A History of Ring Cycle productions. Or: Whatever Became of the Breastplates?

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 7 October 2013 | 3:30:00 pm

The Valencia Ring, Spain - 2009
Chapter eleven of David Littlejohn's "The Ultimate Art. Essays around and about Opera" (made available by the kind generosity of UC Press E-Books Collection. This provides a brief history of Ring Cycle productions.

Images and video added by TW. To read this in its original form - and indeed the rest of this book - please click the link at the end of this article.  

Warning this is a little "media rich" and if your coming from a slow connection it might be best to go to the original source linked at the bottom of the post.


"Chaos, as Wagner himself sometimes suggested, is likely to be the rule, rather than the exception, in our world (and in productions of Der Ring des Nibelungen that try to reflect or comment on that world) until another cruel divine order emerges to force things back into unity." David Littlejohn


Whatever Became of the Breastplates?
David Littlejohn

Faced with the astonishing array of visual and dramatic interpretations of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen offered during the last twenty years, it's sometimes hard to realize that for three-quarters of a century—from the première performances at Bayreuth in 1876 to the first post-World War II performances there in 1951—most operagoers saw the Ring done by performers going through much the same motions, in much the same costumes, against sets that were altered only very gradually, all over the Western world.

One reason for the durability of the original, Victorian-Teutonic conception was that Richard Wagner created it himself. He commissioned and oversaw the creation of the first sets and costumes, and meticulously directed the première cycles himself. After his death in 1883, his widow, Cosima—who personally ran the Bayreuth Festival with an iron fist until 1906 (and who lived on until 1930 to be sure that her docile son Siegfried kept the rituals intact)—insisted that all subsequent performances be copies of what she declared she remembered of her husband's originals.
Cologne Opera - Performed 2011 in Shanghai
Wagner had written stage directions of minute and often unrealizable detail, which Cosima insisted (and many orthodox Wagnerites still insist) must be followed to the letter. ("A flash of lightning breaks through the cloud; in its light, a Valkyrie on horseback becomes visible; on her saddle hangs a slain warrior." "Fafner drags himself further up the knoll and spits from his nostrils at Siegfried. Siegfried avoids the venom, leaps nearer, and stands to one side. Fafner tries to reach him with his tail. When Fafner has nearly caught Siegfried, the latter leaps with one bound over the dragon, and wounds him in the tail." Und so weiter .)

The composer commissioned a friend and disciple to sit in on the 1876 rehearsals and "to note down everything I say, even the smallest details, about the interpretation and performance of our work, so that a tradition goes down in writing."

(These notes were published between 1880 and 1896.) In founding his own festival theatre at Bayreuth to produce the Ring , Wagner also created a world headquarters and began a family directorate, which were to exert a quasi-dictatorial, profoundly conservative power over Ring productions there and elsewhere for decades to come. According to David C. Large, "Wahnfried [the Wagner household at Bayreuth] sought conformity to a Bayreuth 'ideal,' and when this was not forthcoming it tried to scuttle the offending production by withholding rights or personnel. . . . Cosima continued to view the production of her husband's work outside Bayreuth as a kind of sacrilege, as a 'betrayal' of Richard's memory."


There are few visual images of the original productions beyond the detailed, highly romantic paintings of the artist Josef Hoffmann, from which the Brückner brothers at Coburg created the actual painted sets. Hoffmann's sketches for the Rhinemaidens' undersea rocks, Hunding's lofty wooden hut with the mighty ash
tree in its center, Alberich's and Mime's high rocky caves, the Gibichungs' elaborately carved hall, and the "Wild, Wooded, and Rocky Valley on the Rhine" where Siegfried meets the Rhinemaidens are all vivid, busy, melodramatic renderings of an exaggerated nature and a mythical past conceived by a conventional German landscape artist of the time. We do have photographs of the original Brünnhilde (with her horse) and the original Wotan, wearing or bearing the winged helmets, bumpy metal armor, white gowns and blue cloaks, cross-gartered sandals, armlets, spears, long wigs, and beard that defined these characters visually (on stage and in caricatures) for many decades to come. One prize shot shows the original Rhinemaidens, including Lilli Lehman, "swimming" atop their precarious machines, while swathed head to toe, as Shaw complains, in "muslinfichus and tea-gowns," their hair arranged in fashionable 1876 coiffures—Rhine-maidens quite unlike the topless, Rubensian nixies who cavorted in Hoffmann's original designs.

