A TARNISHED ‘RING’ AROUND SAN FRANCISCO
The Mecca of operatic California had seen Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” before.
A reasonably complete performance of the gargantuan tetralogy was staged at the War Memorial Opera House back in 1935. In those golden days, Friedrich Schorr sported Wotan’s eye patch, Elisabeth Rethberg exulted in the agonized ecstasies of Sieglinde, Lauritz Melchior did double duty portraying both Siegmund and his temporarily victorious son, Kirsten Flagstad ho-jo-to-hoed as Bruennhilde and Artur Bodanzky stirred up the passions in the pit.
Those, not incidentally, were the golden days when singers tended to sound like massive gods, look like mortal caricatures and act either like statues or like whales.
The sprawling saga of cataclysmic love, greed, fear and redemption in Valhalla and below returned in toto in 1972. By this time, audiences were conditioned to take the drama and its inherent psychological ablutions more seriously. The performing style in favor owed much to the stark simplification--call it abstraction--devised in postwar Bayreuth by the composer’s grandson, a genius named Wieland. Vocal standards had declined drastically, although Birgit Nilsson did make a mighty noise as a Valkyrie deprived of breastplate and winged helmet.
As always, the sheer force of Wagner’s score triumphed over most of the inherent interpretive problems.
Isolated presentations of individual “Ring” installments often have enriched San Francisco opera seasons in the past 50 years. The integrity and impact of Wagner’s nearly impossible dreams usually were compromised, however, by unkind cuts, by a reduced orchestra, by an audience that approached the swollen, convoluted, exotic texts in blithe innocence, or by the general disorientation that must result whenever the essential musico-dramatic elements are presented out of cumulative context.
Contrary to popular local myth, Terence McEwen, the beleaguered general director of the San Francisco Opera, did not invent Richard Wagner. He certainly did not give Bagdad by the Bay its first “Ring” cycle. But this month he did give the city its first bona-fide “Ring” festival , and its first chronic case of mass “Ring” hysteria.
Completing a project begun in 1983, he offered three full runs of the four-opera, 17-hour aesthetic-emotive orgy, uncut. The production cost San Francisco $4.1 million. Top tickets cost the lucky ones who could buy a set $241.
Surrounding the regular performances, McEwen arranged Wagnerian exhibitions, lectures, seminars, panels, movie shows, chamber-music, a Wagnerian waterfront concert and a Wagnerian park concert. He even threw in an excruciatingly dull concert version of a pre-Wagnerian exercise in romantic Germanic fantasy, “Der Freischuetz,” with Pilar Lorengar as a superannuated Agathe.
San Francisco gobbled up the goods--and the bads.
Mayor Dianne Feinstein proclaimed July “ ‘Ring’ Month” and officially commended “everyone involved in this exciting enterprise for their exemplary public services.” Radio stations served as incessantly gushing “Ring” boosters. Newspapers and TV stations hailed the loud and slow demise of the not-so-great god Wotan as a bona-fide media event. Restaurants renamed items on menus to suggest instant “Ring” identification. Chic Bruennhilde facsimiles invaded the most modish store windows to guard resident fashion mannequins. The Opera Shop became a veritable trove of Wagneriana. Koraljka Lockhart assembled an official souvenir program book that brimmed with fascinating iconography, useful background information and penetrating analyses.
Converts to the transported Bayreuth gospel clogged the opera-house entrances long before curtain time in a usually vain quest for unused tickets. Scalpers thrived on Pavarotti-scale back-alley business.
The Grateful Dead, a cultish, quasi-psychedelic rock group that somehow survived the sinful ‘60s, canceled a sold-out Sacramento concert so its members could experience “Goetterdaemmerung.” Enough said.
Just before midnight on June 19, Eva Marton as the self-sacrificing Bruennhilde petulantly tossed her torch for the final time on Siegfried’s funeral pyre and led an invisible horse into smoke that was already spilling into the orchestra pit.
Soon, the columns of the nouveau-riche Gibichung castle went a-tumbling up and a painted flat representing the dwelling of the gods came a-tumbling down. An imaginary semblance of the Rhine presumably overflowed. Nasty Hagen got his comeuppance from the soubrettes Anna Russell identified as aquatic Andrews Sisters. An unexpected male in Victorian finery--he turned out to be the local incarnation of the fire god Loge--strode through the billows engendered by dry ice. Edo de Waart led an exhausted orchestra to its final ragged cadence as the curtain fell.
And the house went wild.
The house almost always goes wild at the end of “Goetterdaemmerung.” In this instance, there was special cause for mass elation. The catharsis had been long in coming. The hype preceding the catharsis had been overwhelming. With the aid of supertitles projected atop the proscenium arch--possibly a mixed blessing--the witnesses had actually understood much of what they had seen and heard.
The San Francisco “Ring” may not have pleased those who could remember Melchior and Flagstad. It may not have enchanted those who savored the profound symbolism of Wieland Wagner or the sociopolitical explorations of his inspired successor, Patrice Chereau.
