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STAGING WAGNER

RECENTLY, I NOTED, WATCHING Bergman’s The Virgin Spring reminded me of Wagner staging of medieval interiors. I was thinking especially of the Hunding residence built around a massive ash tree in Act 1 of Die Walküre. Further research brought me to Charles Osborne’s book The World Theatre of Wagner. 

The World Theatre of Wagner, by Charles Osborne, preface by Sir Colin Davis, Macmillan, 1982.

In his Preface, conductor Sir Colin Davis wrote, “Wagner was a composer with whom I could identify even as a child, whether because I liked the noises, or because the stories were about gods and dragons, I am uncertain; probably both.” 

Me too. 

Here are tidbits about Wagnerian staging gleaned from this book, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Hunding’s Digs. The massive ash tree is a prominent element of this prosperous Neiding’s home. The sword Nothung embedded in the tree adds to the atmosphere, as do the inquisitive glances of Sieglinde (Hunding’s wife) and Siegmund (who turns out to be her twin brother). 

Drawing of Hunding’s residence by Knut Ekwall, based on the Die Walküre production in 1876, the year premiering the Ring’s complete cycle. This and other images from The World Theatre of Wagner.

Other Wagner operas were perhaps less wacko in their settings, but still noteworthy. The Flying Dutchman, for instance, takes place near Sandwike in southern Norway, with a ghosty ship commanded by an equally ghostly captain seeking redemption through love.

Sort of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl loses life for him. 

The Flying Dutchman, Act II, the non-ghostly Captain Daland’s house. Emil Preetorius’s design for Bayreuth, 1939.

Back to Hunding’s Digs: The Met’s most recent production of Wagner’s Ring employed Robert Lepage’s notorious stage set, The Machine. Hunding’s residence was artfully rendered among The Machine’s adjustable planks, many of them aligned vertically to surround it with other massive trees.

The Latest. Zachery Woolfe’s “Review: The Met Opera’s Next ‘Ring’ Will Be a Sea Change,” The New York Times, November 21, 2021, discussed a new production of Die Walküre. Woolfe wrote, “Richard Jones’s bleak staging of Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ in London offers a clean break from the extravagance of the Met’s most recent production.”

 Hunding’s latest digs, as seen at the English National Opera and coming to the Met. Photo by Tristram Kenton in The New York Times, November 21, 2021.

Dragons and Rhinemaidens, Then and Now. Sir Colin Davis’s comments about his attraction to Wagner concur with mine. Who’s not to like dragons raging and Rhinemaidens seductively swimming around?

In the third of the Ring Cycle, Sieglinde and Siegmund’s kid Siegfried slays Fafner, one of the twin giants of Das Rheingold, who’s now a dragon. 

Siegfried, Act II, Scene 2; Siegfried battles the dragon. A drawing by Georges Redon shows the staging at the Paris Opera 1902. An assistant conductor directs the bass singing Fafner through a megaphone.

The three Rhinemaidens recur throughout the cycle, protecting gold and complicating the lives of those stealingl it. 

These contraptions were used at Bayreuth in 1876 to help the Rhinemaidens in their swimming.

Over the years, this swimming trio has cavorted behind river-simulating scrims and sliding down Robert Lepage’s Machine. German opera and theatre director Götz Friedrich staged his first production of the Ring at Covent Garden in 1973 –1976; Sir Colin Davis conducted. 

Friedrich’s Rhinemaidens.

They’ve come a long way from Bayreuth’s. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022 

One comment on “STAGING WAGNER

  1. Mike B
    April 16, 2022

    My first Ring opera was in San Francisco back in the 1960s or early 70s, Rheingold with a very minimalist set using mainly lighting effects. The music was good. The staging was good, too, an appropriate for a time when various mind-altering substances were often consumed before attendance (and sometimes during, if the smoking rooms=rest rooms in the opera house were any indication).

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