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By Glenn Loney, July 28, 2003

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.

New "Flying Dutchman"
Second "Tannhäuser"Season
Light Dying in "Lohengrin"

Flimm's "Ring" Repeats

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"FLYING DUTCHMAN STAIRS"--Engineered to hold the entire Bayreuth's Chorus. Photo:© Glenn Loney/INFOGRAPHY/2003

A New "Flying Dutchman" Docks In an Immense German Living-Room!

Richard Wagner's mythic opera, "Der fliegende Holländer", is based on an old, old sea-story about a blasphemous ship-captain who was cursed by God to roam the oceans forever on his rotting black ship, with a skeletal crew of zombie-sailors. His only hope for redemption is finding a pure young maiden who will love him unconditionally.

This grim legend has recently been amusingly recycled by Walt Disney Studios for "Pirates of the Caribbean". Johnny Depp's damned ship is called the Black Pearl. But neither he nor his nautical nemesis finds an innocent Senta to redeem him.

With the astonishing premiere of Bayreuth's new ""Holländer"" production, however, some viewers feared that even more adventurous conceptualists than the Disney team had been at work in the shops and on the stage of Wagner's historic "Festspielhaus".

The entire opera takes place in an immense two-story living-room—or in a foyer of a Grand Hotel somewhere in Germany between the wars. Because this grand space—dominated by a great unsupported staircase, which rises in three stages to a second-floor doorway—looked so sterile, so barren, so unlived-in, some spectators opted for the Grand Hotel Lobby scenario.

Dr. Joachim Kaiser, dean of South German music-critics, took issue with this unusual—if highly imaginative—production because almost all of the high drama and visual shocks implicit in Wagner's Romantic/Gothic libretto and score were missing—or muted by the concept. Certainly some of the stage-pictures seemed almost placidly—or defiantly—at odds with the thunde"Ring"s of Wagner's score.

Kaiser is correct in thinking that someone who had never before seen ""Holländer"" in performance would have no idea of the original story. Even those Wagner-novices who had taken the trouble to read the text, or even to scan a synopsis, would surely have had difficulty recognizing the tale Wagner set to music.

But for older Wagner fans who know the opera well—and who may also have seen more than enough traditional 19th century-style productions over the years—director Claus Guth's new interpretation of the libretto and characters is an exciting revelation.

In Wagner's original text, the innocent Senta's obsessive romantic longing for the doomed Dutchman—whom she knows only from a mysterious painting on her chamber wall and from tales told of his bizarre damnation—seems strange indeed. No psychological explanations are offered or even implied by Wagner. He presents the ghostly horrors as fact. Freud was too far in the future when this compelling opera was composed…

But Bayreuth is an Opera Workshop where the Master's greatest works are always opened up for close analysis and re-thinking—or re-visioning—of characters, motivations, symbolic significances of the plots, even psychological sub-texts to the scores themselves. Innovative stage-director Harry Kupfer's vision and revision of ""Holländer"" was, in that regard, a stroke of genius. So much so that Wagner's daughter-in-law, Winifred Wagner, once complained to me: "Kupfer has made Senta into a schizophrenic!"

Now director Claus Guth has given Bayreuth audiences a different Senta Psychology. Spectators get to experience the Dutchman Legend—and Senta's infatuation with it—at two stages of her strange life: as a little girl and as an immature hysterical woman, trapped in her obsessions.

Guth shows Senta as a child, leaning against her somewhat cold, distant father's leg, as he reads her the Dutchman's story again and again. He sits in a big armchair, with a large floor-lamp at one side, in his spacious but virtually empty living-room. The curved wall behind him is pierced by four nobly-framed doors. From down-stage-right to high over his head, the great staircase curves gracefully upward to a second-floor, also pierced with four handsomely framed-openings. Three are windows and one a door, but all are playable.

This is certainly quite a bourgeoise venue for Wagner's ""Holländer"". No docks, harbor, or sea in sight! But the reason for their mysterious absence soon becomes hauntingly clear: When the Dutchman appears, he is dressed like Senta's father. He has the same beard, the same pipe, the same mannerisms: he could be her father's double.

