The Centennial Ring: The Making of... 

(published first at ionarts)

available at Amazon
Centennial Ring, The Making of..., Chéreau / Boulez
Until 1976, the centenary of the Ring der Niebelungen, there had only been two general strands of new, Ring-defining productions of Wagner’s tetralogy (albeit in many different variants). Wagner’s original (which displeased Wagner a good deal in the only production he ever got to see) and its refinement first under Cosima Wagner and then under Winifred Wagner and Heinz Tietjen lasted until 1944. In 1951, Wieland Wagner’s production rang in the era of Neo-Bayreuth – the strict geometric figures, accentuation of lighting (or lack thereof), and the clearing of all accumulated clutter. It was carried on with two Wolfgang Wagner productions in 1960 and 1970. For the hundredth anniversary of the Ring, something special had to be done, and Wolfgang Wagner withstood the temptation to stage The Ring himself again (if he ever even felt so tempted) and trusted his conductor, Pierre Boulez, with his choice of the young French theater enfant terrible Patrice Chéreau – at the time only 31 and with a mere two opera productions under his belt. Chéreau’s Ring became one of the most controversial stagings in the history of Bayreuth – as well as its most cherished. At the premiere in 1976 it was derided, while at its last showing in 1980 (admittedly improved and much honed by the participants) it received a Bayreuth record 85-minute ovation and over 100 (!) curtain calls. It almost never saw the light, too – since Chéreau only had four months' notice and considered declining the offer with so little time to stage four operas.

Thanks to UNITEL and the Bavarian broadcasting service (Bayerischer Rundfunk, BR), that Ring was painstakingly recorded for television (oh, to be Bavarian) and fortunately for us, for video (now DVD) as well. One of the few important items that had been available from the UNITEL catalogue even before Leo Kirch’s media empire went bankrupt (now Universal Music is making them all available, staggered out over the next year or more – including the complete Bernstein Mahler cycle!), the centenary Ring is now re-released in 5.1 surround sound. Apart from Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, DG also threw in The Making of the Ring, a $20 DVD detailing how the Ring was made, filmed, and produced – with plenty of interviews and anecdotes. $20 seems a bit more than you might want to spend on a The Making of…, and while I agree that Universal might have fared better selling it for $10 and hope that more people would buy it and consequently the actual Ring, it’s very worth seeing… perhaps borrowing from someone who has it or Netflixing it, once it has been suggested they take it into their stock.

Hearing Boulez speak about bringing Chéreau on board makes for this memorable and revealing quote – although perhaps more revealing about Boulez and art in Europe than the Chéreau staging itself: “You never know – you take a bet [sic] […] if things will be successful or not – I mean successful from an [artistic] achievement point of view; I don’t think first of the audience…” And this from the master about his conducting which is still controversial among some opinionated Wagnerites – as last year’s Parsifal showed: “My main goal was to get rid of so-called ‘tradition’ – which is really unbearable to me. What is tradition anyway… it really is just mannerisms, habit… […] transmitted through generations they become worse mannerisms…”

Boulez’s Wagner is brisker than many other conductors’ interpretations, less heavy and – to the extent possible – lithe. But the idea that it is Boulez’s ‘French deconstructionism’ is a label they attach to Boulez the conductor because of Boulez the composer. If Boulez were a conservative German composing in the style of Pfitzner, he could conduct the very same way and would never hear of the criticism. Just compare his to Clemens Kraus’s conducting of Wagner: although not quite as light, it is every bit as fast and faster. Kraus’s famed 1953 Ring, of course, is hailed among many of those Wagner lovers that cringe when talk comes to the Boulez / Chéreau production. (Joseph Keilberth, too, in another great historical Ring cycle, is nearly as fast as the Frenchman. The quickest Ring I have is Sawallisch’s at 13:07. Krauss clocks in at 13:23, Janowski at 13:25, Boulez at 13:45, Keilberth at 13:55, Barenboim at 14:09, and Schleppmeister Knappertsbusch at 14:38. Judging from three out of four operas I have of Goodall and Levine each, they might actually give Kna’ a run for his money.) Boulez (like Herreweghe and Norrington in their Bruckner efforts – the former which I like, the latter not so much) is probably right that tradition has done a disservice to Wagner’s music by reflexively associating slowness with meaning and gravitas. Even Wagner complained about his operas being taken too slowly, predicting then that people would fall asleep if the conductor trudged through them. (Levine – although a magnificent conductor in many ways - never read that quote, I think.)

For those of us who love opera as a living art and not a museum – and Ionarts is all about that – the DVD is a treasure trove of good quotes. From the fairly well-known one of Wagner himself (“Kinder, schafft Neues” – Children, create new things) to Winifred Wagner’s words to Patrice Chéreau at the 1980 artist party after the final production of his Ring. It was the first time they met because whenever Chéreau had tried before, Mme. Wagner (Siegfried Wagner’s wife, born after Wagner himself had died) refused to meet him and instead threatened to kill him, if she saw him. Chéreau was introduced to her by her daughter Friedlind. She turned around and charmed by Chéreau’s good looks and his hand kiss said: “You know, many times I wanted to kill you… but after all, isn’t it better to be furious than to be bored?!”

That about sums up my attitude toward staging opera. I’d rather take the risk of failure in a new production than the tried (trite)-and-true which, to me, is certain failure on the production level. Chéreau’s staging, to be sure, is no failure. It is gorgeous, it is insightful, it is funny, cruel. It is dominated by Chéreau’s theatrical Occam’s razor… the simplest way of telling the story is the best. No unnecessary clutter or alien storylines meddle with the success of his Ring – which sets it apart from the oft derided German Regietheater. Watching it in 2005, it is difficult to see how the premiere could have been anything but a success. It is almost impossible to understand that it should still create any controversy today. And to this particular set of ears and eyes it is completely incomprehensible why anyone would ever chose the murderously boring MET production over this gem. Because of the “theater, not only opera” approach, it comes closest to the Wagnerian ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk. Even with gods and Rhinemaidens, it is still supposed to be realistic drama, after all. The “Making of” disc may produce high levels of anger with our state of television… no one would go through the expense of filming a Ring cycle for any national channel in the U.S. – much less with as much effort as Brian Large and the BR. It is also recommended (if not even mandatory) watching for everyone involved and very interested in opera in the D.C. region. Just to push Charles over the edge this little teasing fact: together with this DVD release, the entire Ring was also released in movie theaters across Germany.

I shall be posting more detailed articles about each of the four operas over the next few weeks… but they are not likely going to be anything less than enthusiastic. This morning (and I’ve only downed Das Rheingold and act one of Die Walküre so far) I’ve scared the cat by thundering Wagner arias at her (“Winterstürme weichet dem Wonnemond” transposed down a third), and I have been feeling rather transformed altogether.

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