After Bayreuth, no operatic institution has a greater claim to ‘ownership’ of the Ring than the Bayerische Staatsoper. Munich’s Nationaltheater was the site of the premieres of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre—against Wagner’s wishes but by command of his über-generous patron, King Ludwig II—in 1869 and 1870, and it staged the complete Ring in 1878, two years after the Bayreuth premiere. It must have made sense to Munich’s newish Intendant, Nikolaus Bachler, to mount the Ring a year in advance of the Wagner bicentenary, and of Bayreuth’s new production. The production, by Andreas Kriegenburg—a director with more theatre than opera credits to his name, though one of the latter is his fine Munich staging of Wozzeck—has been assembled with speed: Das Rheingold was unveiled in January, while Götterdämmerung had its opening on June 27, prior to two Munich Opera Festival cycles, of which I saw the second (July 10, 11, 13, 15). In set, costume and lighting designs by Harald B. Thor, Andrea Schraad and Stefan Bolliger, it looks as if it has been put together in too much haste and fatally lacks a binding concept, apart from the choreographic element (Zenta Haerter), which is perhaps his production’s most distinctive feature, but also its undoing.
Rheingold begins with a 40-strong team of extras—one might call them the movement group—stripping to their undies and daubing themselves in blue paint before rolling around at the front of the stage to represent the Rhine. Unfortunately, this seething mass of humanity appears to be the production’s idée fixe, at least until Götterdämmerung, where they are largely sidelined by the chorus. Earlier they intrude on the action—for example, Erda emerges from their ranks in Das Rheingold and they reappear as her ‘entourage’ in Act 3 of Siegfried—and even demand precedence over the music in a preamble to Act 3 of Die Walküre, in which the females represent the Valkyries’ horses, stomping out an earthy dance routine before a note of the Ride of the Valkyries has been sounded. After five minutes of this, a vocal section of the audience loudly made its protests felt (to immediate counter-bravos), but this struck me as an idea that added precisely nothing of import to Wagner’s theatrical scheme, while undermining the thrilling drama of his orchestral introduction. Worse was the movement group’s participation in Act 3 of Siegfried, in which they played a sort of community-workers’ collective of Mime’s Helpers, stage-managing a kindergarten fantasy ambience for the malevolent Nibelung’s unwilling protégé. It all looked desperately cheap, improvised and (deliberately?) chaotic—a workshop staging of Siegfried rather than one at one at a world-renowned Wagnerian address.
On the positive side, members of the group contributed to a memorable Fafner in the same opera’s Act 2: writhing on a flying frame and sporting fearsome teeth, they created a monstrous Cheshire Cat effect, unfortunately ruined by Kriegenburg’s baffling decision to reveal the monster during his drowsy exchanges with the Wanderer, rather than when he appears to confront Siegfried’s challenge. The element of surprise had already evaporated by that point.
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