It occurs to me that while I've spilled a great deal of virtual ink on this weblog savaging (justifiably, in my view) Eurotrash Regietheater stagings of Wagner's operas and music-dramas and the execrable vandals and hijackers responsible for their creation and presentation, I've said next to nothing about just how stagings of these works, the music-dramas in particular, ought to be accomplished beyond my declaring they ought to be realizations of the dramatic spirit and sense of Wagner's original idealized theatrical vision as reflected in his stage directions and that of the music and texts.
I'm by no stretch of the terms either an imaginative creative artist or stage director or designer, but in what follows I'll try to make more specific what's involved in realizing the dramatic spirit and sense of Wagner's original idealized theatrical vision, and then briefly lay down the central principle of mise en scène applicable to all Wagner's music-dramas* (as opposed to the operas) by singling out one of them for discussion: the tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, as that work presents the most formidable staging challenge of all Wagner's works (of the music-dramas, for example, staging Tristan is, by comparison, a piece of cake, and Parsifal, if not quite a piece of cake, no indigestible dumpling, either).
In approaching the immense problem of staging the Ring, one must at the very outset admit to oneself that as colossal a dramatic and musical genius as Wagner was, his genius did not extend to solving, or even dealing with, the manifold problems even impossibilities inherent in accomplishing a physical realization of his idealized vision on the stage, the copious and explicit stage directions in the scores of the four works notwithstanding. This is made painfully clear (although never so stated) in the diaries of Richard Fricke, Wagner's devoted and hugely capable assistant stage manager (Wagner himself was the stage manager) for the first complete cycle of the Ring presented at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 (Fricke was officially the "ballet master" even though nothing resembling a ballet plays any part in the tetralogy), in which diaries Wagner can be seen to be a man almost beside himself with indecision and dismay about just how things ought to go, or could even be made to go, in transforming his idealized vision of the Ring into the cold, hard reality of an actual stage presentation, and in consequence driving just about everyone involved with the production to near distraction, not to mention resulting in the mise en scène of that first Ring being, for the most part, an illusion-shattering and drama-distracting failure even down to the costumes the final design of which baldly disregarded Wagner's explicit instructions to Carl E. Doepler, the costume designer, to make the costumes "a creation wholly of your own imagination," and "from a cultural period that is remote from any experience or reference to an experience."
The principal problem in staging any of Wagner's music-dramas is directly and intimately bound up with their very nature. Since in Wagnerian music-drama the music, and in particular the orchestral music, incorporeal as it is, contains and is the expressive transmitter of the very interior core of the drama itself as opposed to merely providing mood-setting or -enhancing accompaniment for a drama whose interior core is contained in and transmitted by other means as with, say, a movie or the typical Italian opera, any attempt to echo that incorporeal dramatic interior core by concrete visual representation will serve only to blunt that core's expressive power by unavoidably competing with that core's main transmitter: the music. Such concrete visual representation can, at its most dramatically successful, be no better than superfluous, and at worst, distracting or even confusing. In the matter of concrete visual representation of the drama in Wagner's music-dramas, the texts, as sung and mimed by the singer-actors, provide all the concrete dramatic representation necessary as those sung and mimed texts are the narrative- and fact-explicit armature about which the entire drama is constructed.
But as that drama is made for presentation on the stage, it requires a mise en scène within which to play itself out. As with any stagework, the mise en scène of a Wagner music-drama is comprised of two principal elements: the human (and, on occasion, animal) actors, and the representation of the physical context in and through which they operate and move. In the Ring, Nature itself at its largest scale is the central and overarching physical context, and therein lies the fundamental staging difficulty presented by the tetralogy. The problem, even today, but especially in Wagner's time, of accomplishing a convincing naturalistic realization of that central physical context within the bounded physical space of the stage, no matter how large it may be and no matter how sophisticated the stage machinery, should have been immediately apparent to Wagner, and the solution to the problem reflected in his stage directions. Wagner, however, seems to have taken no notice of the problem much less its solution. In the heat of creation, oblivious to the reality of the problems engendered by such mechanical matters, he instead wrote those stage directions as if he expected that by the sheer force of his genius a way would be found to make convincing their naturalistic realization when the time came for actually mounting the work on the specially built stage he always visualized for it. As noted above, however, no such way presented itself, and Wagner found himself ultimately in much the same near-impossible position as do producers and directors of the Ring today with far more crude and far fewer technical resources available to him with which to deal with it.
