von Kannen) seems to pull the life force first from his derailing plans, and then from his son, who has exactly zero enthusiasm for this. Although the strength in his voice doesn’t betray it, he’s hanging by a thread. Meanwhile, Waltraute (Waltraud Meier), shines as a young, desperate bearer of ominous signs, phrasing her monologue into a haunting highlight. Her warning is very personal and heavy-hearted, thrilling and full of focused intensity. While visibly younger than her sister Brünnhilde, they’re already vocally similar, and thus it’s not surprising that Waltraud Meier later became a defining Wagner singer.
The end is audibly nigh – this is not only palpable in the singing. The sometimes-frenetic energy conductor Daniel Barenboim brought to Siegfried is gone, replaced by a gloomy, floating mood like a low, flickering light. The funeral march, excellently choreographed with Siegfried’s dying breaths onstage, is worth a review of its own. It begins quietly and develops a smooth, balanced sound between the different instruments: very rounded, not too brass-heavy and powerful without invoking choppiness and, God forbid, triumph or glory. Rather, it’s truly the beginning of the end, a heavy-hearted, rapturous expression of gripping pain.
The world is evolving and growing beyond the natural laws that once dominated, and therefore the set pieces have progressed to more complicated setups. The hall of the Gibichungs suggests dark, yawning heights, but there are walls where there used to be open space in the first three Ring operas. The Rhine has become industrialised, and the sickly-looking Rhinemaidens clamber around a metallic pipe contraption – a worthwhile image that indicates man-made laws are ensnaring the natural world to a dangerous extent. A final note on physical acting: singers absolutely cannot have a fear of heights. They sing from dizzying positions in mid-air. Beyond this, Kupfer supplements delightful ideas beyond the libretto’s suggestions, especially Wotan’s final, silent appearance onstage after Siegfried’s death. At the end of the final scene, extras dressed as the Bayreuth festival audience fill the stage, gazing in wonder upon the destruction of the world, unaware that they stand in the set. The same image briefly appeared before the first notes of Das Rheingold, mending the end and the beginning. Disconcertingly, Alberich has survived the fire that ended the gods. He stumbles about among the extras, confirming that indeed the story is circular.
Therein lies at last the temptation of a Ring cycle – they never truly end. The story is prone to repetition, constantly moving back and forth between genesis and destruction of the world and between tradition and modernity on stage. As suggested before, Harry Kupfer took perhaps a courageous step back. His near-extreme focus on acting, the intense portrayal of the characters’ light and dark sides, and his searching for details Wagner never mentioned – all of it wouldn’t have been possible without Patrice Chéreau’s initial freeing of the story from its strict adherence to the libretto. At the time of its premiere, critics lambasted Kupfer’s ideas as bizarre, exaggerated “high-tech kitsch”1 – a judgement that is now wiped away in the face of this Ring’s continued relevance and still-mesmerising portrayals. Maybe Rings, just as a suggestion to other critics, should be reviewed ten years after their premiere.
Lynn Sophie Guldin, October 2020
For more by Lynn, visit her blog at https://beckmessering.tumblr.com/
Lynn has also written:
1 - Bernheimer, Martin. “MUSIC: Kupfer's Controversial New 'Ring' in Bayreuth: High-Tech Kitsch.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 14 Aug. 1988, www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-08-14-ca-750-story.html.