(Since the inception of S&F in 2004 the subject of Regietheater and Regietheater Wagner in particular has been something of an idée fixe here. It's now become a tired subject, per se, here as elsewhere, as it's been pretty much all talked out; here, over the years, by us and elsewhere by others and there's not much more we have to say about it, per se (as opposed to talking about it within the context of making general critical comment in future on individual productions), and so this summing up. We intend it to be our last per se commentary on the subject.)
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What damage, if any, would be done to world culture were it the case that in no competent public venue (competent meaning they've the wherewithal, talent, and facilities to do the job properly) could the plays of Shakespeare be seen presented fully true to the way Shakespeare set them down using his own settings and plots and in his own language (Werktreue presentations to use the handy German term which translates literally as "work-true" meaning "faithful to the original")? Appalling damage would be the informed consensus; damage so appalling as to be virtually unthinkable.
That question and its probable response intruded itself as we followed via the Web, including a viewing of the full-length HD video of this year's new production of Tristan und Isolde, the 2015 Bayreuth Festival (Bayreuther Festspiele) the annual Richard Wagner music festival held each summer from July through August in Bayreuth, Germany which ended its 2015 Festival year Friday of last week (28 August). The Festival is the world's oldest and most venerable music festival extant founded in 1876 by opera's Shakespeare, Richard Wagner — a towering, transcendent genius who today still bestrides the domain of opera like a colossus and whose music-dramas have since shaped or influenced the course not only of opera but of all Western music, as we've previously put it, not to even speak of his influence in and on the literary world and in and on the worlds of virtually all the arts worldwide.
The Festival was founded initially, as most informed operagoers are aware, for the express purpose of presenting Werktreue performances of Wagner's tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen in a theater specially built by Wagner for the purpose. Subsequently, other of Wagner's stageworks were added to Bayreuth's Werktreue repertoire (three operas — Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin — and three music-dramas — Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal; that last a music-drama written expressly to be performed at Bayreuth and at Bayreuth alone which music-drama premiered there in 1882) by Wagner himself (Parsifal) and, after his death in 1883, by his wife and most intimate confidant Cosima in accordance with her understanding of Wagner's wishes. Wagner intended these Werktreue presentations to serve as models for presentations of his stageworks worldwide which in fact they did and, in some measure, continue to do even today the problem being that, in a betrayal of the Festival's very raison d'être, those presentations are today and for decades before have been anything but Werktreue.
Before going on with this, let us first understand clearly what Werktreue means and entails in terms of opera staging.
Foremost and above all, it does NOT mean or entail devotion to a work's original staging or to any past staging tradition at all. What it does mean and entail is an assiduous and unremitting devotion to the full sense and spirit of the original creator's intent as made manifest in the work's score (music, text, and stage directions).
A paradigmatic example of this is the genuinely revolutionary 1951-58 staging at Bayreuth of Der Ring des Nibelungen by Wagner grandson Wieland Wagner which staging (to which we are a 1958 eyewitness to Die Walküre) radically broke with all prior stagings of the tetralogy.
With Wieland taking his (unacknowledged) cue from the groundbreaking work of Swiss stage designer Adolphe Appia (1862-1928), the production's almost total absence of stage furniture, its use of non-period-or-place-committal costumes and settings, 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 masterstroke, a stroke of genius even, as it made manifest to the audience in the most intimate, Werktreue way imaginable Richard Wagner's deepest interior vision of the Ring while rendering Wieland's properly transparent.
We trust all the above will clarify the matter of Werktreue in terms of opera staging and forestall as well the typical straw-man and red-herring charges leveled by some against such as we that would accuse us of being "reactionary" and/or "traditionalist".
But back to our present Bayreuth discussion...
Beginning some 43 years ago something went horribly wrong at Bayreuth, the one place in the world where Werktreue Wagner ought to be guaranteed to be heard and seen as a matter of course and of principle. A malignancy began growing there which in the past ten or so years has developed into a Stage IV terminal case, all of it done under the stewardship and control of direct descendants of Richard Wagner himself, from his grandson Wolfgang who, as sole director of the Festival since the untimely and devastating death of his older brother Wieland in 1966 at age 49, began hiring outside director/producers to stage Wagner's stageworks at the Festival never mind they had no experience directing or producing Wagnerian opera or music-drama or, in some cases, no experience directing or producing any opera at all much less any of Wagner's stageworks, to Richard's great-granddaughters (Wolfgang's daughters) Katharina and Eva Wagner-Pasquier who, subsequent to Wolfgang's retirement in 2008 (Wolfgang died in 2010), were appointed co-directors of the Festival (Wagner-Pasquier resigned her position as of the end of this year's Festival). And that malignancy has a name. It's called Regietheater.