The Valencia Ring, Spain - 2009.
We also have photographs of Angelo Neumann's Leipzig production of 1878, which he toured all over Europe during the next eleven years, and of the second Bayreuth production of 1896, both of which were based very closely on the original. We have photographic (and of course verbal) records of other nineteenth-century versions as well, most of which took their cue from the original.

It is impossible to recover to a present-day imagination the impact of these early productions. Wagner's whole grandiose idea, his voluptuous New Music, would still have to seem "modern" to us. The conventions of painted backcloths, two-dimensional rock-and-foliage wings, and clumsy pseudohistoricist costuming would have to be things we simply took for granted.

Professional critics and amateur observers of the time who made mention of the staging devoted most of their attention to the technical innovations. They wrote of steam machines that covered the stage with colored mists and clouds to mask the transformations, not always on cue; of how well the mechanical dragon or the magic fire scene worked (less than flawlessly, in 1876); of how well deceived they were by the undersea illusions. "Never before," wrote the Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick (who had mixed feelings about the music) "has such an accumulation of scenic wonders been offered at an opera." But he judged these devices, as he judged most of Wagner's music, to be mere nervous stimulants, so much sensual opium for the rational mind.

At Munich, one Brünnhilde actually did leap on her horse and charge into the final "fire"—as Wagner's stage directions required. But Cosima dismissed this as a mere circus trick. Many critics mocked the "children's pantomime" effects of the serpent and dragon, while admitting they might impress unmusical tourists. The original rainbow bridge to Valhalla was derided as an obvious, flower-garden prop. Hanslick complained about the tired, tethered horses and the ludicrous live rams. J. W. Davidson, of the London Times , thought the scenography at Bay-reuth not nearly so good as that currently visible on stages at London, Paris, and Vienna.

Josef Hoffmann original "sketch"
From 1896 on (when Bayreuth finally mounted its second Ring ), critics took issue with the fixed, semaphoric style of acting Cosima imposed there, which many thought more forced and unnatural than what her late husband's actors had done twenty years before. In 1889 Shaw wrote, "Bayreuth has chosen the law of death. Its boast is that it alone knows what was done last time, therefore it alone has the pure and complete tradition, or, as I prefer to put it, that it alone is in a position to strangle Wagner's lyric dramas note by note, bar by bar, nuance by nuance ." In 1896, he judged the Bayreuth style of acting to be an amateurish display of tableau-vivant attitudes, the striking of stupid poses by singers who were often little more than "animated beer casks." (From earliest days, Ring tourists mocked the girth of "youthful" Siegfrieds and "enchanting" Brünnhildes. Romain Rolland, at Bayreuth in 1896, described "the vast padded bulk" of a Sieglinde: "From bust to backside she is as wide as a city wall.")

What is remarkable, in view of these criticisms, and of the epochal changes that were to take place both in the Western world and on Western stages during the half century that followed, is how durable these images and methods were to prove. Photographs and accounts of Ring productions and performers in Berlin, Paris, London, New York, and Vienna well into the 1930s and 1940s depict staging very little changed from the century before. Hans Kautsky designed new Ring productions for the Royal Opera at Berlin (1912–1913), the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1913–1914), and the Vienna State Opera (1930) that satisfied another generation with the same breastplates and helmets, the same stock crags and caves and Nordic carvings and dark, fussy trees. (He did risk "cinematographic" projections in Berlin for the entry of the gods into Valhalla, but the jerky silent-film movements went out of synch with the music and destroyed the illusion.)

World War I, a flurry of anti-Germanism, and the beginnings of Modernism in the arts came and went; large singers in horned helmets and bearskins and long blonde plaits went on standing still or making traditional gestures against romantic-naturalist mountain crags and picturesque trees. The "golden years" of Wagnerian singers (Flagstad, Melchior, Lorenz, Leider, Schorr et al.) were, for the most part, leaden, unchanging years for theatrical design, as far as Ring productions went. The reactionary cultural nationalism of the Nazi leaders (who, as we have seen, effectively turned the Wagner festival into an annual party celebration between 1933 and 1942) accounted for some of this paralysis in Germany. It is harder to explain on the stages of London, Paris, and New York.

San Francisco Opera: 2011
The standard argument still made in favor of mounting a "traditional" Ring production (the Metropolitan Opera's version of 1989 was intentionally patterned after much earlier Bayreuth productions) is that "this is what Wagner wanted." To this, antitraditionalists counter with two objections. First, "what the author wanted," even when it can be surely known, is in many cases irrelevant. The text (or score) exists; the author doesn't. It's ours now, not his, to make of what we will. ("It is in vain," wrote Shaw, "for Bayreuth to contend that by faithfully doing what was done last time it arrives at an exact copy of what was done the first time when Wagner was alive, present and approving. The difference consists just in this, that Wagner is dead, absent and indifferent.")

