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A Wagner ‘Ring’ that’s sustainably powered

Andreas Kriegenburg's new production of Richard Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.
(Wilfried Hosl, Bavarian State Opera)

MUNICH, Germany — Wagner’s “The Ring of Nibelung” is no picnic.

The epic four-evening mythic drama is the macho challenge with which operas prove themselves. It practically did in Los Angeles Opera when the company finally got around to mounting this monumental if confrontational pillar of Western civilization in 2010.

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The “Ring” has been no picnic, that is until now.

As audience members found their seats at the Bavarian State Opera’s historic National Theater here last month for “Das Rheingold,” the first opera in the cycle, some 100 exceptionally good-looking young people dressed in summer whites (it was snowing outside) were lollygagging on the stage floor. Stagehands brought them refreshments. At curtain time, the picnickers moved to the rear of the stage and stripped to their sheer, flesh-colored undies.

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Couples embraced and rolled on the ground, forming a sea of undulating bodies, which were bathed in cerulean light. Once the company music director and former Los Angeles Opera music director Kent Nagano cued the famous opening low E flat from the depths of the orchestra, this ensemble of supernumeraries had become the river Rhine. Over the course of the “Ring,” the ensemble moved scenery and, forming startling body sculptures, became it.

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This is not a good year to be, as I thought I was, sick and tired of the “Ring” and all the quarrelsome controversy it inevitably engenders. Remember county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich’s vocal disapproval of L.A. Opera’s “Ring,” calling it the “soundtrack of the Holocaust”? Remember the booing that Achim Freyer’s contentiously brilliant production attracted?

But with Wagner’s 200th birthday coming in May, we might as well get used to the “Ring” worming its way into the opera world as never before. No matter how hard the times or great the costs, productions of the cycle abound everywhere, and that means not only Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Bayreuth but also more far-flung places such as Dijon, Melbourne and Seattle.

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While London will be celebrating with a citywide, May-to-June “Wagner 200" festival, the idyllic Cotswolds a few hours west will be staging an intimate “Ring” in a 500-seat opera house. New and reissued “Ring” recordings on just about every digital and analog medium available are already commandeering unconscionable amounts of shelf space and clogging computer hard drives.

Maybe that’s why Munich’s picnic, hosted by Andreas Kriegenburg, proved irresistibly welcoming.

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A stage director with little opera experience and not well known outside sophisticated German theater circles, Kriegenburg has stripped the “Ring” of much of its baggage for the theater where the first two operas in the cycle had their premieres. He has gone back to essentials, reinventing and updating them. In doing so, he has sought and found one of art’s greatest gifts — a sense of renewal.

A revival from last summer and scheduled to return this summer, Munich’s production is, thus, not only the Wagner year’s first “Ring” but the right “Ring” for our time — the freshest, least self-conscious and most memorable “Ring” that I have seen or heard about in nearly 40 years. On top of that, this is a remarkably responsible “Ring.”

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The price tag for the four long operas together, a representative from Bavarian State Opera said, was 3 million euros (around $4 million). L.A.'s “Ring” came in at nearly eight times that amount, as did the Metropolitan Opera’s lumbering high-tech “Ring,” which will be remounted in the spring and which just won an inexplicable Grammy in its video incarnation.

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The joyful essence of Munich’s production is its ecological point of view, which makes a virtue of reducing the technology on stage. The first three operas in the cycle almost feel like a Zen “Ring.” The stage is a simple, elegant wood box, with many hidden trap doors and movable walls. That movement comes from man-and-woman power; the supers push and pull everything.

The minimalist approach does not mean a lack of visual stimulation, though, not when so many bodies on the stage can erupt at any time into a circus. But the possibilities of a bare stage are also potently exploited, allowing for drama intensely focused on characters given a vivid relevance found only in the most intense contemporary dramatic theater. Gods, giants and those creepy underworld dwarfs are treated as real people. Sexual tension, always a high point in Wagner, is strong. The sex, not always a high point in a Wagner staging, is convincing.

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Kriegenburg rethinks everything. How, for instance, can music that once raised goose bumps still provoke after “Apocalypse Now” and an explosion of “Ride of Valkyries” ring tones? Kriegenburg begins the third act of “Die Walküre” with a formation of female dancers in diaphanous gowns and heavy boots. They stomp for maybe 10 irritating, improvised minutes. The night I saw them, the audience became enraged, jeering and beginning to turn nasty. But when the “Ride of Valkyries” finally began, you got the point. The music was, once more, frightful.

