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Wagner and the Art of the Theatre 
by Patrick Carnegy.
Yale, 461 pp., £35, September 2006, 0 300 10695 5
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Among the operatic victims of what its enemies nowadays refer to as ‘directors’ theatre’, Wagner has suffered as much as anyone. Keith Warner has the Wanderer crash-land his fighter plane into Mime’s cave; Phyllida Lloyd has Brünnhilde as a suicide bomber who blows herself up in the immolation scene; Jürgen Flimm turns Nibelheim into a microchip factory. In Ruth Berghaus’s Frankfurt Götterdämmerung, described in some detail by Patrick Carnegy, the murdered Siegfried ‘was not solemnly borne aloft but brutally kicked aside by Hagen’s men’. Not all of these images are stupid or anti-musical, but as a whole they are symptoms of a process that has invaded opera over the past thirty or forty years, as directors have sought ever more contorted ways of making modern sense of Samuel Johnson’s ‘exotic and irrational’ entertainment.

To blame Wagner for these developments would be as ridiculous as to blame him for Auschwitz. But in the one case, as perhaps in the other, there is some kind of connection, and tracing its history is one of the main threads of this often richly absorbing book. Wagner was not the first composer to theorise about the theatre: Peri, Gluck, Hoffmann and Weber all preceded him. But he was the first to do so under the influence of the ancient history of drama from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, not to mention the more recent history of German idealist philosophy, from Kant to Hegel, Schelling, Feuerbach and – a little later – Schopenhauer. Wagner not only wrote more books than any other major composer, he must certainly have read more.

In a sense, his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk – the total artwork – was born out of an intellectual practice which constantly linked seemingly disparate ideas, roamed through myth and history in search of operatic subject matter, confused practical organisation with millennial politics, and in the end succeeded in combining all these elements in a single theatrical enterprise that still survives, more or less unscathed, a century and a quarter after his death. If his dramas have become the playground for every conceivable intellectual, aesthetic, political and psychological tendency, it may or may not be regrettable, but it is hardly surprising.

In view of all this heavy reading and even heavier theorising, and leaving aside his musical genius, the two most impressive things about the author of The Artwork of the Future have always been how remarkably practical he was when it came to hands-on work in the theatre; and how traditional he was in his conception of the visual aspects of the stage. In contemplating the Gesamtkunstwerk, he had no idea of bringing in an outsider whose imaginative work would somehow be integrated with that of an egghead stage designer and a brilliantly inventive lighting specialist, to the general enrichment of his music. All he needed was a set of technicians who would realise his own ideas in practical terms. As he once told a harpist, he couldn’t play the harp but he knew what he wanted it to sound like. He could see the stage in his mind’s eye, though he lacked the expertise to design it himself.

When it came to visual idiom, he was essentially a verist. In fact, his whole quarrel with the operatic stage of his young manhood, which he knew all too well from galley years as chorus master and musical director in more or less decrepit opera houses from Würzburg to Riga, was precisely that it was weighed down by convention and artifice (I’ve always loved his description of the chorus of his day as ‘scenery that has learned to march and sing’). For Wagner, as to some extent for Gluck, operatic reform meant not only reintegration but also deconventionalisation; and one of the biggest problems he faced in staging his works was how to bring off the complicated magical or supernatural effects in such a way as to make them real and vivid, instead of merely symbolic or, worse, risible.