True, Daland, her dad, looks less like an adventurous sea-captain than a North German Lloyd Lines shipping-executive. But that may be the point: ancho"Ring" Senta's romantic fantasies in a recognizable reality. For that matter, the Dutchman looks less doomed than baffled at Senta's attentions.

Not only is the young Senta obsessed with the story—her father reads it over and over to her—but also with the actual story-book itself. She even has a Dutchman doll and puppet-theatre.

Toward the close of the opera—when a frantic middle-aged Senta is seeking to save the elusive Dutchman—the puppet-idea returns in a grisly fashion. An immense skeleton Dutchman-puppet in storm-gear appears from inside the proscenium border—which is, oddly enough, called "the Dutchman" in backstage parlance. The bony arms of this giant puppet reach down and seize a Senta puppet-doll and carry it upward, out of sight.

COLOR-CO-ORDINATED FLYING--Rail with controls for flying scenery in Bayreuth's Festspielhaus

This would seem an amazingly intuitive, even visually fantastic, solution to the central problem of the redemption of the Dutchman. In Wagner's

libretto, Senta finally fears to give herself definitively to the "Holländer", leaving him to sail off in bitter disappointment at her betrayal. As his ship disappears, in a sudden change of heart, she leaps from the dock into the turbulent sea.Is her sacrifice only a useless suicide, or does it finally redeem the Dutchman?

For his Bayreuth premiere of the work, Wagner had puppets of Senta and the Dutchman created. In the final moments of the powerful score, the two lovers ascended—as puppet-figures—above the waves into the heavens. So Guth and his design-team had the authority of Wagner's own practice in the use of puppets. But Wagner's resort to such doll-images suggested a more conventional religiosity than a childhood psychological impulse to obsession.

The chorus of village women and their sailor-husbands—customarily confronted with the appalling realization that the Dutchman's cursed crew are dead men—are quite transformed. The sailors are all like live toys, robotic in movement, with identical sailor-suits and caps, and Pinocchio-noses like long carrots.

The women who throng the grand staircase, completely cramming it, are all smartly dressed in nautical attire, as is Senta throughout the opera. But they behave rather more like Jazz Age flappers. This is especially so in what traditionally would be the spinning-scene. Obviously, the events of Wagner's opera are all taking place in Senta's head…

But Wagner's score certainly does require a Wagnerian storm at sea and the horrifying apparition of the Dutchman's black ship. This effect Guth and his designers manage brilliantly with suggestive abstract projections on the rear wall of the lower part of the living-room set.

The room disappears, replaced by the agitated motion of the projections. The upper triangle of stage-wall above the curving stairs at this point is completely concealed with rich red curtains, so the sense of a grand room is negated. Christian Schmidt has brilliantly conceived and designed the set, costumes, and set-props. Manfred Voss, now retiring after many years with the Festival, created the lighting, so important to the visual success of Guth and Schmidt's special effects. Video credits go to Werner Penzel and Nicolas Humbert.

Guth makes a visual running-gag of Wagner's steersman. Instead of staying at the helm of Daland's ship, he wanders through the opera with a guttering candle, like Diogenes searching for an honest man.

There have certainly been unusual, even post-modernist, reworkings of Wagner's operas at Bayreuth before. In fact, they are virtually the rule now—with the possible exception of the doomed Peter Hall "Ring"—but not all of them have proved visually and/or emotionally effective. The first year of the Patrice Chereau "Ring" was surely a misfire in some notable scenes. These gaffes were brilliantly corrected, however, in the second summer of that now memorable "Ring" Cycle.

But the new Guth/Schmidt "Holländer" plays so powerfully now that it is difficult to imagine how it might be improved next summer. I am eagerly looking forward to seeing it again, as there were so many layers, visually and emotionally, that I did not have time to explore on a first-seeing of this dynamic production.

Obviously, the cumulative effect of this production is not owing entirely to the ingenuity of its conception and design. But, being design and tech-oriented, that is where I almost always begin my accounts of new productions.

None of Guth's ideas would have worked, however, had it not been for the remarkable acting and vocal performance of Adrienne Dugger as Senta. Paralleled by the mute performance of Senta as a little girl—not credited in the program insert.

