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Wringing Pleasure From Wagner

The Ring Cycle Directed by Peter Sellars At the Loeb

By Scott A. Rosenberg

AUDIENCES have found Richard Wagner's operas everything but enjoyable. Stimulating, yes; emotional, even enlightening at times. But for over a century artists and audiences alike have treated with sacerdotal reverence works that were as revolutionary in their own time as they seem dated today.

Peter Sellars may be indicted with a catalogue of crimes against Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner's Ring cycle--indeed, at times he treats it like a woman of the streets, to be used and then discarded at will. But he avoids one crime, the reverential acceptance of performance traditions as gospel. In remolding the Ring to suit his aims and resources, he has played a final trick on Wagner, one even the most wilfully manipulative directors of the past haven't managed--turning these leaden operas into light entertainment.

This Ring is the artistic descendant of past parodies--notably Anna Russell's 20-minute reductio ad absurdum--but it is less a parody than a tease. At times it also seems not so much an operatic tetralogy as a four-ring circus, with Sellars as ringmaster, urging his audience to applaud, drawing its attention from one spectacle to the next.

But the mixture of gentle smirks at Wagner's pomposity, jabs at his tortuous plots, and tips of the hat to his skill with musical and visual images gives this Ring a legitimate value of its own, beyond, say, the similarly scaled but more ludicrous parody staged last year in New York by the Ridiculous Theater Company. The Loeb production is a sort of live theatrical touchstone for Wagner's effectiveness--the best scenes in the Ring come off best here, and the worst are cut to ribbons or ridiculed beyond recognition.

Sellars boasts, with obvious irony, that his is "Boston's first complete Wagner Ring cycle." It is actually an anthology of the Ring, the most famous and most inspired passages spliced together from each opera, with the gaps in the music and plot filled in either by stage gimmickry or by Sellars' own entertaining, if self-conscious, narration. He uses good commercial recordings of the works, and provides surprisingly good reproduction for them. The cutting is drastic, though, and will disturb those who know the music too well. Sir Thomas Beecham used to complain of the "bleeding chunks of Wagner" played by symphony orchestras as excerpts; Sellars' adaptations are hamburger meat.

Each of the four operas takes less than an hour, and the whole evening adds up to about four hours in all--less than any one of the original operas except the "prologue" Das Rheingold. Sellars handles the musical cuts as skillfully as possible, and except for some of the act endings in Die Walkure and Siegfried, which he uncomfortably splices straight into the next scenes, they are not unsettling. Of course, Wagner's meticulous structure of leitmotifs crumbles to the ground. But from the opening of Rheingold, when Sellars' voice and the rustle of silver paper (standing in for the Rhine) nearly overpower the river's flow in the orchestra's string section, we know this is to be a visual, not a musical Ring.

To purists this approach is sheer heresy--they remember Wagner's demand that his works be called "music-dramas." But most scoff at that today, and take the music much more seriously than the drama. Sellars does the opposite, and compensates for the loss in musical clarity with wonderfully adroit stagecraft. Sometimes it descends to the level of slapstick pot-shots at Wagner's Nibelungs, Gibichungs, forest-birds and bears, but at least as often it sensibly comments on the eternal production problems of the Ring.

MOST effective are David Claris's colorful puppets, which represent most of the characters. Members of the company wave the muppet-like Rhinemaidens about in time to the music, and open their mouths as they "sing"--even "swimming" a little bit higher for the really high notes. Life-size dummies manipulated by two actors apiece "play" Siegmund and Sieglinde about as well as most opera singers; the hand gestures and postures brilliantly satire the declamatory incompetence of most heldentenors and dramatic sopranos.

Obviously, Sellars resorts to this approach because he has to--the Metropolitan Opera today can't assemble a group of singers capable of doing the Ring justice, and the Loeb isn't even within striking range. But he's also making a point about other, more serious productions: most of the performers in them are dummies, and that's why we've never seen a Ring that works both musically and dramatically.

The actors at the Loeb become little more than menials on stage, pushing about various inanimate objects in time to the music. Only a couple of performances have much character--Paul Redford's cigar-chewing Loge and Grace Shohet's teasing Brunnhilde stand out. This is one show where the technical crew deserves more credit than the performers; Eric Cornwell's lighting, Antony Rudie's technical direction, and Jennifer Schreiber's stage-managing must all be epic efforts.

STRAIGHTFORWARD enactments of Wagner's text complement the implicit parody of the hand-puppets and dummies. For the entry into Valhalla over the rainbow bridge in Rheingold, the bridge is projected through a transparency onto the rear wall of the stage; Brunnhilde's enchantment at the end of Walkure occurs atop a ladder, wrapped in a crimson cape and defended by a cordon of flashing lights; for the funeral march in Gotterdammerung, Siegfried's body is set in a huge wooden cart that Brunnhilde, haloed by a spotlight, pulls along. Sellars manages these scenes better than many directors with far more money and resources at their disposal.

The production savors the visual opportunities of Das Rheingold, wringing it of every bit of spectacle--including towering potato-sack giants. Die Walkure, the best of the four adaptations, flows well musically; Sellars cuts out nearly the entire second act. Though that act, with a 25-minute monologue from Wotan, is the ideological lynchpin of the whole cycle, it rightly is the first to go in a conception of the Ring as entertainment. Walkure also benefits from the absence of Sellars' sometimes-intrusive narration. The presentation races through Siegfried, barely pausing for Siegfried to slaughter a garbage-bag Fafner, and into Gotterdammerung.

In any enterprise this huge, of course, there will be misses as well as hits, and Sellars has his share. Particularly in Gotterdammerung--where many critics say Wagner's inspiration failed him--Sellars falters too. Splicing in whole minutes of Kurt Weill music to back up the leather-jacketed, bar-stool Gibichungs may be a justified comment on their theatrical value in Wagner's original scheme. It also, however, shatters with an axe-stroke of cynicism the mood of benign humor that prevails until them. The musical effect is appalling, the lapse in taste alarming.

At the end of the evening, you are--as Sellars quotes Anna Russell (crediting her here, though he fails to elsewhere)--"right back where you started," only it's taken four hours instead of 15 for the gods to pass on, the world to burn up, and the ring to return to its rightful owners. You aren't any wiser than when you started, and you certainly haven't experienced the catharsis Wagner assumed he would induce.

This production is no substitute for a full-scale, operatic Ring, and that seems obvious both to Sellars and to audiences from the start. The suggestion of a critic in the Boston Phoenix--reviewing the same Ring production this summer--that international opera stars participate in Sellars' version of the cycle is beyond understanding.

But there is a need for this sort of Ring. If only to remind audiences that Wagner need not sink from the weight of his pomposity, that there can be levity as well as profundity in these mythological epics, Sellars has performed a valuable service. Most modern Rings either slavishly follow Wagner's "intentions"--as though he knew what they were himself--or unmoor themselves entirely from his ideas and drift into meaninglessness. Not quite dismissing Wagner, but not quite taking him seriously, this Ring is above all refreshing.

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