With all its flaws, however, it proved vastly superior to the current Bayreuth version--the dull, literal, lazy one concocted by Sirs Peter Hall and Georg Solti. It delighted a generation that enjoys being zonked by “Star Wars” extravaganzas, and it reinforced a certain unwritten axiom: Anything so beautiful, so long, so heavy, so portentous, so expensive and so well publicized must be wonderful.
Some of it was wonderful. When he managed to avoid fussy visual contradictions and inconsistencies, Nikolaus Lehnhoff focused the drama with telling characterizations and striking stage pictures. When he didn’t get too muddled in a confusing mixture of architectural periods, John Conklin provided handsome, atmospheric, traditional sets. When he wasn’t slighting the poetry and majesty of the music, Edo de Waart enforced fierce nervous energy.
The cast, furthermore, offered a number of happy revelations. James Morris served notice that he could, with a little time and careful husbanding of resources, become a great Wotan. Gwyneth Jones overcame a few vocal flaws to portray a “Walkuere” Bruennhilde of remarkable impetuosity and pathos. Rene Kollo revealed himself as a Siegfried without contemporary peer.
Helga Dernesch, who has now sung 15 different roles in the “Ring,” repeated her imperious yet sympathetic Fricka and introduced a marvelously heroic, urgent Waltraute. Thomas Stewart, nearing 60, returned as the sad, wry old Wanderer and sounded more authoritative than ever. Michael Devlin created an compelling character study of the weak-willed, neurotic Gunther.
Still, this wasn’t quite the “Ring” McEwen had promised. Nor was it quite the “Ring” to answer the prayers of any dauntlessly perfect Wagnerite.
When he first announced the project, McEwen promised a production that would bring realism and literal romantic fantasy back to the Wagnerian myth. That turned out to be easier promised than delivered.
The inherent hocus-pocus tricks have not withstood the passage of a century very comfortably. In the presumably sophisticated 1980s, it must be difficult to make audiences believe in awesome singing dragons, in dwarfs who turn into toads, in warrior maidens who collect corpses of fallen heroes and fly through the sky on horseback, in seductive mermaids who swim about the stage while harmonizing closely, in black-bearded, black-voiced villains who flaunt horns on their heads and fur on their paunches.
We have seen too many cartoons.
McEwen gave his director and designer a complex mandate. They were to produce a credible, old-fashioned “Ring,” a “Ring” unencumbered with stagy shadows, philosophical murk and modern intellectualism.
Lehnhoff and Conklin seemed to lack the courage, however, of McEwen’s convictions. They came up with an essentially evasive “Ring” that is unabashedly old-fashioned some of the time, haltingly modern some of the time, silly much of the time, and often dependent on devices borrowed from Wieland Wagner and Patrice Chereau.
Lehnhoff has said that he sees the “Ring” as “an allegorical tragedy about men who long for endless power and lose all feeling for love and nature as they strive for it.” That takes care of one layer of meaning in the libretto, but it ignores others, and Lehnhoff didn’t even define his stated interpretation with stylistic fidelity.
Arbitrarily, he set each of the operas in a different season. His “Rheingold” represents spring; “Walkuere,” which, according to the text, is all about spring, represents summer; “Siegfried” takes place in autumn and “Goetterdaemmerung,” which includes a scene that has the Rhine maidens swimming in their favored river, finds us--and them--in icy winter.
Conklin seconded the director’s retrogressive motions by quoting early 19th-Century drawings of Kaspar David Friedrich in his basic designs. Still, the collaborators perpetuated some contradictions that seem no less jarring just because they happen to be intentional.
The same ornate, semi-Grecian portals frame every scene, whether that scene be on a craggy cliff, in a forest cave or on the throne terrace of the gods. What was intended as a unifying scenic metaphor soon becomes a source of alienation.
The sets often clutter the stage with trivia, inhibit the action and juxtapose the past with the present--actually a variety of pasts and presents--in a manner that invokes temporal lies rather than timeless truths. The Nordic characters wear costumes suggesting ancient Rome, mythic Greece, Hitler’s Germany and nostalgically amusing illustrations from an ancient “Victor Book of the Opera.”
McEwen & Co. might have given us a Walt Disney “Ring” without apology. That, at least, might have capitalized on the wonders of modern stagecraft. The technology on display here creaks with age. When the smoke machine can’t be used, Lehnhoff and Conklin simply accept defeat and lower the curtain. None of the longed-for scenic transformations materialize here.
For their purportedly realistic “Ring,” the San Francisco forces adopt a rather cavalier attitude toward realism. Siegfried gets his “live” bear, but Fricka is deprived of her rams, and a ludicrous shield is supposed to stand in for the missing superhorse, Grane. The magic fire is neither magical nor fiery, just smoky. Bruennhilde manages to go to sleep in armor, wake up in a filmy white gown and emerge from her bridal night wrapped in the primitive symbolism of a red dress.
