Saturday, March 17, 2007 by

Okay, if it’s rude to point, it’s thoroughly bad form to nitpick when productions of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen appear on mainstream terrestrial TV every decade and a half. Whoever sweated blood to get Keith Warner’s Royal Opera House production of the whole 15-hour marathon on the box deserves a medal. But … if you stick it on TV, it had better be good.

It’s always the problem. Undertakings like this tend to attract nitpickers. Programme makers get all huffy – “We give them what they want and it’s moan, moan, moan”. Why?

Simple. Because these excursions are so rare that they discourage critical evaluation. Time was, when a classical concert, a ballet, or an opera appeared roughly once a month, comparative judgements were possible. If Kempff threw up into his piano at the start of Schubert’s Wanderer fantasy or Callas farted during Lucia di Lammermoor’s mad scene, we’d switch off and wait to see how Brendel or Schwarzkopf would cope, much as a particularly choosy rock fan would turn off The Old Grey Whistle Test if it wasn’t up to scratch or if Poco were on. There’d always be something different next week. Now, even with the proliferation of DVD performances for a monied audience, lovers of serious music will lap up anything on terrestrial. It’s an event; a confirmation that such people still exist as TV consumers like any others, and that’s a serious need fulfilled. But the rarer these fulfilments become, the harder the task of the newer event to live up to the older.

And no event is quite like Wagner’s Ring. I refer not to its bloated 900-minute length, astounding psychological and theatrical depth, intellectual rigour (and often, jaw-dropping silliness) but to its peculiar and singular televisual heritage. It was, after all, the subject of what was not only the greatest telecast of any operatic endeavour but a milestone in broadcasting any kind of theatrical production.

In 1980 the Eurovision director and classical/opera specialist Brian Large approached Wolfgang Wagner, the master’s younger grandson, with a view to telecasting the “centenary” production of the Ring first staged in 1976 at its original home, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Originally a succès de scandale, complete with post-curtain fistfights with steins and cudgels and the whole paraphernalia, it became a legend in the marriage of theatrical and operatic practises and performance. By 1980, the production had been perfected, the cast and conductor (Pierre Boulez) in perfect harmony. Stage director Patrice Chéreau’s conception, basing the epic’s action in a vaguely neo-Marxist re-imagining of Wagner’s own 19th century milieu, had not been intended for TV but thanks to Bayerischen-Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio and TV) and Large’s directorial genius, the result was a visual and dramatic triumph, playing the enormous Bayreuth stage and its endless sonic and visual possibilities for all they were worth. Chéreau had not conceived his production with TV specifically in mind, although a project was in the wind – in any case the result was, televisually, a triumph of serendipity, transforming one of the most heavy-handed works of art in western culture into an often gripping small-screen potboiler.

The BBC broadcast it as a soap, act by act, in autumn 1982, and then again in spring 1985, as a properly quadripartite epic, drama by drama. Chéreau’s anachronism hardly counted; it was compelling telly. Heinz Zednik’s turns as the crafty god Loge and the hapless dwarf Mime, Donald McIntyre’s tragic gravitas as Wotan, the lord of the gods, and the incandescent sexual chemistry between Jeannine Altmeyer (Sieglinde) and Peter Hofmann (her brother Siegmund) in Act 1 of Die Walküre was simply unmissable. Even given the fuggy video stock of the time, the impact of these sensational recordings is still second to none.

Bayrischen-Rundfunk made a telecast of a 1987 Munich recording at the Bayrischen Staatsoper; a space-age set, moronically duff symbolism, wooden characterisation and characteristically dull conducting by Wolfgang Sawallisch let the whole down. Only then did it become obvious how astonishing the Bayreuth experiment had been. The New York Metropolitan Opera’s employment of Large as head honcho behind a video recording of their 1988-90 Ring, acclaimed on CD, was cut, it seemed, largely through curtains of olive-green gingham. James Levine’s faithful conducting and some great performances, notably Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde, didn’t mean this was any more watchable.

There have been others since; but none have made it to British terrestrial TV.

Covent Garden’s was a less than stimulating production and makes for less than stimulating TV, despite the fact that conductor Antonio Pappano displays a mature and compelling reading of the Götterdämmerung score that puts many older men to shame and that the playing of the Covent Garden orchestra has been exemplary throughout the Ring tetralogy. This is no place to dwell on Warner’s inchoate abstractions which drew so much righteous fire from London’s critics. But Warner’s concern, as per most directors since World War II is to emphasise the human relationships and intimacies between Wagner’s characters, which he has done by inserting them into dark, claustrophobic sets. The BBC responds by framing them narrowly, singly or doubly. This of course may be to “humanise” and further soapify them – Large had, however, already used camera angles and lighting to establish humanistic tensions in 1980, and did it 50 times better.

After the Bayreuth Festival reopened in 1951, Wieland Wagner, the composer’s elder grandson, was credited with demythologising the operas by playing them out as Greek tragedy in huge blank spaces, subtly coloured with lighting, making the stage a psychological blank, like a Rorschach blot. The grandeur was still there; but now, humanising essentially superhuman characters has become claustrophobia, post-modernism, reductio ad absurdum.