Regietheater, as pretty much all opera-lovers know by now, is a German term that translates as "director's theater" which when applied in the world of opera refers to the director/producer (or Regie) of the stage presentation of the opera being performed wherein in place of the vision and intent of the opera's creator as made manifest in the score is substituted the vision and intent of the Regie which — unlike Wieland Wagner's brilliant 1951-58 Bayreuth staging of the Ring, the world's first full-on Werktreue Regietheater staging of a Wagner stagework* — typically has little or only remote and tenuous bearing upon or connection with the vision and intent of the opera's creator. It is, in fact, a point of pride for Regies that their productions be such claiming it's their unique "interpretation" of the opera creator's vision and intent to make it more "relevant" (Lord! What an overused and contemptible word when used in this context) to our contemporary times or some other rationalization or justification along those lines; a rationalization and justification bought wholesale and eagerly by the jaded among longtime operagoers who are forever on the lookout for something — anything — operatically novel and unfamiliar in order to stimulate their jaded opera palates. Such stagings are only rarely an interpretation of the work to hand. More often, overwhelmingly more often, it's the Regie's postmodern commentary (called, a Konzept) on the opera creator's vision and intent, either directly or as reflective of modern-day matters cultural/social/political, not the Regie's interpretation of it, and that, coupled with the ubiquitous fraudulent practice — fraudulent to the point that in any just society it would be actionable at law — of promoting and billing the non-Werktreue reconceived opera as the original creator's opera of the same name which it never is, is precisely what makes typical non-Werktreue Regietheater opera the pernicious thing it is: a work by a Regie who's forgotten or never learned that an opera Regie's job — his sole job — is to realize onstage, in the most vivid and compelling manner possible, the opera creator's concept and vision of the opera as made manifest in the score and that anything beyond or other than that and the opera Regie is operating in territory in which he has no business being much less messing about with.
(It should be noted here that the aforementioned Regie rationalization or justification of their (mostly) non-Werktreue Regietheater stagings, empty though it may be, is one offered by the less self-important, less self-involved Regies. Then there are those breathtakingly and perversely self-important, self-involved Regies such as the late Christoph Schlingensief, whose notorious so-called "disintegrating bunny" Parsifal of 2004 for Bayreuth is among the Festival's most outrageous non-Werktreue Regietheater stagings, who averred that with his staging he intended to "reconcil[e] Nietzsche with Wagner by negating Wagner's silly Buddhist dream", and such as Frank Castorf, the Regie responsible for the current outrageous non-Werktreue Regietheater Bayreuth Ring, who was incensed on being told he would not be permitted to rework Wagner's music and text in order to accommodate his postmodern, Brechtian, socio-political agitprop. It should also be noted here that coming up with a new so-called Konzept to define and shape a Regietheater opera staging as did the two above named Regies is a piece of cake, creatively speaking, as opposed to coming up with a new and resonant Werktreue Regietheater opera staging fully faithful in sense and spirit to the opera creator's original "Konzept" as made manifest in the opera's score. Any hack can do the former. It takes a Regie of uncommon creative gift to accomplish the latter. Unhappily, as Regies go, the former are legion, the latter almost as rare as unicorns.)
To give a concrete example of a typical non-Werktreue Regietheater opera staging, here's an excerpt from what we had to say in our S&F review of the above mentioned new 2015 Bayreuth Festival staging of Tristan und Isolde; a staging conceived and directed by none other than one of the Festival's co-directors, Wagner great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner:
* Before Wieland there had been scattered non-Bayreuth-traditional productions of Wagner's stageworks — most notably the Mahler-Roller Vienna Tristan of 1903 which is marked by some as the birth of Regietheater in opera, and the Klemperer-Dülberg Krolloper (Berlin) Holländer of 1929 — but their influence was limited and taken studied notice of mostly within theater's and opera's professional circles.
