The epic struggle in Wagner’s Ring exists on many levels, pitting man against nature, god against man, and, ultimately, god against himself. Recent productions of the cycle have bred visions at once radically different in their inspiration and fundamentally similar. Most strikingly, video projections have served as a powerful means of communication.
Francesca Zambello’s 2006 staging, currently being reprised in its entirety at the San Francisco Opera, uses mesmerizing video to evoke images of nature. In Das Rheingold, the Rhine rushes and churns larger-than-life onscreen, literally overwhelming the viewer. Later we are taken through glaciers and winding mountains paths, arousing the kind of awe one feels out in the great wide open. In contrast to these powerful scenes is the sparse, banal construction site where the gods reside.
This season’s newly unveiled co-production of La Scala and the Staatsoper in Berlin, perhaps not coincidentally, also uses projections to create mountainous terrain, melting gold and other moving images which would be impossible to capture without modern technology. In an ingenious touch, stage directing team Guy Cassiers and Enrico Bagnoli exploit multimedia to evoke the insidious presence of the internet in our society, including references to pornographic violence.
Much as Zambello sets out to depict the fall of the American empire, Cassiers and Bagnoli touch upon the zeal and rapid globalization inherent in the European Union, another political conglomeration which may be outdoing itself. Economic politics may be even more prominent in our minds today than in Wagner’s time. In Paris, Gunther Krämer’s new cycle apparently takes a critical stance toward the German state, with the Rhine maidens transformed into prostitutes in Hamburg’s red-light district.
Immorality takes many forms, the Ring seems to tell us. While in the La Scala/Staatsoper production the ring’s curse most clearly represents corruption associated with power, as opposed to the healing forces of love, Zambello’s staging made me reconsider the deadly materialism it embodies. Her thematization of environmental exploitation is, paradoxically, not unrelated, for the earth’s resources—which the western world, and particularly the U.S., has abused into order to sustain a profligate lifestyle—are also material.
Amid turbulent global politics, technological revolution, and dire environmental concerns, Wagner’s Ring may have never been as relevant as it is today. Gone are the optimism and sense of invincibility that stamped the late twentieth century. Both the Zambello and Cassiers/Bagnoli productions reveal angst about our future and, in order to communicate their message, turn to a medium that is transforming our society.