As mariner look-alikes, Jaakko Ryhänen's Daland and John Tomlinson's Dutchman were very well-matched. But also well-contrasted, considering what they represent to the young girl Senta and to the mature/immature Senta. Endrick Wottrich's Eric suggested a virile male of whom Senta was sexually afraid. Uta Priew was an unusual Mary—in a household where spinning flax is no longer needed. Tomislav Muzek was an admirably consistent Steuermann, but he never found his honest man.

Marc Albrecht's vital conducting was enlivening the Concept every step of the way. Eberhard Friedrich's chorus—surely the best opera-chorus in the world, if only for five weeks every summer—was not only musically marvelous, but also astonishing as actors. Many seemed to have developed individual characters, which made the new vision of this masterwork even more impressive.

Some in the audience later expressed misgivings about the great unsupported staircase carrying so many choristers. Indeed, I feared it might sag or crumple at any moment. Fortunately, on a Spielfrier Tag, or performance-free day, Matthias Lippert, of the Festival's tech department, took me and Oregon Shakespeare Festival chief-designer, Richard L. Hay, on a backstage tour.

Not only were we able to photograph a genial Wolfgang Wagner—the 83-year-old Festival Director—embracing his tech staff, but Lippert showed us the "Holländer" staircase up close. It is a marvel of engineering, welded steel, completely separate from the upper and lower walls of the room it seems to cling to. You could put elephants, as well as choristers, on that staircase and it would not sag.

ASTROTURF AND FAKE CARNATIONS--Detail of meadow for "Tannhäuser". Photo:Glenn Looney/INFOGRAPHY/2003

"Tannhäuser"Revisited, But Not Much Revised

As I noted last summer, the Bregenz stagings of director/designer Philippe Arlaud have been both innovative and impressive. He is especially ingenious in his use of color in lighting his sets and costumes. Sometimes, however, this seems more in service of these special elements than of the plot and the characters in action. The late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle—who also directed and designed—admitted that this could happen if the designer-side of the internal collaboration was trying to call attention to its contribution.

Last season's "Tannhäuser" premiere certainly showed some of that designer-disjunction at work. The basic setting for the first and third acts, for me, was a visual atrocity, with its multiple Astroturf arches and inclines, studded with what looked like Buddy-Poppies. Upstage, the arches formed an empty eye-socket—for no apparent or symbolic reason.

Worst of all—damaging both visually and dramatically—the Pilgrims on their way to Rome oozed out of that eye-socket, coming over the lower lid out of nowhere. Moving downstage, they soon disappeared into a slit in the ground, facilitated by the forward section of Astroturf rising up to swallow them. Like the Pied Piper leading the rats of Hamlin-town to their doom! Or Manhattan commuters vanishing into the Subway!

This is not at all an impressive way to march off to Rome to see the Pope.

Had these Pilgrims been Lutheran, instead of Catholic Thuringians, they wouldn't have been going off to Rome in any case. Their mass-exit would be more like descending into Hell—which is an image which momentarily struck me, even though I know from the text that they are Rome-bound. Unfortunately, this awkward method of getting the chorus off-stage is not one which is at all musically or emotionally suggested by Wagner's score. In fact, it is anti-dramatic…

But the Pilgrims' climactic return from Rome was even stranger. Instead of climbing up out of the bowels of the Earth again—where they had gone in search of the Pope—they appeared in force again through the empty eye-socket, which was not the way back from Rome in Act One.

But Bayreuth is, after all, a Workshop. So I was sure that Wolfgang Wagner, Arlaud, or someone would decide that this set had to be discarded, re-designed, or used in a rather different way. No such luck! It seems totally unchanged in design, function, and stage-direction.

On my backstage tour, however, I was able to see how this complicated setting had been designed and constructed. Indeed, it seems a wonder of structural engineering, the various arches folding back like a fan for compact storage. And the forward flap is so solidly constructed—rigged to ride upward and backward on tracks—that it would be fiscal folly to discard it. And virtually impossible to redesign or rebuild it for more effective staging of Acts One and Three.

Last summer, Arlaud's love of color and lighting made the gold, red, and black mini-amphitheatre of the Wartburg's great hall into a glittering jewel-box. It was crammed with courtiers in "Mikado"-inspired costumes for Act Two's Teure Halle scene. The real Hall in the historic Wartburg Castle surely never looked so good! After years of DDR mis-maintenance, it certainly doesn't look very impressive now.

