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Direction of authentic and relevant meanings


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Staging of «Siegfried» from Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Vienna Opera

During its 2016-2017 season, the Wiener Staatsoper has continued to perform its interpretation of Wagner’s famous masterpiece, the Ring Cycle. Having witnessed a performance of the cycle’s third part, one can’t help but point out, that it possesses the same authentic Wagnerian character, that one feels in his music, where any boundaries between reality and myth are erased, and a new world in born right before the audiences’ eyes; one with its own gravitational force  and its own rules and norms. There wasn’t a single detail which looked like a naïve fantasy (as compared with the sorts of computer effects that we regularly observe in modern cinematography), or a deliberate anachronism, emerging from the depths of grand Romantic opera. While the use of contemporary computer graphics was very appropriate and complemented the ascetic and minimalistic traditional scenography.  

The question of how Wagner’s grand creation was brought to life at the Wiener Staatsoper will be discussed in this article. To begin, let us immerse ourselves in its history and recall the main stages of its creation. This will help us understand how the authentic musical material and its direction relate to each other in a stage performance.

The main figure of Siegfried in the composition of the Ring Cycle

As we know, Wagner’s grandiose Ring Cycle developed within the composer’s mind gradually. He began his search around the character of Siegfried.

In 1848, Wagner wrote a poetic text titles “The Nibelungs”, based on the myth of the Nibelungs, which, in its broad characteristics, served as an outline for the Ring Cycle.

Having completed the outline, Wagner then composed a three act opera “Siegfried’s Death”.  Its plot was based on the final part of “The Nibelungs”.

Then, due to several circumstances (such as the May 1848 Uprising), his work on the epic was interrupted. It is known, that during this period the composer was not in high spirits, because he felt that his new composition went radically outside the bounds of traditional opera. Only in 1851 did Wagner return to the idea of “Siegfried”, writing the opera “Young Siegfried”, which served as s kind of introduction to “Siegfried’s Death”.

However, upon completion, the composer felt the myth had not been explored deeply enough, which led him to develop it into a trilogy: “The Valkerie”,  “Young Siegfried”, and “Siegfried’s Death”, with a prologue titled “Stealing the Rhinegold”.

Work on the grandiose operas was done intermittently, while during the breaks, Wagner was able to complete ‘Tristan and Isolde” and “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg”.

After completing the Cycle, Wagner was faced with the problem of its staging. This was the moment when Wagner conceived of the idea of creating a theater specifically designed for performing the Ring Cycle. This lead to the creation of the Festspielhaus theater, which was constructed with the support of many Wagnerian societies and the personal patronage of the Bavarian King Ludwig II. In 1876, the Cycle’s long awaited premiere at Bayreuth finally took place.

Authentic meanings in opera in terms of Wagner’s thinking

It is precisely while working on the Ring Cycle that Wagner definitively formulated the main principles of his opera aesthetic. In this respect, his most important work is the book “Opera and Drama” (1851). In it, Wagner writes of his dream of creating a theatrical art form which would be analogous to that of Ancient Greece. As we know, during grandiose celebrations, one of the factors which united the Greek people was theater tragedy. According to Wagner, the Ancient Greeks created a real drama, based on mythology. For it is precisely myth, which reveals the link between eternal events in the most comprehensive and universal way.

The composer strongly criticized the circumstances in which contemporary European theater found itself in. In his view, it lacked its own form of musical drama, which could be compared to Ancient Greek theater.

For this reason, in his own dramas (particularly in the Ring Cycle), Wagner created a type of performance which, according to him, could compete with Greek tragedy. He strove to create the utmost unity. The operas have a powerful symphonic development which penetrates the entire work, a system of leitmotifs, a synthesis of vocal and instrumental parts – all of these tools of musical expression were, according to Wagner, meant to create a drama which could be, on the one hand, a worthy successor to Greek tragedy, while on the other hand, also being able to compete with it.

Relevant meanings of Wagner’s operatic drama and their continuation in modern culture

In his art, the composer attempted to lay the foundation on which our culture could develop and create new and exiting art forms of the future. So, what was the result? How did future generations react to Richard Wagner’s artistic goals and his calls for a new art form?

For a long time, modern musicology has considered the German Classic to be one of the first composers who turned to myth, interpreting in as a system with which to comprehend the world. In this sense, the Ring Cycle can quite naturally be seen as one of the main sources of myth-based artistic tendencies in modern culture. So, in her book “Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle” (1997), N.S. Nikolaeva introduces the terms “actualization of myth”, implying that myth can become an expression of universal content; or, to put it another way, it can be “for all time”. Wagner himself wrote the following: “If we imagine that, instead of the fateful ring, the Nibelung has in his hand a business briefcase, then we will have a complete image of the frightening, elusive master of the world”[1]. Wotan is “a composite of all modern intelligentsia, while Siegfried is the coveted and longed for person of the future”[2], writes N.S. Nikolaeva.

