Opera Critic » Berliner Staatsoper

This collaboration of well established giants, Daniel Barenboim and Harry Kupfer, which premiered here four days ago, imposed the sort of challenge one might expect from younger Turks. The music seemed new; the staging was rude; the supertitles were forgone. New, for starters, was the Overture – the rarely played third version done in tempi and phrasing still rarer; rude felt the systematic breakdown of any distance between actors and parts acted, and any distinction between fact and fiction, past and present, creation and reproduction, reality and illusion. The lack of supertitles was justified by the absolute clarity and enunciation of a cast to be dreamed of, and ultimately the whole thing came home and made sense at the close.

Barenboim has shaken things up before – as at last year’s Meistersinger, reviewed here also – as if to re-awaken the audience to musical ideas in the score that might have been smothered by the familiarity of more standard renditions. The long Leonore Overture no.3 was played slowly, with an almost brutal span between piano and forte. Black scrim hid the stage until some time near the middle, when a spotlight revealed on the stage a big Beckstein with a bust of Beethoven and a couple of white booklets on it: it shone long enough to show these to us but faded away before we understood. Not Beethoven’s piano of course, but Beethoven’s spirit was there in the bust, and we got an inkling that it designated Beethoven the performed, not Beethoven the composer. At the end of the overture the lights come on and we see a set of personages in normal dress facing, with us, in the rear, where the we see a backdrop brightly lit and brilliant, a vision of the Musikverein Wien seen from the seats, perhaps the most recognizable way to invoke and “place us” into a performance in Vienna, the city in which both the opera’s two premiers took place. As soon as we recognize it and before we have any idea why we are looking at it with these people, let alone who they are, the entire picture suddenly falls to the ground revealing a dark gray stone wall behind: it was a tapestry of sorts – the people nearby it at the rear carry it off the stage and now two of them are left on stage to begin singing from the white booklets on the piano. It is a duet; they must be Jaquino and Marzelline; the stone wall must be the wall of the prison: the opera has begun.

If we did not know the piece, and even the action, we would likely not understand what is happening in front of us, for what we are seeing is a comment on the performance and a performance at the same time. The costumes tell us little; the action takes place around a piano which soon enough is pushed off the stage so as to make place for the prisoners to come into the courtyard for light and air. I doubt Matti Salminen has pushed a piano offstage many times in his life, but he will have done it several times this fall in Berlin. When the prisoners finish their milling about and must return to the prison they doff their prison cloaks and walk of the stage in their street clothes: the First Act ends with their clothes lying where they stood. The continual refusal to hide the player behind the part played brings down upon the audience a command to remain aware of themselves as audience: belief is never allowed willingly to suspend itself, and instead we are being asked not only to hear but also to listen to the music, to reflect on its historicity as a piece conceived just after the French Revolution whose premiere was spoiled in part by Napoleon’s arrival in Vienna soon after, a work the man behind the bust of Beethoven worked on and struggled with for more than ten years of his life.

Soon enough we realize that we expect the director not only to protect a distinction between fact and fiction, but more, that he will preserve a hierarchy for us, our superior position as disinterested observer that liberates us for a while from our self-awareness. Entertainment, we arrived believing and anticipating, will entertain us – that is, will take over our consciousness and distract us from ourselves. But because the double identity of the persons and objects on the stage is maintained, of the actor as opposed to the role played and of the physical stage and the prison setting it barely depicts, we too continue to feel a double identity, as an audience seated en face and being told a story, and as minds conscious of receiving this story and evaluating it all along the way, and not just at the end.

The peculiar challenge of the two identities and the tension it imposes upon the audience’s consciousness is finally rewarded at the denouement of the action, when Fidelio reveals herself to be Leonore in the course of blocking Pizarro’s attack upon Florestan with a knife. She intervenes, first as Fidelio (Durchboren musst du erst diese Brust) but then, definitively, as Florestan’s wife (Töt’ erst sein Weib). Pizarro at first recoils in shock and in a duet with Rocco expresses his astonishment, not so much at learning the secret identity of Fidelio as at beholding this courageous and loyal act of a wife, this “Triumph of Married Love” – the subtitle of the opera. The subsequent action does not pit Leonore against Pizarro but suddenly by a deus ex machina puts a pistol in her hands that preempts any further attack by him – but only long enough for the arrival of Don Fernando to be announced which already seals the Pizarro’s fate. But it is Florestan to whom Leonore now says Ja sieh hier Leonore! not to them for all their astonishment. From this moment on, in our current production, Leonore and Florestan become each other’s and no longer ours nor even the plot’s. They spend the rest of the opera together – sitting together, holding hands, relieved of their years of separation and anguish, having even forgotten the anguish of their separation and the heavy task of their reuniting through the action of the opera. The other characters are singing to us, now holding again their librettos, but these two are singing to each other. With their removal from the plot they seem to be Camilla Nylund and Andreas Schager, and believe it or not, they are!

The entire chorus comes on stage for the finale, in their own clothes as it appears, singing the chorus of Freedom (Freiheit!). For decorum’s sake Pizarro has left the stage so as not to spoil the happy and ultimately naïve unanimity of this vision of liberation and release, but the historical sense that the opera had kept open for us, the fresh and modern sense of freedom as a natural state of man that Beethoven himself had in mind in the course of composing the work, is now presented directly to us, regardless and independent of the plot, by a huge chorus in street clothes. It is a freedom we no longer believe in but can remember from history. At the last moment Pizarro is allowed to return to the stage, and the backdrop from the Musikverein reappears in all its splendor and we ourselves are transported into the past, becoming them and facing with them the stage of the great golden hall.

Only such heady concepts as Freedom and the Brotherhood of Man, later to be scored in the An die Freude, can play the elixir to make all these boundaries disappear. In the end this complex and inconvenient production, with its flawless and star-studded cast, has transcended itself to present its primary idea and theme without mediation, in all its simplicity. Two giants have reaffirmed their hegemony.

— Ken Quandt

The premiere of this production was spread out over two days – the first two acts performed on Saturday, October 3, and the third on Sunday October 4 (I saw it October 7 in full). The story itself, after all, takes place on two days, with Johannisnacht followed by Johannistag. The premiere left fifty or so tickets unsold but the attendance on Sunday was not noticeably diminished, this despite the fact that things were busy this last week in Berlin, with the premieres of a Hoffman and a Vasco de Gamba and return of a stunning Freischütz that had seen only one performance in January 2015. Once again the Meistersinger is one of the greatest draws, especially in Berlin.

 

Overall, the production was busy but not euro-trash. The Schwarz-rot-gold of the German democratic movement was a continual presence throughout since an oversized cloth with these colors was attached to the right edge of the stage, serving momentarily in Act I as the curtain to separate off the nave for the Masters’ Meeting and then as a sort of tent in which Eva and Walther could hide themselves in Act II, and then a large cloth in Sachs’s library held by its four corners by the four lovers during the quintet in Act III. It was there all the time but never terribly “in your face.” In the final scene the Masters came on with black red and gold sashes. I would date the time of the setting at 2010 or so, from the crowd of punks introduced to sing “Johannistag” at the beginning of Act II and the strange idea of a whiteboard panel displaying corporate brand-name logo’s such as one sees as a backdrop for celebrities appearing on television – the names being the last names of the Mastersingers. While it is true that these Masters might have been rich men during the time of the guilds during and after the Reformation, and the beginning of the bourgeois class, it is hard to think of the baker or the coppersmith being the majority shareholder or even the chairman or president of a corporation. Perhaps it was an attempt to imply that the guild system of Germany foreshadowed the role played by the great corporations of today such as Siemens and Volkswagen, but corporations are infamously in the business of making money, not bread and pots and shoes and clothing. It was particularly difficult to imagine Sachs as a corporate head exactly because he continually complains of being consigned to making shoes throughout the opera and is put down for it repeatedly by the town scrivener, Beckmesser, who hopes to be his rival in art.