This was setting was indeed handsome to look at, but Arlaud's murky stage-direction made it almost impossible to understand who was who, or what was going on in the confrontations of the contesting Minnesingers.

This past summer, however, the scene had been effectively re-staged—with no changes in sets or costumes—so that the dangerous drama of the Battle of Singers was powerfully clear and even darkly exciting. Whether Arlaud worked this out himself, or had some helpful input from Wolfgang Wagner—not to mention the critics who had complained—it now works very well indeed.

In 2002, Roman Trekel was the most effective of the cast, in the role of "Tannhäuser" 's abused friend, Wolfram Von Eschenbach. He had already distinguished himself as the Heerrufer in Bayreuth's "Lohengrin". This past summer, he again shone in both roles. But this time, Glenn Winslade—who seemed overtaxed as "Tannhäuser" in 2002—came into his own in vocal power and acting-presence. He now seems a tenor worth watching.

Quite as powerful, in his way, was Kwangchul Youn as Landgraf Hermann of Thuringia. And, thanks to redirection of Act Two, he seemed much more magisterial in the Teure Halle. Although in no way able to restrain "Tannhäuser" from his epic act of folly…

Elizabeth has to put up with a lot in this opera—not to mention in this production. Ricarda Merbeth now seems equal to the challenges. As Venus, however, Barbara Schneider-Hofstetter was at even more of a design/directorial disadvantage.

Arlaud has positioned her on what seems to be the World's Biggest Laptop PC. On both sides, it is being impacted by two enormous glaciers. This Venusberg could be sited somewhere on Mount Everest. The scene is bluishly cold, not suggestive of a Hot Time Under the Hill, which is certainly in the music and libretto. Instead of a lascivious orgy-ballet, some Golden Girls—who look like fugitive Rheinmädchen—are cavorting in the very limited playing-space.

This production still needs work, but redesigning or rebuilding the settings seem out of the question. The singers will just have to help the composer save the his own opera… Of course, conductor Christian Thielemann will do what he can as well. The best thing about the entire production, at present, is the chorus.

GHOST-ARMY IN STORAGE--Mock fronts of armor for facade of rows of Knights in "Lohenrin". Photo:©Glenn Loney/INFOGRAPHIE/2003

The Light Is Dying in "Lohengrin"

When Keith Warner's production of "Lohengrin" premiered in 2001, it was a revelation. After a number of recent Romantic/Fantastic productions—and the bizarre post-modernist circus of the Munich "Lohengrin"—the vision of Brabant as T. S. Eliot's "Wasteland" was a stroke of visual and metaphoric genius. This concept was as much Warner's as set-designer Stefanos Lazaridis' idea. And Sue Blane's costumes contributed to the haunting symbolism, a far cry from her outfits for that cult-object, "The Rocky Horror Show"…

I was tremendously impressed the first season, and more so the second, when some helpful changes in set, lighting, and staging made murky and mysterious matters more clear. Even if the lighting did seem to have become darker. Now, the third time around, the production seems even darker than before, certainly as defeatist and despairing as one could imagine. This time, I found it immensely depressing, though musically powerful as ever.

But then both Warner and Lazaridis had initially noted that this is Wagner's only opera without a hint of redemption for the principals. The return of the enchanted Gottfried to his people at the close provides no real closure for those main characters still alive. Any potential redemption would lie outside and beyond this fable. In any case, the swan has become a young boy, not a mature ruler, which Brabant certainly needs at this time. And the historic Gottfried of the House of Cleves was a disaster, especially in the Holy Land…

Peter Seiffert only seems to grow in power and authority as "Lohengrin". Reinhard Hagen still seems at risk to make it through the opera as King Heinrich. Roman Trekel remains centrally strong in the production, although his is not really a central role. His stature, bearing, and voice command authority.

Petra-Maria Schnitzer does her best as the pathetic Elsa: wan, colorless, clueless. Elsa has to be one of Wagner's most hopeless, helpless heroines. Even the saintly Elizabeth would have sent Ortrud packing. Eva wouldn't have let her in the house.