Another controversial scene in the production comes in the first act of “Siegfried,” the third and least loved opera in the cycle. Kriegenburg’s interpretation of the hero-to-be is not of some kind of proto- or updated neo-Nazi but, true to Wagner, an uncorrupted and joyful child of nature. So when Siegfried forged his magic sword, the stage erupted into a playground full of inspired silliness. Bicycle pumps powered bellows. Sparks from the metal work were glitter. Such fun is not for all Wagnerians. There were more boos.

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As for the dragon that Siegfried slays, all dragons look ridiculous, so the best directors leave them to the audience’s imagination. Here, though, the dragon’s head consisted of a few dozen horrid-looking, squirming supers. That was actually disturbing.

In “Götterdämmerung,” the six-hour conclusion to the “Ring,” the scene shifts from nature and the world of the gods to that of man, and set designer Harald B. Thor replaced the Zen box with an ultra-modern high rise that might be fit for an oil-rich Gulf prince. That prince, Gunther, and his sister, Gutrune, represented for Wagner decadent weakness.

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Kriegenburg went further and made them all more the loathsome by having Gunther sexually abuse his maids, including forcing one to spread her legs when Gunther required a target for golf practice. His spoiled-brat sister amusingly observed the scene while rocking on a chair shaped like the symbol for the euro.

In the “Ring,” all must perish in a great cleansing conflagration so that civilization can begin anew and nature restore itself. How that is supposed to happen is anyone’s guess. Kriegenburg’s directorial stroke of genius was to save Gutrune. If she can undergo a transformation through this extreme trial by fire, if she can change, then maybe the world can too.

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None of this would have worked without Nagano’s suave and sensitive conducting or a theatrically astute cast. The orchestra, which played with great beauty, functioned like a musical Rhine, ever flowing, its colors ever changing. But when Nagano, who was conducting his first “Ring,” let the brass or percussion go, he let them go big time, as if an avant-gardist had added a few flourishes to the score the other week when no one was looking. That was breathtaking.

The cast I saw for the single winter cycle was a less starry event than it will be when it returns for the Bavarian State Opera summer festival and thus featured few famed Wagnerian veterans, often relying instead on younger newcomers. But even so, this is not a typical “Ring.” It is meant to be seen over five days (not the usual six, seven or eight), which requires considerable turnover of singers from night to night.

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The light touch that Nagano brought made the performance ideal for the young voices and allowed space for strong acting. Most remarkable of all, there were almost no disappointments (unheard-of for a modern “Ring”) among the singers. All this new talent, moreover, only further enhanced the belief in a “Ring” renewal.

I was struck by Elisabeth Kulman’s youthful sexuality as Wotan’s wife, Fricka (who is usually more a harridan); by Stefan Margita’s wonderfully malicious Loge (the fire god); by the athleticism (vocally and physically) of Evelyn Herlitzius’ Brünnhilde in “Walküre”; by Lance Ryan’s frolicsome and charismatic Siegfried. The biggest name was Nina Stemme, whose magnificently swelling soprano easily won the crowd over to her Brünnhilde in “Götterdämmerung,” but here she was almost too grand.

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This “Ring” will not be documented. Nagano said that the rights couldn’t be cleared for all the singers. But that is probably as it should be. Renewal is not a reproducible quality.

Nagano will lead the production only one more time. This summer he ends seven sometimes turbulent but noteworthy seasons with one of the world’s oldest and largest opera companies, during which he has premiered such notable operas as Unsuk Chin’s fantastical “Alice” (originally commissioned for L.A. Opera) and earlier this season Jörg Widmann’s extravagant “Babylon.”

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In 2015, Nagano will take over the Hamburg Opera, and the Californian conductor, who still maintains a home in San Francisco, has also assumed the post of principal guest conductor and artistic advisor of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden while continuing as music director of the Montreal Symphony.

Kriegenburg’s “Ring” thus presumably will be handed over to the young Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko, the next music director of the Bavarian State Opera. He happens to be conducting the Bayreuth Festival’s new “Ring” production this summer. And the production probably won’t likely be around for long. The Bavarians tend to put on new “Rings” every few years.

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Nor has the reception for the efforts of Kriegenburg and Nagano been much more than lukewarm. The company has compensated by trying to make a sensation any way it can, even going so far as to invite last summer the American photographer Spencer Tunick to line up more than a thousand nudes early one morning in front of the National Theater.

Tunick’s video of the occasion is shown in the lobby during intermissions of the “Ring” performances (and can be found on YouTube). But all of this, one Wagnerian told me while happily glowering at the nudes between acts of “Götterdämmerung,” was simply too Californian. His idea of a picnic requires baskets overflowing with sausage, heavy dark bread and rich potato salad supplemented by pitchers of foamy beer.

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But the opera world needs these days a sustainable “Ring.” And for at least a little while among this year’s dozens of “Rings,” we’ve got one.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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