WAGNER Der Ring des Nibelungen
Obtainable from the usual online sources, this live recording of the cycle from Wagner-year performances in Mannheim in 2013 is not officially available in the UK. But, as the first non-narrative production of the work to make it to DVD, it’s a significant release. Artist/designer/director Achim Freyer, a one-time pupil of Bertolt Brecht, takes no prisoners in his depiction of the characters as visual symbols (or, better, signs). Their appearance and interreactions relate little to realistically chartable human emotions – and not at all to a century-plus’s worth of tradition – while props are similarly abstract or sometimes absent at moments when, supposedly following the music, more conventional stagings make most use of them. As befits actors in a mythical drama, everyone is either masked or heavily made up. Wotan and Fricka, for example, have black and white cage-like head-dress masks, and there are many clowns: Alberich a Hitler-like one, Siegfried (memorably) a full circus comedian with straw hair, white face, blue eyeliner and scarlet nose and lips, Hagen a ringmaster. Also, perhaps more literally following the motif-laden patchwork of Wagner’s score, there are an awful lot of people present on Freyer’s stage – if they’re in characters’ minds, the chances are that you’ll see them, whether or not they’re already dead or have, according to the libretto, exited.
In best modern-day Brechtian fashion, too, Thomas Mann’s idea of The Ring as a late-19th-century novel of personal and political intrigue is ditched in total (ditto Shaw’s political analogy and its Chéreau updating). Contrary to the intensely physical Bayreuth stagings of the 1970s and ’80s, Freyer’s characters hardly touch each other, let alone actually sing to each other. Any such contact is made, in stylised form, by the acting doubles, scaled-down models or puppets that double for all the principals. Ideas, however, or atmospheres, can be represented visually: whenever war or turmoil is mentioned a posse of Valkyries with their loaded chariot prams cross the stage; Loge (chain-smoking cigars in five hands) is a constant on offstage fixture whenever Wotan is plotting in Walküre; a long Wotan spear overhangs the action; and the Rhinedaughters act as MCs to each act of Götterdämmerung (because they’re children of nature who eventually will get their ring back?).
A first version of this staging caused a lot of upset in (operatically conservative) Los Angeles, as well as disturbing some of its principal singers. Here, with a substantially altered set – basically an ever-turning revolve with masses of flying – and perhaps more extreme costumes, the effect of the production throws an uncanny concentration on to Wagner’s musical and written text. Intentionally performed devoid of surface emotion, the whole Siegmund/Sieglinde action (superbly achieved by Wottrich and Wessels) is quite heartbreaking. Perhaps the biggest coup of the cycle is the presentation of Siegfried as simple innocent in clownface, the child of nature about which Wagner wrote so much, and a characterisation free of the fascist overtones which have obsessed modern commentators. The simple, almost super-fringe theatre-style stagecraft with which Siegfried (plus double, plus puppet) climbs Brünnhilde’s rock and crosses the fire to reach an (at first) superhumanly tall goddess is brilliantly achieved.
The company assembled for Mannheim’s new Ring evidently have worked attentively to encompass such an unusual and demanding staging, not least the orchestra – who clearly have this score in their blood – and Dan Ettinger, whose carefully balanced transversal of the cycle would surely have earned Wieland Wagner’s praise for its lyricism as opposed to unnecessary weight. The cast take on new directions with aplomb, especially Thomas Jesatko’s Wotan, Edna Prochnik’s Fricka and Waltraute and Jürgen Müller’s Siegfried. Note that there are no foreign-language subtitles, only individual acts are banded and that the filming, while more than adequate, is really just a sophisticated version of the in-house record companies keep of their work.