Judit Nemeth's Ortrud has "Villainess" written all over her. It's perhaps a bit extreme, too unsubtle? John Wegner's Telramund is an appropriate tool for Ortrud's schemes: she gets the Hit Man she deserves. Sir Andrew Davis conducted with a subtle appreciation of the darkness of this production and its vision of epic hopelessness in life and love. Fortunately, the remarkable Bayreuth Chorus provided some of the most powerful, even temporarily uplifting, musical moments in this grim production.

For those who have not read about this staging, here are some previous comments, recycled for your information:

When King Henry arrives with his Saxon army, they don't just march on. Instead, an immense stage-wide elevator descends from the flies, bearing two long rows of soldiers clad in full armor and in full voice. With the king enthroned in the center. This elevation above the stage-"Wasteland" also serves to distance them historically, making them almost ghostly.

Later this effect is repeated and magnified by having three rows of fully armored knights—36 in all—suspended above this elevator. These figures are dummies—but the optical impression is terrifying: five rows of knights, instead of two…

Using an unusual machine specially devised for this staging, Lazaridis has created a square stage-space which appears between two mounds of "Wasteland". It can revolve, incline, move up and down, and disappear, all of which it does with great effect. At one point, it slants down toward stage-right, one corner aimed at the audience. From its four sides, small platforms slide out, forming a kind of cross. With Elsa in the center, the King, Ortrud, Telramund, and "Lohengrin" confront her on all sides.

For Elsa's wedding-preparations, a long drawbridge descends from downstage right, joining the platform extension. She is asleep on the center platform, surrounded by a swan-like swath of cloth. It's her bridal veil, which is then held high aloft by her maidens on the long incline toward upstage left. Soon, another drawbridge descends upstage, disappearing into the wings, with a long shaft of white light shooting down this long slope.

Manfred Voss's lighting is masterful, especially as it is so sparingly used. There is a great deal of silhouetting, of striking backlighting. Even with a stage full of people, one character can be instantly isolated. Even dim footlighting is highly effective.

Warner and Lazaridis have ingeniously avoided the clichés of staging the famously pompous Wagner "Wedding March." Instead, it begins forebodingly, with Ortrud and Telramund silhouetted against an immense revolving black cube. The cube disappears into the flies to reveal the central square. A Victorian chair and a chaise—earlier used by the villains—are the only wedding-chamber furnishings. No bed at all. A white square is surrounded by a moat of real water. When all hope is lost, the square tilts almost vertically and spills the water into a little fore-stage pool.

Lazaridis says: "The swan is only a metaphor." So it's no surprise to see no Swan-Boat. When "Lohengrin" appears, he comes through a blazing cleft in the hazy background—two immense doors, which immediately disappear again. At the close, however, young Gottfried appears upstage with a dead white swan in his arms.

Keith Warner is dubious about Gottfried's restoration as a new hope for Brabant. But this may be Wagner's sop to audiences after such a bleak four hours of unmitigated tragedy. Unlike the fabled Grail Knight who heals the Fisher King's dying land, the real Gottfried was bad news. Warner notes: "The historical Godfrey de Bouillon undertook a Crusade to Jerusalem, which resulted in the torture and deaths of 50,000 Jews."

DOWN IN THE PIT-Wagner's famous sunken orchestra-pit, with neo-classic auditorium seen above it. Photo: Glenn Looney/INFOGRAPHY/2003

The "Ring" Re-Visited: Flimm's Vision Not Flimsy

Next summer, in July and August 2004, Jürgen Flimm's innovative staging of Wagner's "Ring" Cycle will be seen for the last time, completing the customary five-year run of Bayreuth "Ring" productions. Only Peter Hall's mis-conceived "Ring" petered out after four years…

There won't be another Bayreuth "Ring" until 2006. This will certainly be worth all efforts to get tickets as it is to be directed by the Scandinavian film-director Lars Von Trier. He has never staged any opera before, let alone this most challenging of all Wagner's works. And he's on record as not being much of an opera-fan either. Wait and see!

