Das Rheingold initiates the Opéra national de Paris’ Ring Cycle at the Bastille

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Revolution breaks out in the Paris Opera's Das Rheingold

Revolution breaks out in the Paris Opera’s Das Rheingold

Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold

Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris
Philippe Jordan, Conductor
Günter Krämer, Stage Direction
Jürgen Bäckmann, Set Design
Falk Bauer, Costume Design
Diego Leetz, Lighting
Otto Pichler, Choreography
Falk Struckmann (4, 10, 13, 16, 22, 25 mars) / Egils Silins, (19, 28 mars) Wotan
Samuel Youn, Donner
Marcel Reijans, Froh
Kim Begley, Loge
Peter Sidhom, Alberich
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Mime
Iain Paterson, Fasolt
Günther Groissböck, Fafner
Sophie Koch, Fricka
Ann Petersen, Freia
Qiu Lin Zhang Erda
Caroline Stein, Woglinde
Daniela Sindram, Wellgunde
Nicole Piccolomini, Flosshilde

Although Wagner, never able to give up his bitterness over the failure of Tannhaüser, may have taken nothing but bitter memories of Paris to his grave, his later music, including the Ring, enjoyed a devoted and extensive following in France. At last year’s Bard Festival André Dombrowsky explored the popularization of his music through simplified piano arrangements for domestic use, and Larry Bensky discussed Wagner’s role in Proust’s life and imagination. The French can look back to distinguished tradition in Wagner production, and today Wagner is as alive in Toulouse and Lyon as it is in Paris. Nonetheless, productions of the Ring have been rather sparse at the Paris Opera: the first, sung in French translation and conducted by André Messager, did not occur until 1911 (Rheingold 1909). The second, this time in German and conducted by one of the most authoritative German Wagner conductors, Hans Knappertsbusch, came forty-four years later, in 1955! There was Peter Stein production of Das Rheingold in 1976 under Solti, which never developed into a full Ring Cycle. The Ring production initiated by this Rheingold is a historical first, as the first production of the work for the Opéra Bastille, which opened in 1989, and the first complete Ring by the Paris Opera since 1957. With a German production team and a Swiss conductor, Philippe Jordan, 35, who is now concluding his first season as Music Director, the Paris Opera continues its post-war tradition of gathering its Wagnerian talent east of the Rhine. (It is worth noting at this point that Pierre Boulez, one of the great living Wagner conductors, has never conducted the Ring in his native France.)

In engaging a German stage director like Günter Krämer (as well as a production team who have worked with him steadily in the past), the Parisians acquired experience, as well as the authenticity of an artist who has grown up with Wagner as part of his national culture. Today, even more than in the 1950s and 60s, as people who were born after the Second World War begin to fill the senior ranks of the theatrical profession, these solid qualities come with a certain kind of baggage. The all-pervasive questioning of national identity in the wake of the Third Reich and its abominations, followed by the critique of national cultural monuments, especially the Titans of high culture like Goethe, Kleist, and Hegel—not to mention the destruction of classical and representational forms, discredited by the aesthetic of the Third Reich, by artists like Beuys, Kiefer, and Richter—has only partially run its course. (It is a pity that Hitler and Goebbels invoked the best in German culture to legitimize their policies, rather than the homey bad grammar and anti-intellectualism that does the trick on the other side of the Atlantic.) It may no longer seem quite so urgent to pull Faust up by the roots, but the current enthusiasm for Wagner, above all the Ring des Nibelungen, is accompanied by an intensified discomfort with the traditional role Wagner’s oeuvre has played in German culture, beginning with some of his own less savory views, but concerning primarily the promotion of his work after his death by his widow Cosima, who lived long enough to come into contact with Hitler, and even more the exploitation of his work by Hitler and his ideologues.

In itself this suffices to explain why Wagner remains problematic while the marble busts of the earlier nineteenth century have by now mostly escaped the shadow. Also interesting is the fact that Wagner’s creations were, especially in the first enthusiastic decades after their creation, somewhat tinged by the pop culture of the time. In fact they contributed to it. While Wagner proved an intensely interesting and valid subject for men like Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, the middle class participated in a lively market for domestic knickknacks decorated with kitschy scenes of Siegfried in his curious hero’s outfit, jauntily blowing his horn in the deep forest or the trading cards packaged with Liebig’s beef extract. The impulse of the first post-war productions at Bayreuth was to erase all these Teutonic trappings in favor of a stripped void, cleansed of sinister incidentals. While traditionalism was preserved across the Atlantic at the Met, for example, Wagner could only survive in Germany in sackcloth and ashes. For the Bayreuth centenary production, when audiences had more than had their fill of 1950s severity, Patrice Chéreau brought back a wealth of visual specifics, but strange ones, which bore only a metaphorical connect with the specifics of Wagner’s stage directions. While Schenk’s Met production of the late 1980s became a magnet for traditionalist Wagnerians, a competitive situation arose, above all in Germany, in which directors strove to outstrip one another in implementing Chéreau’s figurative language in the most impressive possible way…and we all know that the easiest way to grab audiences’ attention is to offend them.

