L'Opéra national de Paris, like most of the major opera houses around the world, with the notable exception of Bayreuth, have been building their new production of the Ring work by work over several years. I attended their Rheingold in 2010 and reviewed it in the Berkshire Review. Although I found the proleptic reference to Albert Speer's Germania questionable, I rather liked Günther Krämer's production at the time (The current French approach to Wagner favors native Germans both on the stage and behind it.); I was pleased with the cast; and I was deeply impressed with Philippe Jordan's conducting. The son of the renowned Swiss Wagner conductor Armin Jordan, he has an individual and thoroughly grounded vision of Wagner, which he can only have developed on his father's knee. Now three years later, on the eve of the Opéra's complete performances of the Ring in June, I saw and heard the same intelligences and imaginations take on Siegfried, often considered the most difficult of the music dramas as far as audience involvement is concerned, for reasons that are both obvious and bemusing.
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.)