The critical discourse that was prompted by the new Met Ring, combined with my plans to visit the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth for the first time in six years, prompt an attempt to propose a disciplined framework for analysis of a topic that, for many, is intuitive: What do we look for in a new production of a Wagner work? If something disappoints, or thrills, why does it do so? What standards are properly applied in engaging with the work of a creative professional theatrical practitioner?
Here are some approaches that might stimulate principled discussion:
First, the production should be new. It should not rely upon settings or characterizations that have been seen before. Granted, the plot of Siegfried is familiar. But I expect that the way that plot is told will be refreshing and unexpected. An example is the Gotz Friederich Ring at Covent Garden in the 1970s. Like the current Met Ring, that production used a single stage machine — in Friedrich’s case a piston-driven square platform — on which the entire story was portrayed. It was a new and daring way of telling the story, and the story became new by virtue of the fresh excitement of the narrative style. The same may be said by many attending the Lepage Ring. An example of the opposite is the Met production of Meistersinger, which looks exactly as you would imagine when you first read the score. Yes, it is “familiar.” But no, it is not exciting. It appeases rather than stimulates.
Second, the production should be interpretive, not representational. The Met Meistersinger and the previous Met Ring are examples of representational theatre: They are pretty, and look like postcards one sends from vacation trips. In representational theatre the audience is watching a picture of the thing, but not experiencing the thing itself. This is completely unacceptable. One attends the theatre for the same reason one goes to a Manet exhibit or listens to a performance of a Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: In the hope of gaining new insight into a work of art so great that it is capable of constant rediscovery. There’s no sense just playing the notes in the right order. One expects the stage director to take a point of view, to imply that the work means something, that the action of the drama concludes in a great truth. In the third act of Die Walküre in the old Met production, Brünnhilde prepared for her confrontation with Wotan by walking into a hole. That’s representational. By contrast, in the Kupfer Ring at Bayreuth, she and Wotan sat on the floor of a bare stage and talked to each other. That’s interpretive.
Third, the interpretation should be of the work, not of something else. A drama has certain actions that are written by the author to be performed sequentially as essential to the telling of the tale. Because telling the tale is the reason to mount the work, depicting the actions is a requirement. Omitting or ignoring them is arrogant, crippling, and lazy. That said, these actions need not be literal. Siegfried does not have to forge an actual sword, for example. But he does, I would argue, have to discover an object that his father used in battle, and destroy it, then recreate it while singing about it, then use it to defeat Wotan. And the object needs to be plainly visible (so that Wotan and Sigfried can discuss it) and physically practical (for example, in prying open a piece of costume that reveals Brünnhilde’s femininity). Failing to think through this narrative requirement, or dealing with it half-heartedly, or ignoring it, leads to poor — or, worse, fake — theatre. Katherina Wagner’s Bayreuth Meistersinger is a case in point: The actors refer to objects that are not there; they say that they are handing each other things that they do not hand each other; and they engage in activities other than the activities that other characters onstage say they are engaged in. This approach to theatre ignores the requirements of the basic narrative, and denies the authority of the work itself, replacing the actions and words of the author with actions and words of someone else. It is unacceptable except in those instances where one seeks to experience, not the author’s work, but the performance artist’s work, using the underlying text as a mere jumping-off point.
Fourth, the production itself should have artistic integrity. It should be cogent and integrated. This does not mean it needs to be expensive. But if the budget is small then the spareness of the set and costumes should be a conceptual element of the narration itself. Examples might be the 1950s Bayreuth productions of Wieland Wagner, in which spare and simple style infused the manner of the telling of the stories, and a production in Chicago a few years ago of the four “poems” of the Ring, in which the giants were portrayed enormous shadows on the side walls of the theatre, resulting from swivel lamps operated by actors and aimed at hand puppets. In these instances, the lack of resources was, itself, a theme of the production. By contrast, Zeffirelli’s using a stage elevator to shift locales from Cavaradossi’s cell to the roof of the prison while the tenor is intimately reflecting upon his sorrow is mere show-off and lacks any artistic cogency.
Fifth, the characters should interact in a recognizable manner. In the second act duet in Tristan, the characters overlap each others’ lines, speak words that feed off each other’s poetic images, sing with increasing tempo and volume, and are accompanied by an orchestra that advances from a pianissimo in the strings to a torrential blast upon the entrance of King Marke. The production at the English National Opera in the 1980s portrayed the lovers as unfazed, separated by a large rock, unmoved and calm, as if each were in separate hotel rooms combing their hair. I reject this as an interpretive choice, because I don’t recognize their behavior. It is not credible that someone screams their erotic passion for someone else while remaining 35 feet away from them, looking out upon the audience, and pairing their nails. These are human stories that arise from human situations and are told so that we might recognize and confirm them. This urge to know ourselves better by confirming our past has been the essence of drama since before the Greeks told tales of their lineage. Depicting someone skipping rope while declaring the end of the world robs any production of the essence of any art — that it should speak to our condition.
What productions satisfy these criteria? I invite suggestions of successes as well as nominees for baddies. But one hopes that the discourse can rise above the level of “I liked it” or “It don’t work for me.” Theatre production is an art and, like any art, it demands a rigorous method of analysis if one is going to discuss it beyond the level of mere pleasure. So, discussion, anyone?