In 1976, at Pierre Boulez’s suggestion, Wolfgang Wagner brought in the 31 year old progressive French stage and film director Patrice Chereau to produce a new “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” cycle for the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival, and aptly teamed him with Boulez as conductor. The result scandalized and shook the entire opera world. Conservative musicologists, such as arch conservative NY times critic Harold C. Schonberg, loudly expressed moral outrage and pointed to this production as an “opening of the flood gates” (some hysterically labeled this a Marxist “Ring”). Four years later, television director Brian Large filmed the Chereau/Boulez Ring and televised it over a period of a week. It was a ratings and critical smash.
Over 30 years later, this production’s power and legend remains undiminished. It was the first complete filmed “Ring” and is now looked upon by most as pioneering and the greatest of it’s kind.
The stand out cast, which includes Donald McIntyre, unforgettable as Wotan and Heinz Zednick as Loge personified,has hardly been bettered. Richard Peduzzi’s stage design and Large’s camera work are exemplary, but this remains Chereau and Boulez’s Ring.
Chereau, who was unfamiliar with Wagner and the work, endows this Ring with a fresh perspective. His is a penetrating, industrial age, Freudian ring, idiosyncratically interpreted in political, social and psychological terms.
The avant-garde advocate Boulez, who had previously conducted a radical, acclaimed “Parsifal”, brings an equally fresh perspective to this much interpreted work. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, accustomed to playing Wagner with opaque rolling thunder,came dangerously close to striking in protest or Boulez’s complex, brisk, diaphanous, minimalist approach.
In the accompanying dvd “Making of the Ring,” Boulez appears commendably unconcerned when he non-chalantly admits that audience taste is of little concern to him.
In 2007 the age-defying Boulez re-teamed with Chereau once more for a filmed version of Janacek’s “House of the Dead”, before permanently retiring from the opera house.
Janacek’s final, harrowing, rhythmically complex, intense opera on the horrors of political imprisonment was a tailor-made choice for combination of Chereau/Boulez/Peduzzi and was greeted with universal acclaim.
In between the two productions with Boulez, Chereau directed a much discussed but seldom seen, filmed version of Alban Berg’s grim, expressionist masterwork: “Wozzeck”.
In 1992 Boulez teamed with director Peter Stein, set designer Karl-Ernst Herrmann and the Welsh National Opera for the production of Claude Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”, based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play. The stage production, studio recording and resulting film evoked considerable controversy and criticism in regards to Boulez’s casting an all non-French cast; Alison Hagley as Melisande, Neil Archer as Pelleas, and Donald Maxwell as Golaud. Boulez’s conducting and casting choices, coupled with Stein’s stylistic interpretation, makes for a far more cubist, rather than impressionistic, Pelleas.
Boulez also teamed with director Oliver Herrmann, his beloved Ensemble Intercontemporain, and avant specialist soprano Christine Schaefer for a compelling filmed version of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” in the 2000 produced dvd collection One Night, One Life. In the spirit of this still very difficult, weird, beautiful and provocative song cycle, Herrmann’s film takes place in a slaughter house, a porn peep show, featuring nudity and cigarettes aplenty. The film, like the music, is visionary poetry.
Another filmed “Der Ring des Nibelungen” cycle emerged in 1991, pairing traditionalist Wagnerian Daniel Barenboim with post modernist director Harry Kupfer. This film immediately gained almost legendary status with Kupfer’s post-apocalyptic, hyper-bleak stage design, Barenboim’s thick, highly romanticized conducting, and a superb cast. Graham Clark as Mime and Siegfried Jerusalem as Siegfried outshine their counterparts in the Chereau/Boulez cycle, while Jon Tomlinson goes a considerable distance in trying to top McIntyre’s warts-and-all Wotan.
* This is the first in a three part article. Read part two.