The Ring on TV and in Adelaide
On Sunday 28 May 2023, the Richard Wagner Society SA celebrated the Maestro’s birthday with a cake cutting, and an array of Wagner accoutrements (see below). And President Geoff Siedel introduced two documentaries on that well known “story of a man who buys a house and can’t keep up the payments”, the first concerning the televised premiere of a Bayreuth Ring in 1980; the second concerning the mounting of the Adelaide production in 2004.
These items above were from the sublime Adelaide Ring. As we have written, with Asher Fisch rehearsing at great length, and conducting, the ASO beautifully (and in cycle 2, the Vorspiel from Rheingold, faultlessly in pitch darkness), production design by a genius, the great, late Elke Neidhardt (who said that the story was about politics and corruption, hence it is timeless, and that Wagner was “amazingly unsentimental – I like that“), and an incomparable cast (including Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde and John Wegner as Alberich), it proved a miraculous triumph, an almost perfect staging of Wagner’s monster, and it is a shame that it was never repeated (or filmed).
The documentary about the making of the Adelaide Ring emphasised the enormous technical and artistic challenges at play. The numbers bounced around in the planning stages, ranging from $9.3 m to $15.345 m, eventually officially costing-out at $15.143 m. The sets, costumes and effects machinery had to be built, tested and calibrated from scratch, and fitted together from disparate sources, involving design and production people in 5 different states, with 28 model-makers producing detailed miniatures of sets at a cost of $250,000, the creation of Fafner’s gigantic, industrial-quality claw ($237,000), and Brünnhilde ‘s protective wall of fire, an effect that pumped-out more heat than Sydney’s Olympic flame – but within a building!
As Ascher Fisch said in the Adelaide documentary, Wagner invented movie music before the movies were. Wagner would have liked the cinema, but it would be hard to present The Ring in film – at 15 hours, audiences would need a blood transfusion afterwards. But television was an ideal medium, whereby this great epic of literature, drama, and music could be given to people without the time or funds or knowledge to get to Bayreuth or another Opera House – in convenient, constituent parts. So it was that TV director Colin Haynes, an earnest Brit who would seem as much at home broadcasting from Lord’s or Crufts, moved his hulking infrastructure and staff into the Festspielhaus in order to capture the event for posterity.
Pierre Boulez had suggested, to Wolfgang Wagner, the young Patrice Chéreau to direct. In what was described as the most ‘human’ staging to that date, Chéreau emphasized the drama, with all of the text’s psychological nuances, ambivalences, doubts and desires. Puffing on a cigarette (or chewing on possibly a Nicorette), the director assembled a new staging at warp-speed (4 months). The setting was moved to Wagner’s time, neatly juxtaposing agrarian socialism against the emerging mercantile industrialization. Whilst we can posit that the director’s breakout “Personenregie” turned a disastrous corner towards the grotesque conceits of Bayreuth today (a bit like impressionism descended to abstract expressionism), nevertheless, it has proved an enduring and highly regarded piece of work. As Michael Tanner, in his Wagner, recounts, the Boulez/Chéreau production of The Ring in Bayreuth “moved from provoking physical violence in 1976 to unqualified triumph in 1981.” As Cosima charmingly said to the nervous Chéreau after the performance, having previously declared that she wanted to shoot him, “It is better to be furious than to be bored.”
Whilst other conductors work hard to give audiences what they want to hear, the famous baton-less Pierre worked the crowd towards liking what he wanted: atonal purity and the trampling of populism. In the documentary, Boulez nonchalantly stated that he wished the production to be a success, but by success, “I don’t think so much of the audience.”
These documentaries are hard, but not impossible, to find, and are well-worth tracking down. On Richard’s birthday celebration, The Varnished Culture was neither furious nor bored.