 

Moreover, the Inszenierung portrayed Sachs alone of the Masters poorly dressed, the others decked out in bright and stylish suits and ties. To make Sachs ugly in this way has become commonplace. One thinks of the discombobulated and randy Sachs in the new Herrheim production from Salzburg, about to appear in Paris and at the Met, and the querulous Sachs of Gotz Friedrich – these over against the simple but gentlemanly and always properly dressed Sachs of the Schenk production we will long associate with James Morris, or the decent Sachs of the new McVicar production that is making its way from Glyndebourne to Chicago and to San Francisco this Fall. Socrates also was ugly, but he was unemployed and barefoot, too. The version under review pushes this unattractive temperamental aspect of the character past the point of no return and into range of the widower slob. He cannot even fix his tie for the festival though he stands there in the middle of the scene, the focus of all Nuremberg.

 

Eva, meanwhile, comes on the scene as a slut, wearing a slinky black sequined shift with a bare back even at church, groping with Walther, in his leather jacket and cowboy boots, within the pews, rather than shyly looking off to him as he lurks along the side, according to the libretto – even though she has only met him one day before! Her overt sexuality might be meant to make a liberated woman of her in contrast with the usual characterization of Eva, but it must be said that her namesake was a liberated woman if ever there was, and a new line of interpretation in introduced from the get-go. The business with the forgotten scarf and pin is entirely manufactured in cahoots with Magdalena. Eva herself goes back to the pew to place them there so as to order Lena to retrieve them while she returns to Walther. We shall see at the beginning of Act II that her idea of marrying Sachs is not only a demure suggestion she comes up with out of desperation to avoid Beckmesser now that Walther has “sung himself out” in the Test Song. Instead we are to imagine they have had a “relationship” for some time. The usual interpretation of a ladder of love, from father (bass) to uncle (baritone) to strapping lad (tenor) is replaced by a love triangle, which one reviewer with telling accuracy has characterized as a contest between Sachs as alterszorn and Walther as jungsporn. The historical Sachs did marry with a much younger woman (Barbara) long after his children and first wife were gone, so that there is some historical basis for this representation, but the Sachs of Wagner gracefully dispels Eva’s suggestion in avuncular tones (Da hätt’ ich ein Kind und auch ein Weib; ‘s wär’ gar ein lieber Zeitvertreib!” – “Fine then: In you I’ll have both child and wife – a fine pastime that would be!”). The staging in the present case blunts the sense of this remark. He wordlessly offers her a smoke instead, which casually lays the suggestion that they have “smoked after” before, and delivers this remark to her only after she has assumed what appears to be the usual position on his lap. The scene in Sachs’s workshop in Act Three will therefore be the event that tears it for Eva. Walther’s entrance will find them succumbing to a passionate kiss and he spends the rest of the time, up to the quintet, scowling at her. But more on the eroticism, later.

 

We had been introduced to this lustier Eve in the very opening scene at the church, a scene pulled off in a wonderful way worth describing. Like the production of Poppea by Emmanuelle Haïm a few years ago in Lille, the characters are already gathering on the stage and quietly chatting with each other as the audience takes their seats in the theater. It will be the church with its very plain pews, we soon realize, and the parishioners are gathering for the service from the runways flanking the sides of the proscenium here at the Schiller Theater. Lo and behold! With a double-take we recognize one or two of these, in particular Siegfried Jerusalem, whom we later learn is portraying the Meistersinger   Balthasar Zorn. Other good-old faces show up as well, Graham Clark who will be Vogelgesang, Reiner Goldberg as Eisslinger, Franz Mazura as Schwarz, and Olaf Bär as Foltz. To see Jerusalem was a thrill, one of the greatest Walthers of recent decades, and to watch him in the First and Third Acts watching himself being replaced by Klaus Florian Vogt, who is every bit the hunk that he himself was in his day, raised the very relevant question of the tradition surviving the men who carry it on. Wagner himself had been scrupulous to include only historical figures among his Masters, and so has Moses placed her own production into the context of historical reality. But more on her historical sense later.

 

These and the rest of the chorus sit on rows of benches facing the audience and the orchestra and enjoy the overture. At its end a cross suddenly descends at the back wall of the stage and they stand from their pews and turn around and sing their chorale to Johannes der Taufer to begin the opera. Only later do our friends reappear as Mastersingers one by one, and in fact the man who led the congregation in their chorale turns out to be Sixtus Beckmesser, quite according to his character. In the Meeting Scene they are each given very full and distinct characterization, even at the risk of becoming a little undignified by their idiosyncrasies. The apprentices are equally divided between young women with pageboys and young men with bowl-cuts all dressed in black suits with white shirts, rather than the usual and historically more accurate unisex dress as boys. Indeed the girls are allowed to show a marked weakness for the new hunk in town.

 

As the Masters enter, one of the apprentices brings out a large white panel with the last names of the Masters represented as corporate logos. Exactly nothing is made of this – whether we are to view the corporation as the modern guild or the guild as the foreshadowing of the corporation – but it this and other economic “references” in the interpretation might be explained by the fact that Moses herself, not quite middle aged, was born in Dresden. It is no accident that the première took place on October 3rd , the twenty fifth anniversary of the Reunification. There is much in the Inszenierung that is meant to mirror present day Germany for an audience of present day Germans, and as we have known for two hundred years now, the mirror flatters and depicts only the surface where a lamp would have been more illuminating and could have added depth. This business of maximizing the Aktuelle reaches its climax in the riot at the end of Act Two where during the extended double fugue, persons of all the kinds you would meet in the morning paper come onto the stage, from uniformed members of rival soccer teams to an Orthodox Jew walking unmolested through the crowd that parts for him as the waters. The Nightwatchman himself is a casualty of the riot, delivering his final line before passing out and falling to the ground. While the double fugue can very well support this onrush of a chaotic smorgasbord of types, the twenty seconds of music with which the Act quietly ends, with its tender recognition of the frailty of all human rivalry and pride, has no place at all. But more on the music’s relation to the Inszenierung, later.

 

The first act succeeded admirably to depict the spectrum of reactions that men who love art might show when they encounter innovation. One of the Masters, who wears dark glasses all the time as if he were a jazzman or a beatnik, moves up next to Walther, grooving on the second stanza of his Trial Song, and passes out dark glasses to other Masters that have also been attracted to his side. Another keeps looking Walther up and down, from his cowboy boots to his leather jacket, his incredulity vying with indignation: he just cannot believe his eyes. Walther diffidently looks down at his boot-tops and tries to polish them against his pant legs. The Masters are young and old, dandy and stodgy, silly and serious, vain and humble – and as we look at them we reflect on the way that all kinds of people are brought together by music.