The problem, of course, is getting to see any opera in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, not to mention a complete "Ring" Cycle of four operas. Currently, there are over a hundred requests for every ticket for every seat for every performance during the five-week summer season at Bayreuth. But if you do get the "Ring", you will surely get all four of the operas. The Wagners have always wanted their guests to see the work in its entirety. Lucky "Ring" ticket-holders are not supposed to share out their seats, seeing "Rheingold" and Siegfried, while letting someone else have their seats for "Walküre" and "Götterdämmerung".

Every new Bayreuth "Ring" Cycle is intended to be both surprising and innovative. Few have disappointed—even Hall's was something of an unintentional scandal. Going way back to 1956—when I first began going to Bayreuth, buying my own tickets as I had no idea about press-seats or reviewing shows—I have seen every new "Ring" production. Some of the most memorable ones I have seen several summers running.

Last summer, I missed seeing the Flimm "Ring" again, owing to a tight schedule. Fortunately, I did see it this summer and realized once again what a brilliant metaphor it is for human life as lived over the ages. And how amazingly Jürgen Flimm has made all its characters come alive as real people, despite the often monumental music they have to sing.

This is surely because Flimm is essentially a drama-director, one of the best in German-language theatre today. Many opera stage-directors have no idea how to help their singers give their heroes and heroines a human dimension. If a tenor or soprano hasn't a clue about Building a Character or how to move and react as real people do in tense situations, these directors can't help them. Especially in the short periods usually available for most opera rehearsals. Traffic-Management on stage is the best one can hope for in many cases…

Flimm's staging of the "Ring"'s initial opera, Das "Rheingold"—the intermissionless prelude to the much longer trilogy remaining—could stand entirely alone as an exciting—even amusing at times—drama of larger-than-life human-beings. You know people like these, even though here they are gods, giants, and even dwarfs.

In fact, so dramtically and believably effective are the singer/players in their roles that this production could be dynamic, fascinating theatre—even without the music

! In many a modern production, Loge, the mischievous God of Fire, suggests some kind of ethereal, if pyrotechnical, spirit. In Arnold Bezuyen, Flimm has found an ideal Macher of a Loge. Although a stocky, even bulky man, he moves with easy grace and boundless energy. He's also immaculately tailored in a smart suit which he wears with the elegance of a consummate Confidence Man.

Although he shares his contempt for Wotan and the other gods with the audience, he never lets the others on stage get a clue about what he's really thinking. Bezuyen's facial expressions, spontaneous and premeditated gestures, and, indeed, his entire Body-Language provide a masterful portrayal of the kind of business-man who would have a Cabinet Post in the Bush Administration. What's more, all his athletic and energetic movements, leaps, and dodges do not impair his vocal excellence in the role. Rather, they add to it.

This is also true of all the others in "Rheingold", some to a lesser degree, as their roles are not so central. And seldom has a Wagner cast been required to be so physical in performance. Mime especially seems in danger of real harm from Siefried.

The gods are also somewhat grounded, distanced from their mythic images. Fricka, for example, is not the customary stereotypical shrew. She may be a goddess, but she is also a wife much wronged. Wotan has so often deceived and lied to her, wariness and moral-armor have now become her constant postures.

The greedy dwarf Alberich—as a successful, boastful, but somewhat primitive mining-magnate—could be Henry Clay Frick. In Flimm's hands—and with the talents of his wonderful actor/singers—these almost metaphoric and certainly symbolic figures become incredibly real. The sad sufferings of Sieglinde, the malicious maneuverings of Mime, the betrayals of Brünnhilde, the blustering childishness of Siegfried: these could all be Oscar-winning performances in a Flimm film of The "Ring". But these images aren't projected moving transparencies. They are living, breathing, painfully, even joyously, REAL.

As Wotan, Alan Titus grows each season in stature and humanity. I can remember him as a student singer with the Bronx Opera decades ago. How far he has come, and how admirably! Philip Kang's Fafner—as well as his quite different Hunding—is amazing. [At Australia's Perth Festival last winter, he was amazing as Hagen.] Not to overlook the acting and singing talents of Michael Howard [Mime], Hartmut Welker [Alberich], Mihoko Fujimura [Fricka], Wolfgang Schmidt [Siegfried], and Evelyn Herlitzius as Brünnhilde. Simone Schröder's Erda could break your heart. Violeta Urmana certainly would as Sieglinde—though Robert Dean Smith is a bit light-weight for Siegmund.