All this is charted in much detail and with finely chosen illustrations in the first of the three parts that make up this substantial study. But while stressing Wagner’s literalism and his insistence that his elaborate stage directions be observed to the letter, Carnegy argues that he never wanted the production of his dramas set in aspic. ‘The evidence shows,’ Carnegy says, ‘that he did not.’ Actually, the evidence is ambiguous. Wagner certainly changed his mind about production style: in the case of Parsifal he thought ‘the presentation of the woodland nature scenes . . . too picturesquely literal and would have preferred the settings to have been more impressionistic’. But he still made sure that the productions were notated in detail for posterity, and Carnegy admits that ‘there is certainly no evidence that he wished the performances to pass into history as no more than the memory of a “beautiful legend”.’ The point here is not that Wagner’s opinion would have been likely to restrict what was done away from Bayreuth after his death, but merely that those who would like to shackle modern productions to some more or less limited vision of Wagnerian narrative staging should not imagine that they would have had his support. The question relates crucially to the later parts of Carnegy’s book, which amount to a study of the way post-Wagnerian production has diverged from his stated intentions, while (one hopes) seeking to preserve their underlying spirit. Meanwhile, at Bayreuth the original stagings were in fact preserved by Cosima (and to some extent by their son, Siegfried), as the widow of any great man might preserve his desk, with nothing touched or moved and the lamp permanently switched on.

How the tradition began to be loosened is the subject of the second part of the book, and here Carnegy is at his best and most original. The first brick was dislodged in Vienna, by Mahler and his designer Alfred Roller, who moved away from the detailed naturalism of the Bayreuth stagings towards a more generalised and to some extent symbolic stage picture, aimed specifically at a visual projection of the dramatic life of the music: Wagner’s own ‘deeds of music made visible’, or in Roller’s hyper-Wagnerian slogan, ‘each work of art carries within itself the key to its own production.’ But Carnegy’s real hero in this phase of the story is the Swiss theatre artist Adolphe Appia, a designer whose work seldom reached the operatic stage but whose ideas resonated in those of countless other designer-directors, including Roller himself, as well as Jacques Copeau, Edward Gordon Craig and even Stanislavsky.

Appia was above all a creature of the age of electricity, and for him the key to intelligent stage production was to have simple, lapidary sets subtly and imaginatively lit; lighting being the essential ingredient, as Carnegy shows by juxtaposing Appia’s abstract-block design for Act II of Die Walküre with its dreadful realisation in a Basel production of 1925, which reduces Wagner’s ‘rugged mountain landscape’ to something like the container-loading bay at the back of Tesco. Carnegy also reproduces an exquisite Appia drawing for the second act of Tristan, in which the only illumination for the shadowy figures of Isolde and Brangaene is supplied by the torch that both explains and symbolises Tristan’s absence. Like Roller, Appia wanted his designs to act as a direct emanation of the music. But this self-effacing attitude to her husband’s work failed to impress Cosima, who told Appia’s somewhat improbable advocate Houston Stewart Chamberlain that his sketches reminded her ‘only of the pictures that the explorer Nansen had brought back from the North Pole’.

With the exception of Appia and one or two others, these early innovators in Wagner production were designers in the service of musicians (that Appia thought differently is one reason his designs were rarely executed). Roller worked with Mahler on Tristan and the Ring, Ewald Dülberg – another Appia disciple – with Otto Klemperer on The Flying Dutchman at the Berlin Kroll. Even Heinz Tietjen, whom Siegfried’s widow, Winifred, appointed artistic director at Bayreuth in 1930 and who acted as régisseur in something like the modern sense, was an expert conductor capable of an accomplished, high-speed Ring on his own account. In other words, the impulse to break away from the literalism of the original stagings was essentially visual in the first place and came from a feeling that their elaborate realistic detail obstructed the rich emotional and psychological current of the music. This was hardly a matter of interpretation in a socio-political or psychosexual or any other brainstorming sense. It was simply a way of making deeds of music visible.

The first tentative step towards a director’s Wagner was taken, predictably in a way, during the Nazi years. There was the inevitable emphasis on the German Volksgeist and the will to power in productions such as Tietjen’s Lohengrin of 1936 (adored by Hitler), in which the massed chorus required eight hundred costumes and the audience was left in no doubt that, as King Heinrich puts it in the final act, ‘the Eastern hordes will never, in the most distant future, gain victory over Germany.’ More prophetic, however, was Tietjen’s 1933 Ring designer, Emil Preetorius, a Jungian who saw the tetralogy as embodying ‘archetypes of eternal events’ and who did his best to detach the drama from any recognisable historical period. The Nazis were no friends of abstraction, and they soon brought Preetorius to heel – though fairly gently, in view of Hitler’s unwavering indulgence of Bayreuth in general and Winifred in particular. The normal (and obvious) assumption is that Winifred’s son Wieland’s notoriously abstract productions of the 1950s were a straight reaction against the heavy historicism favoured by the Nazis. But since Wieland – himself a confirmed Jungian – had worked with Tietjen and Roller on a 1936 revival of Parsifal, it’s logical enough that the third and final part of Carnegy’s book should start by implying a direct causal link between pre and postwar Bayreuth.

