I heard a first class Das Rheingold this evening at the Frankfurt Oper, the first production in a new Ring cycle. Sebastian Weigle, the General Music Director of the house, began his musical career as a horn player, and the benefits of that experience were once again clear in his ability to balance local details and ensemble balance with long-term development. As is typical for Frankfurt, the choice of singers was fortunate all around, and Kurt Streit's Loge and Meredith Arwady's Erda, in particular, were in top form both musically and dramatically.
The only reservation I have with this production is the set. It's yet another variation in the Wieland Wagner brand of discs/rings, intended as an abstract and all-purpose set for use throughout the cycle. In this case a huge computer-controlled stage machine with a central disk on a lift and four outer rings independently revolvable about the center, the whole perilously raked (the singers in LA have nothing to complain about), so that the pieces can be turned in countless ways suggesting waves and paths and caves etc.. It's an impressive piece of machinery, but damn, aren't we bored of the rings already? Even with imaginative lighting and projections as well as discreetly added props, I'm not sure that I'm prepared to sit through another twelve hours and change of looking at this thing turn about.
Despite the world economic crisis, there appear to be a record number of new Rings in production or planning (we'll actually be having a autobahn series of Rings, soon, as Darmstadt, a half-hour down the road, is beginning one as well), and it's been fascinating to see the bits and pieces of productions that have appeared on TV or online. I have a particular fascination with old fashioned stage magic and have been rather disappointed that newer technological possibilities do not appear to have consistently or reliably offered improvements on the old. A Spanish cycle televised last Winter, for example, was dominated by on stage lifts and cranes. Nice idea, one would think, to let Gods and Goddesses float about a bit; not so nice, however, when one sees (and hears — for they never get all the creaks and groans out of these things) more of the cranes than of the crooners. If you want stage magic, you don't want to see wires carrying Peter Pan, you don't want to see Edgar Bergen's lips move when Charlie McCarthy speaks, and you don't want to see lifts or the underbelly of a Wieland Wagner carousel. (And why is it that some part of the audience always starts clapping when the big machine does a 180?) I want stage magic to be magical and appropriate technology. If there has to be large machinery on stage, I'd much prefer that they bring on a Zamboni between acts. If we're going to see machines on stage, the proto-steam punk of the Chéreau Ring was definitely a better point of departure: by setting the work during the Industrial Revolution, it maintained a frame of reference with a sufficient degree of mythological distance to our own technological landscape; a stage technology will appear magical if it is either so ancient or so advanced as to be unfamiliar.
The other problem with an abstract set is that abstraction necessarily means a reduction in details. The Ring, more than other operas, thrives on its details; their presence enables listeners to engage ever more closely with relationships and cross references and to go deep from the broadest thematic connections to the most conjectural arcana. While it is possible, Story Theatre-style, to encourage audience imaginations to fill in an empty set, it is not always a reliable solution, nor do we want to be locked into that model of audition. (Not to mention the fact that an empty set often suggests a poverty of both imagination and resources on the part of the production team and management, respectively.) Achim Freyer's new Ring staging in Los Angeles has the virtue, no matter what you may think of his style, of filling the stage with detail and detail that is directly derived from Wagner's content, thus capable of reinforcing or bringing out more rather than less of the score.
(My fatigue with all-purpose sets is not limited to disc'n'ring Wagner stagings. The current Don Carlo set in Frankfurt, for example, uses a generic castle-like set and makes two very big, very basic mistakes in scenery: the set pieces are imitation brickwork (which always looks cheap; junior high drama club cheap) and some of the imitation brickwork, including some very large pieces of imitation brickwork (pillars, stellae, whole walls) are made to move, up and down, right in front of our very eyes, a guaranteed killer of suspended disbelief.)
Addendum: I should have mentioned the one theatrical coup through which director Vera Nemirova successfully subverts the restrictions of the giant discman: instead of using a projection behind the set or rearranging the rings, Valhalla is represented as the auditorium itself: the lights come up in the hall and the Gods, in black evening dress, gaze upon and then enter the hall as opera-goers taking their places before a performance. A nice break in the physical frame and a useful way to identify the evening as a prelude for things to come on stage.