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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876) [abridged] [109 mins]
Christiani Wetter, Tim Oberliessen (actors)
Philippe Brunner (musical arrangement, using Solti’s Decca recording)
rec. Salzburger Marionettentheater, 2013
Aspect ratio 16:9
Bonus: rehearsal sequences [9:30] BELVEDERE BVE10138 DVD [118 mins]
In his book Ring Resounding (last republished as part of Decca’s luxurious box of the Solti Ring), John Culshaw as the producer of the Solti recording added an interesting ‘coda’ on future productions of Wagner’s cycle. “The trouble is,” he trenchantly observed, “that most of us cannot imagine what we have not experienced”, and he looks forward with anticipation to an era in which “the opera lover at home” might be enabled “to ‘produce’ the opera visually in whatever way he liked”. I cannot believe that he would ever have imagined his audio recording being used to produce the soundtrack for a version of Wagner’s Ring for marionette theatre, but he would surely have thought that the attempt would be worthwhile as an experiment if no more. On the other hand, I equally cannot believe that he would have been happy with the results as experienced here.
In the first place, the score is heavily and often brutally abridged. I can conceive that there might be merits in condensing down Wagner’s sometimes extended musical developments to satisfy the supposedly more transient attention span of a modern audience (while lamenting the necessity); but the manner in which the truncation is undertaken here goes well beyond reason. Some of the transitions are relatively harmless, and an endeavour has clearly been made to avoid sudden shifts of tonality; but whole strands of the drama have been omitted, and the characters of Erda, the Norns and Waltraute are eliminated entirely while others are reduced to mere fragmentary appearances. At two points there are inserts from another recording entirely: we get the totally unnecessary manufactured coda to the concert version of the Ride of the Valkyries (itself savagely mutilated), and at one point the orchestra launches into an orchestral transcription of Siegmund’s spring song to underpin spoken dialogue by the characters. In other places the music is merely faded out without very much subtlety to allow for spoken dialogue to continue.
Yes, I did mean spoken dialogue. From the very beginning of the performance we are afflicted with the presence of two actors, male and female, who not only speak lines of dialogue which Wagner set to music for his singers but also add narrations explaining what is happening (in itself an admission that the abridgement has damaged Wagner’s original dramatic structure). The two actors go further, entering into trenchant observations of women’s rights when discussing the ransoming of Freia in Das Rheingold and even resurrecting Anna Russell’s old joke about Brünnhilde being Siegfried’s aunt (although Anna Russell made it funnier). I am not sure we need jokes in what is presumably intended to be a serious presentation of the score; but even the defence of women’s rights merely restates the obvious, as indeed Wagner himself did with the dialogue he put into the mouth of Fricka at this point. The implication here is that Wagner is so much a man of his period that he did nоt notice the chauvinism; whereas in actual fact Wagner was so much not a man of his period that he did, and made a positive feature of it.
The production itself is dedicated to the memory of Gretl Aicher (1928-2012), the founder of the Salzburger Marionettentheater, whose stated wish was for “human-like” realism to be achieved through the use of puppetry and movement. This need not imply a slavish naturalism, as recent stage productions such as the National Theatre War Horse have so stunningly demonstrated; but it does require an understanding of the plot and its characters if any sort of meaningful drama is to be realised. The fact that the producer here, Carl Philip von Maldgehem, clearly feels the need to underline certain elements in the plot at the expense of others leads to an immediate suspicion that he does not understand the work in all its various depths. Тhis impression is reinforced by a whole series of ideas imported from various different European Regietheater productions of the Ring and recreated in terms of puppetry.
Thus in the opening scene of Rheingold the Rhinemaidens disport themselves in front of a sort of hydro-electric dam imported from Chereau’s 1976 Bayreuth production of the Ring (and their movements are curiously unfluid, too). The Gods drive around in an old battered American car which in the closing bars roars off from the miniature caravan which represents the Gibichung Hall, both images lifted bodily from the latest Bayreuth staging. Fafner’s appearance as a dragon consists of a strangely inert inflatable which it is all too easy for Siegfried to dispatch (curiously, during one of the few passages at which Wagner’s score is given at full length) and which seems to be a feeble imitation of the old Metropolitan Opera crustacean-like monster. The magic fire (another passage given at full length) consists of some singularly unconvincing strands of red cloth waving in the wind, which could have come from any number of stagings. The costumes are the usual mishmash of various periods which ruin so many modern Wagnerian productions: Siegfried is dressed like a Californian pseudo-hippy (he does not change even for his wedding), Hagen is a heavy metal rocker, Mime a laboratory scientist with horn-rimmed glasses, Donner a Bavarian bruiser in lederhosen, Freia a nightclub floozie, the Valkyries a troupe of high-kicking showgirls, and so on.
There are occasional moments when the production does result in some striking images. The worm into which Alberich transforms himself in Rheingold is a sort of metallic python which really tries to strangle Loge. Тhen again, it should surely have been feasible to produce the effect of the transformation itself by some means other than the tired old time-worn device of Alberich sinking into a trapdoor and then re-emerging afterwards. The bear in Siegfried and the horse in Walküre and Götterdämmerung, so often consigned by embarrassed producers to the wings, are given the full measure of their participation in the drama that Wagner clearly envisioned. The idea of having the two narrating actors enter into the staging as the giants in Rheingold brings a clear advantage in terms of having Fasolt and Fafner as a real physical menace; but then to bring the same two actors back as the Gibichung siblings in Götterdämmerung is a nonsense, resulting in stage pictures that are usually risible and occasionally (as when the puppet Siegfried jumps onto the full-sized human Gutrune with the apparent intention of rape) thoroughly unpleasant.
It is clear that a lot of real physical labour and skill, as well as some imagination, has gone into the mounting of this production, even if rather less in the way of deeper consideration is evident. I am afraid, however, that I cannot imagine anybody viewing this at home could ever derive any pleasure from it, even at the most basic level. The plot is too complicated and sophisticated for small children; for anybody old enough to understand Wagner’s Ring the simplistic nature of the visuals would surely outweigh patience long before the music actually stopped (even given its heavy abbreviation). I get the uncomfortable feeling of a group of skilled technicians attempting to prove that something can be done, pitching the whole at a faux-naif level with a knowing wink over their shoulders at the sophisticated audience. The music, of course, remains superlative especially in this performance, but the actual quality of the sound is not of the best, and those who want the Solti recording will gravitate to the magnificent modern remastering.
And the final straw which breaks the camel’s back comes with the subtitles, provided only in English and French. These only extend to all the contributions of the narrators/actors, including their spoken delivery of Wagner’s lines. As soon as the singers enter, even when they are actually responding to spoken dialogue, the subtitles cease. This clearly makes dramatic nonsense, and renders the result quite unusable to anybody who does not already know the words and the plot. I also cannot imagine anyone who does know ever wanting to sit through the experience more than once.
There does appear to be another abridged puppet production of Wagner’s Ring forthcoming, this time undertaken by the Augsburger Puppenkiste. The advance publicity refers ominously to the characters being taken by speaking actors. The Salzburg DVD appears to have been available for a number of years, but does not appear to have garnered many previous reviews. Several sites which advertise copies for sale describe it as “adapted for children”, but for reasons explained this seems to be very wide of the mark.