Last week I attended the San Francisco Opera's production of Wagner's four operas The Ring of the Nibelungen. Let me first of all say that this was a satisfactory experience. The orchestra, central to these operas, was in great shape and wonderfully conducted. The singers were all good, some terrific. I could make some carping criticisms of some singers – there always such criticisms to make – but I don't want to bother. The acting was good. Above all, the special imaginative and emotional hit The Ring offers was present in abundance.
What is the special Ring hit? It is the musical re-evocation of themes, events, and objects, that have occurred through musical cross-references by means of repeated, sometimes altered but recognizable, Leitmotifs. Let me take a small example. When the most important female protagonist, Brunhilda, is a demigoddess riding high, the celebrated Ho-jo-to-homusic is associated with her entrance. At the end of the next Opera she has been demoted to mortal and obliged to marry the tenor. Basically she is happy with her fate —; she loves the guy and loves feeling love. But, realistically, her response is complicated and ambivalent. As she is exploring her ambivalence she recalls, (in translation) "Once heroes bowed to me.” When she sings those words we get a brief poignant touch of Ho-jo-to-homusic in the midst of her love music. Repeat that process 200 times and one hundredfold and you get a musical experience that enters your mind and emotions as no other. It is the result of intense and creative coordination of text, music, and setting.
But mostly I want to bitch about the stage setting. It's really awful, more awful than merely ugly or crude would be. Generally, it is not coordinated. Let me acknowledge first that in general I am uncomfortable with resetting plays or operas in times other than the author's intent, although it certainly can work. Let me acknowledge also that anyone presenting The Ring has a problem about setting. When and where does The Ring take place? It takes place in mythic never never land. And what pray does mythic never never land look like? Though Wagner provided ample descriptions of scenes in his libretti, the history of productions of The Ring is strewn with failures of staging. But we can be sure of a couple of things. It is set in the forest. The vast forest that covered Germany in the middle Ages as Wagner imagined it. Second it is set by, on, and in the river Rhine.
Wagner's idea of nature is not problematic. It is the solid and meaningful background in which the decline of the gods and triumph of human love takes place in The Ring. The notion that nature is something humankind is destroying by exploitation is a late 20th century idea at least in its popular form, well after Wagner.
The first scene of the first opera, Das Rheingold, challenges stage designers. Wagner’s detailed directions describe it:
(Greenish twilight, lighter above, darker below.
At the bottom of the Rhine
The upper part of the scene is filled with moving
water, which restlessly streams from right to left.
Toward the bottom, the waters resolve themselves
into a fine mist, so that the space, to a man’s height
from the stage, seems free from the water, which
floats like a train of clouds over the gloomy depths.
Everywhere are steep points of rock jutting up from
the depths and enclosing the whole stage; all the
ground is broken up into a wild confusion of jagged
pieces, so that there is no level place, while on all
sides darkness indicates other deeper fissures.)
(The curtain rises. Waters in motion. Woglinde
circles with graceful swimming motions around the
For reasons unknowable to Wagner, the stage director, Francesca Zambellohas decided to begin The Ring in California in the time of the gold rush, extend its duration to approximately the present, and through sets and projections depict the loss of the natural world to industrialization. In Wagner's libretto the action takes around 25 years and involves no reference to what may be going on outside the world of the story.
Of course the Rhine does not flow in California so, although the name of the opera is Das Rheingold and the Rhine maidens ("Rheintöchterin German) sing the German text, "Rheingold" etc., the subtitles read "River maid" and "River gold.” The river is a stream running through the middle of the stage and the Rhine maidens are not water sprits, but healthy looking California girls dressed in 19th-century party ware.
The powerful Sacramento River flows through California, was the location of the gold rush, and was involved in environmentally destructive placer mining, which appears on some screen projections, but Zambello ignores that. Perhaps the notion of subtitles translating Rheingold as “Sacramento Gold” was too ridiculous even for her.
At this point the staging is merely silly and distracting. It gets worse in the beginning of the third opera because it tampers with protagonist’s conception of self.
