Tradition, Enemy of Truth: Wagnerianism and Francesca Zambello’s Ring

By Jens F. Laurson

Wagner, like few other composers, is the subject of controversy, emotions, and ideological battles. And that’s just among those who already proclaim themselves his fans. In heated discussions over whether Hagen’s musings should be more Sprechgesang or, instead, approached with bel canto in mind, small arms fire is a distinct possibility. Stage direction and design are perennially contested.

Perhaps no other composer’s work asks more for constant renewal and innovation than Wagner’s – and among his works, none more so than the tetralogy that is Der Ring des Niebelungen. And yet for no other works will you find more fanatics who ardently condemn even the smallest changes.

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When the Washington National Opera mounted Francesca Zambello’s “American Ring,” co-produced with San Francisco, it provided the catalyst for much debate, much of which was healthy. Did Mme. Zambello ravage the master’s work to force her own agenda upon it, or did she free the Ring‘s inherent messages for consumption by the Washington audience (especially those not already obsessed with Wagner) by translating them into a symbolic and visual language that we 21st century Americans, on the East and West coasts alike, speak? No one will seriously argue that that language is a different from the one spoken and understood by the audience that Wagner had in 1876 Bayreuth, monarchical Bavaria.

Language never stays the same, but ideas do – ideas some of which might be called “truths.” More amenable to change than spoken language is visual language. If only a handful of scholars and students read Shakespeare in the actual original, should it be surprising that a work like the Ring, in sum a much more complex work than even King Lear (with all due respect to the great bard), gets – theatrically or visually – heaved into the 20th or 21st century every so often? Yet “deviation from the original” is tantamount to a capital crime for many a self-declared “Wagnerian.”

“Wagnerianism,” like any “-ism” is an ill, albeit admittedly somewhat less harmful than, say, Fascism or Communism, Protectionism, or Militarism. But unlike “isms” that do ill by radicalizing an inherently noble aim (like Pacifism, for example), Wagnerianism is the radicalization of a fictitious ideal muddled by “tradition” – which, in this case, is the accumulation and reinforcement of bad habits, intellectual laziness, and little else. Wagnerians, although by and large unaware of their malaise, don’t love Wagner but their own idea of Wagner. That idea more or less corresponds to how Wagner was performed 50 years ago in America, or between the wars in Germany, and is often justified with the claim of truly harking back to Wagner’s time.

The Intendant of the Bavarian State Opera, Nikolaus Bachler, an actor who went on to head the Vienna Burgtheater before setting upon Munich, sees it this way: “When a playwright or a composer creates something, he makes a lifelong contract with the future to be developed and interpreted. Of course sometimes the interpretation is so much weaker, so much more uninteresting and banal than the value of the subject. In that case it’s necessary to protest. But looking to the past leads in the wrong direction. There is no ‘original’ Nozze di Figaro interpretation. What should it be? Basically whenever someone speaks of being true to the time of the work, or true to the composer, they only mean the interpretive style from 20 and 30 years ago. What we nowadays call ‘historic’ are productions from the 50s. Not the 1820s. Anything produced then was so much more radical – for its time – than you can even imagine.”

His is a variant of the point – namely, the impossibility of non-interpretation – Jorge Luis Borges makes in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”: A sentence like “History, the Mother of Truth” written in the seventeenth century means something radically different from the same sentence penned by “a contemporary of William James.” Likewise seeing a 17th century costume means something radically different to an 18th century audience than it does to a 21st century audience.

The above brand of “operideology,” often mislabeled “conservative,” is best described as “traditionalist.” The traditionalist glorifies the past and reminisces about the last “Golden Age” of whatever is his or her particular obsession which, roughly, goes back 50 or 60 years prior to that person’s artistic conscience maturing. Most knowledge about that Golden Age is, not surprisingly, anecdotal. Wagnerian traditionalists (today, at least – “traditionalism” by its nature is subject to cyclical changes…) like to claim to seek a pure, “original” version of the art Wagner created… in accordance with the wishes and intentions of the artist himself. That claim alone is untenable, but it also misleads one to think that the traditionalist is in fact an “originalist” who seeks out the actual state of creation of a work, no matter when that took place. Indeed, they are very distinct. The latter would make up the “Historical Performance Practice” crowd which stages the St. Matthew Passion with two singers to a part and (more or less) original instruments. In comparison, the traditionalist – Wagnerian or not – is likely to prefer his Bach à la Solti or Weingartner. Telling, indeed.

“Traditionalism” contrasts with two other easily generalized approaches to opera in general and to Wagner in particular: the “Modernist” and the (“true”) conservative approach. In its simplest form, modernism is just the rejection of tradition…; practically it involves a (willful) reinterpretation of the given material, the introduction of wholly new elements to a work, and the recasting of an opera in the image of its director. It also includes, if by accident, the rejection of many bad habits that have come to hamper the appreciation of artwork. The conservative approach, in contrast, entails, foremost, preserving the core idea (call it the “essence” or “truth,” if you wish) and adjusting the outer form (staging, design, direction) to that purpose.

An opera that has a message that goes beyond the literal story it tells (and all great operas do) needs to be allowed to get that message across. And whatever means conveyed that message three-, two-, or one-hundred years ago are not likely the means that convey it nowadays. Points of reference change, symbols and conventions change. Scenery depicting a depraved society in 1850 would look different from scenery created for the same purpose in 1980 or 2007. An audience today would merely see costumes and conclude, “pretty” – but hardly register a hard-hitting social critique.