In short, what Wagner had done when writing the Ring was to visualize the work cinematically decades before such a thing was even imagined rather than in terms of what was physically possible naturalistically within the circumscribed space of a theatrical stage and its limited technical and mechanical means. Interestingly enough, even had that as yet unknown medium been available to Wagner in all its 21st-century glory, he would have quickly found that it presents constraining problems of its own, at least one of which is every bit as difficult, even as insurmountable, as the most difficult problem he faced in mounting his magnum opus on the theatrical stage: make convincing within the relentlessly realistic medium of film, actors singing their dialogue.
So, what's to be done today in presenting the Ring (and, by extension, and mutatis mutandis, any other Wagner music-drama*) on stage? In my long-considered opinion there's but one wholly adequate way to handle the thing, and it can be expressed in but a single idea: suggestion by way of abstraction.
Quite easy to say, quite difficult to accomplish dramatically and aesthetically convincingly. I'm firsthand familiar with the work of but one director who actually managed to accomplish that: the brilliant director and stage designer Wieland Wagner in his first post-war staging of the Ring which staging I witnessed at Bayreuth in 1958 (Die Walküre). It was Wieland's genius to come up with what was essentially Regietheater at its very best and set a new standard for Wagner productions worldwide, showing what could be done by the use of inspired modern stagecraft in the service of Wagner's own idealized dramatic vision, that last being the key to this production's great artistic success.
With Wieland taking his (unacknowledged) cue from the groundbreaking work of the brilliant Swiss theater theoretician Adolphe Appia (1862-1928), the production's almost total absence of stage furniture, its use of non-period-or-place-committal costumes, and the creative use of lighting to model and shape space and the characters who inhabit it, Wieland — taking his grandfather at his word when in 1853 he declared that the yet unwritten music of the Ring "shall sound in a way that people shall hear what they cannot see" — created a neutral "frame" or "matrix" for the tetralogy, so to speak, that permitted the music itself, working in tandem with the text and the audience's own imagination, to fill in all the missing stage furniture as if it all were right in front of the audience's eyes. It was a brilliant stroke, a stroke of genius even, as it made manifest to the audience in the most intimate way imaginable Richard Wagner's deepest interior vision of the Ring while rendering Wieland's properly transparent.
As even given today's formidable stage technology a convincing, non-distracting, and dramatically non-enervating naturalistic realization of the Ring's central and overarching physical context is a clear impossibility within the bounded space of a theatrical stage with its relatively limited mechanical and technical means (as compared to cinema), and, further, that the result of any attempt at doing so will ultimately compete with the carrier and main transmitter of the drama, the music, one is, as consequence, ineluctably driven to adopt the solution of realizing that central physical context by way of suggestion, which is to say, abstractly. That, in turn, dictates that the realization of every detail of the physical context of the entire work, costumes very much included the work's entire mise en scène, right down to the stage and costume decorations (which decoration should be used only when telling dramatically and in every case kept to an absolute minimum) be similarly handled, the style of abstraction a task for the director in collaborative effort with the producer, stage designer, and music director to ensure that not only is the result aesthetically resonant and dramatically expressive but that it works to produce a heightened and more revelatory realization of the deeper layers of dramatic meaning embodied in the music rather than fight against or compete with the music's dramatic centrality, and that it works to maintain at all points a consonance with the spirit and sense of Wagner's original idealized theatrical concept as made manifest in the scores (music, text, and stage directions).
Such a task is daunting enough to test to the fullest the courage of any honest (as opposed to self-serving and self-indulgent) director and production team. I confess it would so test mine even given my ego, and even were I gifted enough to attempt it in any capacity whatsoever. But daunting a task as it may be, it offers, in my less than humble opinion, the best hope for realizing fully the immeasurable richness of Wagner's scores as well as the manifold veins and layers of meaning residing in the work's forever unplumbable depths.
* I exclude from this general statement of staging principles Wagner's sole "comedy" among the music-dramas, Die Meistersinger, as that work, both in its music and text, is a case markedly and fundamentally apart dramatically from the rest of Wagner's mature oeuvre. Being a special case, it requires special handling in terms of its staging, that special handling a subject for another, separate article altogether.