In 1898, George Bernard Shaw published The Perfect Wagnerite: A Commentary on the Niblung’s Ring, a slender volume in which he interpreted Richard Wagner’s epic tetralogy as a Marxist allegory of capitalism collapsing under the weight of its baked-in injustices. In 1976, the Bayreuth Festival, founded by the Master a century before, celebrated the anniversary with a Shavian-Marxist production by the then unknown young Frenchman Patrice Chéreau. It turned the world Wagnerites live in upside down.
Most conspicuously, Chéreau time-shifted the action to Wagner’s own 19th century. True, he was hardly the first director to toss the traditional Wagnerian imagery of Teutonic myth. To denazify the festival, the composer’s grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang had done just that when they reopened in 1951. Nor was Chéreau even the first to give the four operas of the “Ring” cycle that Shavian-Marxist spin; in East German Leipzig, off the radar of most Westerners, one Joachim Herz had narrowly beaten him to the punch.
But Chéreau was in the right place at the right time. His stage images—notably the power plant whence the Rhine’s magic gold is stolen—took on iconic stature in their own right. Whole books were written about his approach. From then on, in the top houses of the world, radical reboots of the operatic canon—and the Wagner oeuvre in particular—would not be exceptions but de rigueur.
Not so incidentally, Chéreau’s was also the first “Ring” to be captured on video. Ahead of the summer seasons of 1979 and 1980, the Festspielhaus auditorium was cleared out, seats and all, for the free-roving camera crew. To preserve the theatrical crackle of a live performance, each act of the drama was filmed in a single take. As an interpretation, as a performance, and as a cinematic documentation of a historic creation, the “Centennial Ring” remains a touchstone.
The action of the “Ring” spans three generations. The primal conflict from which all else flows pits Wotan, chieftain of the gods, against the Nibelung dwarf Alberich in a struggle for world dominion. The most compact arc concerns Wotan’s (human) love-children Siegmund and Sieglinde, separated at birth but reunited for one ecstatic night that produces Siegfried, hero of heroes, through whom Wotan seeks to set the fallen world to rights. Siegfried knows nothing about that mission, and he fails to achieve it. It’s Wotan’s (superhuman) Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde who resets the cosmic clock, galloping onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre for love of him.
By the standards of its time, the ensemble for the video is on the whole top-drawer. Still, Perfect Wagnerites will crack skulls over the merits of the lead players, especially the studied, steely-voiced, aloof Brünnhilde of the Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones and the curly-headed, boyish but past-prime Siegfried of the German tenor Manfred Jung.
Vocally, the incestuous twins of the American soprano Jeannine Altmeyer and the German tenor Peter Hofmann might not have been the dream team of the century. Still, they were better-than-competitive in their time, and the camera loves them. The ruggedly handsome bass-baritone Donald McIntyre, of New Zealand, is in a league of his own as the existentially conflicted Wotan, eloquent in song, his devious nobility ever evolving. The composer-conductor Pierre Boulez lends Wagner’s scores a fleet, distinctively Cartesian transparency without short-changing their monumental power.
The four segments of the Chéreau Ring—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung—stream on Carnegie Hall +, and are available on Apple TV, Spectrum, and Verizon Fios
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii