Copenhagen's "Ring": Why "Eurotrash" Isn't the Whole Story

Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Regietheater Bomb.

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I’m always up for a Ring with Viking suits, if there are any left today. It works fine – better than fine – because it’s wholly consonant with the original choreographic and semantic nature of the cycle.

I sympathize with people who spend hundreds of bucks on tickets to a live performance and end up with a two-headed Wotan, an Alberich who’s a gaudy pimp or Supreme Court Justice Fricka. But consider this: you can stage these things in your mind, and I don’t just mean closing your eyes in the theater. We have the Ring as a permanent endowment. The theater of imagination in recordings or at the piano (if anyone still plays) can provide the traditional underpinnings that establish the work’s bona fides. At this point, I even see something sentimental and nostalgic in Viking helmets, but I don’t see anything regressive about desiring such a representation. The specific locus of the cycle in Northern European mythology has a deep importance for the work. Let that be said and never gainsaid. To rebut this is to rebut the place of art in history.

I once had a professor who taught Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, who wholly disputed the primacy of the relation between Arthurian legends and Tennyson’s contemporary world. Understanding that work as even primarily metaphorical does not allow us to disregard the garb the work wears. Such is the case with Wagner’s Ring. I surely don’t recommend reading the Icelandic saga Edda, or the risible Nibelungenlied with its Amazonian Krimhild (Brünnhilde) winning feats of strength. I don’t recommend that everyong go out and buy Wolfram von Eschenbach’s wierdly erotic medievalisms.

With apologies to Tolkien fans, that stuff is boring. Viking suits can become boring, too.

That’s why I love (or at least cheerfully tolerate) Eurotrash. My “personal Wagner” is impregnable, like some Pentecostalist’s “personal savior.”

Which brings us to the Copenhagen Ring, the so-called Feminist Ring production by Kasper Bech Holten. (Read about the production at the Royal Danish Theater’s website.)

Firstly, it’s a good sign that the Michael Schønwandt, conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra, is a musician of obvious discernment who cares about subtlety, nuance and real musical value. Schønwandt, known to me through an excellent set of DVDs of the Nielsen symphonies, has proven himself again with a thoughtful, vibrant, fresh and surely learned approach to these well-known if enormously complex scores. He doesn’t try to prove himself through irreverence, or chamber music textures, or grotesque exaggeration, or strangely self-identifying tempo extravagances. His magic fire music glitters and glows. Hagen’s watch glowers. The forest murmurs place you under a tree in your favorite park.

The smokin’ good Brünnhilde, (Iréne Theorin) was a new discovery to me. (Apparently she’s owned the Wagner soprano roles in Copenhagen for years, and her Bayreuth debut as Isolde opposite Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan took place this past summer.) Theorin’s Brünnhilde is not some cruel heridan when a Valkyrie. Neither is she some majestic sage-woman as a mortal; she’s simply a woman, sometimes angry, sometimes affectionate (in ways both sweet and profound), but always human and vital.

More importantly for collectors, Theorin handles Brünnhilde’s taxing role not just with aplomb but with an almost casual technical ease, allowing the listener to focus on what her character is and not whether she can handle this or that technical stretch. An exceptional artist, indeed. I don’t bandy these words lightly. For, although, Wagnerian tenors are as rare as cheap tickets to Bayreuth, good Brünnhildes are still a find. By the way, I wouldn’t normally comment on such a topic, but I will do so now to avoid confusion. In recent photos, such as some of the ones on the Copenhagen site, Theorin is thin. In this Ring DVD (from 2006) she is heavy. She’s lost considerably weight in the past couple of years.

The Rheingold Wotan (Johann Reuter) was appropriately cruel, with the facile callousness of youthful power. It’s amusing that Scene 4 devolved into a weird and grotesque simile of the Hostel movie franchise. (Chaining Alberich in a white subway-tiled room next to a tray or surgical instruments was not a good sign.) I like horror movies, I must admit, and although I’m staring at my toes, nervously shuffling my feet, I like Hostel. It pushes the envelope as horror movies have done since Jason and Freddie shredded their first teenagers. Does this belong in Wagner? Just read the libretto, you!

As Wotan in DieWalküre and Der Wanderer in Siegfried, the American bass-baritone James Johnson was often very moving, and always commanding. This, itself, is not unusual (there are many moving Wotans) but it seemed to stand out in the context of this cruel Ring. When he was onstage, the production never lost me.

Fasolt. Here he have the greatest Fasolt in DVD history. A man (giant) so consumed by the fires of love and jealousy and possessiveness and sentimentality. A crude, cruel man who doesn’t understand his own impulses of tenderness and violence, erotic malaise and grotesque pseudo masculinity. And ultimately, he generates genuine pathos. This was the greatest portrayal of Fasolt that I’ve ever heard; and, in fact, Stephan Milling has reinvented Fasolt as a major figure to be reckoned with for all future Rings. This revelatory performance sets the standard; incredibly moving and equally disturbing, Rheingold profoundly benefits from this unprecedented incursion of human pathos. Bravo!

This is billed as the Feminist Ring, for reasons that weren’t always obvious to me as I watched. I was full of questions: What kind of division (or possibly politics) separates a feminist Ring from another kind of Ring? How can one gender score at the expense of the other? Well, of course it cannot. Wagner knew this and it is impossible to disentangle the author’s gender bias from his work. It’s all fruitless surmise. But Brünnhilde with apologies to Siegmund, is the single positive figure in the Ring. And wanting justice isn’t the same as claiming unwarranted privilege.

As a partial answer, this Ring is depicted as a flashback from Brünnhilde’s point of view. Kasper Bech Holten (blog) believes that each of us “writes” a personal mythology, and it’s Brünnhilde’s personal mythology that he dramatizes in this Ring. Her mythology centers on freeing herself from what Bech (in the liner notes) describes as an Electra complex via her break from Wotan.

In this sense, the Copenhagen Ring is a tremendous success. The greatest and most human operas, by which I mean The Marriage of Figaro, Fidelio, and Die Walkure, abandon utterly the traditional male hegemony implicit in Teutonic culture, although all these works are, in fact, Teutonic. Wagner’s awareness of the plight of women and his gentleness in expressing essentially feminine problems extant in his society is an under-studied topic.

This Ring doesn’t pursue these issues in particularly coherent ways. On the contrary, it is full of knee-jerk, hysterical political talking points that sometimes detract from the potential of a feminist Ring. But it’s a step, if not in the right direction, or even one endorsed by Wagner, that points to an underrated part of what the Wagnerian ethos is. I’m fully aware that there are so-called scholarly works that attempt to portray Wagner as a feminine figure. But the reality in most Ring productions is that Siegfried and Wotan dominate except for the immolation. This flawed, peculiar, and often immature production takes a firm step in a promising direction.

Are Viking suits better than feminist deconstruction and the grisliness of Hostel? Of course. But I can always reconstruct the literal Ring in my mind as I listen to innumerable recordings or probe my past fixations. This Ring, often silly and rarely profound, offers the potential of newly exeriencing not just a well-worn favorite but probably the essential work of my musical life. And for that, I say “Bravo!”

The Copenhagen Ring: The Complete DVD Set starring Stig Andersen, Irenie Theorin, Gitta-Maria Sjoberg, Johan Reuter, Stephen Milling

Update

on 2013-06-19 20:19 by John Gibbons

Originally posted Mar 24, 2009. Reposted for the Ring Cycle class.