There is this gold ring, see, and whoever owns it will rule the world, if he renounces the satisfactions of love. ... And there's a magic helmet that can make you invisible or change you into any shape you choose or take you instantly anywhere in the world. And there are these two giant brothers who build a palace in the clouds for the king of the gods, but then he doesn't want to give them the contracted payment, which is his sister, the goddess of youth, love and beauty. So he consults with the god of fire and trickery and they go down to this weird underground place called Nibelheim, and ... well, it takes 17 hours to tell the whole story of Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle, but that's how it begins.
This week on PBS (WETA, Channel 26), those 17 hours will fill four nights of prime (and almost prime) time. If the guy at the next desk in your office looks bleary-eyed every morning, you can't assume that he has a drinking problem -- he may be a Wagner fan who has been staying up until the small hours watching "Siegfried" (4 1/2 hours) or "Goetterdaemmerung" (five hours) -- stories that have all the repulsive, power-mad glitter of "Dallas," the family-gossip appeal of "All My Children" and the gee-whiz dimensions of "Masters of the Universe," plus some of the greatest music ever composed. Whatever you may think of Wagner's rambling and highly symbolic tale of impotent gods, dwarfs who want to rule the world, working-class giants, magic dragons and a super-hero with the mind of a child, it is highly telegenic.
By current Hollywood standards, the (approximately) $5 million production budget of the Metropolitan Opera's "Ring" cycle may not be much. But in the world of opera, even televised opera from the Met, it is both enormous and cost-effective. This is only the second complete, integrated "Ring" cycle to reach American television, the first to run on consecutive evenings as Wagner intended, and the first televised in the kind of traditional production Wagner had in mind. Before going into home video formats, it will be seen by an estimated audience of more than 100 million in the United States and at least 10 foreign countries. And if the spectacle created on the Met's enormous stage can be successfully transferred to the small screen, it will be, visually, the most striking "Ring" in recent history -- not only for its atmospheric landscapes but for its technical achievements: the spectacular collapse of Valhalla at the end of "Goetterdaemmerung" ("The Twilight of the Gods"), for example, and the dragon in "Siegfried" -- a particularly loathsome, if not terribly menacing, creature that grows out of the earth like an animated fungus with teeth and claws.
Outside of the same plot and a few singers (such as Matti Salminen and Siegfried Jerusalem, but not in their Bayreuth roles), this "Ring" has remarkably little in common with the last one televised -- the Bayreuth centennial production, conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed by Patrice Chereau, which was shown on PBS over a period of several weeks in 1983 and is now available on Philips CD Video. The Chereau "Ring" (as Wagnerians usually call it) follows the trend, dominant since World War II, of restaging the story to emphasize its symbolic rather than its realistic dimensions. The current Met "Ring," in contrast, is so conservative that it is radical.
Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's designs fly in the face of nearly half a century of advanced Wagnerian production concepts and present armor-wearing, spear-carrying characters in vaguely medieval costumes amid realistic scenery that often looks like the work of minor 19th-century landscape painters. Compare the Chereau "Ring," which takes the story visually through the 19th and early 20th centuries. It makes Wotan (king of the gods) look like a robber-baron industrialist, and the human spectators, watching the destruction of Valhalla, something like the downtrodden proletarians of "Grapes of Wrath." Or compare the Berlin "Ring," which played at the Kennedy Center last year and placed the action inside a visual frame that was called a "time tunnel" and looked -- intentionally -- like a station in the Washington subway system.
There is nothing wrong with symbolic interpretations of the "Ring." Wagner certainly intended his massive fairy tale to be seen on several levels. A whole library of books has been published on the various symbolic dimensions of the cycle, and the gods, dwarfs, heroes and monsters in the story would not keep an adult's attention for 17 minutes, let alone 17 hours, if these overtones did not have a clear, serious function in the cycle. Furthermore, the contemporary trend to symbolically interpretive staging was developed at Bayreuth, the Wagner shrine established by the composer-librettist himself, the Vatican or Supreme Court of interpretation for his work, and the world center of the flourishing Wagner industry. It was a lineal descendant -- Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson -- who pioneered the nonliteral staging of these works, beginning with discussions in the 1940s and culminating with the 1951 production that reopened Bayreuth after World War II.
There were many reasons for this radical departure from tradition. Above all, the performance practices at Bayreuth had gradually become fossilized after Wagner's death in 1883, largely under the influence of his widow, Cosima, who survived him by a half-century. By the 1930s, the cliches of Wagnerian production (symbolized by the stock figure of an overweight, spear-bearing soprano, dressed in armor and wearing a horned helmet) had become staples in cartoons, print or animated.
The Wagnerian cliches had been adopted, in large measure, by the Nazi regime, which had also helped to spread awareness of the composer's well-known antisemitism. For the survival of his operas (and particularly the "Ring" cycle) as living theater, it may have been essential to establish new symbolic associations in the popular mind.
Finally, the symbolic interpretations (flavored by Marx, Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and other trendy thinkers of the last century) often made the material more interesting to thoughtful members of the audience. Having gotten free of Hitler, Wagner has most often been put in the service of Marx since World War II. But many productions have kept their symbols fairly abstract or (like the Berlin "Ring" that played here) eclectic.
There are also arguments in favor of the old-fashioned, realistic staging that the Met telecasts embody at the highest technical level seen in generations, perhaps the highest ever. A lot of us prefer to work out our own symbolic interpretations, even inconsistent, sometimes self-contradictory ones. The plot and characters, and even the famous leitmotifs with which Wagner makes his own running musical commentary on the action, will allow us to enjoy the "Ring" as a socioeconomic protest, a study of familial relations or perhaps an essay on power and impotence, or an exploration of individual personality development, integration and decline, at various times. This kind of flexibility is achieved most easily with a traditional production that treats the material literally, rather than one that imposes its own interpretive framework.
On the other hand, a lot of people enjoy a production that, in effect, nudges them with its elbow and whispers in their ears: "See, Wotan is actually Brunnhilde's superego, and Brunnhilde is Wotan's id -- or maybe his anima." Or perhaps: "Wotan and Alberich are 19th-century industrialists; the giants and Nibelungs are oppressed workers, and when Wotan steals the Ring from Alberich it is actually the 19th-century wars of imperial expansion." You can simply accept this kind of treatment, at least for the moment, or -- more creatively -- you can engage in a running argument with it. Either exercise may illuminate the material for you.
And either way, the "Ring" available on television this week will present the case for realistic staging as persuasively as it is likely to be made in the near future.