Friday, 25 September 2009

"Painted through the music" early Wagner stagecraft

"Turning the virtue of fidelity into the fossilization" said Wieland Wagner of Cosima's control freakery. Wagner himself didn't seem to have that same obsession. For him, the main thing was to get his operas across in the best possible way. "Next year we'll do everything differently" he said after the 1877 revival of the Ring.

Somehow along the way has snowballed the idea that there's only one way to do Wagner and that one way should somehow be enforced. But when was there "one way"? This photo shows the set Aldophe Appia designed in the early years of the last century. How spare it is, compared with Victorian/Beidermeier excess. All distractions removed, so the focus is on the drama. A pier leading out to distant waters, light seen through a dark oppressive wall. I couldn't find an exact credit but it feels like it's Lohengrin. Simple as the set may be, it tells more about the essential drama than acres of tapestry. (Might also be the ramparts of Gibichunghall overlooking the Rhine - same mood of expectation versus repression.)

Even arch-conservative Houston Stewart Chamberlain saw the potential of Appia's visionary ideas and tried to get him in at Bayreuth. Appia reminded Cosima of RW's comment "This art of mine is not the completed art of the theatre - this art is only in its infancy". Cosima glared, eventually rasping "all this has no meaning at all". Which was hardly a reasoned answer, but then reason means nothing to the dogmatic.

Bayreuth didn't take up Appia's visions, but others did. In Vienna, Alfred Roller designed modern productions for Gustav Mahler. Julius Korngold, usually a conservative, welcomed the new art. "For Appia", he wrote "the artistic power of light stands at the very top (of the hierarchy of scenic elements)". He praised Roller's designs for Tristan und Isolde, saying "stage design has been brought forward as an independent artistic participant and appears completely to enter in certain symbolic relationships through expressed in the libretto and the music. It was seen in Tristan und Isolde, whose scenes were painted through the music".

"Painted through the music". Light and transparency liberating the drama from the literal. Not only Appia and Roller but others. In 1929 Otto Klemperer conducted the Dresden Der fliegende Hollander at the Kroll Oper in Berlin, where a stylized ship appeared against a stark backdrop. The Nazis hated it so much that it became a star exhibit in the Entartete Kunst exhibition of 1938.

There's evidence that Siegfried Wagner might have welcomed less retrogression but he didn't live long enough. Just as Cosima (with no stage experience) took over on RW's death, Winifred (with more experience at Bayreuth but less in the real world) took over from Siegfried. And we all know who Winifred's best friend was. So they had a Meistersinger to beat all Meistersingers with a chorus of (apparently) hundreds that filled the stage to capacity blasting a very particular interpretation of heilige Deutsches Kunst. Completely missing the point that Wagner, through Sachs, was stressing renewal, the individual not the mass, and that Beckmesser wasn't the hero. Since then, helmets and Wagner are not such a clever thing.


A.C. Douglas said...

Bayreuth didn't take up Appia's vision....

Actually, it did -- via Wieland Wagner. His 1951 staging of the Ring (which ran through 1958) is, at bottom, pure Appia with whose work Wieland was intimately familiar.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Maybe Tristan Act III for that set design, or even Valkyrie rock. It's a beauty, in any event.

Doundou Tchil said...

Thanks to you both ! The scary thing is that even after all this time, some audiences today would gladly go back to a mythical past ! Like how people hated the Chereau Ring which now looks pretty straightforward. The beauty of these Appia scenes is that you invest in them emotionally and think about the ideas, like longing, distance, escape, other worlds etc which run thru Wagner in so many ways.