It is any good director’s job to identify the messages of the opera at hand and then find a way to translate them into a language that is understandable to the audience. Merely to re-create a version of the past, making sure not to introduce any new idea or add new fancy trims, is the traditionalist’s choice – this is insufficient to anyone who wishes opera to be more than a mere museum of former art. To treat opera this way may have its justifications for works that have little meaning at heart to begin with and are mostly appreciated for musical (or sentimental, not theatrical) value. To treat Wagner this way would be highly inappropriate and indeed unfortunate. Similarly, it wouldn’t do to force alien or scantly related elements into the structure, although that’s apparently very tempting.

The difficultly for the director who wishes neither to embalm the opera nor to impose him- or herself on it lies in translating the core elements of the opera into a modern language without making the latter dominate the meaning – different interpretations of an opera’s core and meaning need different attempts to interpret them and various nuances and accentuations that give it a particular flavor. These legions of possibilities are exactly what make opera so attractive and exciting, even if only a few of them actually work well. This challenge is all the more attractive (and perilous) in the most demanding and complex of operas, the Ring.

Francesca Zambello set out to meet this challenge with her “American Ring” in a particularly daring and moderately novel way. Instead of trimming localisms away in order to hone in on the message, she aimed at presenting the Ring‘s truths in a new, familiar localism, a quintessentially American vernacular, chock-full of ideas and iconography. This should have been less daring than it seemed at first, given that the Ring is much less quintessentially German than it is universal, even if the Rhine flows prominently through it, everywhere. (The Washington supertitle translations by Cori Ellison took care to remove all mention of Rhein/Rhine, often replacing it with “pure,” which in German – “rein” – is a homophone to the name if the river, but which, in the context of the action, is just plain daft.)

The themes of power (and its abuse), love (and its abuse), wealth (and its abuse) and social rules (and their violations) that run through the Ring are universal enough to survive a trip into outer space (Bavarian State Opera, David Alden) and they are certainly universal enough to survive a trip to the Yuba River Valley. Of course, mere survival is not the issue that concerns opera goers. The strength of Wagner’s music and drama is so great that it would survive even the most hackneyed and intrusive approach. Zambello’s intention was – largely – to clarify, not confuse. Dressing some of the references to no-longer-familiar Norse myths in native garb with images and symbols of the American past (or, as Mme. Zambello added, “present, and – God forbid – future”), was supposed to make accessible the obscure and stimulate thought, debate, and possibly controversy – in short, the stuff that living art is made of, and that which, if it is missing, makes it appear stuffed. Since theater must not be relegated to an expensive form of taxidermy, this was to be appreciated in principle, regardless of whether the result was deemed an unqualified success or ambitious failure.

George Bernard Shaw interpreted the Ring as a socialist allegory over 100 years ago, and directors still find this an appealing idea around which to stage the Ring. It’s a legitimate point, since Wagner was – among many, often contradictory things – an unabashed revolutionary socialist (as Hans Mayer’s stupendous and slim Wagner monograph from the 60s was first adequately to extol) and, among other things, a buddy, not just an accidental acquaintance, of Mikhail Bakunin. (That unadulterated selfishness was so obviously the source of his socialism makes his political delusions almost droll.) This is Patrice Chéreau’s approach in his Bayreuth production from 1976-80, to this day the best acted Ring performance available on DVD. In a 1989 Washington Post editorial, Fred Smith and Mark Jones vividly painted the Ring as a “Free Market Classic,” a cautionary tale on the importance and social necessity of rules and contracts. While it gives short shrift to Wagner’s socialism, it’s an internally coherent, downright brilliant analogy. The “American Ring,” curiously, takes more from Shaw’s interpretation than the free market spin. The reminders of slavery, industrial exploitation, “American fascism” (whatever exactly that may be – abuse of power, presumably), the subjugation of native Indians, and the “pillaging” of the environment are always close by.

There are a great many opportunities to disagree with this approach. Are these really the core ideas of the Ring? If they are, do we agree with the chosen analogies? But the point of a direction like Zambello’s is not whether we agree with all the points she made but whether she made those points well and congruently as part of the opera. Did her chosen images and narrative strengthen, correspond with, and support the story Wagner tells?

Certainly a few particular, peculiar political ideas that are on Mme. Zambello’s mind (even if not all make it directly into the opera) might have ruffled some feathers. Discussing her Ring, she conceded that she cast Wotan in a particularly bad light, accusing him of being “like Bush; a hideous leader, someone who destroys his society, destroys his family, sacrifices his children….” (Although both have fathered twins who occasionally act out, analogies can be taken too far.) That “the gold can be seen as a metaphor for oil” is almost too obvious to be spelled out…, but barring heavy-handed hints like oil derricks in the first act of Siegfried, it may well make a point to which we can readily relate. Her remark that, as a director, “you need to be consistent in your storytelling and you need to be clear about what conceptual path you’re following” pointed to the most important aspect of any successful Ring.

Note: A version of this article originally appeared in Classical WETA in March 2007.

*The author is Critic-at-Large for Classical WETA 90.9 FM, Washington D.C.




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