"Respect for the work," a sense of responsibility to the notes on the staves, does seem to me a worthwhile trait in a producer—respect, at least, for what the producer finds worthy of respect. But this need not imply a total and slavish respect for the author, with all of his quirks and crotchets; and Wagner had more than his share. In any case, the world has turned a few times since 1876, and what Wagner wanted more than 125 years ago isn't likely to be what he'd want today. It certainly isn't what his two grandsons (who have run the Bayreuth Festival since 1951) have wanted for the past 40 years.

Second, despite the strange cultural phenomenon called "Wagnerism"—a near-deification of Wagner (Wagner the thinker, as well as Wagner the musician) that spread through Europe and the United States between 1870 and 1900—and despite his claim to have created total and indivisible art works, no aspect of the composer's work has stood the test of time except his music: not his philosophy, not his historical and aesthetic theories, not his mythologies, not his plots and librettos, certainly not his racial theories, and not his ideas and ideals on operatic staging. Although he was (like Verdi) a very astute man of the theatre, responsible for a number of important theatrical innovations, Wagner's vision of the stage possibilities of even his own works was radically limited by European tastes and traditions of the second half of the nineteenth century.


There were innovative, antitraditional productions of Wagner's Ring before 1951, which went against the gospel according to Bayreuth. The holy city itself risked a few concessions to abstraction and stylization. Beginning in 1933 (with the Nazis breathing down his neck), the skillful designer Emil Preetorius gave Bayreuth—as he also gave Berlin, Milan, Rome, and (as late as 1958) Vienna—versions of Wagner's Ring cycle that, while they followed the Master's stage directions, reduced a great deal of the Victorian fussiness into symbolically simple and powerful forms. As early as 1905, Alfred Roller designed a Ring for Mahler at the Vienna Court Opera that dispensed with horses, rams, and Teutonic motifs altogether, reduced the ride of the Valkyries to a projection of clouds, and created looming, elemental mountain shapes that dismayed the Viennese old guard. In the 1920s, adventurous stage designs in many German cities—Munich, Freiburg, Baden-Baden, Hannover, Frankfurt (all by Ludwig Sievert), Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Duisberg, Berlin, and Dresden—began incorporating the experiments and discoveries of modern art, particularly German Expressionism, into productions of Wagner's Ring .

Seattle Opera’s so-called“Green” Ring 2001. 
These drew on the unrealized stage ideas of Adolphe Appia and others (geometric abstractions, projections on cycloramas, the use of traps and revolves, stark use of lighting and symbolic colors), as well as on the strange "inner visions" of modern painters. Sievert's were perhaps the first consistently stylized productions: bare stepped acting platforms in front, an imagined Rhine valley beyond, crystalline mountain shapes, minimal projections in the distance. (Lee Simonson's new Ring for the Met in 1948, with its stylized, unromantic cliffs and sharp-angled acting platforms, was very similar to Sievert's.) The gods in his Das Rheingold stand on a stark, bare segment of curved earth—an impressive image later used by Wieland Wagner. In Sievert's productions, and Emil Pirchan's even more minimalist version at Berlin, Erda is simply a giant mask emerging from the earth.

The single most important scenographer ever to turn his attention to the Ring —the Swiss designer Adolphe Appia (1862–1928)—was turned away by Cosima as a presumptuous upstart. Appia had been working since 1892 on a series of timeless, stunningly simple, geometric designs for Wagner's music dramas, the drawings for which are now regarded as one of the landmark creations in the art of the stage. But when he showed them to the Widow of Bayreuth in 1896, she dismissed him and wrote to a friend, "Appia seems not to know that the Ring was performed here in '76 and that as a result there is nothing more to be discovered in terms of sets and productions." In the end, he had to settle for a sadly cheapened version of his magnificent designs (and then, for only half a Ring ) at Basel in 1924–1925. The Wagner brothers' productions of 1951–1975—and the many stripped-down, light-created, atmospheric/abstract versions that followed—owe more to Appia than to anyone else: the first modern theatre designer to dispense with all inessentials in order to carve stage places out of changing washes of color and light.