As we know, any myth is a personified image of the world. This has always been mythology’s inner purpose. It can be noted that, myth penetrates all of modern culture. For instance, a significant part of modern television and cinema are, in one way or another, connected to myth and are either interpretations of well known mythological imagery and conflict, or are new myths, which are based on the motifs of the old ones. It’s no secret, that numerous action films, which have recently become so ubiquitous, recreate themes from popular mythology, including righteous revenge, revenge in the name of duty, murder in the name of brotherhood. To put it briefly, what we see here is resurrection of pagan moral values. In recent cinema history, all of these ideas are abundantly present in such epics as “Star Wars”, “Game of Thrones”, and the films “Salt”, “Wanted”, “Sin City”, “Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For” and many others, along with numerous Russian films and TV shows, which were based on Hollywood sources (“Night Watch”, “Day Watch”, “Method” and others). Modern mythology has also permeated the opera scene: in 2015 the Stanislavsky Electrotheater launched its opera series “Sverliytsy”.

What are the similarities and differences between the approach of modern culture to myth versus Wagner’s approach? Who are we, successors or imitators?

Let us note that, throughout his entire career, Wagner sought to reconstruct all the greatest aspects of Greek tragedy. So, for him, recreating and reconstructing a myth within a musical drama meant creating an artifact of modern art, which was similar to and no less exiting then Greek tragedy, and giving it a truly universal ethical meaning.

In today’s pop culture (the film and TV industries), one can detect a fundamentally different approach. Typically, what we see is either a parasitism on mythological sources, or even parody of myth. Mythology becomes a tool for manipulating the masses. “Like myths, works of modern pop culture are based on the lack distinction between the ideal and the real”3. Moreover, with regards to modern culture, one can add: the lack of differentiation between the good and the bad, the intelligent and the stupid, the witty and the vulgar. The primary measure of quality becomes the intensity of the audience’s emotional reaction to what is on screen. Meanwhile, the ethical, and even more so, the aesthetic side are not given any attention or are completely ignored. The main slogan becomes “Bread and circuses!”, only in our modern interpretation- pleasant circuses. The boundaries between such opposite categories as old and new, good and evil, beautiful and ugly are erased, while the main dramaturgical tool becomes “shock value” and the “principle of non-distinction”.

Thus, despite its apparent external similarities, Wagner’s myth-art appears as a lonely, abandoned island within the modern world! However, because opera still remains a fairly popular genre, each team of opera directors and producers is faced with the same question: how to bring Wagner’s authentic meanings to life on stage for a contemporary audience, who has become accustomed to the insanely high sensory impact that effects in television and video games can have? After all, whether one wants to or not, one has to find ways to compete with modern forms of media!

The opera “Siegfried” and the Ring Cycle at the Vienna Opera

The version of Wagner’s epic currently playing in Vienna is a worthy answer to the above question! This interpretation began its life on stage in the spring of 2008. Its director was Sven-Eric Bechtolf, while the scenographer was Rudolf Glittenberg.

On the one hand, this production of “Siegfried” has a distinctly traditional tone: the action unfolds in accordance with every one of the plot’s and score’s turning points. On the other hand, in terms of the action and scenography itself, there is much that is connected with our modern world. Wotan is dressed in a leather cape, Siegfried is in World War II era camouflage, the Nibelung dwarf Mime is in a glamorous coat with a stylish scarf, while Brunnhilde wears a silver nightgown. As a result, it seems as though everything occurs in a kind of timeless mythological dimension. In this way, the production achieves a harmonious balance between the traditional and the modern, while maintaining an overall appearance which is effective and stylish. Without even slightly violating any of Wagner’s principle concerns, the myth is brought to life before the audience, in a way that brings it closer to our modern perception.

One of the production’s most successful scenographic tools is its subtle use of digital video projection. Thus, the scenographers were able to find an organic realization of the snake-like dragon Fafner. When we hear his voice, in the background we see a scarcely blinking giant eye, possibly that of a reptile or a bird. Within the pupil, the video artists occasionally release flaming sparks, which underscore his evil and ferocious temper. As a result, the desired effect is achieved: the powerful Siegfried, who in previous scenes appeared next to the dwarf Mime, now himself looks like a dwarf next to Fafner’s giant eye!

What distinguished the musical interpretation was a truly superb quality of sound! Behind the conductor’s stand was Peter Schneider, who has already become a well known interpreter of Wagner’s music. For many years, he has been the director of the Manheim and Munich opera theaters, and has, for over 35 years, served as the principle conductor of Wagner’s operas in Bayreuth. This prolonged immersion into Wagner’s musical texture is tangible in the performance: the orchestra sounded powerful and yet distinct, the orchestral colors were strikingly diverse, while the singer’s voices seemed to be welded into the orchestral score.

On stage, the wonderful singing ensemble shined. The main roles were sung by: the German tenor Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), the Austrian tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Mime), the German mezzo-soprano Petra Lang (Brunnhilde) [winner of two Grammy awards for her role as Cassandra in Berlioz’s opera The Trojans], the Polish baritone Tomas Conechny (Wotan), and the German baritone Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Alberich). Their voices and manner of singing conformed with the prevailing conception of a Wagner soloist.

Thus, the production’s most important feature became its harmonious synthesis of Wagner’s traditional musical and stage images with a competent and balanced inclusion of modern attributes. The director and production team managed to find the authentic meanings, which are present in the score, and to realize them on stage in a way that’s relevant in today’s era. Finally, thanks to a first-rate musical performance, the multi-part opera could be listened to in one single breath!

The writer is Yana Rossi

The translation – Ilya Baburashvili

[1] R. Wagner «Memoirs».Volume 4. p. 181

2 N.S. Nikolaeva «”Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle». M., 1997. p. 7

3 I.A. Kovaleva Myth-based art in modern culture // The Young Scientst. — 2015. — №9.1. — p. 37-40.

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