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Critic's notebook: A lover of theater braves Wagner's world of the 'Ring'

Charles McNulty will take his theatrical expertise and an open mind into L.A. Opera's epic staging.

May 28, 2010|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

Opera and I have flirted but have never really had a serious relationship. Sure, I've had some great nights with Mozart, Verdi and Strauss. I even had something approximating a religious experience with Peter Stein's production of Wagner's "Parsifal" at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2002. But I haven't strayed much from my first love, the theater — in fact, I've been as monotonously faithful as a 1950s TV dad.

Compared to many of my culture-vulture friends, I'm a musical layman. Driving into the Music Center's parking garage for a performance at the Ahmanson or Mark Taper Forum, I'm more likely to be blaring Lady Gaga than Franz Liszt. Yet I wouldn't miss attending the Los Angeles Opera's "Ring" cycle, because for me Wagner is one of the crucial 19th century theatrical innovators, a composer-poet who set out to understand opera as drama and in turn expanded the frontiers of both art forms.

In his groundbreaking critical work, "The Playwright as Thinker," Eric Bentley sets Wagner beside Ibsen as "avatars of the two traditions of modern drama, the antinaturalistic and naturalistic" — Wagner being "the great exponent of tragedy in fancy, Ibsen of tragedy in modern dress." George Steiner goes further in "The Death of Tragedy," declaring that "Verdi and Wagner are the principal tragedians of their age, and Wagner in particular is a dominant figure in any history of tragic form."

Yet I'm not scholarly enough to sign up for roughly 19 hours (with intermissions) of music drama on the grounds of historical importance. What excites me about this marathon is the chance to encounter — undergo, really — the Wagnerian consummation of the romantic tragic vision. This might not be as sexy as it sounds, but it has the potential to be profoundly moving and revelatory.

The German romantics, for better or worse, made ideas seem worth dying for. Rereading Goethe and Friedrich Schiller for a theater history course I recently taught at UCLA, I was hypnotized by the intensity of characters driven to transcend the flaws not just of their epochs but also of themselves. To a postmodern sensibility saturated in irony, the serious reckoning of impossible moral choices can have a seductive poignancy.

Wagner was born at the time late Romanticism in German literature was drawing to close, and he came into his artistic maturity as Schopenhauer, with his creed of pessimism and self-denial, was philosophically on the rise. Wagner, in short, is no sturm-und-drang poster boy. But as John Gassner argues in "Masters of the Drama," he represents the creative culmination or "transubstantiation" of the romantic playwrights, most of whom "had an operatic imagination without a musical talent; Wagner combined both."

The libretto for the "Ring" was completed after Wagner had spent time pondering the hybrid nature of his medium in his most important theoretical work "Opera and Drama." One of the impulses behind this text is to correct a fundamental error in the development of opera: "That a means of expression (music) has been made the end, while the end of expression (drama) has been made a means."

Wagner's thinking here, as Joseph Kerman clarifies in his masterly book "Opera as Drama," is a far cry from the dramatic sensationalism of Puccini's crowd-pleasers. Nor does it suggest the primacy of plot. (Want to scare anyone away from the "Ring" who's not a comic book aficionado? Hand him or her a synopsis.

In his brilliantly frisky "The Perfect Wagnerite," George Bernard Shaw lays out the political and philosophical structure of the "Ring," with a special emphasis on the work's economic critique of industrial capitalism. Yet he cautions that "the story of the 'Ring' must be told as Wagner's score tells it…" In other words, the music shapes the thought.

Fortunately, those of us whose CD collection would make us the laughing stock of Walt Disney Concert Hall aren't disqualified. (I might be able to identify a leitmotif, but please don't ask me anything technical.) Shaw, a music critic every bit as acute as a drama critic and a playwright, invites us all to the party: "There is not a single bar of 'classical music' in 'The Ring' — not a note in it that has any other point than the single direct point of giving musical expression to the drama."

We're symphonically enjoined to feel the ideas even as we're tacitly encouraged to probe their connection to our own world. Yes, Shaw finds much at fault with the "Ring," particularly in Wagner's about-face in "Götterdämmerung" — the slide from music drama into "grand opera" bothers him as much as what he describes as "the collapse" of the socialist allegory. (Wagner has a way of provoking devotion and disappointment in those most sensitive to his gifts, as Nietzsche's writing reveals most pungently of all.)

But perfect aesthetic and intellectual consistency is an unreasonable expectation for a work that took decades to finish. I'm daunted by the scale of the "Ring," and wonder how my patience (and backside) will hold out. Yet how could I pass up the chance to inhabit this mythological cosmos, the aspiration of a true synthesis of the arts — what Wagner famously called a "Gesamtkunstwerk."

Given that my first encounter with the "Ring" was the film of Patrice Chéreau's daring Bayreuth Festival staging, which transplanted the work to an industrial wasteland, I feel up to the challenge of viewing the cycle through the controversial lens of director and designer Achim Freyer.

Auteurs raise hackles, and my blood may boil with certain artistic liberties. But in such a harried historical period, when indifference is the default position, I look forward to the provocation and the opportunity to report back on my experience from a theater perspective.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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