 

With the crowd scene of the Act II we begin to have more of such business than the music can support. In place of the Masters’ apprentices preparing for the festivities of in the streets of Nuremberg we have a scene of spike-haired night people and punks loitering on the roof of a downtown building illuminated by oversized illuminated signs – the corporate logo’s we saw in Act One. What Sachs is doing up there with his cobbler bench is unaccountable; how the upper balcony of Pogner’s home can be replaced by a catwalk behind an illuminated sign is not answered by the fact that it is the POGNER sign. Eva’s scene with her father Pogner is evacuated of all its tender emotion – she simply rolls her eyes at his remorse – and her approach to Sachs as reviewed above is an emotional dead-end. Beckmesser’s plan to serenade Eva is wonderfully embellished and satirized by his changing into a crimson minstrel outfit from the old days, but the inexplicable scenario on the roof never quite melts away and in fact distracts our attention from the music. By the end of the scene we are simply being ravaged by extraneous references to current politics, culture, and society. The sense that Meistersinger is the opera of the German people is here being turned on its head. They are acting this way because this is what is happening in Germany, rather than Germans because of the way they are acting. An entirely ephemeral content will need to be switched out and updated every time this production is performed, something that an American could not be flattered into enjoying.

 

Has the curtain has ever before been left down during the overture to the Act Three so that we do not see Sachs reading his huge Weltkronik to the strains of what will be the Wahn monologue with its piercing interruption by the cellos? Last night it was, and when it rose Sachs was reading at one of three standing desks with lots of books strewn open on the floor as if he were busily comparing opinions rather than meditating deeply on some recitation of all historical events needing to be interpreted by a wise man in reflection. On the back wall is a built-in bookcase fifteen feet tall full of books and served by a ladder. Immediately behind him is a copy of that painting of the twenty two great Meistersingers. It is not his workshop but a sleek and bourgeois home library – or corporate office – which the widower never gets around to cleaning up. The ditty with Eva’s shoe becomes a play of foot-fetishism, whereas in the libretto it is a continuation of the theme that her shoe needs adjustment before she can proceed into marriage, begun in Act Two (where he wonders if she has come to have her shoe adjusted and she says she has not even tried it on yet), which is now elaborated (it is too wide and too narrow at the same time, for in her own development she is not quite ready to take the next step, from daughter and niece to wife). In the Schenk production which I think is definitive for this scene she is facing right and Sachs is kneeling, facing left and working on her shoe when to a burst from the strings Walther appears on the stairs on the far right and she sees this vision of her love over Sachs’s head, with Sachs at first not realizing it and then not letting on that he has (so also Wagner’s stage instructions). In the present production Sachs and Eva have suddenly embraced in a shocking and passionate kiss when Walther walks in on them. Yes, she is torn – but only by degrees of one and the same kind of passion. She is confused, but only because she is a confused person – a much diminished interpretation of her character and of the situation. In truth the Eva of Wagner is moving from Father-love to Husband-love, as Brunnhilde must do in the last scene of Siegfried, from love for her “wakener” to love for her life’s partner and helpmate for better or worse. Walther, with the access of inspiration afforded by seeing her there across the room, now finds the third stanza of his Prize Song, in which he discovers the identity of Eva and the Muse of poetry, and of Parnassus and Paradise, and she knows she will have him as husband, so that she says to Sachs, “Was ohne deine Liebe, was wär’ ich ohne dich, ob je auch Kind ich bliebe, erwecktest du nicht mich?” (“Without thy love, without thee, what would I then be? A child I would have remained had you not wakened me!”). As Eva must acquiesce to move beyond the protection of her father and uncle, driven by love into the unknown chartings of the new, so must art be willing to move on beyond its own rules and find new rules that explain what its love of beauty encounters on its forward path! But in this production we are given a Walther scowling at her and confused and jealous over her passionate kissing with Sachs, but then nevertheless finding that final stanza!

 

With such an entire betrayal of the depths of the story and its deep and true and universal emotions, we are left only the music. When we were able to hear it without distraction, as apart from the business of Act Two, it was a performance nearly flawless. I would prefer a voice rounder and set lower than Koch’s sometimes too strident manner, but he was strong and in tune through to the end. Vogt’s Walther is solid and yet vulnerable, Kleiter’s Eva clear and bright, and Werba’s Beckmesser – available to be seen and heard on the Herheim DVD – achieved the clarity of enunciation along with an undertone of sweetness that betrays as it redeems the surface of the character: he does not want to be the way he is. Barenboim’s rendition kept presenting surprises – flow when others have marched, sudden changes in dynamics or tempo that deliberately but perhaps gratuitously arrested the attention without directing it toward some particular interpretation. Again the new provided an occasion to shed light on the old.

 

Of course we know by now that the famous defense of German Art expressed in Sachs’s final monologue will be given a telling interpretation by this “politically conscious” version of the piece. We are to imagine ourselves not on a grassy knoll beside the Pegnitz but looking across the Pegnitz to the facade of nothing other as a backdrop than the Berlin Palace, the restoration of which has only provoked controversy over the last two years as reactionary. Once the singers’ platform is erected by the Masters’ apprentices, the Sachs-slob unaccountably moves into the center of it as if he knew the Nurembergers were going to surprise him with a song in his praise. The net effect of all that has come before now becomes painfully visible. This Sachs deserves no such praise, and there is no dramatic motivation for him to show such surprise. Likewise, at the very end, Eva will not move the wreath of the Master from Walther to Sachs’s head, since Eva in this production does not view Sachs as her Erwacher, the perennial Master of Song and Wisdom and Sanity and Growing Up. When Walther does give in to his persuasion to accept the medal at the end, the two of them turn to the Berlin Palace in the background and see even this lift away, revealing the pristine vision of a field of green and a blue heaven above, a dream of the truest Germany innocent at last of any political incarnation. Surely Sachs’s remark about holy German Art surviving even the erasure of the Holy Roman Empire asserts that art will triumph over politics, but the proof of this assertion has not been brought across by this Inszenierung, with its surfeit of political and sectarian references, and this failure cannot be redeemed by a mere shift of scenery.

 

– Ken Quandt

 

The premiere of this new production was spread out over two days. The story itself, after all, takes place on two days, with Johannisnacht followed by Johannistag. The premiere left fifty or so tickets unsold but the attendance at the second, full-length performance was not noticeably diminished, this despite the fact that things were busy this last week in Berlin. Once again the Meistersinger is one of the greatest draws.

 

Overall, the production was busy but not euro-trash. The Schwarz-rot-gold of Germany’s republican tradition was a continual presence throughout since an oversized cloth with these colors was attached to the right edge of the stage, serving momentarily in Act I as the curtain to separate off the nave for the Masters’ Meeting and then as a sort of tent in which Eva and Walther could hide themselves in Act II, and then a large cloth in Sachs’s library held by its four corners by the four lovers during the quintet in Act III. It was there all the time but never terribly “in your face.” In the final scene the Masters came on with black red and gold sashes. I would date the time of the setting at 2010 or so, from the crowd of stage punks introduced to sing “Johannistag” at the beginning of Act II and the strange idea of a whiteboard panel displaying corporate brand-name logo’s such as one sees as a backdrop for celebrities appearing on television – the names being the last names of the Mastersingers. While it is true that these Masters might have been rich men during the time of the guilds during and after the Reformation, and the beginning of the bourgeois class, it is hard to think of the baker or the coppersmith being the majority shareholder or even the chairman or president of a corporation. Perhaps it was an attempt to imply that the guild system of Germany foreshadowed the role played by the great corporations of today such as Siemens and Volkswagen, but corporations are infamously in the business of making money, not bread and pots and shoes and clothing. It was particularly difficult to imagine Sachs as a corporate head exactly because he continually complains of being consigned to making shoes throughout the opera and is put down for it repeatedly by the town scrivener, Beckmesser, who hopes to be his rival in art.

