The current issue of the Wagner Journal features a perceptive article by one of my heros, Simon Williams, titled Timely Timeless: Regietheater at Bayreuth in the 1970s. Prof. Williams, who teaches at the University of California at Santa Barbara (nice gig!), is the author of one of my “desert island” books, Richard Wagner and the Festival Theatre. His interests match my own but his erudition is, of course, far superior.
Williams concentrates on three productions at the Bayreuth Festival: Patrice Chereau’s 1976 Ring, Gőtz Friedrich’s “uncommonly severe and gritty production” of Tannhäuser in 1972, and Harry Kupfer’s “unorthodox” 1978 production of Der fliegende Holländer. “With these three productions,” writes Williams, “the Festspielhaus became one of the leading stages for experimentation in the staging of opera.”
Rather than re-hash Williams’ descriptions, let’s concentrate on the aesthetic basis for his evaluation. First, his evocation of historical context:
By the late 1960s, it was clear that discreet silence over Wagner and, more widely, over those aspects of German and European culture that had contributed to the outbreak of the Second World War, was no longer acceptable. The student riots of the late 1960s stemmed in part from unease over the quietest politics of an increasingly affluent Europe, but a more deep-seated cause, in Germany especially, lay in the awakening of the generation that had been born during or immediately after the war, to the full horror of what that war and the Holocaust had actually been. Above all, they rebelled against their parents who for too long had maintained silence about the cataclysm for which they had been responsible.
Williams then places the period in the context of evolutionary stage production theory, pointing to a disenchantment with Brechtian alienation and an instinct of “resisting any attempt to harness the work of art to the cause of a larger, assumedly oppressive narrative.” The aesthetic of the “new Bayreuth” was no cure: “The high level of abstraction, the ‘negation of the concrete,’ and the evocative use of light directed the audience’s attention either to the numinous metaphysical world beyond the action or to the psychic lives of the characters,” and were thus received by the young generation of theatre practitioners as “a productive throwback to the symbolism of the earliest decades of the 20th century.”
What Williams most admires about the three productions under study is that their apparent iconoclasm was, in experience, a revelation of the text itself, cast in a newly-minted narrative whose themes were faithful to the originating artist’s, while simultaneously being recognizable to the contemporary audience. He admires
how each is clearly based on a close reading, of both the poems and the scores, that has little, if any, recourse to ideological special pleading. All depict, with considerable negativity, the forces of social coercion and the exercise of power, but whoever knows Wagner’s polemical writings will find nothing surprising or errant in that. … Where these productions differ from their predecessors is that these forces are represented with a sharper edge… But no solution to the oppression and injustice revealed in the action is posited in programmatic terms that gainsay Wagner’s action.
Williams speaks admiringly of these productions’ “capacity to destabilize Wager’s text and to open up the possibility of multiple interpretations.” And it is clear that Williams judges the success of those interpretations on their cogency (not just their innovation or surprise), as evaluated by their impact on an audience that recognizes the narratives that they are confronted with. “[The level of acting in] the Chereau Ring can still strike us as fresh, spontaneous and natural, and, like the design, it destabilizes the action.” Audiences may have initially found these productions unsettling, but they also were challenged and, ultimately, exposed to unexpected “complexity and contradictions in the actions of the music dramas.”
Williams’ article is particularly stimulating because it uses the term Regietheater to refer to an approach to a familiar work, the aim of which is to uncover narratives, relationships and complexities that arise from and respond to the condition of the audience itself. Legitimate – and inspirational — interpretation is neither the reproduction of familiar stagings of a past era, nor whimsical and audacious treatments that are unhinged from the demands of the text and have no accountability to the audience.
This latter is the type of theatre that concerns many audiences. Staging the Ring in a way no one has before, and in so doing drawing fresh gasps and tears from the audience – as I and many others experienced in the recent Met production staged by Robert LePage, or the film of the Glydebourne Meistersinger directed by David McVicar – is great. But on my last visit I attended Bayreuth productions of Tannhäuser, Dutchman and Lohengrin that were simply incoherent. I could not follow the story, much less be moved by its retelling in terms that I experienced as revelatory. The most recent Bayreuth production of Meistersinger simply ignored the text in favor of the “message” that the stage director wanted to convey to the audience; actors sang words inconsistent with the action of the story. I was not at all surprised to read that the planned director of the 2016 Bayreuth Parsifal protested not that the theatre administration had failed to serve its artistic mission, but rather that it had failed to serve him. This is what the word “entitlement” means.
Regietheater of the 1970s, where are you now that we need you?