One hundred years after the composer’s death, Richard Wagner’s epic tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung, has been produced for television-all 16 hours of it. The achievement is all the more impressive when weighed against the fact that a complete recorded version has been available only since 1965. The Ring is a cosmic parable, drawn from Norse mythology, on the war between love and greed. And, more than most operas, it is a work of the stage. However, this splendid television adaptation, which begins March 6 on CBC, has enhanced rather than simply hinted at Wagner’s extravagant staging demands.
The Ring will probably cause as much controversy on the screen as the same production did in 1976 when it debuted at the Bayreuth Festival in West Germany. To mark The Ring’s centenary year, the composer’s grandson, Wolfgang Wagner, turned the annual summer festival over to two Frenchmen: conductor Pierre Boulez and stage director Patrice Chéreau. What resulted was a revolution which was initially greeted by boos and catcalls. But after four years in the repertory it came to be
seen as an eclectic work of genius (the current version was filmed in 1980).
Chéreau took his cue from George Bernard Shaw’s socialist tract The Perfect Wagnerite and wrenched the myth out of Nordic pine forests and misty mountain peaks to set it in the late industrial revolution of Wagner’s day. The director manifestly aims to confound the usual interpretations of the characters: the pristine river of the first part, Das Rheingold, is stopped by a looming hydroelectric dam, and the innocent sylphs, the Rhine maidens, are brazen strumpets, hiking up their skirts and throwing them over poor, taunted Alberich’s head.
Translating the Norse sagas into a parable about capitalism is, while unusual, hardly irresponsible. After all, in 1848, when The Ring was conceived, Wagner was forced to flee from Dresden because of his revolutionary activities; it was only by the time the mammoth work was produced in 1876 that he had become a reactionary sybarite. Chéreau presses the points: the Valhalla of Wotan, the most powerful of gods, displays the facade of a Victorian bank, and its towers call to mind the skyline of Wall Street. And the stately hall of the Gibichungs, the aristocratic clan of mortals, in Die Götterdämmerung resembles a tenement block on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Chéreau tosses those symbols around with a showman’s abandon.
The other “subversive” was the conductor—the precise disciplinarian Boulez—who caused rebellion in the pit. Instead of the traditionally dense Wagnerian sound, Boulez floated spacious, crystalline tones as punctuation for the clearly enunciated text. Despite nostalgia for heroically sung Wagner, this version of The Ring will be remembered less as glorious noise than as challenging music drama where faces in closeup prove more expressive than the overtaxed voices.
That makes it an ideal Ring for a television set; tinny speakers might crumple under a weightier volume of Wagnerian sound. The airy music and Chéreau’s quick-witted, state-of-theart grasp of stagecraft make it a constant treat to watch.
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