 

Moreover, the Inszenierung portrayed Sachs alone of the Masters poorly dressed, the others decked out in bright and stylish suits and ties. To make Sachs ugly in this way has become commonplace. One thinks of the discombobulated and randy Sachs in the new production in Salzburg, scheduled to appear in Paris and at the Met, and the querulous Sachs of Götz Friedrich – these over against the simple but gentlemanly and always properly dressed Sachs of the Schenk production we will long associate with James Morris, or the decent Sachs of the David McVicar production that is making its way from Glyndebourne to Chicago and to San Francisco this Fall. Socrates also was ugly, but he was unemployed and barefoot, too. The version under review pushes this unattractive temperamental aspect of the character past the point of no return and into range of the widower slob. He cannot even fix his tie for the festival though he stands there in the middle of the scene, the focus of all Nuremberg.

 

Eva, meanwhile, comes on the scene as a slut, wearing a slinky black sequined shift with a bare back even at church, groping with Walther, in his leather jacket and cowboy boots, within the pews, rather than shyly looking off to him as he lurks along the side, according to the libretto – even though she has only met him one day before! Her overt sexuality might be meant to make a liberated woman of her in contrast with the usual characterization of Eva, but it must be said that her namesake was a liberated woman if ever there was, and a new line of interpretation in introduced from the get-go. The business with the forgotten scarf and pin is entirely manufactured in cahoots with Magdalena. Eva herself goes back to the pew to place them there so as to order Lena to retrieve them while she returns to Walther. We shall see at the beginning of Act II that her idea of marrying Sachs is not only a demure suggestion she comes up with out of desperation to avoid Beckmesser now that Walther has “sung himself out” in the Test Song. Instead we are to imagine they have had a “relationship” for some time. The usual interpretation of a ladder of love, from father (bass) to uncle (baritone) to strapping lad (tenor) is replaced by a love triangle, which one reviewer with telling accuracy has characterized as a contest between Sachs as alterszorn and Walther as jungsporn. The historical Sachs did marry with a much younger woman (Barbara) long after his children and first wife were gone, so that there is some historical basis for this representation, but the Sachs of Wagner gracefully dispels Eva’s suggestion in avuncular tones (Da hätt’ ich ein Kind und auch ein Weib; ‘s wär’ gar ein lieber Zeitvertreib!” – “Fine then: In you I’ll have both child and wife – a fine pastime that would be!”). The staging in the present case blunts the sense of this remark. He wordlessly offers her a smoke instead, which casually lays the suggestion that they have “smoked after” before, and delivers this remark to her only after she has assumed what appears to be the usual position on his lap. The scene in Sachs’s workshop in Act Three will therefore be the event that tears it for Eva. Walther’s entrance will find them succumbing to a passionate kiss and he spends the rest of the time, up to the quintet, scowling at her. But more on the eroticism, later.

 

We had been introduced to this lustier Eve in the very opening scene at the church, a scene pulled off in a wonderful way worth describing. Like the production of Poppea by Emmanuelle Haïm a few years ago in Lille, the characters are already gathering on the stage and quietly chatting with each other as the audience takes their seats in the theater. It will be the church with its very plain pews, we soon realize, and the parishioners are gathering for the service from the runways flanking the sides of the proscenium here at the Schiller Theater. Lo and behold! With a double-take we recognize one or two of these, in particular Siegfried Jerusalem, whom we later learn is portraying the Meistersinger   Balthasar Zorn. Other good-old faces show up as well, Graham Clark who will be Vogelgesang, Reiner Goldberg as Eisslinger, Franz Mazura (90 years old!) as Schwarz, and Olaf Bär as Foltz. To see Jerusalem was a thrill, one of the greatest Walthers of recent decades, and to watch him in the First and Third Acts watching himself being replaced by Klaus Florian Vogt, who is every bit the hunk that he himself was in his day, raised the very relevant question of the tradition surviving the men who carry it on. Wagner himself had been scrupulous to include only historical figures among his Masters, and so has Moses placed her own production into the context of historical reality. But more on her historical sense later.

 

These and the rest of the chorus sit on rows of benches facing the audience and the orchestra and enjoy the overture. At its end a cross suddenly descends at the back wall of the stage and they stand from their pews and turn around and sing their chorale to Johannes der Taufer to begin the opera. Only later do our friends reappear as Mastersingers one by one, and in fact the man who led the congregation in their chorale turns out to be Sixtus Beckmesser, quite according to his character. In the Meeting Scene they are each given very full and distinct characterization, even at the risk of becoming a little undignified by their idiosyncrasies. The apprentices are equally divided between young women with pageboys and young men with bowl-cuts all dressed in black suits with white shirts, rather than the usual and historically more accurate unisex dress as boys. Indeed the girls are allowed to show a marked weakness for the new hunk in town.

 

As the Masters enter, one of the apprentices brings out a large white panel with the last names of the Masters represented as corporate logos. Exactly nothing is made of this – whether we are to view the corporation as the modern guild or the guild as the foreshadowing of the corporation – but it this and other economic “references” in the interpretation might be explained by the fact that Moses herself, not quite middle aged, was born in Dresden. It is no accident that the première took place on October 3rd , the twenty fifth anniversary of the Reunification. There is much in the Inszenierung that is meant to mirror present day Germany for an audience of present day Germans, and as we have known for two hundred years now, the mirror flatters and depicts only the surface where a lamp would have been more illuminating and could have added depth. This business of maximizing the Aktuelle reaches its climax in the riot at the end of Act Two where during the extended double fugue, persons of all the kinds you would meet in the morning paper come onto the stage, from uniformed members of rival soccer teams to an orthodox jew walking unmolested through the crowd that parts for him as the waters. The Nightwatchman himself is a casualty of the riot, delivering his final line before passing out and falling to the ground. While the double fugue can very well support this onrush of a chaotic smorgasbord of types, the twenty seconds of music with which the Act quietly ends, with its tender recognition of the frailty of all human rivalry and pride, has no place at all. But more on the music’s relation to the Inszenierung, later.

 

The First Act succeeded admirably to depict the spectrum of reactions that men who love art might show when they encounter innovation. One of the Masters, who wears dark glasses all the time as if he were a jazzman or a beatnik, moves up next to Walther, grooving on the second stanza of his Trial Song, and passes out dark glasses to other Masters that have also been attracted to his side. Another keeps looking Walther up and down, from his cowboy boots to his leather jacket, his incredulity vying with indignation: he just cannot believe his eyes. Walther diffidently looks down at his boot-tops and tries to polish them against his pant legs. The Masters are young and old, dandy and stodgy, silly and serious, vain and humble – and as we look at them we reflect on the way that all kinds of people are brought together by music.