There is also the underlying notion that reality becomes constrained by TV and the mass media. In opera and the theatre this tedious notion is now about 40 years old, and can’t really be allowed to go on much longer. One cannot arbitrarily minimise the impact – macro or micro, within the drama or as a whole – of Waltraute and Brünnhilde’s dialogue. One Valkyrie trying to persuade another to alter the course of history doesn’t really work as a kitchen sink drama. Again, Large solved this problem wonderfully by subtle use of middle-distance shooting in 1980. Thank God, then, for the singing and playing – John Treveleyan’s croaky Siegfried aside – are sublime, however, and the whole was presumably legitimised by the presence of the inestimable Wagner scholar John Deathridge taking a talking head role in the intervals.

Warner’s approach also had the unfortunate effect of amplifying Warner’s conceits, such as in the same Act 1 of Götterdämmerung, where we get a close up of a drugged Siegfried blabbing about whether he can read “güte Rüne” in the eyes of the innocent girl Gutrune when his eyes are fixed firmly on the floor; and a supremely idiotic interpolation of Gutrune’s villainous brother Hagen trying to get off with her (not even hinted at in Wagner’s libretto, but only a Wagner bore would go on about the liberties taken by Warner’s ugly and shapeless vision that can best be compared to being stranded all night in a particularly ill-designed airport terminal). Not even the magisterial bass of John Tomlinson as Hagen – one of opera’s blackest-hearted and creepiest villains, comparable only to Iago – can redeem this.

At the end of Hagen’s malevolent gloating over his plot to win back the all-powerful ring (“Hier sitz’ich zur Wacht”), Warner and his BBC henchmen clearly rip off Chéreau/Large, with Tomlinson, crazed of eye, staring dead into the camera as the orchestra thunders out.

TV’s visual vocabulary, especially that of drama, has evolved in the generation that’s passed since 1980, and it’s probably superfluous to try and estimate the influence of those changes on this Götterdämmerung. The result is less than perfect – quite why a soprano as statuesque as Lisa Gasteen is meant to coquettishly sneak up on a dozing Siegfried at the start of their brief but passionate love duet at the beginning of Act 1 seems to owe more to cinema and TV than any kind of reality, whether attached to Nordic antiquity or the undefined period of the production’s action. She doesn’t creep or sneak, she tittups – sorry, but she tittups (oh, look it up!). This seems a dramatic fancy as hidebound to our time, as mannered and as aspicked as the “Bayreuth style” initiated by the composer’s widow, Cosima, when she started directing Wagner’s works at Bayreuth from 1886 until 1908. Gasteen’s no cartoon horned-helmet Wagner fatty – just large, but the limited camera angles either capture her from the waist up (usually with too much sidelighting) or from several stalls back.

Since Bayreuth 1980 – when the curtain calls lasted for a world-record 90 minutes (this is a conservative estimate) – there have been comparably great audio recordings of the Ring, notably Levine’s in New York and Thielemann’s underway in Berlin. There have been memorable productions (notably by the late Götz Friedrich). But in terms of TV, Large’s achievement is unapproachable, and it continues to set standards for operas of much smaller dimensions in terms of how characters and sets are specifically framed, how duets, quartets and ensembles are set up etc. Large, and the directors in Europe that he’d learned from had been pupils of those who’d studied with great men of dramatic visuals, with Roller and Rheinhardt, with Cocteau and Stanislavsky.

Much TV opera of the 1980s was fluff, made through the offices of powerful record companies such as Deutsche Grammophon and Sony. They emphasised period productions (Strauss’s Arabella, Weber’s Freischutz) at the expense of visual or dramatic audacity. They played to a safe, undemanding mid-Western US and Japanese audience. Some of this populist crap worked surprisingly well, occasionally to great effect – Catherine Malifitano made a very convincing mid-’90s Tosca, leaping to her death against the skyline of the eternal city. Most opera on TV was a dud, though, and little seems to have changed. Even with a bizarre, if flawed, production like Warner’s, it comes across as frankly ordinary telly, which appeals less to an audience brought up on Dynasty than that brought weaned on 24. Whatever, the visual dynamic of TV is not one that, at the moment, fits well with opera. Soundbiting from the likes of Philip Hensher (perfectly capable, but expensive per minute) makes for intellectual brownie points but it doesn’t quite compensate. And it’s a bit crap when one could commission thinkpieces from the likes of New York’s Andrew Porter or pundits with forbidding foreign names like Carl Dahlhaus or even Nike Wagner, the admirably iconoclastic scion of the master) seems a cop-out.

Will a teenager view this as an access ramp into Wagner’s mad genius as did those lonely refugees in the small hours in ’82 and ’85 regard that great Bayreuth landmark? Let’s hope so – because, as the Ring‘s very dimensions suggest, they ain’t gonna get many other chances. The tragedy is that without a sizeable budget for DVDs they ain’t gonna get to compare it with much else and as for the likes of Lohengrin, Parsifal or Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, forget it. Ditto Lear, Hamlet, Godot. Anyone remotely into anything beyond those intellectual architecture exceeds the dimensions of Castaway had better get used to this – yep, Michael Portillo as your catch-all highbrow host as well.

If someone writes about these broadcasts thusly in a quarter-century’s time, hell, there’s some kinda god. This will have done its work.

Play it again; I’ll still be complaining – but thank God there is still something to complain about. Just play it again. And hope for something better next time.


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