[Marxism] Mozart, Da Ponte, revolution

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 14 19:59:48 MDT 2006

>Thanks to all for the information and refs. I'll be off to the library 
>It's been years since I've seen it but I vaguely recall Joseph Losey's 
>explicitly Marxist film of Don Giovanni, an against-the-grain approach 
>that doesn't quite work. The Don is not the usual rakish antihero but a 
>dour and grimly exploitative landlord; Masetto is a sort of working-class 
>hero instead of a clown. I saw this with an audience of wealthy dowagers 
>at a fancy Manhattan theater -- I think it was The Paris, right next to 
>the Plaza Hotel. What Losey was trying to do went completely over their 
>heads. I remember them ooh-ing an aah-ing over Jose Van Dam like a pop singer.
>I have similarly vague memories of an excellent mid-80s television film of 
>the Marriage of Figaro . It's set in the Trump Tower with The Donald as 
>Count Almaviva; Figaro is his driver. Cherubino is an androgynous teenaged 
>punk with short spiky hair, so the gender-bending stuff works very well. 
>This must have been the Peter Sellars version -- whatever it was, it was 
>absolutely terrific.

Actually the best thing ever made in terms of a Marxist interpretation of 
an opera classic was Patrice Chereau's 1980 Bayreuth staging of the Ring 
cycle, conducted by Boulez. I saw it on PBS at the time. Unfortunately the 
DVD is only available as a collector's item. I saw one used copy on 
amazon.com for just under $500! But it is worth tracking down in a library.

Rockwell's review doesn't do justice to this great production, but at least 
he has a handle on the political intent of the artists.

The New York Times
January 30, 1983, Sunday, Late City Final Edition

BYLINE: By John Rockwell

Were one to wait for the Public Broadcasting Service to get around to 
completing its presentation of the Bayreuth centennial ''Ring of the 
Nibelung'' before commenting on the production as a whole, one would have 
to postpone any overview until mid-June. Wagner meant his cycle to be 
experienced on four consecutive nights. The worst single thing about this 
''Ring'' is PBS's philistine decision to string out the music dramas over 
six months and to divide the three longer operas by a week. Thus, ''Das 
Rheingold'' was telecast last Monday night, but we will have to wait until 
Feb. 21 and 28 for ''Die Walkure,'' April 11 and 18 for ''Siegfried'' and 
June 6 and 13 for ''Gotterdammerung.'' What is good enough for 
''Masterpiece Theater'' and ''Nicholas Nickleby'' is apparently not good 
enough for Richard Wagner.

Still, the wait is worth it. Seen as a whole, this ''Ring'' is of interest 
in at least three aspects: for the thoughts it stirs up in those already 
familiar with the cycle; for what it offers dramatically to the neophyte, 
and for the revelation it provides into the nature of Wagner's esthetic.

Some groundwork, first. This ''Ring'' is a document of the staged 
production seen at the Bayreuth Wagner festival in Germany between 1976 and 
1980. It was taped live at Bayreuth in 1980, one act at a time, but with no 
audience present, to allow for freer camera placement and lighting. Brian 
Large, the television director, did his best to capture the conception of 
Patrice Chereau, the stage director, but sometimes overtly, more often 
implicitly, he reshapes this ''Ring'' to his own tastes and to the 
limitations of the television medium, favoring close-ups and, sometimes, 
confusing superimpositions of images.

Musically, the four music dramas have their ups and downs. The biggest 
major flaw is Manfred Jung as Siegfried. Mr. Jung is an honorable 
journeyman, but he barks out the musical line and lacks almost entirely the 
poetry that is one aspect of Siegfried's character. In the other big parts, 
Gwyneth Jones and Donald McIntyre, who have been justifiably criticized in 
the past for wobbliness and small-scaled dullness, respectively, are both 
admirable here, on every level. Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer make a 
wonderfullooking pair as Siegmund and Sieglinde, and sing adequately. Heinz 
Zednik is excellent as the ''Rheingold'' Loge and extraordinary as the 
''Siegfried'' Mime - the best single performance in the tetralogy. The 
other singers are mostly at least decent and often better, although Fritz 
Hubner and Franz Mazura sound vocally underpowered as Hagen and Gunther in 
''Gotterdammerung.'' Pierre Boulez, who has been stereotyped as a 
clinician, proves himself an exciting, idiomatic Wagnerian conductor.

Wagner conceived his ''Ring'' as a mighty allegory. It is rooted in the 
depths of national myth, which Wagner thought was the purest source of any 
culture's collective archetypes. But it speaks on many levels beyond the 
primitive Germanic, and its message is by no mean limited to Germans.

