Creative Misinterpretations: SF Opera’s Ring Cycle
The San Francisco Opera production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen gets many things right, and a few things very wrong.
Note: This post contains spoilers.
It is perhaps a quixotic gesture at this late date to criticize non-traditional productions of Wagner’s mighty Ring, but the San Francisco Opera’s current production illustrates the pitfalls of such an approach. The production is superb in many aspects. Under the commanding baton of Donald Runnicles the orchestra offers a dynamic and bracing interpretation, and a dazzling collection of vocal and acting talents includes not one but two superb Siegfrieds in Jay Hunter Morris and Ian Storey, as well as audience-favorite Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, and David Cangelosi in a surprisingly engaging turn as Mime, a character I never thought I could love.
So with all due respect, and much is due, let us turn to the staging.
Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez caused a scandal when they set the opening of Das Rheingold at a hydroelectric dam in their 1976 Bayreuth production. Today the action of The Ring is transposed to different times and places so often, it has become the norm. The LA Opera recently offered an abstract version with design elements suggesting a “Star Wars” influence (video here), and the New York Met is currently staging a version set around a large contraption of moving planks (video here). Seattle remains a holdout of traditional stagings and costumes.
Director Francesca Zambello has set the San Francisco Opera’s current production in a landscape evoking urban decay and ecological catastrophe. The corrupting influence of this Ring is measured by anthropogenic contamination that chokes the land with pollution, steadily worsening over the course of the four operas.
Das Rheingold sets the wheels in motion in the Industrial Revolution. Signs of trouble are clearly visible on the horizon when Walküre shows plutocratic gods in a corporate boardroom Valhalla. By the time Siegfried opens the world has been overrun. We find our hero living with Mime in a trailer parked in a squalid urban waste land strewn with rubbish. One wonders if Siegfried purloined his bear from a nearby zoo. By Act III of Götterdämmerung, the weary, land-bound Daughters of the Rhine heap bags of trash into piles.
The Industrial Revolution was well underway in Germany when The Ring was written, so it goes without saying that if Wagner had wished to tell a story about pollution and decay, he would have done so. Indeed, many of the core themes of Wagner’s musical drama are strikingly contemporary in resonance, such as his criticism of the exploitation of labor.
The interpolation of the environmental theme, then, is without question an addition to Wagner’s work. To get a sense of why The Ring is uniquely unsuited to the superimposition of extraneous themes, let us briefly review what Wagner had in mind when he wrote the work.
Wagner’s Theory of The Ring
Wagner wrote the music and the libretto for The Ring over a period of some twenty-six years, and no other work in the standard repertoire has been so thoroughly documented by its composer. Wagner left copious writings behind in which he clearly set out his compositional theory. One of the great miracles of The Ring is the degree to which he succeeded in reaching his stated goals.
Wagner’s central conception was to present an experience of music and drama united into a coherent statement that operates simultaneously on the levels of story, imagery, and music, with each level interacting with the others. In the service of this vision, he employed the leitmotif for which the work is famous — a device that he did not invent; but developed far beyond all precedent.
A leitmotif is a musical theme that is paired with a corresponding image, action, or idea. Wagner used leitmotifs to organizes and bind the musical structure of this colossal composition, and to constantly translate the the language of the libretto into the emotional and intuitive register of music. This interaction creates a synergy between the dramatic meaning of the opera and its expressive musical themes. The aggregate effect over the course of this long work is so powerful that certain motives become drenched with meaning, sometimes to such an extent that it seems impossible to remember a time when the motives did not clearly signify their particular resonance. They become as ingrained as the melody of “Happy Birthday.”
Wagner described The Ring as a unified art work, or Gasamtkunstwerk. He probably did not invent this concept, but raised it from a state of obscurity to a term in universal parlance by the success of The Ring.
In his influential essay “The Artwork of the Future” Wagner describes his conception of a unified art work:
Just as the joinery of my individual scenes excluded every alien and unnecessary detail, and led all interest to the dominant chief mood, so did the whole building of my drama join itself into one organic unity, whose easily surveyed members were made out by those fewer scenes and situations which set the passing mood: no mood could be permitted to be struck in any one of these scenes that did not stand in a weighty relation to the moods of all the other scenes, so that the development of the moods of all the other scenes, the constant obviousness of this development, should establish the unity of the drama in its very mode of expression. (1)
Wagner laboriously composed The Ring to produce a specific effect, based on the meticulously-designed concord of all of its various elements. We need not speculate, then, on how he would have felt about the interpolation of a foreign layer of symbolism on his work. Any extraneous element or theme a director adds to The Ring not only introduces new elements into a work that is already extremely dense with musical and dramatic ideas, but disrupts its carefully conceived unity.
