Everything is different this time. And that’s actually the least you can expect from a new production of Richard Wagner’s opera tetralogy “Der Ring des Nibelungen”. That expectation was met, if not a bit beyond the five-year plan. The very first sentence of the program points the way: The Ring is an epic about the “present, history and sustainability of a large family and their legacy”. Do you have to imagine the circle of the gods as an upper-class family? Or do you mean the Wagner family? One cannot really assume so much self-centredness, even if the ongoing processing of the family history perhaps contributes to having to see oneself as a model or a goal of Wagner’s opus magnum. Such art-life overlaps are always welcome for productions inside and outside the opera house, because of course the media tabloid effect also works in the opera.
The more godlike a figure is, the more lustfully it allows itself to be pushed off its pedestal and brought into the petty-bourgeois world. The justification for this lies in the usual term “bring it back”, as if the gods had started out small, as if they were just people too, and average, narrow-minded people, eaten up by resentment and envy. To tell the story more consistently from this perspective than is usually done would certainly be an exciting Ring experience. Wagner himself created it in the character of the main hero Siegfried. His beginnings as an uncivilized bully who solves problems with courage and violence and ultimately fails.
This attacks director Valentine Black also on, lets a kind of little Siegfried rumble through the scenes, throw paint pots at walls, wave a pistol around and kick his foster father Mime, who is lying on the floor. This is also an anticipation of the episode after next, in which Siegfried kills Mime. In contrast to Wagner, where this is the starting point for a civilizing process, the limits of which are nonetheless visible, Schwarz exhibits more of a basic character here. He has to, because the director is concerned with something completely different, namely a feminist narrative that tells of the eternal oppression of women by men, which begins in the womb. The origin of all life is the origin of all evil.
Of course, the bad boy with the baseball cap tears up the art creations
To the soft bassoon sounds from the deepest E flat major depth from the bottom of the Rhine, with which the “Rheingold” begins, we see two twisting umbilical cords stage-sized, tied to them are two free-floating, well-developed fetuses, smiling gracefully, it seems and for anyone who knows how the story goes on, by no means innocent beings. For Schwarz, it continues in such a way that the little male offspring, kidnapped by Alberich and now following in his footsteps, oppresses and torments the poor female offspring. Where Wagner set up a mine with enslaved Nibelungen, we now find a glass kindergarten cube in which little girls have to paint pictures, bullied by a boy of the same age.
But in the end they get to beat him up. Which doesn’t make too much sense, because it remains of no further consequence. The boy gets back up and carries on as if nothing had happened, and he can count on the support of those in power. Alberich encourages him, Wotan caresses him – he is the heir to the clan and the more brutal he appears, the more unassailable one believes that the balance of power can be secured. Wagner is concerned with the most general social categories, director Schwarz is much more concrete and petty with a new gender narrative.
Which also leads to comical situations, for example a wonderful sound-image scissors in the kindergarten scene. At this point, conductor Cornelius Meister has the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, which plays cleanly throughout, imitate the metallic strokes that originally evoked the hammering of the Nibelungs and now the brushstrokes of the girls with particular precision. Rarely has it been painted so hard. And of course the bad boy with the yellow baseball cap tears up their creations. This boy, invented by the director, is not a secondary character. He embodies the evil legacy of a malicious nuclear family that is hopelessly divided.
What this production lacks in visual power, Schwarz achieves in directing the characters
Neither the superfather Wotan in the white tennis dress (Egils Silins, who has trouble in the lower register and therefore has little musical authority) nor his wife Fricka (vocally excellent: Christa Mayer), Wotan’s advisor, and Wagner’s embodiment of environmental wokeness Erda (Okka von der Damerau) can pacify the situation, but not the counterproductive negotiator Loge (Daniel Kirch), the gold-crazed Alberich (Olafur Sigurdarson), the weak mime (Arnold Bezuyen, who triumphs in acting and singing), the two giants, one of whom kills the other.
What this production lacks in visual power – most of the time you stare at the desolate interior of a 1950s-style family home – Schwarz makes up for in terms of directing the characters. It is admirable how he has developed a colorfully agile theater troupe from the stiffness that is so common among Wagner singers. Normally you have to watch great singers pretend to be great actors too. Nevertheless, the director does not get lost in the small details of entertainment. In Wagner’s “Ring” it’s always about much more, for the composer himself about everything that moves the world.
At the latest with George Bernard Shaw, Wagner’s critique of the aimless striving for power has become a tangible critique of capitalism, and now a feminist narrative. You can do it, but you run the risk of reducing the all-encompassing work of art of the wrestling story more and more to a petty-bourgeois intellectual space in which not only the gods fall and with them our positive and survival-necessary projection surfaces, but also everyone and everything about the eye level of a supposedly healthy mediocrity protrudes.
Objective reason as well as passionate vision, selfless empathy as well as great pathos. In politics, the latter is rightly suspect, but in art it has to survive, so sound and image and dramatic tension have to work together to create a gripping experience that not only challenges the mind, but also stirs up emotions that challenge and shake the whole person , otherwise all that is left is a pedagogical seminar that has turned out to be a little too long.