 

With the crowd scene of the Act Two we begin to have more of such business than the music can support. In place of the Masters’ apprentices preparing for the festivities of in the streets of Nuremberg we have a scene of spike-haired night people and punks loitering on the roof of a downtown building illuminated by oversized illuminated signs – the corporate logo’s we saw in Act One. What Sachs is doing up there with his cobbler bench is unaccountable; how the upper balcony of Pogner’s home can be replaced by a catwalk behind an illuminated sign is not answered by the fact that it is the POGNER sign. Eva’s scene with her father Pogner is evacuated of all its tender emotion – she simply rolls her eyes at his remorse – and her approach to Sachs as reviewed above is an emotional dead-end. Beckmesser’s plan to serenade Eva is wonderfully embellished and satirized by his changing into a crimson minstrel outfit from the old days, but the inexplicable scenario on the roof never quite melts away and in fact distracts our attention from the music. By the end of the scene we are simply being ravaged by extraneous references to current politics, culture, and society. The sense that Meistersinger is the opera of the German people is here being turned on its head. They are acting this way because this is what is happening in Germany, rather than Germans because of the way they are acting. An entirely ephemeral content will need to be switched out and updated every time this production is performed, something that an American could not be flattered into enjoying.

 

Has the curtain has ever before been left down during the overture to the Act III so that we do not see Sachs reading his huge Weltkronik to the strains of what will be the Wahn monologue with its piercing interruption by the cellos? Last night it was, and when it rose Sachs was reading at one of three standing desks with lots of books strewn open on the floor as if he were busily comparing opinions rather than meditating deeply on some recitation of all historical events needing to be interpreted by a wise man in reflection. On the back wall is a built-in bookcase fifteen feet tall full of books and served by a ladder. Immediately behind him is a copy of that painting of the twenty two great Meistersingers. It is not his workshop but a sleek and bourgeois home library – or corporate office – which the widower never gets around to cleaning up. The ditty with Eva’s shoe becomes a play of foot-fetishism, whereas in the libretto it is a continuation of the theme that her shoe needs adjustment before she can proceed into marriage, begun in Act II (where he wonders if she has come to have her shoe adjusted and she says she has not even tried it on yet), which is now elaborated (it is too wide and too narrow at the same time, for in her own development she is not quite ready to take the next step, from daughter and niece to wife). In the Schenk production which I think is definitive for this scene she is facing right and Sachs is kneeling, facing left and working on her shoe when to a burst from the strings Walther appears on the stairs on the far right and she sees this vision of her love over Sachs’s head, with Sachs at first not realizing it and then not letting on that he has (so also Wagner’s stage instructions). In the present production Sachs and Eva have suddenly embraced in a shocking and passionate kiss when Walther walks in on them. Yes, she is torn – but only by degrees of one and the same kind of passion. She is confused, but only because she is a confused person – a much diminished interpretation of her character and of the situation. In truth the Eva of Wagner is moving from Father-love to Husband-love, as Brunnhilde must do in the last scene of Siegfried, from love for her “wakener” to love for her life’s partner and helpmate for better or worse. Walther, with the access of inspiration afforded by seeing her there across the room, now finds the third stanza of his Prize Song, in which he discovers the identity of Eva and the Muse of poetry, and of Parnassus and Paradise, and she knows she will have him as husband, so that she says to Sachs, “Was ohne deine Liebe, was wär’ ich ohne dich, ob je auch Kind ich bliebe, erwecktest du nicht mich?” (“Without thy love, without thee, what would I then be? A child I would have remained had you not wakened me!”). As Eva must acquiesce to move beyond the protection of her father and uncle, driven by love into the unknown chartings of the new, so must art be willing to move on beyond its own rules and find new rules that explain what its love of beauty encounters on its forward path! But in this production we are given a Walther scowling at her and confused and jealous over her passionate kissing with Sachs, but then nevertheless finding that final stanza!

 

With such an entire betrayal of the depths of the story and its deep and true and universal emotions, we are left only the music. When we were able to hear it without distraction, as apart from the business of Act II, it was a performance nearly flawless. I would prefer a voice rounder and set lower than Koch’s sometimes too strident manner, but he was strong and in tune through to the end. Vogt’s Walther is solid and yet vulnerable, Kleiter’s Eva clear and bright, and Werba’s Beckmesser – available to be seen and heard on the Herheim DVD – achieved the clarity of enunciation along with an undertone of sweetness that betrays as it redeems the surface of the character: he does not want to be the way he is. Barenboim’s rendition kept presenting surprises – flow when others have marched, sudden changes in dynamics or tempo that deliberately but perhaps gratuitously arrested the attention without directing it toward some particular interpretation. Again the new provided an occasion to shed light on the old.

 

Of course we know by now that the famous defense of German Art expressed in the last aria of Sachs would be given an elaborate emphasis by this “politically conscious” version of the piece. We are to imagine ourselves not on a grassy knoll beside the Pegnitz but looking across the Pegnitz to the facade of nothing other than the Berlin Palace as a backdrop, with the groups of guildsmen emerging up from boats on the river onto the stage from a dock between the backdrop and the front of the stage. Once the singers’ platform is erected by the Masters’ apprentices, the Sachs-slob unaccountably moves into the center of it as if he knew the Nurembergers were going to surprise him with a song in his praise. The net effect of all that has come before, a great disappointment over all, is that the character Sachs deserves no such praise, and that there is no dramatic motivation for him to show such surprise. And in the very end there is no replacing of the wreath of the Master from Walther to Sachs by Eva, since Eva does not in this production view Sachs as her Erwacher, and the perennial Master of Song and Wisdom and Sanity and Growing Up. Walther does give in to his persuasion to accept the medal at the end and the two of them turn to the Berlin Palace in the background to see it lift away revealing a field of green and a blue heaven above, the truest picture of Germany liberated at last from any political overlay.

 

– Ken Quandt

 

It seems that the science of semiotics needs to be invoked to begin talking about the new Ring designed by Guy Cassiers, playing this year at Staatsoper Berlin and at La Scala, on the 200th birthday of Richard Wagner, under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. In the aftermath of the first installment, the Rhinegold of April 4, it appeared that the ears will be quite satisfied by the orchestra and its conductor but the visual presentation on the stage was going to be a different matter.

 

Anticipatory Reflections

My Wagner friend often tells me that regardless of the mise en scène she can always “close her eyes.” One never hears such a thing said of Verdi — it would be impossible. This is because of the unique gorgeousness or truth of the Wagner music — something hard to explain — but the immediate implication for the prospective director of a Wagner opera is that although he might take measures to supplement or enhance the enjoyment of the piece, his work paradoxically but strictly speaking might be superfluous. The peculiar state of affairs can therefore arise that a more willful or egoistic director might in the manner of Klingsor return the favor by turning his back on the music and staging a visual event to rival it, quite independent of and external to the music and its mission and referring to itself only. In recent years the extreme example or illustration of this directorial decision that I know of is the Los Angeles Ring of Achim Freyer, with its pictorial smorgasbord of novel and invented visual objects, not so good-looking in themselves nor at all good at settling down into a gestalt alongside each other, but serving instead as superfluous signs of a system of anger or fear or love — the sorts of things Wagner’s musical leitmotifs already “refer” to — signs for which Freyer provides their own parallel history to and evolution through the course of the four operas. It was as if the opera were hooked up to a hospital monitor that showed its vital signs. The new Paris Ring is likewise rich in superfluous visual paraphernalia but these are of a different character insofar as they retell the history of the Twentieth Century (for what it is worth) and so they at least behave like signs since they refer to something outside the operas which the audience already knows, though the relevance to Wagner’s plot remains an open question.