Like so many modern stage directors, Mr. Chereau chooses to stress one of 
its interpretive meanings at the expense of the others. For him, the 
''Ring'' is a metaphor for the corruption of capitalism, and so he sets the 
action in the 19th and early 20th centuries, delineating the characters by 
social class. This leads to some real insights, and in itself does not 
distort one clear aspect of Wagner's intentions, as George Bernard Shaw 
argued so persuasively in ''The Perfect Wagnerite.'' But it also seems at 
times merely perverse, the half-serious, half-amused experiments of a 
precious young (Mr. Chereau was 31 in 1976) man. Indeed, approached in this 
light, the production takes on an added charm.

But the monumentality of the pompous PBS presentation of the cycle - and 
indeed, in a more serious way, of Wagner's very achievement - makes it 
difficult to tolerate childlike play from a ''Ring'' director. Time after 
time, one can appreciate the real cleverness of Mr. Chereau's ideas without 
much liking them as a convincing realization of Wagner's intentions. 
Wagner's own phrase, ''children, create something new,'' is often invoked 
to justify directorial license; it is so invoked here. But surely he meant 
for Mr. Chereau and his ilk to make their own music dramas, not to monkey 
about with his.

As with his overall conception - which has been superbly realized by his 
team of Richard Peduzzi, set designer, and Jacques Schmidt, costumes, as 
well as by Bayreuth's army of technicians - so with his many dramatic 
touches throughout. Mr. Chereau likes recurrent dramatic talismans that 
crop up like leitmotifs from opera to opera. For instance, Loge wraps 
himself in Freia's white shawl; Brunnhilde wraps Siegmund in a winding 
cloth during her ''Todesverkundigung''; Brunnhilde wears a sheet-like white 
dress; Gunther wipes his hands of a blood-like drink with a huge white 
towel just before Siegfried's murder, and then, in his final vision of 
Brunnhilde before his death, Siegfried caresses the towel and pulls it 
around his body.

All this is genuinely interesting, but also gimmicky -especially when 
characters must too obviously deploy one of Mr. Chereau's symbolic props in 
order for someone else to have access to it. Time after time, devices call 
attention to themselves in a way that will annoy those who wish to immerse 
themselves in Wagner's drama. But Mr. Chereau, of course, doesn't want you 
to become immersed, or at least not all of the time: sometimes, blessedly, 
he gets carried away. Instead, he wants you to think.

Even so, some of his notions are just poor, like the gaggle of henchmen who 
surround Hunding at all times. Others are visually striking but illogical. 
The steam forge Siegfried uses to refashion his father's sword looks 
wonderful - one of many instances of the way Mr. Chereau uses smoke in a 
manner almost equivalent to Wieland Wagner's pioneering use of light. It 
may well stand, cleverly, for the free spirit of untrammeled early 
capitalism superseding Mime's more primitive technology. But it is 
awkwardly introduced, hard to explain and subject to analytical undermining.

Still, thanks in part to Mr. Large and the small television screen, it is 
possible to overlook Mr. Chereau's conceits for long stretches at a time, 
and to appreciate what he does best. And for the neophyte, who will be less 
troubled or even fascinated by the larger perversions, it will be the human 
drama that will commend this ''Ring,'' along with the wash of sound. Mr. 
Chereau comes from the theater, and his greatest strength is his ability to 
draw convincing, impassioned acting from these opera singers - many of whom 
have proved themselves quite capable of acting on their own, perhaps, but 
who have rarely shown to such good advantage as here. And, for American 
viewers, there is the inestimable advantage of English subtitles to clarify 
the drama.

The examples of riveting drama are many: Loge's manipulation of the foppish 
gods in ''Das Rheingold''; the truly erotic encounter in the first act of 
''Die Walkure'' and the agony in Act Two; Wotan's dilemma in that same 
opera, sharpened by some telling dramatic touches from Mr. Chereau; 
Siegfried as a bully-boy; the superb encounters of Wotan and Alberich and 
Wotan and Erda later on, and nearly all of ''Gotterdammerung.'' If anything 
is going to convince those who dislike opera that the form can provide 
visceral theatrical excitement, it is this ''Ring.''

But that success points to a deeper kind of success. Wagner is commonly 
thought of as the grandest, most overbearing of operatic composers. On one 
level, he is that, and television must inevitably slight that side of his 
accomplishment. But Wagner is also the unequaled operatic master of 
conversational intimacy, of direct, personal interaction between 
characters. These are the portions of Wagner operas that daunt many 
American opera lovers, those who fancy good (or, in the case of Wagner, 
loud) singing and opulent display. The subtitles, the closeups favored by 
television and Mr. Large, and Mr. Chereau's skill at the direction of 
actors, all conspire to reveal more of Wagner's real operatic purpose than 
the most faithful of traditional ''Rings'' in a huge, impersonal opera 
house. If Wagner were alive today, he might well compose video operas.

Below the visual surface, Mr. Chereau is more faithful to Wagner's stage 
directions than almost any director since the advent of the simplified 
''new Bayreuth'' style after World War II. On that level, he is a 
traditionalist, and his ''Ring,'' bizarre and willful as it is, can provide 
satisfaction for even the staunchest of Wagner conservatives. 

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