Partly because of its identification with the Nazi cause, partly because of Germany's postwar poverty, the Bayreuth Festival was not resumed until 1951. When Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson, offered the first postwar cycle at Bayreuth that summer, the effect was shocking, profound, and internationally felt. During the next twenty-five years, he and his brother Wolfgang (Wieland died in 1966) created four complete new productions of the Ring (1951–1958, 1960–1964, 1965–1969, 1970–1975), all in the radical New Bayreuth style.

Johann Kresnik's The Ring in Bonn 2008
The New Bayreuth style (which, abandoned by the Bayreuth Festival in 1976, is of course "new" no longer; producers since 1970 have been trying to find ways to rebel against it) has been explained in three ways. One, because Germany was strapped for cash in 1951, this was the least expensive way to mount a new Ring cycle that could still be impressive. Two, the legacy of 1933–1945 had left the traditional Teutonic style of production—which Hitler saw as a tangible demonstration of his vision of a heroic "master race"—in hopeless political disfavor. The only way to start the festival anew was to dump the old style altogether, strip the stage bare of its nationalist associations, and begin with a "less is more" Modernist style. Three, despite the howls of traditionalist Wagnerites, such a style was in fact quite defensible in and congenial to the 1950s and 1960s, of a piece with related movements in architecture, painting, sculpture, and film.

Interpreted most economically, the Ring tetralogy calls for a minimum of eleven different scenes. It would be tiresome to try to describe the forty-four different ways in which the Wagner grandsons chose to evoke these scenes between 1951 and 1976. Anyone familiar with the San Francisco Ring productions of 1967–1972 (Paul Hager/Wolfram Skalicki), or with any of the seven different Rings designed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen between 1964 and 1989, will have some idea of the New Bayreuth style—although these designers never settled for stages quite as abstract and unfurnished as those of the brothers Wagner.

In general, the New Bayreuth style focused on a central, circular acting area—although the stage disk (or ring) was sometimes tilted, rendered concave or convex, even cracked and broken into pieces. This area was subtly and diffusely lighted; a world of darkness lay beyond its edges. Lead singers, usually in simple robes or tunics, posed about the disk. They had spears when called for, but no helmets or armor. Groups (of Nibelungs, Valkyries, or Gibichung soldiers—120 of the latter, in three fixed choral rows, for Wieland's first Götterdämmerung ) cluster or move in carefully fixed patterns. There are no walls, no ceilings, no mountains, no trees. On the flat disk are placed the fewest possible objects—rocky lumps, for example, to serve as seats or an anvil.

Variations over the twenty-five years occurred mainly in the lighting of the stage and the gigantic cyclorama behind it. A complex console was created to control hundreds of lights and projectors, which could create violent, moving thunderclouds; washes of subtly shifting color; the mottled shadows of a forest. Light and color changes could be precisely timed to the movement of the score. Abstract background sculptures were created to indicate a wall of gold, a wooden palisade, totemic deities, a tangled organic forest. Stark, dramatic projections on the cyclorama could evoke a golden vertical pile for Valhalla, horizontal waves for the Rhine.

Wieland was generally regarded as the more ingenious and creative of the pair. The original conceptions, refined over the years, were his. Few stage images of Wagner's Ring have ever matched the potency of his Siegfried and Brünnhilde standing alone on a bare curve of earth, surrounded by an infinity of blue; or the sudden emergence out of sheer blackness of the neck and flame-breathing head of a giant dragon, dead center behind Siegfried, alone on his flat circular disk. For his second series, in 1965 (which lie had originally hoped to persuade the sculptor Henry Moore to design), Wieland Wagner devised great archetypal images and primeval idols. When the Nibelung's gold was piled up in front of Freia, it assumed the shape of a female fertility goddess.


For several years, Wieland Wagner had to defend his stagings each summer against the outrage and boos of traditionalists, frustrated by all that was missing, and by his defiance of his grandfather's explicit instructions. But gradually variations of his style spread to other of the world's opera houses. By the 1960s, these "eternal," light-created, un-Germanic settings began to seem more appropriate for Wagner's philosophy-drenched legends than detailed, pseudoarchaeological reconstructions of Old German places and times. For one thing, they enabled viewers to read into the action almost any meaning they wanted. For another, they seemed, in their global, evocative, ever-changing play of light and space and color at one with, as if created by, the music. The minimalist staging and absence of spotlights, as Ernest Newman pointed out, at once reduced the negative effect of mediocre acting, and enhanced the fundamental narrative role of the orchestra.