 

The artistic overreaching that characterizes all of Wagner’s work will always leave us overwhelmed and uncertain, and will always therefore provide an umbrella to protect the ingenuities by which lesser minds and lesser talents seek to supplement his allusive libretto with a more concrete interpretation. The audience however is the ultimate arbiter, and for their sake I present a commonsense axiom. Any production that leaves its own meaning unclear rather than Wagner’s meaning must be counted a failure. The questions Wagner leaves open are the questions that will always remain open since they are the ultimate questions. In comparison with these, the referential puzzles we often find ourselves left to decipher by more recent Regie-productions take on the aspect of impertinent mimicry. We know they are impertinent because for all the brave insouciance such directors parade in ignoring and abusing Wagner’s own very explicit stage directions, they never have the cheek to alter the libretto or the music. (Are we meant to be thrilled by the announcement that Mademoiselle Wagner has included a clause in the new director’s contract at Bayreuth that he will not cut or alter the score?). By keeping their hands off these they are acknowledging once and for all that they do not wish to be taken seriously, that they are hoping the audience will conspire in their cynicism to work around the edges and rearrange the deck chairs, or in a truer metaphor to slum with superiors or to act the way persons do that choose to waste their inheritance rather than protect it and pass it on.

 

There is another reason these directors concentrate on the staging besides their fear of trying to improve the libretto — this thing Joyce called the “ineluctable modality of the visual.” Taking another cue from Klingsor, the Regiesseur can divert and then refocus his audience’s attention by exploiting the sensory stimulation of the eyes. The stage after all appears to the eye as a framed visual field, and we learned last year in the case of Lepage that no expense will ever again be forgone to fill the stage with a hundred tons of machinery — an ultimate semiotic paradox, since what we are left looking at during the entire production is a machine that does nothing but produce optical illusions. It is no accident that this mighty nightmare was conceived in connection with Wagner’s Ring.

 

It is fair to say that arbitrary visuals have become the central issue in the recent performance history of Wagner, above the poetry and the “tone” which are left in the hands of the individual artists. Indeed this is perhaps the main implication of the current language of “Regie” — that the director is more important than the performers, even though all the while he keeps his mitts off the libretto and the music. It is inevitable today that any mise en scène of Wagner’s works, and especially of the Ring, will be conceive itself as taking its place within this context, as Cassiers does in his interview about his production reprinted in the program here for the Die Walküre, where he begins by comparing his interpretation with the 1976 presentation of Chereau at Bayreuth, which itself commemorated the centennial of the Ring. I had high hopes that the current version, which was commissioned to commemorate the second centennial of Wagner’s birth, might make an “historical” contribution to this history, maybe even to raise the problem of the visuals and their limitations to the level of consciousness.

 

Rhinegold, April 4

With this orientation and hope in the background I went to the Rhinegold of the second cycle at the Staatsoper Berlin on Thursday 4 April. The initial impression was very bad. It seemed we had come all this way to be subjected to another Regie extravaganza. René Pape’s much anticipated Wotan was not a revelation. At the end the applause was the most muted I’ve ever heard after the Rheingold in any Ring Cycle. The faces in line at the garderobe had been served a dubious meal and seemed to be anticipating stomach problems. Clearly the director was trying to introduce us to his own dark semiotic world rather than render the piece with all its distinctively ethical focus on the contagious power of envy and borrowed desire, as Loge’s speech in the Second Scene demonstrates and all the subsequent action proves. Instead we were introduced to the predominant feature of this production, a huge backdrop produced somehow by lights and capable of any color or pattern. The backdrop is so dominant and preoccupied with itself that the director had to leave the stage bare; and perhaps this is why several dancers were brought on to portray the chains in which Alberich was bound or a chair for Loge to sit on while tricking him. These dancers were the first semiotic dead-end of the cycle.

 

Die Walküre, April 5

Happily, after the Walküre much if not all was forgiven. The faces were happier, grumbling about one detail and effusing about another in the usual way. Best of all I heard people trying to say something about Wagner they had never quite been able to say, brow furrowed, before the dream should slip away during dinner afterwards. Near the Schiller Theater, which is the current venue for the Staatsoper, we have what we have always had after performances at the Deutsche Oper, the Ristorante Don Giovanni on Bismarckstrasse that observantly stays open after all operas in the neighborhood so that we can sort all this out, or more likely let it gently slip down into the subconscious for future sorting out over nicely presented and delicious Italian Cuisine.

 

This was a simpler and more straightforward production, conceived with less fussy details though at the same time presented with an abstract spareness we have become accustomed to elsewhere, a fashion that puts greater onus onto the actor-singers. As actors they were underdirected but as singers they were a success. Waltraud Meier sang Sieglinde and Peter Seiffert sang Siegmund. The setting was more naturalistic than the night before. For Act One the corner of Hunding’s abode was the center rear so there was a triangular orientation that nicely convened with the triangle or triangles being carried out in the action between Hunding, Sieglinde and Siegmund. The blocking (or Personenregie) was however wooden. Ms. Meier made up for some of that by her own professional demeanor and noble arms.

 

The general and continuously employed stage feature dominating this production of the Ring is a video projection hard to believe for its flexibility and fine detail and its metamorphoses. It might be broken up at times, as for instance into vertical bands like a barcode, so as not to need to be realistic; sometimes the field is given over to a homogeneous field of water or trees; sometimes a geometrical pastiche of pictures or symbols; and sometimes it appears as side panels so as to form a sort of triptych with the stage action. In the Rhinegold the background could of course be shimmering water and at the beginning of Die Walküre it was of course the forest, around Hunding’s abode, capable of producing the fine detail of coruscating leaves. The shimmering was just right. Too little and the thing becomes static; too much and it draws attention to itself. We were led to formulate a poetics of the imagery as we went along. Soon I got the sense that the presence of a god or his influence in the action strengthened the shimmering or pushed the imagery beyond the representational, as if one of the things the backdrop was meant to communicate was the influence of the gods on human affairs, unknown to the humans involved. This helped us to guess, but only in retrospect, that the divine action of the Rhinegold was perhaps supposed to be unclear.

 

The last scene of the Third Act was very disappointing to me. Theorin screamed her Brunnhilde and her articulation was poor, and while Pape’s tone was gentle and pure (he kept sounding like José Van Dam) the emotions the director gave him were all wrong. He was hurt rather than torn. The Personenregie was again wooden: back and forth they walked, as Sieglinde and Siegmund had in the First Act, and they almost forwent embracing altogether, but gave in and hugged at the last minute. Wotan then became sentimentally preoccupied with covering her up while she went to sleep, even turning his back to the audience, but he forgot to hammer the ground with his spear when he called for Loge (the percussionist in the pit below didn’t). Pape’s depiction made him a disappointed human rather than a god hastening the onset of his own doom. It was as if he regretted the fact that Brunnhilde was a kühnes herrliches Kind rather than being so inspired by her as to relent and surround the mountain with fire to protect her.

