The Drama Transfigured by the Music

Realizing Wagner’s aims in the rehearsal room

Hvar og hvenær birt?

Music or text? Which should take precedence? It’s an age-old conundrum and whole treatises – indeed whole operas – have been written on the subject. In the case of Wagner, there is a widespread assumption that ‘it’s all in the music’. Did he not abandon his theoretical concept of equality of the artistic genres under the influence of Schopenhauer, who elevated music above the other arts? Nothing could be further from the truth. In letters, in essays and in his own practice, Wagner repeated over and over again his unwavering conviction that it was the theatrical dimension that brought his works alive: without it, they were but a pale shadow of the real thing.

‘One goes to the opera to hear the singing, you know, not to see a play’, he intones ironically in his essay ‘On Performing Tannhäuser’, addressed to singers and conductors, going on to declare unequivocally that ‘if this consideration were to be applied in the present case, my work would be utterly lost’. When selecting the singers for the cast of his inaugural Ring cycle of 1876, Wagner and his wife Cosima were looking initially for ‘actors who were also singers’, placing more emphasis on the drama than on the purely musical element. In the end, he settled for the best voices he could get, developing their potential as singer-actors over the course of extended rehearsals. Wagner firmly believed that the staging of his works was of no less importance than the musical interpretation – if anything it should receive more attention. It’s no coincidence that, though an accomplished conductor himself, Wagner secured Hans von Bülow, Hans Richter and Hermann Levi to marshal his orchestral forces, in order to give his undivided attention to the staging – becoming the first real opera director in the modern sense. The impresario Angelo Neumann, who had observed Wagner in action, was one of many who commented on his ‘wonderful mimetic powers’: how he inspired his singing-actors to make each gesture, each facial expression tell.

One fortunately doesn’t need to read the whole of Wagner’s vast treatise ‘Opera and Drama’ (a duty at which even the most loyal Knight of the Grail might blench) to grasp his conviction that conventional opera – the works of Rossini, Meyerbeer and the rest – was flawed precisely because it elevated music over drama. It’s an assumption that colours the whole essay. A means of expression – namely music – has been made the end, while the end of expression (the drama) has been made a means, is one of Wagner’s favourite formulations. During the rehearsals for the first Ring, Wagner made clear his priorities when he commented to Anton Seidl, then one of his musical assistants, ‘My dear friend, pay more attention to the stage, follow my stage directions and then you will infallibly find the correct way through the music.’

Lest any stage-direction fetishist seize on this statement to justify the fundamentalist observance of Wagner’s stage directions – an impossible fantasy in any case – Wagner rails, in another key essay, ‘A Communication to my Friends’, against ‘immutable’ or ‘monumental’ representations of his works, which could only be a misrepresentation, he says. The poet’s intent can only be realized fully when the conditions that gave birth to them are ‘still warm’: ‘the artist who sees his work as monumental, so that it may be performed at any convenient time or before any convenient public, must be exposed to every conceivable risk of misunderstanding.’ What Wagner is saying, then, is that it is an error to attempt to preserve in aspic the external, physical form of a dramatic creation, when the inner, conceptual impulse that drives it has changed.

The paramountcy of the text in Wagner’s music dramas is clear too from the evidence of various contemporary observers. Cosima Wagner, for example, wrote to a singer: ‘If anything must be sacrificed, it is the music that must be sacrificed to the text rather than the text to the music.’ And to the conductor Felix Mottl she said: ‘The tendency of our art proceeds from the drama. The Bayreuth stage gives us the drama transfigured by the music.’ Another observer, Heinrich Porges, noted: ‘If anywhere, then, it was here that Wagner absolutely achieved his goal, in that, as he says, the richest orchestral language should, up to a point, not be heard, or not noticed, but should grow with the drama organically into a whole.’ And then Cosima again, who exclaimed: ‘I can’t help it: a good orchestra and good choruses are all very well, but if the action on the stage does not make one forget everything else, then the performance is a failure, even if they sing and play like the angels in heaven!’

Direction of the characters

What, then, precisely is the director’s role in realizing the theatrical dimension of a work such as the Ring? Keith Warner has devoted a lifetime to the practical issues of communicating the dramatic impulse of Wagner’s oeuvre to the audience, in lectures, writings and, most importantly of all, in the rehearsal room. The fundamental principle involved is a complex one, though the Germans, characteristically, have a word for it: Personenregie. Literally ‘direction of the characters’, Personenregie means much more than simply ‘acting’, encompassing a fusion of text, music, gesture, mime, characterisation and stage choreography. Demanding a line-by-line, word-by-word response on the part of the singer, in conjunction with the director, the process requires intensive rehearsals over many weeks, if not months. Textual nuances have to be teased out from the drama as narratives unfold, along with recollections and anticipations of the characters involved. All elements of the music need to be taken into consideration too, including leitmotif, sonority and tonal structure.