The idea of bringing Loge back to close the cycle is odd, to put it mildly. At the end, the music insists that we think of redemption through love, not the cunning pyromaniacal god. Even if one accepts the Lehnhoff gimmick, however, one must note the inconsistency of its application: If Loge really must accompany the fire music here, then he also should appear at the end of “Walkuere” and at the beginning of the final scene of “Siegfried.”
A similar impulse prompts Lehnhoff to bring on Wotan at the beginning of “Walkuere.” The god opens the door to Hunding’s hut as if he were a celestial stage manager.
Had Wagner wanted this, he would, no doubt, have given us at least a Leitmotivic hint of godly music.
At the climax of the same act, when the door of the dwelling is supposed to fly open to accommodate the allure of Siegmund’s spring, Lehnhoff and Conklin revert to an anachronistic Wieland tradition: The entire wall disappears. That may explain Hunding’s excessive anger with Siegmund, but it hardly honors logic, realism or the composer’s intentions.
Allan Ulrich has already reported on the opening “Rheingold” in these pages.
“Die Walkuere” (June 15) started listlessly. Peter Hofmann and Jeanine Altmeyer, the ideal Volsung twins in Chereau’s Bayreuth, here were better seen than heard. John Tomlinson contributed a mini-Hunding. De Waart conducted insensitively, and the orchestra sounded coarse.
Then, miracles happened in Act Two. Despite an unfocused pianissimo and a penchant for externalizing Hotteresque poses, Morris commanded the stage as a Wotan of uncommon power, stamina and magnetism. Dernesch and Jones engaged him as equals in a painfully poignant struggle for rectitude. De Waart and the orchestra redeemed themselves.
“Siegfried” (June 16) was dominated, as it should be, by the titular hero. Kollo was boyish, aggressive, humorous, sympathetic and ultimately stalwart in a role that defeats most contenders, and though he is hardly a Heldentenor in the Melchior mold, he sang with unparallelled freshness, ease and lyrical strength.
Helmut Pampuch complemented him as a crafty if small-voiced Mime. Walter Berry tried valiantly to mask his good nature and warm baritone in the unpleasant platitudes of Alberich. James Patterson provided a nice, disembodied black bass for an adorably naive Fafner puppet that inspired mirth rather than the wonted terror--small wonder Siegfried could not learn the meaning of fear. Hanna Schwarz’s light mezzo was miscast in the contralto utterances of Erda (no green-faced torso this time, but a veiled, spectral beauty). Cheryl Parrish chirped prettily if not neatly as the forest bird.
The big disappointment, and a very big one, involved Marton’s Bruennhilde. Advance reports suggested the second coming of Nilsson at worst, a combination of Fremstad and Flagstad at best. The matron who awoke on the Valkyrie’s rock, unfortunately, was a shrill, vocally unsteady, dark-toned diva with a Hungarian accent who flounced through generalized dramatic motions.
Although she still evinced little finesse and less character, she improved somewhat in “Goetterdaemmerung” (June 19). But she did not improve enough to justify her reputation or to erase memories of such underrated postwar paragons as Astrid Varnay and Martha Moedl, not to mention Jones.
Kollo held his own handsomely, though one could regret his lack of heroic stature as the world’s greatest hero.
Lehnhoff provided some surprises in the house of the Gibichungs. Gutrune, sensitively enacted by Kathryn Bouleyn, emerged hardly as the bland innocent of yore but as an indulgent sensualist embroiled in an incestuous relationship with her brother--and maybe with her evil half-brother, too. It was fascinating to watch her, though difficult to find any justification of the unorthodox interpretation either in the text or the music.
Lehnhoff transformed the brutish, brooding, hulking Hagen into a spidery little storm trooper. His basso all too small and all too short, Tomlinson went through the prescribed paces diligently. At the end of Act II, those paces included the bloody piercing of a furry doll masquerading as a sacrificial animal.
De Waart led his band through a very bumpy Rhine journey and an anticlimactic funeral march. Though awarded applause worthy of a Furtwaengler, he tended to conduct with concern for haste ueber Alles.
The supertitles, devised by Jerry Sherk and Francesca Zambello, illuminated much textual detail, even for a veteran of many “Ring” wars. Sometimes, however, the translations proved inaccurate or--in the case of such significant names as Wehwalt, Friedmund and Waelse--inadequate. Even more problematic, the text occasionally compromised the work of the best singing actors, flashing a bit of wit before it was uttered or deflecting attention from face to screen.
Dramatic credibility and character development were hampered further by dual casting in a number of key roles. Before the cycle reached its cathartic conclusion, it had seen two different Wotans, two Bruennhildes, two Frickas, two Erdas and two Waltrautes, not to mention a Fricka who turned into Erda, a Norn who turned into Gutrune, and an erstwhile Erda who played the second Fricka before turning into a Norn who turned into Waltraute. One couldn’t tell some of the players without a program.
The San Francisco “Ring” may be tarnished, but it is eminently worth cherishing. It deserves to be honed and polished, partially reconstructed, to be perfected with care and pride. For some strange reason, however, McEwen has elected to stash it in the jewel casket until 1990. A five-year hiatus is dangerously long, even by Wagnerian standards.