Like Shaw—who had confessed in 1922 that his favorite way of attending the Ring was to sit in the back of a box with his feet up and "listen without looking"—Wieland Wagner had come to feel, long before 1951, that the romantic settings and exaggerated acting styles of his father's and grandfather's generations ("those papier-maché castles, those pseudo-naturalistic forests, those fat ladies in helmets, with all their lusty shouts") worked against the music they were supposed to incarnate and complete.

Schenk Ring: MET 2009
The cracked disk, the lowering dark skies, and the more menacing, overalled, and helmeted Gibichung army of Wolfgang Wagner's 1970–1975 series heralded the end of this powerful, long-dominant mode. At the same time, they pointed to more bitter and specifically political interpretations to come. This, the last of the Wagner brothers' productions of the Ring , was stark, abstract, hieratic, timeless (like all their stagings); and, by 1970, just a bit dull. After the journées de Mai in Paris in 1968, and similar intergenerational protest movements elsewhere, Western culture was felt to have made another sharp turn. It was time for Ring productions to catch up.

Outside of Bayreuth, between 1950 and 1975, production styles ranged from the antique-traditional (Paris, 1955), through handsome but not abstract stylizations (Milan, 1950; Hamburg, 1956; Vienna, 1957–1958), to productions like those designed by Paul Hager (San Francisco, 1967–1972), Jörg Zimmermann (Milan, 1968), and Günther Schneider-Siemssen (London, 1964; Vienna/Salzburg/New York, 1967–1975), which seemed closely related to what the Wagner brothers were doing. The latter all made use of "timeless" costuming, huge curving symbolic sets, a minimum of stage furniture, dazzling atmospheric projections, and fabulous (if often dim) lighting effects. In these cities, too, however, some critics and audience members began to wonder if there were not other, more "relevant," more immediately exciting alternatives to the New Bayreuth style.

When the new revolution came, it came with a vengeance: first at Kassel, in West Germany, in 1970–1974; then at Leipzig, in East Germany, in 1973–1976; finally, and most notoriously, at the centennial Ring at Bayreuth in 1976.

The 1974 Kassel production was defiantly eclectic and disunified. In it, Siegfried was a bearded hippie; Wotan a Texas millionaire; Nibelheim a concrete bunker; and the Gibichungs, Nazis. The gods decayed into hate-filled, senile creeps in wheelchairs; the Norns' broken future-telling rope became a computer that suddenly went down. Wotan and Alberich embraced at the end, apparently the sole survivors of a nuclear war.

At Leipzig, director Joachim Herz (one of the several protégés of the late, great Walter Felsenstein of East Berlin, who continues to exert considerable influence in European opera production) told a consistently ugly, anticapitalist tale, the roots for which can be traced back to interpretations of the Ring written by left-polemicists like Shaw and Theodor Adorno. Wotan is again a power-hungry capitalist; the dragon becomes an armor-plated tank, with Fafner's head emerging from the turret. The dwelling place of the gods (like that of San Francisco's 1985 Ring ) is a Neoclassical temple in decay. A gang of factory workers—the ones who really built Valhalla—gathers at the end of Das Rheingold to watch as the gods move on to their own destruction. Siegfried and Brünnhilde make love on a battle-field. Wotan marches in Siegfried's funeral procession surrounded by drooping imperial eagles. Götterdämmerung , in fact, begins long after Siegfried , in a sleek chrome-and-glass world. The wedding takes place on a turbine-factory floor, surrounded by fascist eagles on columns, banners, saluting leagues of uniformed thugs.

The Patrice Chéreau/Richard Peduzzi Bayreuth production of 1976 is perhaps well enough known by now not to need description, thanks to international television broadcasts, videodisks and cassettes, the forests of newsprint and rivers of ink that have been devoted to it. In this extremely controversial staging, the producers pushed the interpretation of Wagner's Ringas an allegory of the evils of the Industrial Revolution even farther than their brothers at Leipzig or Kassel. The Rhinemaidens become whores at a hydroelectric plant, in an opening scene that led to screams of fury from the first-day audience at the Master's temple on Green Hill. Costumes and sets depict not the medieval Rhineland or some abstract mountaintop out of time but (for the most part) Western Europe in 1876.