For Warner, Personenregie is more important even than a production concept, or the mise-en-scène – though all these contribute to the whole. ‘If the acting onstage isn’t fizzing with life and information’, he says, ‘then a production inevitably becomes a very boring experience. This is the powerhouse of the theatrical life of the production.’ And the drawing of energy from that powerhouse requires huge commitment and concentration on the part of the performers, first in rehearsal, then in performance. But also on the part of the audience, for them to savour nuances, mull over implications, extract the essence as the mill-wheel of performance turns.

The many dialogue scenes in Wagner are rich in such nuances. As one character tells a story from his or her point of view, we can draw provisional conclusions not only from the way they shape and colour the line, but also from their mien and gestures. Are they opening their hearts or lying, or deceiving themselves? We can also tell a lot from the disposition of the person they’re addressing. In Wotan’s great monologue in Die Walküre Act II, for example, Brünnhilde, according to Warner, learns two important things: she glimpses ‘the darkness and despair’ in Wotan’s heart, and she discovers that her mother is Erda – a shocking revelation that sets her on the path to ‘discovering the sacred, archetypal feminine within herself’. In order to transmit or receive such revelations, members of the cast spend hours in rehearsal piecing together their characters’ back-stories, trying to establish what has brought them to the critical juncture they’re at. To see an important aspect of Personenregie, watch how Brünnhilde processes that information in Wotan’s Monologue. Watch too how Sieglinde, in Siegmund’s Narration in Die Walküre Act I, registers astonishment at his account of being separated from his twin sister. The dawning of her recognition that the man in wolfskin in front of her might actually be her brother is all the more powerful for being shown by facial expression and gesture rather than by being enunciated. In Warner’s production the reaction of observers at key moments – another example is the swaying of the Valkyries as Sieglinde sings her glorious apostrophe, ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’, to Brünnhilde in Act III – movingly enhances the emotional intensity.

Wagner’s music dramas are notable for their leisurely unfolding, with long, Pinteresque pauses before a character responds to a question. Act I of Die Walküre is notoriously packed with pauses of this kind as characters carry out stage business such as the fetching and drinking of water/mead. While virtually impossible to bring off in concert performances, where the pauses simply become dead spots, on stage they provide opportunities for meaningful glances, furtive steps, amorous embraces.

The great scene for Wotan and Brünnhilde in Act III of Die Walküre is a prime example of the imaginative rethinking that can result from thoroughgoing Personenregie. Wotan is, of course, angry at Brünnhilde’s disobedience, but here, at the start of the scene (‘War es so schmählich/Was it so shameful), Wotan has his back turned, eventually reacting, but with quiet restraint. His anger is, for the moment, suppressed and he begins to explain like a father what she has done wrong. Brünnhilde gradually gathers the courage to answer for herself and when she tells him ‘I told Siegmund he had to die’, Wotan keels over in anguish. When she takes his hand, he is visibly moved. Later, after he has announced that she is to be laid to sleep on a rock, she pleads to be surrounded by a ring of fire, to deter any but a hero. The feeble resistance Wotan offers touchingly suggests his innate paternal tenderness and their final, impulsive oscular transaction is a shocking, but wholly convincing expression of the barely containable love of a father for his daughter. The subtle blocking of this entire scene is replete with psychological insights and original ideas resulting from intensive discussion in rehearsal.

In the rehearsal room

Attending a couple of rehearsals for the current revival of the Ring, I was able to witness Keith Warner and his team, in conjunction with conductor Antonio Pappano, working with members of the cast to fashion the stage choreography for three scenes in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. A few of the cast sang their roles either when the production was new (2004–7) or at the 2012 revival; most are new to it. But in any case, in the relatively limited amount of time available for a revival, it makes sense for the original stage positioning to be largely recreated. Two of Warner’s assistants, Amy Lane and Walter Sutcliffe, first map out the geography of the original action for the singers and begin to develop that action; then Warner takes over and further possibilities are tested, with ever-closer scrutiny of text and music. Warner and Pappano, like their assistants, know every phrase of text and music – Pappano is carrying the text, as well as the scores, under his arm – and they all quote it, at random, from memory, while working with the cast.

