Saturday, October 23, 2010

the other ring

The beauty of the Ring cycle is no matter how stupendous the production, no matter how highly anticipated the director’s contraption or star-studded cast or overbooked conductor, it always opens the same: the ancestral hum of Eb, a glimpse into the creation of the world. If we are lucky, when the curtain rises after the prelude, we will view something which seems part of Wagner’s time and our own—straddling the century and a half between the work’s premiere and the age of Twitter. Guy Cassiers’ new production of Das Rheingold at the Berlin Staatsoper achieved just that. Not only did it strike a ideal balance between traditional mythology and radical theater, but it also provided a compelling narrative, one which felt distinctly Wagnerian.

I think my ideal Ring hearkens back to long before I was born. Wieland Wagner’s post-war Bayreuth aesthetic dealt with the work in psychological terms, clearing the stage of all but a few props and people, focusing specifically on the relationships between the gods and mortals who duck in and out over four evenings. In a world where a poorly-produced TV show can provide better fantasy than a multi-million-dollar opera or ballet production, it seems much more appropriate to abstract a saga like the Ring, rather than forcing yourself to compete with the likes of Peter Jackson and Industrial Light and Magic.

But the Ring cannot only be abstraction. More than Tristan or Die Meistersinger, the Ring requires a clear decision on the part of the director. The power struggle inherent to the cycle needs to be fuelled by some vision of what power means in today’s society. It can be economics, politics, religion, history, or gold. This is why we hear about the Environmental Ring, the American Ring, the German History Ring.

Cassiers makes a compromise between concept and drama, developing an overarching interpretation without letting it interfere with the course of the events. For Cassiers, power in today’s world is media, or fame—the desire to constantly watch oneself projected on society, expressed through the use of live video. In two of the four scenes, cameras on stage broadcast images of the singers onto a massive projected backdrop behind them. Rather than gaze upon a heap of gold, Alberich stares at his own image in a camera; in a twist of theatrical irony, it is self-love which causes him to renounce love.

Cassiers’ second theatrical device is his use of a troupe of nine dancers, who act simultaneously as props, scenery, and the subconscious of various characters. Their remarkable gyrations, for the most part, did not distract from the main events unfolding on stage, and occasionally add to them. In musical transitions, they provide brief, writhing ballet numbers; in moments of tense conflict, as when Wotan and his wife Fricka argue, they portray the emotions of the characters. It’s a double-edged sword: theoretically, Wagner’s music should be the psychological, oceanic subconscious of the gods. By adding the dance element, Cassiers adds an unnecessary, but often beautiful, layer.

What sold this Rheingold for me, though, was less the dancers and concept than the character struggles and stage action. Each scene seemed perfectly handled, with a unique atmosphere which flowed easily into the next. The curtain rises on the three Rheinmaidens on a bare stage, with two large walls behind them. Rippling, colorful video plays on the walls, and the faces of the maidens begin to appear on them—two stationary cameras on stage broadcast directly onto the backdrop, as they cavort. With sparkling, vibrant dresses and actual water to frolic in, the Rheinmaidens stood out as particularly nymph-like, making the contradiction with Alberich all the more evident. The rich-toned Johannes Martin Kränzle made a fearsome Alberich, playing the part for pathos rather than laughs—a dwarf in conceit but not in stature. A gold beam of light represents the Rheingold, but the real treasure is Alberich’s discovery of the cameras. Enchanted by his own face given massive dimensions, he steals the gold, setting in motion the course of events which bring about the twilight of the gods.

The transition to the gods’ home brings about the first introduction of the dancers, who slink around the stage and make whip-like motions to accompany the raging music. Cassiers and scene designer Enrico Bagnoli keep the set simple, with only one projected wall (displaying a glowing moonscape) and a giant, Doctor Atomic-style white ball hovering in the air. In the pivotal confrontation between Wotan and Fricka, in which angry wife berates husband for neglecting his familial duties and abandoning his contracts, dancers pantomime their feelings. It led to a couple poignant moments, as when the male dancer wrapped himself around Fricka as she lamented after Wotan’s disregard of “Liebe und Weibes Wert,” but added a certain Brecht-ian defamiliarization, an excuse for the singers not to act because the dancers supplied the inner conflict.

The quarrel in Nibelheim between Wotan, the trickster Loge, and Alberich provided the best example of Cassiers’ overall concept—a small platform sits in the middle of the stage, covered with video cameras. Behind the platform, a security footage-like screen displays the action at multiple angles, almost pornographically self-obsessive. Wotan’s entrancement with the technology, as he gazes upon his own face (and power), drives his theft of the ring and treasure. Unfortunately, the idea seems to fall apart in the final return to the home of the gods—the cameras are completely absent, and the only motivation for Fasolt’s and Fafner’s battle over the Ring seemed to the physical object itself (in a horrible Michael Jackson twist, represented by a bejeweled glove).

Even when the concept didn’t hold up, though, Cassiers’s dramatic clarity and stunning imagery more than made up for it. His portrayal of Erda, hanging in the air with an infinitely flowing dress evoking Klimt’s Hope II, was especially haunting. Rather than marking the god’s final entrance into Valhalla with a Technicolor light-show, Cassiers provided a much more potent image: a slow procession behind the final backdrop, a stony projection of Jef Lambeaux’s relief Temple of Human Passions.

Though no one can replace the majesty of René Pape, originally cast as Wotan for this Ring, Hanno Müller-Brachmann carved out a convincing portrayal, with a commanding and resonant voice, especially in his final, stirring monologue. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka, though lovely, was overshadowed by Anna Samuil’s gorgeous-voiced, unassailable Freia, soaring above the orchestra. Stephan Rügamer, as Loge, was a devilish delight, with a splendid, hued voice. He convincingly treated the stage as his playground, stomping around irreverently in the water after his kindred made their ascent into Valhalla, and even stopping the curtain from descending in the final moments of the opera.

The intimacy of the relatively small Schiller Theater, the Staatsoper’s new home for the immediate future, helped the voices but somewhat hindered Daniel Barenboim’s electric conducting. His Staatskapelle sounded subdued, more accompanist than equal partner, but this is also the nature of Wagner’s orchestration in Rheingold—only in Die Walküre does he begin to explore the possibilities of the orchestra as the true agent of the drama.

Oddly enough, it was the portrayal of the two giants which stole the show. Rather than attempt horribly grotesque, stilted Halloween costumes, designer Tim van Steenbergen clad them in simple black suits. Massive shadows behind the backdrop gave the two their colossal presence, but it was the acting of of Timo Riihonen as Fafner, and especially the sensational Kwangchul Youn as Fasolt, which made them truly larger-than-life. Typical productions dress the brothers up in so much make-up that it’s impossible to tell one from the other; they become one character, their individual personalities lost in the mess of attempted fantasy. Cassiers drew out the individual characters of Fasolt and Fafner. Youn came across as the younger, inexperienced, talkative brother, making Riihonen’s silence seem all the more threatening. When they finally turn on each other, and Fafner murders his brother, it was the most thrilling moment in the entire opera—a heartbreaking betrayal. The red beam of light which emits from Fasolt’s body, and which remained present until the end of the opera, made the violence palpable, and served as a reminder of the bloodshed which drives the inner drama of the cycle.

(all photos copyright Monika Rittershaus)