The production (conducted by Pierre Boulez) was, for all that, vivid and compelling, with acting of an intensity never before seen at Bayreuth (and rarely elsewhere in Wagner), and a few potent, unforgettable symbols—Foucault's world pendulum, Wotan's mirror, the great industrial wheels, the Valkyries' beautiful ruined castle or cathedral wall. Nibelheim is an underground factory full of slave laborers; Hunding arrives surrounded by a sinister mob of goons; Gunther and Gudrune wear fashionable evening dress; the tanklike dragon turns back into a giant—four production ideas that have since become near-clichés. Alberich was no dwarf, but the grants were truly gigantic: singers sitting on the shoulders of athletes, draped by huge costumes, swinging great apelike arms. Mime's forge was a mammoth steam-operated press. Brechtian "alienation effects" were provided by Loge drawing the curtain himself at the end of Das Rheingold , smirking knowingly at the audience; and by the mob/chorus turning, as the closing flames subside (there is no flood) to stare at the audience, as if defying us to come up with a better world.

Chereau and Boulez’: Bayreuth - 1980
Since 1976, the castle has indeed collapsed, the river overflowed, the house of the gods gone up in flames. Productions of every imaginable sort, from the most safe and picturesque to the most grotesque and nonsensical, have poured out at a rate never known before. At least thirty important new Ring cycles have been completed in the last twenty-five years, in Seattle and Dallas, Bologna, Florence, and Turin, Aarhus and Brussels, Buenos Aires and Cardiff, Zurich and Geneva, Nice, Strasbourg, and Marseilles, Warsaw and Barcelona—as well as the traditional world opera capitals, and of course all over Germany and Austria. Bayreuth has come up with two more new Rings , in 1983 (Solti/Hall/Dudley) and 1988 (Barenboim/Kupfer/Schavernoch), each more unusual and disturbing than the last.

The bizarre and sometimes very specific updatings among, these—the productions that have attracted the most publicity—wrench the music dramas out of their legendary or mythical settings and shove them into other, real-looking (or futuristic) worlds. Their producers have cast off the New Bayreuth "essentialist" style as something fraudulent and safe, and used Wagner'sRing instead to make specific comments about the contemporary (or nineteenth-century, or Western bourgeois) world. In Germany, in particular, they have made explicit reference to the Third Reich/Wagner connection (the Gibichungs often become Nazis pure and simple). They have treated the gods as decadent and criminal, Nibelheim as an oppressive capitalist slave-factory, and the whole epic as a tale of modern bourgeois greed and abuse of power, whether they choose to set it in 1876, 1945, or in some utterly bleak era after an imagined nuclear war.


A serious critical analysis and response to the new interpretations and productions of Wagner's Ring of the past twenty years would take another essay at least as long as this one. More "liberties" have been taken, more extravagant conceits have been displayed, more novel readings of lines, scenes, and characters have been offered in these last two decades than in the near-century of productions before.

I cannot comfortably justify a return to 1876; but neither can I champion interpretations of Wagner's Ring that profoundly diminish the stature and significance of such characters as Wotan, Siegfried, and Brünnhilde (as many of these do) to levels far below the import of their music. If "What Wagner wanted" is no sure guide to production, most critics will still insist that producers can and should be guided by "what the music tells us." A producer may ignore (they concede) the stage directions, even skim over some sung German words that contradict his stage action or scenes; as long as he agrees that what matters most is the music, and the drama implicit in it.

But who is to say precisely what drama is implicit in so fluid, so complex a score? Leitmotivs "mean," for the most part, only because Wagner or his commentators say they do. Except for a few almost obvious ones—the Magic Fire music, for example—would we "know" that certain chords and sequences "mean," say, Revenge, or Fate, or Renunciation, or God's Stress, if we didn't have program notes or a guidebook to tell us? Aestheticians and musicologists have argued for centuries over what and how music "means." Until they all agree, and we agree with them, we cannot hold producers to a fixed and single interpretation of a line, scene, or character, because "the music says so."

ROH 2007
Chaos, as Wagner himself sometimes suggested, is likely to be the rule, rather than the exception, in our world (and in productions of Der Ring des Nibelungen that try to reflect or comment on that world) until another cruel divine order emerges to force things back into unity. Rings devoted to the evils and collapse of Eastern European communism are surely on the drafting boards already, now that Rings devoted to the evils and collapse of capitalism and fascism are becoming routine. Be grateful if you have the opportunity to see a contemporary Ring that is as compelling to look at as it is to listen to; thoughtfully (not narrowly or spitefully) of our time; on the whole generous to Wagner, rather than mean-minded and reductive; one that makes provocative sense, and still seems to grow out of the music, which is (fortunately) larger than all of these postmodern Konzeptsput together.

(1990)

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Edit. Have added sources for each production - and yes the Kresnik is of course something of a "cheat", but does provide some insight as to how the Ring has been adapted - in various ways.