This has a direct and predictable dramatic effect. Throughout the San Francisco production I found that when the scenes were set in a traditional vein, I was completely absorbed in what I was experiencing. When foreign design elements were at play, the spell was broken, and I was put into a intellectual relationship with the material. I would think about what was being shown and why, instead of feeling like a part of the world.
Let us consider the San Francisco Opera’s program cover (pictured left). We have an image of a Valkyrie, possibly Brünnhilde, in silhouette, holding a spear. Around the base of the spear coils a sinewy vine, suggestive of the Ash Tree.
This image is an amalgamation of some of the important symbols in the drama, apparently chosen at random and assembled into an incoherent form. The spear belongs to Wotan; Brünnhilde does not wield it, nor can she be coherently associated with its many meanings. The spear, carved as it is from the wood of the cosmic Ash Tree, symbolizes the process by which spontaneous natural forms are perverted when harnessed, such as when the Rhine Gold is forged into a ring. That makes it an ill fit with the new growth suggested by the seedling, about which I’ll have more to say later.
These points are not important in themselves, but they are typical of the production. The creative team sometimes seems to either not know or not care what the images mean and how they function. But The Ring was designed as a unified work of art organized by ideas and meanings, so the symbols are integral to the structure.
Perhaps the most disturbing dissonance in the production is the contradiction that sometimes separates the lyrics from what we are seeing. When Siegfried travels through the forest, he sings about the forest setting, but those references are stricken from the supertitles. Likewise, when we we meet the Norns in the prelude to Götterdämmerung, they are laying cables instead of weaving threads. The lyrics describe weaving while the supertitle translations refer to “laying cable,” which is a jarring dissonance. Presenting the audience with a contradiction pushes them out of the scene, and arbitrarily falsifying the translation of the libretto strikes me as a cheap tactic.
But something deeper than dramatic effect is at stake. Wagner has something to say about the relationship between the human spirit and nature. In his Siegfried, we get to know a hero who is a spontaneous man of action, unburdened by the corrupting influences of political entanglements or social bonds. His qualities of character are rooted in his love of the forests in which he dwells. We travel with him through that landscape and pause together to hear beautiful motives that have been described by musicologists as the “song of the birds” and “forest murmurs.”
In Götterdämmerung Siegfried at last wakens from the dark spell that has made him forget who he is and has turned him into a monster. He returns to his true self when he returns to the woods, and remembers the song of the bird. It is a song to which he had ceased to listen, and a song that closely resembles that of the Rhine Daughters, the charming agents of uncorrupted nature. His memory of what the bird taught him reminds him of his own identify, his love, his passion, and his commitments, which had been displaced by the bargains and deceits of the Gibichung court.
This beautiful relationship between Siegfried’s character and nature is all but destroyed when he is moved to a junkyard, and when his references to the natural world are blocked from his dialog. Ironically, this is apparently in the service of an environmental message. Which environmental message will resonate more deeply with audience members: Wagner’s carefully interwoven themes of nature developed throughout The Ring in mutually-reinforcing dialog, music, character, and action, or Zambello’s image of the Rhine Daughters heaving sacks of rubbish?
Zambello’s final revision in the last moments of The Ring is the great interpretive blunder of the cycle, one that shows her to be tone deaf to Wagner’s work and to tragedy as a whole. The apocalyptic image of the world-ending fire — a fire lit by the funeral pyre of the two principle characters — sets up a tepid scene of a child bearing a new sapling onto stage and planting a new World Tree as the drama’s final gesture.
Surely if there is one thing that any director of tragedy must know, it is Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. Tragedy functions by inviting the audience members to participate in the action on the stage through their identification with the the characters, and to undergo thereby a symbolic death of tremendous psychological power. Zambello’s sapling is a facile gesture that disrupts the climax of Wagner’s towering tragedy and robs the audience of catharsis.
In Wagner’s conception, a legendary love has led to dreadful death, and the feeling of these events is of such magnitude that it is mirrored in the destruction of the heavens. The world itself breaks apart under the strain of its own contradictions. All things are consumed in fire and are washed back into the great primordial waters of the overflowing Rhine, from which all things arose in the very beginning of Das Rheingold. We have a classical depiction of the human heart exploding past the bounds of limit, rupturing the very power of form to bind the world into shape. This puts us squarely in a line with Aeschylus and Aristotle, by way of Schopenhauer.
The cute little girl with the tree could not be more counter to that effect, and by capping the gargantuan climax with that moment, its force is compromised and its message rejected. It disrupts the catharsis of The Ring and robs the audience of the payoff to which the entire opera has built, replacing it with a gesture of that is merely sentimental.
The fact that re-interpretations of The Ring have become commonplace does not give directors license to use them without care. Directors should ask themselves if their changes will add more than they subtract, and with a work as carefully composed as The Ring, they rarely will.
1. Wagner, Richard. ed. by Goldman, Albert and Evert Sprinchorn. On Music and Drama. Da Capo Press. 1964. pp. 227-8.