 

Siegfried April 7

The Siegfried followed two nights later. At the beginning an announcement from the curtain told us that Siegfried (Lance Ryan) had not shown up and nobody know where he was, but that Andreas Schager, who was to sing Siegfried in the Götterdämmerung three nights later, happened to be in the building and agreed to sing the role with a score at a podium at the side of the stage. The Assistant Director Derek Gimpel pantomimed Siegfried on the stage. The costume fitting him just fine. Of course a great pressure was put onto Peter Bronder’s Mime to call in one direction and hear Siegfried from another. Despite his overall success, five days later in the elevator at our apartment building Bronder could still break into a nervous smile recounting the bullets he had dodged.

 

With this third opera we saw a new use of the magical stage effects that establish a fairy tale atmosphere. Things start out with the gorgeous naturalism of leafy trees surrounding Mime’s camp wonderously produced by the video backdrop. When the Wanderer arrives and the long and baffling question and answer session slowly plays itself out, in which human ignorance of the divine plane of things is thematized more explicitly than anywhere else in the opera, the stage gradually expands upward like a cobra and becomes tensely vertiginous. Then, when Siegfried takes forging the sword into his own hands the whole background becomes a fire and the trees become tangled heaps of discarded sword shafts. There is something of an apocalypse of Siegfried at this moment. The overall effect was thrilling and the curtain met with thunderous applause.

 

But now another problem came into focus, suggested by the ventriloquism of Siegfried’s role in tonight’s First Act. It is the problem that dogs this production all along. With all the sensational lighting, the stage magic, and the saturated peculiarities in costume and make-up, the expressivity of the characters and the plot for which they are the vehicle is blunted or lost. What really brought this home was the reappearance of dancers during the Forest Scene in Act Two, something we had not seen since the Rhinegold. This time they danced around Siegfried with knives and seemed to embody externally the growth of his inner resolve as he dealt with Mime. This was better than making them furniture only, as they became in the Rhinegold, but it brought to the fore that the visual supplementation of what was going on within Siegfried’s soul by these persons looming around him was merely a claim by the director, a “statement” that his direction should have already proved so as to make the dancers redundant.

 

Most of us know the plot of the Ring pretty well, but even so all of us learn something new about it each time. This production, I now came to realize, has been taking no care at all to retell the story so much as to elaborate it with external inferences and commentary. For Wagner, however, forming the story was the fundamental creative act that governed all the other aspects of the composition. The stories are not only allusive and deep with psychological meaning but also can be as complicated as clockwork. Mencken famously said of the Meistersinger that more thought went into its design than into the entire corpus of Shakespeare! In the Ring Cycle the maximal complexity is reached upon the entry of Brunnhilde in Act Two Scene Four of Götterdämmerung since all the characters know and believe different things. The overall impression I had by the end of the Siegfried was that something was missing in the presentation, and now I realized that this something is the story. I realized I was having to expend a lot of energy supplying it, while the director was complicating my job by adding dots for me to connect in order to keep the flow of the action alive.

 

Failing to tell the story can be another liability when a becomes distracted into exploiting the “ineluctable modality of the visual,” since the visuals by their very nature distract from the characters and their actions and can even obstruct the story from showing through their actions and their words. If the story is worth telling, the ineluctable modality needs to be managed with care, attenuated, coped with, controlled — not exploited for the sake of creating a description by which the new production might be distinguished from others. We had the problem with Bob Wilson and his faceless persona masks, stiff and iconic costumes, and stylized stage movements; we had it with Achim Freyer’s sets that looked like a pin-ball game and ridiculously oversaturated costumery that turned the characters into grab toys from a box of Crackerjacks. How much can the characters be seen to undergo a change when it is the colossal stage is changing in a way that appears to defy the laws of gravity? How will we know the full meaning of the characters’ words when their faces are frozen in makeup or invisible?

 

As to the final scene of the night between Siegfried and Brunnhilde, corresponding to that between Wotan and Brunnhilde the night before, the blocking is now much busier but not better directed. Brunnhilde and Siegfried keep exchanging places on the elevated bed-platform as if they were playing king of the mountain. It is something of a joke, a sort of musical chairs. that was only emphasized by Lance Ryan’s boyish depiction of Siegfried (he had arrived in time for the Second Act). In Wagner’s poem their talk and their feelings do go back and forth, and do go hot and cold, but there is a development in what is happening and the intensification of an ascending spiral. The huge transitions such as Siegfried’s “Sangst du mir nicht dein Wissen sei” and Brunnhilde’s “Ewige war Ich” mark escalations in the tension and depth of their encounter but the staging had them running around in circles.

 

Götterdämmerung April 10

The other three operas of the cycle had already been rolled out during previous years, both here and in Milan. The Götterdämmerung is new with this run, and so is the program published with it, which includes a presentation of the Official Interpretation of the production by its “Dramaturge,” Michael Steinberg (an academic from Brown Univeersity, not the late and wise program annotator).

To the extent that acting and character become more important as the story becomes more human, I hoped the visible business would be attenuated for the more humanly complicated Götterdämmerung, on Wednesday 10 April. My hopes were thwarted by unexpected imperfections in the musical execution, not to mention a huge escalation of visual distractions imposed on the piece by the director. The orchestra now and then lost track of the beat and even played half bars apart from itself. In the opening scene between Brunnhilde and Siegfried they played much too slow, visibly forcing the singers to find ways to slow themselves down. Such a thing might due to the fact that all four operas are rehearsed in advance of the performance of the cycle, as I later heard, so that it was well over a week ago that they had practiced what they were performing; and my wise seatmate from Covent Garden thought it might have been fatigue from Barenboim’s very heavy schedule. As to the singers, Andreas Schager’s formal debut as Siegfried was a surprising disappointment after his stand-in work in Act One of the Siegfried three nights before. There he had the score and did not need to act, but here he did not and did. He stared at the prompter throughout his intimate opening scene with Brunnhilde and afterward he continually positioned himself for a sightline-lifeline. His phrases characteristically blasted out the opening note and then gave way to a line that lacked tone and musical curve. Perhaps he was saving himself for the difficult exposed passages in the final act. He did improve over the course of the evening and did pull the last act off without a hitch. Mikhail Petrenko was singing Hagen from the back of his throat this night, but Hagen must sound evil to the core. Theorin was improved from before — better enunciation and rising to full command of the stage for the immolation. Most impressive to me was her use of piano at the beginning of that final scene. For all the shortcomings, however, Waltraud Meier’s burnished and professional presentation of the Second Norn and especially of Waltraute with her curving supplication of Brunnhilde were a welcome compensation.