At the beginning of the second act of Siegfried, Alberich, standing watch at the cave of the dragon Fafner in Neidhöhle, is confronted by the Wanderer (his adversary Wotan in a new guise), who calmly banters with him, alternately mocking and advising. The minatory timpani taps and tremolando lower strings of the Prelude evoke suspense, while the growling trombones and tubas and slithery chromatics suggest the proximity of the dragon. Johann Martin Kränzle (Alberich) takes his cue from the music as he crawls out of a crevice and shakes his fist. As Warner explains, Alberich is eaten up with his obsessive desire to regain the ring: his own fears and the threat he poses are graphically depicted in the orchestral sonorities. Kränzle raises his arm repeatedly, and they work together to make the gesture seem obsessive and threatening, yet also pathetically impotent. The singer observes that his character seems driven almost into speech, or speech-song, at one point. When the Wanderer appears and begins to goad Alberich, Wagner suggests to John Lundgren, playing the god, that his character, having relinquished his own claims to power, feels free to play with his nemesis – also his alter ego (the Wanderer actually describes himself as ‘Licht-Alberich’ in the previous act).

Alberich needles the Wanderer about the quasi-legal guarantees engraved on his spear-shaft, guarantees visualised in this production by a piece of paper tussled over by the rivals. They also tussle over the spear itself, which Alberich grasps before recoiling at its remembered potential. Whereas Alberich is always reliving the past, feeding his obsession, the Wanderer has nothing left to fear, suggests Warner. His statements should have space, he continues – and they are often marked ‘lightly’, ‘quietly’ – whereas Alberich has to ‘hit the text’ with rhythmic accuracy. Pappano then points out an opportunity for Alberich to react physically before actually singing a particular line – ‘fantastic for the audience’, he says. He also congratulates Lundgren for the nobility he brings to the Wanderer’s line. As they run the scene a second time, Lundgren does the nobility, the irony and the coolness to perfection, while Kränzle’s Alberich is ever more consumed with envy.

In the following scene, Alberich’s scheming brother Mime leads Siegfried to Neidhöhle. Siegfried dismisses Mime and stretches out under a lime tree, falling into a reverie: the celebrated Forest Murmurs. Pleased to have learned that Mime is not his true father, he wonders what his real parents looked like. Not, for sure, like the hunchbacked Mime, ‘with drooping ears and rheumy eyes’ – ‘away with the elf!’ And as he sings the line, Stefan Vinke as Siegfried whirls a rat round by the tail, flinging it into the forest. The eyes of his mother, he muses, must have glistened like those of the roe-deer, ‘only far fairer’. And in this production a couple of roe-deer materialise, gently wheeled on, like toys from a child’s nursery. These lines, Warner suggests to Vinke, should have a dreamlike quality. The animals are ways Siegfried learns to understand the world – part of his maturing process – and he could seem to ‘invite’ these animals onto the scene, as though assembling his memories and dreams to make sense of the world in his own terms. Warner then discourses for some time on Bruno Bettelheim and his Uses of Enchantment, about the wondrous, about magic, and a child’s perception of the world besieged by a lifetime of experiences bent on reframing that perception. He praises Vinke for his response to the idea and they proceed to develop it further. Pappano also chips in with a suggestion that Vinke create an Übergang (transition) into his Forest Murmurs reverie at the line ‘Dass der mein Vater nicht ist’ (That he is not my father), starting abruptly but softening as the realisation dawns. It’s only six words, seven notes, with a couple of rests, but they work at it for several minutes, the phrase endlessly repeated until the desired effect is achieved.

Following Siegfried’s betrayal of Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung Act I – under the influence of a magic potion he falls for Gutrune and forgets Brünnhilde – he then, disguised by the Tarnhelm, procures her for his new-found friend Gunther. In Act II, scene 4, Gunther presents the cowed Brünnhilde to the vassals, but at the mention of the name of Siegfried, on whose arm is now Gutrune, Brünnhilde flares up in anger and horror. Markus Butter, playing Gunther, has been asked to imagine himself as an ‘invisible man’, with no real self: concerned only with his impact on the Gibichungs, he constantly looks at others to see how to react. As he enters the crowded hall and parades round it with Brünnhilde, Butter is instructed to take in the crowd. The whole business of the parading, and subsequently the oath-swearing on Hagen’s spear, is about virile display, Warner suggests, while the grouping and movements of the womenfolk should convey inner feeling. Vinke obliges with a shameless burst of manspreading at the front of the stage, flaunting his weapon appropriately. Nina Stemme, the Brünnhilde of choice today – she’s only just finished singing the role in Munich – is meanwhile intent on showing Brünnhilde as a broken woman. So insulted is she that she cannot bring herself to look at Siegfried. At the end of the run, Pappano quietly points out to Warner two points where he feels the drama ‘goes blank’ and they set about rectifying them. By the end of the session everyone’s excited at how things are taking shape.

Wagner never used the term Personenregie, but its underlying principles undeniably reflect what he was attempting to achieve. Had he been able to witness these artists at work, seeking out the dramatic truths of his great masterpiece, he would, one senses, have lifted his velvet beret and salut