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MUSIC : Kupfer’s Controversial New ‘Ring’ in Bayreuth : High-Tech Kitsch

This gemutlich little city, like the exiled warrior-maiden Brunnhilde, sleeps peacefully during most of the year.

Then, for five chaotic weeks, Bayreuth awakens to become a stodgily glamorous mecca for dauntless amateur Wagnerians, for the creme de la creme of conspicuously consuming European society, for a curious collection of visible politicos, for scandal aficionados, voice groupies and music critics.

For better or worse, Bayreuth also becomes an authentic focal point of German culture, past and present.

Richard Wagner built his own festival shrine, with a little help from mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, in 1876. He knew that no ordinary opera house could--or would--stage his sprawling, massive, fantastic, forbidding, mythological tetralogy, “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” with any degree of musical or theatrical credibility. Therefore, he took matters into his own competent, eager, patently unreasonable and wondrously self-serving hands.

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Now, more than a century and 10 different “Ring” cycles later, the world is still grappling with the enormity of this re-creative challenge. Singers who can withstand the 15-hour, four-day marathon--or even selective portions of it--with stamina, much less eloquence, are nearly as rare as dodo birds. Conductors who can sustain momentum, grand lines and architectural logic while leading the massive forces inexorably toward that final cathartic cadence are virtually extinct too.

Then there is the perpetual problem of the stage director. Only one who hasn’t learned the meaning of fear would dare confront Wagner’s convoluted world of conniving men and duped supermen, noble gods and evil dwarfs, droning dragons, rambling norns and other unlikely spirits.

In the bad old days, before World War II, “Ring” stagings invariably reflected and respected a tradition of gently stylized, quasi-realistic, often silly romanticism. Hefty heroes wore bearskins. Gods glowered beneath horned helmets. Villains always sported long beards. Buxom sopranos were adorned with braids and breastplates. Naive canvases depicted trees that looked like trees and rocks that looked like rocks.

Everyone did a lot of swooning, swooping and hyper-pathetic emoting. This was serious work.

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Still, no one took the “Ring” very seriously as theater. The die-hard Wagnerians were willing to suspend disbelief in return for automatic aesthetic uplift. Meanwhile, grateful cartoonists everywhere made canny use of Wagner’s hoary Germanic symbols.

Then came the war, and, with it, the need for reassessment. In recent decades, there have been notable attempts to interpret the drama of the “Ring” in less amusing, less bemusing, hopefully more stimulating terms.

Wagner’s grandson, Wieland, baldly explored the liberating possibilities of stylization and abstraction. Patrice Chereau boldly celebrated the “Ring” centennial with a thinking-man’s version that invoked Shaw, the industrial revolution and several levels of social criticism. Sir Peter Hall came up with pathetically clumsy, hand-me-down rituals while proclaiming a return to nature.

Many Innovations

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This summer it was Harry Kupfer’s turn. Kupfer, 53, is something of an analytical provocateur and, as head of the Komische Oper in East Berlin, a major artistic force on the other side of the wall. He is no newcomer to Wagner, having staged a “Fliegende Hollander” as early as 1961. Nor is he a stranger to Bayreuth, having introduced his celebrated production of the same opera here in 1978. That, incidentally, was the somewhat controversial, ultimately triumphant edition in which the action unfolded, in flashback, as Senta’s psychotic nightmare.

Kupfer actually had dealt with 10 Wagner productions--in such centers as Weimar, Dresden, Berlin and Copenhagen--before undertaking this, his first “Ring” cycle. It turned out to be a crucial trial by fire, mist, water, laser and neon. Some uncharitable observers also regard it as his Waterloo.

No one had expected Kupfer to follow traditional paths. No one, on the other hand, was prepared for the bizarre anachronisms, the relentless exaggerations and contradictions that earned him a lusty chorus of boos after each of the four performances.

“I am not looking for a scandal,” Kupfer told an interviewer. Nor was he looking for an easy success.

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“The people who see this ‘Ring,’ ” he insisted, “should learn something. They should not close their eyes, enjoy the pretty music and think how nice these world-destructions are. I want to give the audience something to think about.”

He certainly did that. Kupfer gave his audience a modern morality play with Brechtian overtones, a fancy light show, a disco parody, a high-tech extravaganza showcasing a series of violent and/or erotic personal encounters. He dabbled in Marx, Engels, Freud and Felsenstein. He turned Siegmund into Tarzan and Siegfried into Rambo.