 

As to the interference of the director, he has decided to tell us “who the Gibichungs are” — what sort of culture or Weltanschauung they live in. This is a question without a Wagnerian answer. To the extent we meet the Gibichung populace at all it is the chorus of Hagen’s vassals later filled in with townswomen, and as we learn from the vassals’ remarks after the murder of Siegfried — “Hagen, was tust du?,” followed immediately by “Hagen, was tatest du?” — we learn they are just a feckless mass. As for Wagner, the moment he places us in the Gibichung Hall he directs our attention away from all historical, political, and social questions by presenting us a trio of characters that cannot but remind us of those we met in the First Act of Die Walküre — a pair of twins and an odd man out. We already had the opportunity to sense the huge ring by which the middle operas end where they begin, the Siegfried ending with an heroic surrender to love, just as Die Walküre had begun with a scandalous one. By the time of the Siegfried much has been gained, however. This time the love is more than a quasi-illusion owing to the puppetry of Wotan, its narcissistic character emblematized by the incest of Sieglinde and Siegmund, as Fricka proudly and correctly objects. No, this time a goddess has chosen to relinquish her immortality and die for love (“ewig’ war ich,” she says), and a manly hero has disarmed and unthewed himself to learn fear and explore the dark and warm secrets of intimacy. (We can leave the almost completely accidental fact that Brunnhilde is his aunt to the Anna Russell’s of this world).

 

Despite this progress in love from the closed embryo of Siegmund and Sieglinde to the open encounter of Brunnhilde and Siegfried in the light of day that will never look back, so beautifully recalled in the orchestral interlude between the first and second scenes of the Prelude to Götterdämmerung, the story is not over. We have another opera, the most operatic of all, that follows this prelude, and the first characters we meet are again brother-sister twins who this time are looking for spouses in order to maintain their prideful claim as rulers. Hagen corresponds somehow with Hunding (not Siegfried, pace Mr. Steinberg’s essay), the odd man out who will ruin everything. In a slightly different world Gutrune and Gunther could have overcome their political problem by marrying each other (as Siegmund and Sieglinde did, though in their case it was for the sake of love in defiance of power politics). These allusive pairings of Wagner’s take all focus away from the Gibichung populace, of which Mr.Steinberg’s interpretation makes so much, and turn the focus inward, onto the fateful choices of the individual characters and how vulnerable they are willing to let love make them. Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love nearly cancels the rights and claims of Hunding (Siegmund converted Brunnhilde in the Todesverkundung scene, requiring Wotan to intervene at the last minute) but there is no way that love will enable Gunther and Gutrune to resist the evil of their half-brother, Hagen. Instead he will use them to get at Brunnhilde and Siegfried, and then use these only to get at the Ring — as we see in his sudden reappearance at the very end of the final scene of Act Three.

 

Exactly because the political and social ethos of the Gibichungs does not matter to his story, Wagner leaves it undefined. But exactly because he leaves it open he has provided a lacuna where an impertinent director can insert himself, at the expense of diverting our attention away from the feckless insubstantiality of Gunther and Gutrune which Wagner means for us to compare with the epochal moment in the History of Love that Brunnhilde and Siegfried have just now achieved. These are Wagner’s true themes in the Ring, even if it detracts from their impression on us to try to systematize them. What makes the pomp of the Gibichungs empty is the same as what makes the pride of Hunding empty: it is the absence of love, as Wagner indicates by the very similar leitmotives he gives them — this broad and empty leaping movement audible the very moment they come on stage, though the Gibichungs’ is scored in a polished way while Hunding’s is rude and rustic. It is this music, not Steinberg’s dunkel Kadenze at the end of Siegfried’s Journey nor the music depicting Hagen’s Dream at the beginning of Act Two, that characterizes the self-understanding of the Gibichungs price and princess.

 

Cassiers however has a full theory of the Gibichungs as a bankrupt regime to be compared with the current situation of the Eurozone with its all embracing rules that continually fail to organize the diverse and far-flung region — so much we learn from his interview in the program — though it is only through quite accidental means that he conveys even the impression of this far-flung allegorical interpretation. In particular, this smallish stage will need to accommodate a large chorus in the Götterdämmerung, and part of the solution is a strange piece of furniture that keeps threatening to enter from the side as a signal we are in the Gibichung Hall — a sort of brightly lit grandstand eight or ten rows high made of modular transparent boxes stuffed with what can only be gaggles of body parts. Bosch’s Hell-panel in the “Garden of Earthly Delights” comes to mind as an analogy, though if we take the trouble of reading the program where once again we learn that a word is worth one-thousandth of a picture, Cassiers tell us he has in mind the lesser known but “controversial” bas-relief of his fellow Belgian Jef Lambeaux, Die menschlichen Leidenschaften, depicted on the slipcover of the Götterdämmerung program. We can say that it takes great skill to convey such a preposterous image so ineluctably — “What were those body parts doing there?” you could hear almost everyone saying during the intermissions — but the ineluctable and recognizable is not thereby illuminating or meaningful. The semiotic problem returns. When the sign depicts something that makes no sense, or presents a Sinn without a Bedeutung if you will, it becomes an opaque and superfluous increment of visual saturation, the visual analogue to the old notion of the Klangteppich. The immediate effect or hazard of such an addition is to bore the audience with more than it can engage with and digest, analogous to the effect of the orchestra playing too loud.

 

Looking back I think what struck me most about this production was that despite the music I was always on the verge of boredom, and I think this carpet of visuals, this continuous, huge, and gorgeous visual backdrop that unaccountably morphs from one image to another, is what caused me to feel this way. At times it enhanced the story, as at the end of the Act One of Siegfried the whole stage was full of the flames of his smithy pit; or at the beginning of the Walküre Hunding’s abode was surrounded by coruscating leaves often it was just there; but from time to time, and especially in the Rhinegold and the last act of Götterdämmerung it was given over to images that required us momentarily to disengage from the very dense progress of the action and the music even to make out let alone incorporate them. It will be by some as yet unconvened term for this backdrop that this production will get its name, as the LePage has from its machine. I dreaded what he might pack into the several last moments of the opera, that purely orchestral passage dense with a pageant of the story’s leitmotives, which Wagner recalls all the great moments of the action. Brunnhilde has mounted the steps of the lightboxes full of body parts; all else is fire; and when she disappears beyond we see the Rhine’s waters, but then the director succeeds to end with all the chorus looking back at the mural of struggling humanity sedimented into the riverbed of the Rhine.

 

Wagner included the stage direction that all the persons left alive on the stage should be looking to the immolation of Valhalla behind and in the distance, with their backs to the audience, as the curtain falls; but in case this had not been enough to make us identify with them, our director adds the overly concrete and pedantic touch of placing another copy of the mural they watched at the rear onto the front of the curtain that falls, leaving the audience alone to wonder at the future fate of mankind. Cassiers has told us in his interview that he decided for a pessimistic ending instead of the optimistic ending of Chereau’s Bayreuth centennial, and even Wagner wavered about what final words of prophecy he should give to Brunnhilde, but as Dahlhaus long ago showed it is the final line of the music — an entirely exposed reiteration of Brunnhilde’s annunciation to Sieglinde in Act Three of Die Walküre that she is pregnant with Siegfried, that tells us that the only future we can have will be supplied by the fruits and offspring of Love. This musical gesture to an open and vital future in the score becomes truncated and closed off by Cassiers’s dark and intransigent visual image of endless human strife and chaos.

 

The applause at the curtain was weak, scattered, and somehow reluctant. Overall there was no sale and nothing commemorative about the concept or the execution of this production. Another cycle starts here on Sunday, April 14, and then it moves back to Milan.

 

Ken Quandt

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