SEATTLE — Manuel Rosenthal took a bow in the pit of the darkened Opera House just before the beginning of the third act of "Siegfried." All conductors of the sprawling "Ring" tetralogy get ovations. Rosenthal got a super-ovation.
The little man deserved it--for sheer endurance, if nothing else.
Wagner's convoluted, mystical and mythological cycle does go on and on--for nearly 17 heavily orchestrated hours--and it makes severe demands on the man in the pit. After a session or two at these intensely cultish marathons, uplifted and bleary-eared audiences sometimes tend to confuse the conductor with the composer.
Rosenthal, in any case, is not your everyday garden-variety "Ring" conductor. He is 82 and, perhaps worse, French. He doesn't speak a word of German.
Until this month, he had never conducted the "Ring." Until a few months ago, when he agreed to replace an ailing colleague, he thought he never would.
Aficionados weren't much concerned whether Rosenthal could conduct the "Ring" well. They were simply amazed that he could conduct it at all. Shades of that infernal dancing dog. . . . An innocent outsider, wandering in at this moment, would have thought that Rosenthal's ovation reflected general euphoria. But after the inevitable applause comes a pause, a passage of silence that anticipates the rise of the curtain (if there is a curtain; there isn't in Seattle). A gentleman in the audience took advantage of this silence to utter a terse, carefully worded comment.
"It stinks!" he yelled. Fortissimo.
A few sympathizers applauded the self-appointed critic. A few antagonists hissed.
A second voice volunteered a muffled response. Mezzo-forte. Some thought the gentleman said, "Get another 'Ring of the Nibelung.' " Others thought he said, "Get out if you don't like it."
It was that sort of a night at the opera.
Speight Jenkins, general director of the Seattle Opera, had brought a new vision of the operatic Rhine to Puget Sound. It was bold, contradictory and provocative.
Apart from a few bows to the dramatic concoctions introduced by Patrice Chereau at Bayreuth in the 1970s, this was a "Ring" without obvious antecedents. It was bound to annoy conservatives, confuse neophytes and delight those who embrace the avant-garde for its own odd sake.
Rosenthal wasn't the controversial force in this enterprise. Many in the audience adored everything about his contribution. Some iconoclasts--this one, for instance--lamented the pervasive absence of weight and grandeur, the softening of climactic accents, the ubiquitous stress upon transparency, the lack of idiomatic vocal phrasing, the orchestral problems involving pitch and precision.
Still, one had to admire the old man's audacity, the saving grace of his professionalism and his ability to keep things moving against the odds.
The controversial forces in this "Ring," without question, were Francois Rochaix, the director, and Robert Israel, the designer. Neither had dealt with the monstrous work before. One could tell.
Rochaix and Israel braved choruses of boos every night when they came before the curtain at the end of the opera. They took it like men.
In Germany, where a trend called Regietheater long ago consigned the "outdated" wishes of composer and librettist to a stupid oblivion, the Rochaix-Israel "Ring" would cause little agitation. Germany, after all, has seen Siegfried portrayed as L'il Abner, Valhalla as an outpost in "Star Wars" and the Valkyrie maidens as leather-clad lesbians on motorcycles.
America, however, has never been particularly receptive to operatic reinterpretation and modernization. America has never taken the drama in opera very seriously. Seattle, which saw its first "Ring" only a decade ago, was accustomed to an el cheapo approximation of a literal tradition.
That tradition accommodated comfy caricatures: impassioned sopranos who screamed their Ho-jo-to-hos in fake breast-plated finery, repulsive villains who hid under horny helmets, bearded baritones who crawled around the stage pretending to be dwarfs, would-be heroes who wore bear skins as corsets, old-fashioned painted canvases that pretended to depict rocky heights and watery depths.
Rochaix and Israel knew they could not play those hoary theatrical games with conviction, much less validity, in 1986. Unfortunately, their alternative solution to the fantastic problems inherent in staging the "Ring" created its own vexations.
The premise seemed remotely convincing when one read it. It went something like this:
Wagner created his own rules, then broke them. So did Wotan. Ergo, Wotan is Wagner, and the "Ring" is an opera within an opera.
The time fluctuates, according to whim and narrative implication, from the late 1800s--when the "Ring" was created--to eternity.
The place fluctuates, according to scenic convenience, from Wotan/Wagner's study (a side stage) to a setting defined by ancient props and theatrical artifacts that, in Brechtian context, are seldom what they seem.