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A Wagner 'Ring' that's sustainably powered

A river and a dragon shaped by writhing performers. A budget nearly one-eighth of L.A.'s. In Munich, the beast is inventively and economically tackled.

February 23, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Andreas Kriegenburg's new production of Richard Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.
Andreas Kriegenburg's new production of Richard Wagner's… (Wilfried Hosl, Bavarian…)

MUNICH, Germany — Wagner's "The Ring of Nibelung" is no picnic.

The epic four-evening mythic drama is the macho challenge with which operas prove themselves. It practically did in Los Angeles Opera when the company finally got around to mounting this monumental if confrontational pillar of Western civilization in 2010.

The "Ring" has been no picnic, that is until now.

As audience members found their seats at the Bavarian State Opera's historic National Theater here last month for "Das Rheingold," the first opera in the cycle, some 100 exceptionally good-looking young people dressed in summer whites (it was snowing outside) were lollygagging on the stage floor. Stagehands brought them refreshments. At curtain time, the picnickers moved to the rear of the stage and stripped to their sheer, flesh-colored undies.

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Couples embraced and rolled on the ground, forming a sea of undulating bodies, which were bathed in cerulean light. Once the company music director and former Los Angeles Opera music director Kent Nagano cued the famous opening low E flat from the depths of the orchestra, this ensemble of supernumeraries had become the river Rhine. Over the course of the "Ring," the ensemble moved scenery and, forming startling body sculptures, became it.

This is not a good year to be, as I thought I was, sick and tired of the "Ring" and all the quarrelsome controversy it inevitably engenders. Remember county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich's vocal disapproval of L.A. Opera's "Ring," calling it the "soundtrack of the Holocaust"? Remember the booing that Achim Freyer's contentiously brilliant production attracted?

But with Wagner's 200th birthday coming in May, we might as well get used to the "Ring" worming its way into the opera world as never before. No matter how hard the times or great the costs, productions of the cycle abound everywhere, and that means not only Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Bayreuth but also more far-flung places such as Dijon, Melbourne and Seattle.

While London will be celebrating with a citywide, May-to-June "Wagner 200" festival, the idyllic Cotswolds a few hours west will be staging an intimate "Ring" in a 500-seat opera house. New and reissued "Ring" recordings on just about every digital and analog medium available are already commandeering unconscionable amounts of shelf space and clogging computer hard drives.

Maybe that's why Munich's picnic, hosted by Andreas Kriegenburg, proved irresistibly welcoming.

A stage director with little opera experience and not well known outside sophisticated German theater circles, Kriegenburg has stripped the "Ring" of much of its baggage for the theater where the first two operas in the cycle had their premieres. He has gone back to essentials, reinventing and updating them. In doing so, he has sought and found one of art's greatest gifts — a sense of renewal.

A revival from last summer and scheduled to return this summer, Munich's production is, thus, not only the Wagner year's first "Ring" but the right "Ring" for our time — the freshest, least self-conscious and most memorable "Ring" that I have seen or heard about in nearly 40 years. On top of that, this is a remarkably responsible "Ring."

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The price tag for the four long operas together, a representative from Bavarian State Opera said, was 3 million euros (around $4 million). L.A.'s "Ring" came in at nearly eight times that amount, as did the Metropolitan Opera's lumbering high-tech "Ring," which will be remounted in the spring and which just won an inexplicable Grammy in its video incarnation.

The joyful essence of Munich's production is its ecological point of view, which makes a virtue of reducing the technology on stage. The first three operas in the cycle almost feel like a Zen "Ring." The stage is a simple, elegant wood box, with many hidden trap doors and movable walls. That movement comes from man-and-woman power; the supers push and pull everything.

The minimalist approach does not mean a lack of visual stimulation, though, not when so many bodies on the stage can erupt at any time into a circus. But the possibilities of a bare stage are also potently exploited, allowing for drama intensely focused on characters given a vivid relevance found only in the most intense contemporary dramatic theater. Gods, giants and those creepy underworld dwarfs are treated as real people. Sexual tension, always a high point in Wagner, is strong. The sex, not always a high point in a Wagner staging, is convincing.

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