However one reads Wieland’s response to the predicament of a denazified Bayreuth, it seems pretty clear from Carnegy’s account (though he never says this in so many words) that ‘director’s theatre’ hit Wagner for the first time in earnest in the work of his grandson. From the start, in the 1951 Ring and Parsifal, Wieland took charge. The conductor of Parsifal, Hans Knappertsbusch, was so out of it that, when asked why he had agreed to conduct such a travesty, he claimed that he had supposed, throughout rehearsals, that the scenery was still to come. As a designer, Wieland was entirely school of Appia, using a practically bare stage or at most monolithic sets, with the whole thing dependent on lighting. But as a stage director, he was unequivocally concerned with interpretation, hidden meanings, hermeneutics. Admittedly, these meanings were not openly political (how could they be?), not sociological, and often not at all clear. Everything worked by suggestion or, in his later productions (he died in 1966), more or less overt symbolism; but this meant that the audience, instead of being content with the narrative as expressed by the libretto and stage directions, had to crank up their brains in order to understand what the producer was trying to tell them.

‘Much of the vitality of Wieland’s work,’ Carnegy argues, ‘lay in its divergence from traditional production.’ Others had diverged before him, ‘but Wieland’s innovations were more politically momentous in that the challenge to orthodoxy was mounted in the composer’s very own theatre in the immediate postwar context.’ From Wieland onwards, ‘the stage production of Wagner, and not only in Germany, becomes almost impossible to understand other than in a political light.’ Carnegy is not the man to complain about this development. All along he insists not only that some such evolution in production style was both inevitable and desirable, but also that Wagner himself would never have expected anything different. He is a candid admirer of Joachim Herz and the rest of the East German school of directors who followed Walter Felsenstein, who – in the best tradition of Marxist critique – were the first seriously to intrude their own interpretative images and concepts into the visual and intellectual space between the audience and the composer.

In Berlin in 1962, Herz updates The Flying Dutchman to Wagner’s time and turns Daland into a rich shipowner; in Leipzig from 1973 to 1976, he plays the Ring in bourgeois dress and has the gods process at the end of Rheingold into a Valhalla assembled out of ‘well-known grandiose buildings from the 19th century’. At Bayreuth in 1978, Harry Kupfer sets The Flying Dutchman in what Carnegy calls a prison but which I remember as a mental asylum where Senta fantasises psychotically about the Dutchman and finally (reverting to Wagner’s original, ruthless D minor ending) leaps to her death from a high catwalk. Finally, in Frankfurt from 1985 to 1987, Ruth Berghaus abandons all semblance of narrative realism – however displaced – and imposes on the Ring a procession of mildly obscure symbolic images, which Carnegy describes in some detail. In Die Walküre, for instance, Sieglinde enters first ‘in a tight-fitting red gown with a cumbersome train – natural woman enslaved by seriously unnatural man in the shape of Hunding, who stomp[s] around in a suit of golden armour’; she then re-enters ‘in a long white shift, dragging in the red gown which she and Siegmund [tear] to pieces’. In the Act II Todesverkündigung, Brünnhilde borrows the chair that earlier symbolised Fricka’s domesticity, ‘to signal her complicity in Fricka’s insistence that Siegmund has to die’ (a questionable interpretation, to put it mildly; does she kick the chair aside when Siegmund persuades her otherwise?).