** The Met abstained from Regietheater Wagner for its new (2012) production of Wagner's epic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen — the presentation of which work is always the major event of any opera season for any opera house — only by atrocious misadventure. Met general manager Peter Gelb made the colossal blunder of imagining he could eat his cake and have it too by mounting director/producer Robert Lepage's new, elaborate, obscenely expensive but non-Regietheater mechanized and digital Las Vegas dinner-theater-style production of Wagner's great tetralogy as it would, so imagined Mr. Gelb, satisfy both "progressive" and "traditionalist" audiences alike. Predictably, and in large measure, the production satisfied neither and drew (justified) contempt from both.
We've had occasion to say something about this [new 2015] production in a prior S&F entry based on a live audio stream of the premiere by BR Klassik Radio as well as on act-by-act production photos and verbal descriptions of the physical action so this new HD video [of the entire production] held no surprises for us as far as the staging is concerned. We previously called that staging sophomoric and sophomoric is what it proved to be, from the conceit of Act I's blatant if only tenuously symbolically apposite allusion to M.C. Escher's impossible staircases leading nowhere, to the bizarre sci-fi futuristic prison of Act II (yes, this is a Regietheater staging — what else? — and Act II is set in a prison run by the henchmen of this production's tyrannical König Marke wherein Tristan and Isolde are held captive along with Kurwenal), to the imagined symbolic rightness of Act III's utterly black, all but featureless blank stage and background with its reappearing, floating, Isolde-filled triangles of light (perhaps a reference, if reference they indeed are, to the tent-like structure Tristan and Isolde jerry-rigged in the prison of Act II to hide them from the searchlights of König Marke's henchmen, but given Katharina's sophomoric Regie mentality we shudder to think what else those triangles might be a reference to), not to again speak of the imbecile close of the music-drama in this staging wherein Isolde, at the close of her Verklärung, is ripped away from Tristan's corpse and dragged off by König Marke very much alive as if she were mere chattel (as indeed she was originally intended to be). Finally, after having seen the full production, to all the above we now feel compelled to add how appalling the disconnect is, emotional and intellectual, between this staging and the nonpareil transcendent work created by Katharina's great-grandfather more than 150 years ago in what proved to be an ironic attempt to compose an opera that could be mounted quickly and easily even by theaters of modest means. We do, however, have to give Katharina credit for cleverly and neatly doing away with the magic love potion thing upon the magic of which potion even those who ought to know better are still wont to lay blame for the lovers' out-of-control passion for each other.If you think this all quite horrid we assure you the actual witnessing of this Regietheater staging is a full order of magnitude more painful than is the reading about it. Currently, following Bayreuth's lead, Regietheater Wagner can be seen on the stage of almost every major opera house worldwide, New York's Metropolitan Opera, arguably the world's most important opera house, included,** which opera houses are the only established opera venues with the wherewithal, talent, and facilities to stage Wagner's stageworks properly. And so, to restate the opening question, What damage, if any, would be done to world culture were it the case that in no competent public venue could the stageworks of Richard Wagner be seen presented true to the way Wagner set them down with their hallmark, artform-defining organic unity of music, text, and stage picture that's the unique and special genius of Wagner's art? For an informed some, ourself included, the answer is manifestly clear: appalling damage; damage so appalling as to be virtually unthinkable. Curiously and inexplicably, the jury of the opera world is still out on the question even after some 43 years of accumulated hard evidence arguing against Regietheater Wagner as Werktreue Wagner and so the unthinkable threatens perennially to become appalling, permanent reality worldwide. This may seem a thing of concern only for dedicated Wagnerians who are but a small minority of audiences for opera. But a moment's reflection will reveal just how tragically myopic is such a view. For absent the existence of genuine Werktreue presentations of Wagner's stageworks, opera audiences, existing and new, will be denied the essential fundamental references necessary to understand and assess the value and worth of those stageworks as well as the value and worth of their creator and the impact of both on the shaping and development of the artform, not to even speak of being denied the sheer, soul-enriching pleasure of experiencing the full sense and spirit of the stageworks themselves as their creator imagined them experienced. Appalling damage indeed and no small matter as we're certain most, if not all, will agree.