Four Interpretations of Wagner's 'Ring' Cycle

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Wagner's "Ring" is a cycle of four operas that took 20 years to write and lasts more than 16 hours -- the biggest and most expensive undertaking an opera house can attempt. It's a story of gods and gold, greed and love, and a magic ring that must be cast away in order to save mankind. It informed "The Lord of the Rings," has inspired passionate fans who travel all over the world to see the latest cycle, and remains open to endless reinterpretations as directors try to realize onstage, within some kind of realistic budget, a story that involves giants and dwarves and flying horses and, finally, the end of the world in fire and flood.

There are currently at least six major "Rings" going on, in various stages of completion (the Washington National Opera, though it's had to postpone its cycle until at least 2013, is moving ahead with the third opera, "Siegfried," in May). Here, four directors of four different "Rings" demonstrate how artists can approach the same material and emerge with utterly different -- and equally valid -- interpretations.

Stephen Wadsworth: The Green Ring

(Seattle Opera: premiered 2001, returns in August)

Wadsworth's so-called "Green Ring" is not a work of radical reinterpretation. Indeed, it's filled with realistic visual detail. "Wagner said he wanted to get real forest, real rock, real water into the theater," Wadsworth says. "And he went into a terrible depression after the first 'Ring' " in 1876. "What he was able to do technically at that time fell so short of what he could imagine. . . . So we tried to create something that, if Wagner came into the theater, he would recognize and be aghast" at what's possible today.

Reviewers found one of this production's most distinctive aspects to be the depth of its character development, a hallmark of Wadsworth's work. "Theater is about human beings. And it's the stories of what happened to them." The characters in the "Ring" are "all people, regardless of whether they're dwarves or gods. . . . That's what Wagner's greatest genius was: . . . the creation of people of bottomless complexity."

Wadsworth calls the last four minutes of "Götterdämmerung" "the hardest thing in the world," as it calls for an inferno followed by the Rhine overflowing its banks. "How do you do realism, and then burn down the stage? You can't." Therefore, he says, "you have to resort to a kind of theatrical language that, if you've been trucking in realism, is a very difficult balance to strike."

Achim Freyer: The Avant-Garde Ring

(Los Angeles Opera: "Die Walküre" continues through April 25, followed by "Siegfried" in September, "Götterdämmerung" in April 2010 and the complete cycle in May-June 2010)

Freyer's vision for the Los Angeles "Ring" involves symbolic, arresting images: His figures wear large puppet heads, constructed body parts or thick makeup. Using the same set throughout, he shows the progress of the action by beginning the cycle in a distant time and place and moving it gradually closer until "Götterdämmerung," the final segment, will literally and figuratively intrude into the audience's space, as the singers divest themselves of their constructed costumes and become more visibly human.

Each piece also has its own form of movement. "Siegfried," which for Freyer introduces a human element, is linear: the line of mortal life, from birth to death, while in "Götterdämmerung," he says, "I want to show stasis," illustrating the way that in today's virtual, superfast world, everyone keeps abreast of everything without moving. But he promises to end with a catastrophe, "even if I'm not George Lucas," who was originally in talks to do Los Angeles's "Ring." (The projected costs were prohibitive, though Freyer's "Ring" bears a healthy price tag of $32 million.)

Still, watching art shouldn't be a passive activity. Freyer describes the television viewer as a voyeur, sitting safely in his room behind a screen. "I don't want a spectator like that. He has to be active; he has to yell, 'Boo,' 'Bravo,' get involved." Response to the first two parts of Freyer's "Ring" has been sharply divided, but every night, he says, "the audience stood up and yelled."


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