He kept his cast frantic. Everyone on the stage spent long stretches of time climbing, clattering, staggering, lunging, leaping and, most important, creeping and crawling over Hans Schavernoch’s bleak sets. Reinhard Heinrich actually had to design knee pads into the costumes.

Presiding over what amounted to the world’s most exhaustive and exhausting run ‘n’ roll show, Kupfer offered a little stage magic here and a lot of agitprop flim-flam there. In his not-so-grand finale, he delivered--and not a moment too soon--a jolting Poignant Message rather than the usual apotheosis.

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Just when love should triumph over greed, just when the ultimate tragedy should resolve in wondrous Wagnerian optimism, Kupfer resorted to a flabby gimmick. Brunnhilde’s Immolation turned into a Chernobyl-style conflagration upstage. Meanwhile, downstage, clusters of nonchalant, well-dressed socialites--they looked much like members of the Bayreuth audience--nonchalantly sipped champagne while watching the ultimate catastrophe on TV monitors.

Eventually, a lonely little boy in a tuxedo broke away from the crowd, took a flashlight out of his pocket, found a lonely little girl in another cluster and ushered her away, presumably to a better world. Ah, symbolism.

The image wasn’t particularly heart-rending. But there was more. One could not leave with the comforting, simplistic image of Hansel and Gretel going off in quest of paradise. A dangerous witch still loomed on the horizon--or, to be more accurate, leaned against the proscenium. Alberich, unfortunately, had survived the holocaust.

Presumably, the raucous tragedy could now begin all over again. The idea proved unsettling, for all the wrong reasons.

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To say that Kupfer’s innovations were uneven would be an understatement of Wagnerian proportions. Unabashed strokes of theatrical kitsch coexisted with telling insights and bracing elements of intentional alienation. If the previous Bayreuth “Ring"--Hall’s--suffered from the absence of a unifying concept, Kupfer’s suffered from too many concepts.

With time, perhaps, he will be able to recognize his miscalculations, polish, refocus, make amends. It has happened in Bayreuth before. Until major adjustments are undertaken, however, his “Ring” must be regarded as a bizarre stylistic jumble, and, as such, a fascinating failure.

Too Much Too Soon

Kupfer did not just begin badly. He began prematurely. Before the curtain could rise with the E-flat waves that take us to the depths of the Rhine, he interpolated a feeble episode of unaccompanied mime.

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The stage, dim and stark, revealed a group of people--holocaust survivors?--standing in silent pain--or was it boredom?--on a long runway. They eventually disbursed in convenient mist, leaving a corpse alone in the foreground. Mirabile dictu, the corpse came to life--it was bad old Alberich--and pursued three nymph-like refugees from “Starlight Express” who inhabited a hole in the laser-lit road. These, of course, were the Rhinemaidens.

Soon we met the gods. They turned out to be a scraggly gang of shady proletarians who would have seemed more at home in “Mahagonny” than Valhalla. They all wore 1930s trench-coats and carried empty plexiglass suitcases. Don’t ask why.

Wotan, the one-eyed chieftain, sported glasses with one dark lens. He also happened to sport bright-red hair, a coarse characteristic that, we soon discovered, he shared with all his children--even the otherwise eternally blond Peter Hofmann as Siegmund.

Fricka, the goddess of marriage, impersonated the Widow Begbick. A very bumptious Donner constantly swung his transparent hammer, a prop later to be complemented by transparent plastic spears and swords. Loge emerged as a macabre punk maestro, Freia as a hysterical long-distance sprinter.

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She was sprinting, we discovered, in a vain attempt to elude two funny, old, patently harmless giants in the form of 15-foot automated dolls topped with relatively tiny basso heads. Before the prologue escapade was over, we encountered Nibelheim via a descending steel grid. The dwarfs resembled crazed science-fiction doctors.

The giddy gods finally ascended to their lofty new home in a glitzy neon elevator, waving merrily to the crowd. Forget about the rainbow bridge.

So far, so amusing. Kupfer may not have respected Wagner’s expressive dynamics, but he did at least suggest independent thought and a piquant sense of parody. Moreover, the music at this juncture was able to accommodate the drastic dramatic counterpoint.

The accommodation didn’t hold for long. With each passing hour, one became increasingly concerned about the mismatching of grim theatrics with this vastly colorful score.

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In “Die Walkure,” gods must turn serious, and the mortals tragic. The changes were not properly motivated. In context, the heroic emotions were hardly credible.

