The Munich Ring assembles: Rheingold

This is the first Rheingold I’ve seen
that starts not in inky ur-darkness but in full light. Initially, the first
installment of Andreas Kriegenburg’s beguilingly simple Munich Ring seems most notable for what it
leaves out: big ideological statements, giant snakes. One expects to get one or
the other. One is rarely deprived of both. The most provocative thing about
this production is how mild-mannered and small it is, but its intimacy and its as of yet faultless sense of dramatic effect are so quiet as to creep up on you, then there
they are, and there is a Ring.

(Unfortunately one other thing, namely the
conducting, was happy to remain calm and quiet as well.)

Wagner, Das Rheingold. Bayerische Staatsoper Ring Zyklus B, 7/10/2012. cond. Kent Nagano, dir. Andreas Kriegenburg, sets by Harald B. Thor; costumes by Andrea Schraad
Licht by Stefan Bolliger, Choreographie by Zenta Haerter. 

Wotan Johan Reuter
Donner Levente Molnár
Froh Thomas Blondelle
Loge Stefan Margita
Alberich Wolfgang Koch
Mime Ulrich Reß
Fasolt Thorsten Grümbel
Fafner Phillip Ens
Fricka Sophie Koch
Freia Aga Mikolaj
Erda Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Woglinde Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde Angela Brower
Floßhilde Okka von der Damerau

I have stated ad nauseum my belief
that a Ring director needs to have some big, clear ideas
regarding the Ring’s
meaning and why it matters to us now. Without some interpretive
substance the audience is in for a lot of meandering hours. Kriegenburg seems reluctant
so far to provide anything this sweeping and this Rheingold at
least is ideologically neutral. For something this austere to hold our
attention the storytelling has to be first rate. But its mellow tone is so far
quite effective and sympathetic, and makes its pitch for relevance mostly
through the actions of its characters. I can’t think of another attempt at a
small-scale, emotionally intimate chamber Ring
(though I’m sure there have been some of which I am unaware) and while it’s a
counter-intuitive, one might say anti-Wagnerian* idea, I am intrigued, and
curious as to how it will work out over the course of the cycle.

The means are the simplest. As the
audience files in to sit down, a small army of white-dressed people seem to be
placidly picnicking onstage (not pictured). As the music starts, they strip off their clothes
and paint each other blue. Yes, it sounds weird, but the Ring is weird. They then crouch down to form the moving, living
Rhine. They are, in fact, most of the set, forming battlements as the backdrop
of Valhalla, a muddy circle around Erda, and of course staffing Nibelheim
(whipped and occasionally thrown into a pit). This is a story told by this
strange collective, sometimes looking like our own and sometimes not. Only at
the start are they are individuals, sometimes they are slaves, sometimes they
are even inanimate.

Alberich is crucified, sort of
The costumes for the main characters
are modern to varying degrees, Fricka’s black dress and Alberich’s slave-driver
suit looking the most like ordinary clothes. The gods all sport matching platinum hair. The Personenregie is engaging in a
sensitive straight theater sense, steering far away from grand gestures and
clichés of characterization. For once the gods’ human moments are
representative of their basic humanity, not played for laughs as an
ice-breaking, tension-releasing punch line. But Kriegenburg’s virtue is the action’s clarity and natural, human quality, not its interpretive innovation. The actual relationships, while shown
with more clarity and nuance, aren’t too different from what you’d see in Otto
Schenk. Alberich is still slimy, Wotan still overly proud, and Fricka still
belligerent, and so on. There are resonances in Alberich the slave driver and Fricka the housewife, but they’re vague.

The production offers nearly literal  and conventional representation of all the action and objects, to an extent that I’m not going to describe most of it in detail except to say that it all works smoothly. The big effects are utterly simple and some of
the most effective I’ve seen. In Nibelheim, Alberich’s transformations are
accomplished by some supernumeraries briefly shining bright miner’s lights into
our eyes, the snake is a ribbon of fire and the frog a child or small woman who
is carried off (as the gold had been earlier). Like the visible foggers, they
don’t try to fool us (the transitions between scenes feature some silent-film
style titles telling us what happens), and yet something about them is perfect

There’s something beautifully
elegant and poetic about the whole thing, mythic while still human and real, and while we know exactly how it works but we have never seen it done quite like that before. There
were dull patches, though, which might partly be due to a) the fact that I
usually find dull patches in Rheingold,
which is a lot of talky exposition and a few bit set pieces and relatively
little actual action or b) because the direction did turn static at times but
really I think the fault is c) Kent Nagano’s limp conducting. I was warned to
prepare for extreme slowness but I think the tempos were fairly average. The
thing is he just feels very, very slow. And dull. Wagner this un-commanding,
this relaxed, is not something I can sign on with. The orchestra played, I
think, well enough, but rarely made their presence definitively known. Maybe he
took the production’s modesty too much to heart.

