This month, the Bayreuth Centennial Ring celebrates its fortieth anniversary. Staged by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez, the Bayreuth Centennial Ring is still as relevant today as it was forty years ago when it took Bayreuth Festival audiences by surprise. Since Chéreau’s Ring has become so canonical – with the help of the filmed version – it is difficult to imagine just how revolutionary and shocking it was for audiences in 1976. But we must not lose sight of the controversial aspects of Chéreau’s Ring, for it is these aspects that make the production so meaningful today.
Patrice Chéreau, then 31-years-old, wasn’t Wolfgang Wagner’s first choice for the Bayreuth Centennial Ring. (Wolfgang, the grandson of Richard Wagner, had become both artistic and managing director of the Bayreuth Festival after Wieland Wagner’s death in 1966.) Wolfgang first considered the great film director Ingmar Bergman and the English theater director Peter Brook. When Bergman and Brook turned down the offer, Wolfgang approached the controversial German theater director Peter Stein. Stein accepted the centennial Ring project but backed out in September 1974 when Wolfgang refused to let him modify the acoustics of the pit. (Stein later went on to stage Rheingold at the Paris Opéra in 1976, a cycle that was not completed.) At this point, Pierre Boulez suggested Chéreau, whom his sister Jeanne recommended.
When Wolfgang invited Chéreau to Bayreuth, Chéreau had staged only two operas before and didn’t have any experience with Wagner. Be that as it may, Chéreau fit the profile of the other directors considered by Wolfgang: he was a theater director who would provide a fresh interpretation of Wagner. Wolfgang wanted a staging in keeping with Götz Friedrich’s controversial 1972 Tannhäuser – in other words, a Ring that would highlight the political themes of the work. Wolfgang reasoned that if Wagner’s works belong to a broader Western tradition removed from German nationalism, it was only natural to have a French team. In May 1974, Chéreau gave Wolfgang a demonstration of his ideas. Wolfgang responded by asking Chéreau to move forward with the project. In July 1975, Chéreau and his crew attended Wolfgang’s Ring at the Bayreuth Festival. The stage designs were constructed in the winter of 1975/6. Rehearsals began early May 1976, with the final dress rehearsals on July 15-19. The four premieres occurred on July 24-29. In hindsight, it is striking how quickly Chéreau and his team were able to plan and realize their ideas, and how little rehearsal time they had to do so.
Competing Interpretations of Wagner
What is so remarkable about the Bayreuth Centennial Ring is that Chéreau and Boulez present two very different interpretations of Wagner. Chéreau writes in the Siegfried program notes:
The primary discourse of the Ring, its obvious message, is … Wagner’s astonishing vision of power, political power, society, and the modern State. The Ring is … a description of the mechanisms of power – how it is seized, how it is lost – of the terrible perversion of societies based on the preservation of power, of the mechanisms of the powerful State … which orders from the beginning its own apocalypse, since its exclusive concern quickly becomes the maintenance of its power. (English translation from Nattiez & Repensek 1980)
In dialogue with the New Philosophers, Chéreau presents the modern state as a totalitarian-like force that would rather blow itself up than give up power. André Glucksmann, one of the key members of the New Philosophers, writes in his book Les Maîtres Penseurs (The Master Thinkers): “Why does power assert itself in the planning of catastrophes? Why does it know only one history, that of an endless countdown? Why do the states keep Apocalypse-time? (261).” In other words, power is intrinsically evil, concerning itself exclusively with preservation and resulting in inevitable destruction. Particularly disturbing about the Chéreau production is his depiction of Mime, which emphasizes the anti-Semitic aspects of the character. Performed by Heinz Zednik, Mime is a pathetic creature, hunched over and with a nasal and groveling voice. Chéreau is responding to Adorno’s argument that Mime is Wagner’s spiteful caricature of Jews. He is also portraying Mime as a victim of a totalitarian-like state.
(Mime scene from Siegfried, Act 2; watch from 2:14:06 to 2:21:00)
On the other hand, Pierre Boulez dismisses the political aspects of Wagner’s life and works entirely, focusing instead on the artistic innovations of the music. Influenced by Roland Barthes, Boulez thinks of the Ring as a text removed from the author’s intentions – a product not of an author-composer but rather of an underlying musical language. This radical approach enables Boulez to brush aside any question of Wagner’s ideological beliefs and the music’s appropriation by the Nazis. Boulez’s thinking is audible in his conducting, especially in his attention to the harmonic, rhythmic, and temporal innovations of the music. In the following example (Siegfried’s Rhine Journey), Boulez brings out the contrapuntal detail and accomplishes seamless transitions between the sections by means of gradual tempo changes:
In the second example (the transition music between scenes 2 and 3 of Rheingold), Boulez gradually increases the tempo, highlights the syncopation, and draws attention to how Wagner layers ostinatos on top of each other.
(See Part 2 to find out what Chéreau and Boulez’s interpretations have in common.)