One of the most affecting moments in Flimm's entire "Ring" Cycle is the tense encounter between Brünnhilde and her sister Valkyrie, Waltraute, as played and sung by Lioba Braun. The depth of Waltraute's frantic desperation to save Valhalla and the gods—virtually ignored by Brünnhilde, now no longer a Valkyrie and blissfully brimming with joy for Siegfried's love—was truly heart-breaking.

Comparing this "Ring" two weeks later with the Scottish Opera's newly completed Cycle, I realized how much the apparent power of the Scots' production was aided by the supertitles. There are none at Bayreuth, however. But the brilliance of the portrayals—guided by Flimm's remarkable Personnen-Regie, the emotional power of the vocal interpretations—also influenced by the direction, and the stunning inventiveness of designer Erich Wonder's Post-Modernist Post-Industrial environments make this "Ring" almost immediately understandable. Even when the sung German is not all that clearly articulated: Actions here often speak louder than words, spoken or sung!

Adam Fischer's able conducting also had a great deal to do with the final effect, however. And, although Eberhard Friedrich's Chorus is only in action in the final opera, it is also magisterial and totally believable as a group of employees in what seems to be a glass and steel corporate HQ!

Next summer, 2004, will be your last chance to see this remarkable production—which unfortunately has not been videotaped for commercial release. But ticket-demand is now so great that even longtime members of the Society of Friends of Bayreuth may have to wait six or seven years to get tickets.

The following season, 2005, five of Wagner's operas will be performed in repertory. A new "Parsifal" is promised. But no "Ring"…

If you cannot find archived on this website the detailed descriptions of the Flimm "Ring" in its premiere Bayreuth season, here are a few quotes:

For such a short opera, "Rheingold" contains several important locations and a lot of action. Wotan and his family of gods are discovered on the construction-site of a skyscraper Valhalla. Tables with architects' plans stand before a scrim showing the incomplete high-rise. Entrances made behind the scrim, down scaffolding-steps, are visible, suggesting the insubstantiality of Wotan's plans and schemes. The invention of the elevator made skyscrapers feasible, a fact not lost on designer Erich Wonder. Even in the depths of the Rhine, there is an elevator-cabin on a cog-rack reaching up into the flies. This is one of Wonder's design -elements which recurs as the "Ring" progresses There are even architectural footnotes, with small models of Valhalla, a Nibelheim mine shaft-house and head-frame, and the Post-Modernist steel and glass Gibichung's Hall.

As in Wagner's libretto, there is a serious financial crisis for Wotan and Co. Cost-overruns mean Wotan cannot pay the skyscraper-builders, the giants Fasolt and Fafner. Wotan has to let them take his wife Fricka's sister, Freia, as a hostage against final payment. Without her mythical golden apples, the gods promptly age, verging rapidly on decrepitude.

Loge, the trickster God of Fire, urges Wotan to go deep into the earth to take the stolen "Rheingold" from his opposite, Alberich. Loge's costume is the epitome of an Edwardian sporting gent. Taking the elevator down to Nibelheim, Wotan and Loge find Alberich—in a three-piece suit—at his roll-top desk in an office set up in a cargo-container. On either side, dwarfs—in what look like radiation-safe uniforms—feverishly sort pieces of raw gold at individual work-tables.

When Alberich has been tricked and tied up by his devious visitors, he's forced to give up his horde of gold, plus the newly forged "Ring" and the helmet—here only a cloth—of invisibility, the "Tarnhelm". To deliver the treasure to the surface, Wonder has provided an opening of a mine-shaft, complete with a tracks and small flat-bed freight-wagons to transport the sacks of gold. This trackage even has a turntable, so Fafner can scoot his loot offstage, after murdering his brother giant.

The ruins of this rail-system turn up again in "Siegfried", as Wotan returns to earth as the Wanderer to see how his grandson is developing. To emphasize the parallels between Wotan and Alberich—whose son, Hagen, will later murder Wotan's grandson, Siegfried, and blast all of Wotan's hopes of power, even of survival—Flimm has added a young prep-school Hagen to the cast, something Wagner neglected to do. Of course, he is mute, but costumer Florence Von Gerkan has outfitted him with school-uniform blue-blazer and chinos. Apparently, while Siegfried has been learning to forge swords in the cave of the evil dwarf, Mime, young Hagen has been coming back home to Alberich's Underworld Lair on weekends for help with his math.