Carnegy is clear that, whatever the political origins of Berghaus’s imagery, the results went well beyond anything that could be described as a coherent reading, political or otherwise, of Wagnerian narrative. They were, he suggests, ‘more a commentary on the problematic aspects of the operas than a direct engagement with their substance’. And he adds that ‘the puzzle she created often seemed like a sequence of elaborate footnotes, fascinating in themselves, from which one had to try to reconstruct the missing text.’ This is well said and, in its non-committal way, quite generous. But it evades two or three more awkward issues that deserve to be raised. It’s true that on one level the Berghaus style (on which countless minor directors have subsequently modelled themselves) is somewhat obscure; but on another level, curiously enough, it is about as obscure as Puss in Boots, and a great deal less entertaining. Each image is perfectly decipherable, provided the spectators are prepared to be distracted for long enough from listening to the music. But what comes across most forcefully is what even Carnegy admits is a feeling of burlesque, a sense that, in the director’s opinion, these characters, these events, are no longer to be taken seriously. One is made to feel almost embarrassed for the composer that he should confront us with such junk, when the world is full of serious plays by intelligent writers who deal directly with the problems of the modern world – as if the test of a work of art really were its topical relevance.

And whatever happened to deeds of music made visible? Fricka’s and Brünnhilde’s chair is comprehensible (if wrong) from a deconstructive reading of the libretto. But where is it in the music? Fricka is tiresome and her morality somewhat rigid, but musically she is by no means without grandeur, and even the libretto argues her case more powerfully than Wotan’s, which is why he disintegrates so completely in the face of her tirade. To the hermeneuticist, Sieglinde and Hunding are a ludicrous pair, but in the score Hunding is a frightening enough figure (and, in his way, all too natural), while Sieglinde is perhaps the most touching creature in the entire drama, portrayed in music which expresses dawning but doomed love as exquisitely as anything in opera. Not that love should be above mockery, but, unlike Mozart, Wagner never put the ridicule into his music (or only in the single case of Beckmesser, whom he depicted as absurd in every respect). The consequence of making fun of Sieglinde is to make fun of Wagner, which, in the context of a 15-hour drama, is an expensive, wearisome and time-consuming luxury.

Though hesitant about the Berghaus tendency, Carnegy sees it as part of a process of rediscovering Wagner’s operas as ‘mythopoeic, magical and ultimately mysterious’. He quotes Boulez (in Orientations) on the politicisation of Wagner as a necessary phase towards enabling his myths and symbols to ‘take on their true meaning and escape the chance circumstances of their origins’. And he deals at length with the Chéreau/Boulez centenary Ring at Bayreuth, still probably the most convincing stage treatment of Wagner as a political cum sociological thinker. But Boulez’s ‘purification through infamy’ was strictly an allusion to the theft of Wagner by the Nazis, rather than to the distortion of his works by jet-setting stage directors; and whatever we may think of Wagner’s world-view, it’s hard to see how the ‘true meaning’ of his works (whatever that might be) can wholly escape the circumstances of their origins. In any case, as Carnegy insists, ‘all the Wagnerian problematics are of course in the end swept away by the overwhelming power of the music,’ which takes us back to Roller’s ‘each work of art carries within itself the key to its own production.’ What this judgment tells us about Warner, Lloyd, Flimm, Berghaus and Co is a matter for debate, but it should help us locate that elusive true meaning.

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Vol. 30 No. 9 · 8 May 2008

Stephen Walsh’s review of Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (LRB, 24 April) brought to mind my worst experience of directors’ opera hell. The occasion was Handel’s Julius Caesar, performed by Scottish Opera in 1992 and directed by Willy Decker. The main feature was a flight of steps up and down which members of the cast grappled and tugged a large paper/plastic crown (indicating that the subject was political in-fighting). To indicate, further, that chance played a large part, a baize-covered gaming table had to be attached to the staircase. (You think I’m joking.) The only time for it to be hammered into place was during the singing of some climactic arias and duets, making the whole thing sound more like a building site than an opera.

George Schlesinger
Durham

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