Kupfer distracted us with gimmicks, some of them eminently picturesque. Siegmund emerged miles away at the rear of the stage, loped in athletic zigzags down the street of fate, chinned himself on a wall that arose from nowhere to become the roof of Hunding’s Bauhaus bunker. It was here that Sieglinde served bread and tea before engaging her new-found friend in a prolonged, premature, reasonably explicit suggestion of coitus interruptus .

Later, Wotan and Brunnhilde--father and daughter--also indulged in a lot of mutual stroking and rolling. The Walsung twins were obviously not the only characters around here with an inclination for incest. Kupfer’s Wotan also seemed to retain an erotic attraction--a nice touch, this--for his wife, of all people.

In the second act, Wotan committed infanticide, thrusting poor Siegmund against the innocent Hunding’s spear. The “ride” of the Valkyries looked ridiculous: a gaggle of sopranos traipsed awkwardly up and down scaffolding ramps while sculpted globs of shrouded plastic ghosts were wheeled about the stage in tiring circles.

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The magic fire, neither magical nor fiery, consisted of some scraggly laser blasts. Brunnhilde went to sleep in the form of a wax dummy encased in a floating neon cube.

Drama Ignores Music

And so it went. “Siegfried” enjoyed a fanciful first act, with the nature boy inhabiting something that could have been the wreck of an atomic reactor, but also could have been a crumbling U-boat or an abandoned diner. The forest murmurs took place in a multi-leveled sewery maze. The wood bird was a feathery puppet manipulated (clumsily) by a sly, old, meddling Wotan, who also usurped some of the hero’s horn calls.

Brunnhilde awoke to hail the sun in virtual darkness. Nearby stood her hobby horse, borrowed, no doubt, from Seattle. Siegfried clutched his sword in outrageous phallic poses, then fondled her breast in order to motivate his disarmingly naive discovery: “Das ist kein Mann.”

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In “Gotterdammerung,” the norns hung their wire of destiny on TV antennas. The decadent Gibichungs lived amid sky-scrapers--ah, the corruption of New York. The decaying Rhinemaidens, now inhabitants of a strange hydraulic tower, were beginning to lose their hair.

Wotan returned during Siegfried’s funeral to drop his broken sword into the convenient abyss and gaze forgiveness at his errant daughter. This was all illuminating invention. Too bad it wasn’t supported by the Leitmotivic verity of Wagner’s music.

Wagner’s music, not incidentally, seemed of secondary importance in this production. Attempting the “Ring” for the first time, Daniel Barenboim conducted erratically. There were wonderful moments: the lyric poetry of the “Walkure” love scene, or the quirky scherzo impulses of “Siegfried.” Dramatic impulses often got blurred, however, and cumulative tensions were slighted in favor of exaggerated tempos and isolated effects.

Barenboim enjoyed the advantage of a superb orchestra in the covered pit. He also suffered the disadvantage of a somewhat lightweight cast dominated by novices.

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John Tomlinson introduced a tough young Wotan whose gutsy basso was sometimes strained by the baritone tessitura. Franz Mazura supplanted him as the Wanderer, sounding like an intelligent but superannuated Alberich.

Graham Clark was subtly sinister as Loge, marvelously crusty and funny as Mime in “Siegfried.” Gunter von Kannen barked and snarled with splendid menace as Alberich.

Peter Hofmann sounded less athletic than he looked as Siegmund. Siegfried Jerusalem, on the other hand, gave the performance of his life as a robust yet sensitive Siegfried in garage-mechanic’s clothing. He was spelled in “Gotterdammerung” by Reiner Goldberg, a chronically tense Heldentenor under obvious pressure.

America contributed a pleasant, thin-toned Sieglinde in Nadine Secunde and a sympathetic, vocally limited Brunnhilde in Deborah Polaski. Given the apparent limitations of her technique and top range, one worries about her survival in this treacherous repertory.

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Philip Kang, a dark-toned bass from South Korea, sang the notes of the villainous Hagen reasonably but conveyed no character at all. The most urgent and most voluptuous singing of the entire cycle came from Waltraud Meier, who for once made Waltraute’s entreaties seem all too short.

“At no price would I like to experience such performances of the ‘Ring’ again . . . Oh, it was horrible, especially the histrionics and the costumes. Now that we have achieved an invisible orchestra, it may be time for an invisible stage.”

Thus wrote one “Ring” authority--Richard Wagner--to King Ludwig in 1881.

Some things never change.

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