Wagner’s stage directions for Siegfried act I scene 1 are:
(A rocky cavern in a forest containing a naturally
formed smith’s forge with large bellows.
In this forest a villain named Mime has raised the ultimate hero Siegfried without exposure to other human beings. But he has been exposed to the forest. He constantly refers in dialogue to how he had learned about life and himself from the birds, animals, and trees of the forest and at one point leads in a bear, this arrogant adolescent’s idea of a joke on Mime.
But trees and rocks not what we see when the curtain rises in this production. Mime's cave has become a dilapidated mobile home located in an industrial wasteland (see above). No home for bears here. The real problem with this is that the hero could not have grown up with the self-image or the image of how to relate to others he had in an industrial wasteland. The scene leaves the audience possibly annoyed but certainly confused.
By the end of the opera via staging and projections the setting has progressed to a 20th-century industrial wasteland, which serves to suggest, nay assert, the destruction of nature by humans. Whatever the name of the river, it has dried up and we last saw the whatever maidens collecting garbage on its dry floor in a scene Wagner describes as set "in a remote wooded valley where the Rhine flows".
Between scenes toward the beginning of the last opera a substantial orchestral passage embodies musically the hero’s trip down the Rhine. The swelling music movingly reflects the flow of the river. It is frequently excerpted and has become a warhorse of symphony concerts. The curtain raiser for the first opera is a beautiful and hypnotic projection depicting a powerful river and related stuff. It would have been appropriate and satisfying to repeat it here. But no, we get more projections of industrial waste. It is weird to hear Siegfried’s Rhine Journey while looking at in concrete and power lines.
Wagner provides detailed stage directions for the end of the opera:
(As the whole space of the stage seems filled withfire, the glow suddenly subsides, so that only a cloud
of smoke remains, which is drawn to the background
and there lies on the horizon as a dark bank of cloud.
At the same time the Rhine overflows its banks in a
mighty flood which rolls over the fire. On the waves
the three Rhine daughters swim forward and now
appear on the place of the fire.)
(Hagen, who since the incident of the ring observed
Brünnhilde’s behavior with growing
anxiety, is seized with great alarm at the appearance
of the Rhine daughters. He hastily throws spear,
shield and helmet from him and rushes, as if mad,
into the flood.)
(Woglinde and Wellgunde [Rhine maidens] embrace his neck with
their arms and draw him with them into the depths
as they swim away. Flosshilde, swimming in front of
the others toward the back, holds up the regained
(Through the bank of clouds which lie on the
horizon a red glow breaks forth with increasing
brightness. Illumined by this light, the three Rhine
daughters are seen, swimming in circles, merrily play-
ing with the ring on the calmer waters of the Rhine,
which has gradually returned to its natural bed.)
(From the ruins of the fallen hall, the men and
women, in the greatest agitation, look on the
growing firelight in the heavens. As this at length
glows with the greatest brightness, the interior of
Walhall is seen, in which the gods and heroes sit
assembled, as in Waltraute’s description in the first
(Bright flames appear to seize on the hall of the
gods. As the gods become entirely hidden by the
flames, the curtain falls.
None of this happens as described in this production. Instead see a barren, post-industrial landscape. The Rhine Maidens, once flirtatious hotties, embodiments of positive libido, are now bedraggled and bent. Siegfried is not on a pyre of wood for Zambellohas moved his immolation off stage, but Gibichung vassalsn are carrying old tire casings in that general direction. Valhalla is not seen. Etc. Most important the Rhine does not flood the stage. There is no Rhine, and whatever river flowed in the first opera has dried up.
Because the Rhine does not reflood the stage to allow the Rhine Maidens to swim up and remove the ring from Siegfried’s finger, the setting fails the resolution the text and music embodies. Zambello has imposed a moral of painful disharmony rather than resolution. She ties to solve the problem she has created by adding a child who comes on stage after theverything Wagner wrote is over carrying a sapling, which she plants. This is Bullshit. This is Fake News. And like political fake news, the confusion it causes is as bad as it's dishonesty.
The libretti Translations are by Frederick Jameson .You can read them all at: http://home.earthlink.net/~markdlew/shw/Ring.htm