The cast was for the most part
excellent. They are less likely than their Met counterparts to be described
using the term “powerhouse,” but the Nationaltheater is smaller, and Nagano is
a very voice-friendly conductor. The enunciation of the text was fantastic all
around and I could understand all the words rather than the odd phrase that I
could in New York. (Important factors: local language, theater size.) Wolfgang
Koch was an artfully sung yet forceful Alberich, and the downstage setting of
the Rhine (as well as simple “water”) really helped the character-building in
the first scene (with solid Rhinemaidens, particularly Okka von der Damerau’s
Floßhilde). The other highlight was Stefan Margita’s Loge, sing with a
distinctly individual timbre that seems perfectly suited to the role: nasal and
cutting but somehow also expansive. I also kind of love the concept of Loge as
half crazy uncle and half used car salesman.

Sophie Koch is pushing her voice
singing Fricka but sounds convincing if sometimes one-dimensional, luckily her
sensitive acting gives her some nuance. Her stage presence is also less
tank-like than the norm, and Fricka is perhaps the most revised of the
characterizations here, almost becoming a Betty Draper. You think it is
bad that I haven’t mentioned Wotan yet but it’s not quite that bad. Johan
Reuter is on the lyric side and sings the role cleanly without making an
enormous impression one way or another. (He is not in the other installments.)

The giants benefit from walking
around normally (only sometimes standing on blocks made of human bodies and
appearing with enormous coats and hands), which seemed appropriate because neither
Philip Ens’s Fafner nor Thorsten Grümbel’s Fasolt were terribly imposing
vocally. Aga Mikolaj was a somewhat dry-voiced Freia.
I don’t think this is a Ring that has revealed its plan yet, and
I’m excited to see how (and in the case of the conducting, really hoping it
does), develop.
Note: I posted this after seeing the
second part, but I wrote the entire section on the staging before I saw Walküre and did not retrofit it (though
I could have…).
*Whether it is anti-Wagnerian or not
is a rather fraught question that you could write a book about. More to the
point, of all people I believe that Wagner is not one to whom we would wisely
swear absolute fealty? But that’s just me, a lot of the time.

Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl.
VIDEO: Trailer

Prelude (warning: mostly naked people)

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  1. There were dull patches, though, which might partly be due to a) the fact that I usually find dull patches in Rheingold, which is a lot of talky exposition


    Das Rheingold is one of the most perfect and mesmerizing of all operas. Perhaps you are not a true diehard Wagner lover after all… ?

  2. Somehow, I'm not at all surprised by your report of Nagano's dullness. He has a reasonably-well-earned good reputation in recent music but gave some poor performances of standard rep at Berkeley Symphony.

    Dear Anonymous,

    I would be happy never to hear another note of Meistersinger, which doesn't keep from owning many, perhaps too many, recordings of Tristan and the Ring.

  3. Dear Ms. Hirsch,

    "I would be happy never to hear another note of Meistersinger"

    C'mon, seriously?

    I will concede that Meistersinger has some musical weaknesses (patches in Act 2 and the opening scene in Act 3) but to write off the whole enchanting opera like that is bizarre.

  4. I cannot wait for your post on valkyrie and I was wondering what are among your fave cycles (I love chereau and both kupfer)

  5. Almost inconceivable that somebody could claim to like Meistersinger and be unimpressed by Sachs's monologue… #neuundganzverwirrt

    I don’t know which talky stretches Zerb refers to but one thing that comes from all that exposition is how Fricka’s and Wotan’s crossed wires become untangled, and by the end seemingly reversed – i.e. Fricka is smart enough to recognize from the outset that Wotan’s contract can only lead to an impossible situation, but while he initially shows blithe unconcern a seed has been sown and only a certain amount of casuistic reasoning can delay the realization that a ‘bösen Zoll’ has paid for the Bau, just as Fricka’s insight deserts her. A similar thing plays out with greater compression before, during and after the Walküre monologue but I don’t know, I find the pacing of both effective and indeed the text of Rheingold in general quite lean.

  6. As for which parts of Rheingold I have issues with: the Fricka scene almost inevitably drags for me, and the Alberich-Wotan dialogue near the end. The music in both tends to the recitative-y and I don't find it the most interesting. But as I stated above, I recognize this as an opinion and thus arguable point, please don't blow it out of proportion.