Günter Krämer, who has enjoyed a long career directing both classical theater and opera in centers like Berlin, Dresden, Munich, and Hamburg, where he produced a Ring Cycle in the early nineties, is far beyond the grotesqueries that are intended to shock and enrage without accomplishing very much more. He and his team, set designer Jürgen Bäckmann, costume designer Falk Bauer, Lighting Director Diego Leetz, and choreographer Otto Pichler (especially important in this production) set out to revisualize Wagner’s myth through the imagery and style of the early twentieth century, when the Ring, past its phase of initial discovery, had become ensconced as a classic, and performance practices going back to Wagner’s lifetime had reached their peak of accomplishment. But they are not evoking the world of Leider, Melchior, and Schorr, rather the cinematic imagery of the same period, amply illustrated in the program by stills from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. This applies mostly to the scenes among the gods, however, who congregate around a very large and very stylish globe, which they mount and navigate by means of industrial stairways and catwalks. Das Rheingold opens, however, in a formless, primeval environment at the bottom of the Rhine. Under elaborate lighting effects the water was pictured by a flow of many pairs of arms. This introduction of the human body in considerable numbers not only created a spectacular effect, it introduced an element of miming into what was clearly a large-scale production of an essentially pictorial nature. Every scene was a long shot here, in contrast the the recent Dresden production, which could actually create the illusion of intimacy.

In the Rhine and in the mountains among the gods, there was also an impression of beauty, which was starkly contradicted by the appearance of the gods, who are very unpleasant creatures indeed. White robes à l’antique and cheesy plastic breastplates—formed as exaggerated breasts for the goddesses and muscular classic physiques for the gods—are about all that sets them apart. For example, when the giants take off Freia, these carapaces fall off, leaving weakened and diminished bodies behind. When they redeliver her, the grotesque idealizations go back in place, the the gods resume their arrogant behavior.

This means that the only reasonably presentable specimens in Das Rheingold, to a human eye at least, are the giants, Fafner and Fasolt, who look like strapping fellows, clad in jump suits, fully equipped with all sorts of construction tools. Freia might count herself lucky, if she could condescend to live with a working man, but there’s no question of that in her mind. As the giants become increasingly frustrated with Wotan and Loge’s evasions, things start to get ugly, and on a grand scale. Fafner and Fasolt have brought an exceedingly large crew with them to build Valhalla, and these men join in the altercation. In fact,they revolt. Red flags come out, and the workers not only take over the stage, but they invade the auditorium as well, throwing out a cloud of red handbills. They contained one sentence from Wagner’s libretto, translated into English, French, and Japanese, Fasolt’s remonstrance to Wotan:

Was du bist,
bist du nur durch Verträge;
bedungen ist,
wohl bedacht deine Macht.

What you are,
you are only through contracts:
limited and well defined
is your power.

As well ordered as the Opera’s workers were, it almost felt real. In retrospect I didn’t mind being distracted from the business at hand on the stage as much as I expected.

As I said, on the huge stage of the Bastille, we saw the scene from a distance, the figures dwarfed by the enormous globe. This created a psychological distancing as well, making impossible the tight, focused interactions among the singers which proved such a powerful asset in the Semperoper Ring. As intelligently as the situations were managed, this was still first and foremost opera as spectacle.

Valhalla as Germania

Valhalla as Germania 

Hand and arms movement returned to evoke the Nibelungen at work in their caves. At the conclusion the globe gave way to a vast staircase, on which figures dressed like Riefenstahl’s athletes led the gods up to Valhalla, along with massive letters in a style favored by the National Socialists, spelling out Germania, the name Hitler designated for the renewed Berlin he planned to build after the war. Now is that a little simplistic, a little too obvious? I thought so at the time, but perhaps I hadn’t fully adopted Krämer’s imagery of between the wars.

And what about the music? The cast was very fine, from the well-knit Rhinemaidens on. We seem to enjoy a wealth of top-class Wagnerian character singers: Kim Begley was a flamboyant, thoroughly creepy Loge, while Peter Sidhom as Alberich and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime were outrageously funny, while singing very well indeed, without a trace of cheap caricature. The major women, Sophie Koch as Fricka, Ann Petersen as Freia, and Qiu Lin Zhang as Erda were very strong in characterization and vocal beauty, although there was nothing quite on the level of Doris Soffel’s unforgettable Fricka at the Semperoper. Egils Silins (Wotan) was the weakest member of the cast. While his voice was perfectly adequate and quite attractive, I found his characterization rather vague and lacking in dramatic projection. The acoustics of the Bastille are just right for Wagner, and the voices projected vividly, and diction came across very clearly.

A great deal of attention must have been focused on Philippe Jordan, who at 35 was finishing his first year as music director of the Opera and beginning his first Ring Cycle. His Rheingold was a model of pace and control. He advantage of the Bastille Opera’s atmospheric acoustics to create a sonic glow around the music, while, within that, he would discreetly tease out significant or simply beautiful details from the score. His approach was not as dramatic or as powerful as Albers’ or Fisch’s work in Dresden, but it was extremely effective in its own terms, and he was no less eloquent in using the orchestra as a storyteller. Even at this young age, Philippe Jordan has enjoyed quite a few prestigious engagements, and his assurance in the Wagnerian is remarkable. This is less astonishing, if we remember that his father was Armin Jordan, who was widely admired as a Wagner conductor. In fact Armin was engaged to conduct the Ring in Seattle in 2000-2001, but he had to withdraw after a few performances because of ill health. It is clear that Philippe grew up on Wagner and other good things.

Die Walküre is in progress at the Paris Opera right now. Unfortunately I can’t report on that, but I can say that Das Rheingold was a most promising beginning, even if it was not without its bizarreries.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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