In the second opera, "Die Walküre", Wotan's earthly twin children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, discover each other in Hunding's Hut. She is married to the warrior Hunding, and her previously unknown brother is on the run. Wonder's interior is anything but a hut, but it does have an immense tree growing in it—as specified in the Nibelung Saga. The tree, now bent and crooked, turns up again in Mime's cave. In the final opera, it is only some shards of burnt roots.

For a simple hunter-gatherer, Hunding seems to live in a very elegant white conservatory, with tall, jalousied-windows. Martha Stewart could have been his design-consultant. The white furniture could have come from IKEA. As could Wotan's Post-Modernist office-furniture in Valhalla.

Curiously, in addition to the large tree—with the magic word "Nothung" stuck in it—clumps of river-reeds are also growing inside along the wall. This must emphasize the close connection with Nature of these primitive mythical characters. When the incestuous twins declare their love, the back wall of the room flies up out of sight. Wagner specified "Spring"" in the background, a visual metaphor for their new-found love. Wonder's painted background drape is dark and murky, more like Night on Bald Mountain.

Meanwhile, back in Wotan's Oval Office in Valhalla—complete with document-shredder, computer-monitor, mobile-phones, and water-cooler—an angry but business-like Fricka confronts Wotan with a dossier about the twins and his own extra-marital infidelities. These violations of his own divine laws—and of the sanctity of The Family—have got to stop. Or the gods are finished! She could be a female Trent Lott, harassing Bill Clinton! Fricka is smartly but sensibly attired, and Wotan is the model of a top CEO. Wotan subsequently shreds her incriminating dossier on the twins….

Later, this playing-space—defined by a curving wall upstage and a matching elliptical curve-track downstage—is converted to the Valkyries' rocky lair. The wall is pierced by six vertical apertures. although there are eight flying female warriors. So two have to double-up to sing from the heights.

Obviously, Wonder wouldn't give them old-fashioned Wagnerian winged horses to fly through the heavens. Or repeat his Munich rocket-scooters. Instead, they rappel down from the flies, like Furies on bungee-cords. Although Wagner specified only eight of them—plus sister Brünnhilde—Flimm and his designers have outfitted a small platoon of apprentice Valkyries. There are no ballets in the "Ring", but Flimm has the women do close-order military drills to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."

The dead heroes they bring to Valhalla look like a long, dazed line of the dead from "Saving Private Ryan", dressed in World War II GI uniforms. The women gather helmets and weapons from the heroes, piling them in a heap upstage. Wotan later takes a helmet and breastplate from this mound to protect the sleeping Brünnhilde. The Valkyries all seem to have perpetual Bad Hair Days, with immense tangles of wild hair. Their outfits appear a mixture of mountain-climber, space-cadet, and army surplus garb.

Sporting a buzz-cut, Siegfried looks rather like a stocky Peter Sellars, the opera-director. This may be an inside joke, but his costume, appearance, and boorish behavior angered some spectators, who mistakenly believe Siegfried is an Ideal Hero. He is anything but.

When Wotan puts Brünnhilde to sleep on a mountain-top, surrounded by the Magic Fire, Wonder suggests this by having two hinged sides of a giant curved golden screen close, resembling somewhat the ship-funnel form of Valhalla's exterior. In fact, in the final moments of the Cycle, some critics were struck with the similarity of the ovoid tower and the forward smokestack of the Titanic—another construction headed for disaster.

At the beginning of "Götterdämmerung", elements of Hunding's interior decoration are still in place, including the white chairs and the swamp reeds. The Three Norns, in long gowns and white turbans, measure out the red thread of Human Life. But they also have very long-handled ladles—not for eating soup with the Devil, but for dipping water out of a rectangular spring—which later becomes a hearth.

When Siegfried ends his Rhine Journey at the Hall of the Gibichungs, he has clearly arrived in Silicon Valley. The hall is a great Post-Modernist glass-house of three floors, thronged with smartly dressed office-workers and Middle Management.[Loney]

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Copyright Glenn Loney, 2003. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.


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