Reconsidering the Boulez/Chéreau Ring
Musically, it's [i.e., the Boulez/Chéreau production from 1976-80 at Bayreuth] unidiomatic. Dramatically, it's interesting, but it introduces a political content that may or may not be present in Wagner's conception of the Ring.
Boulez flies through the cycle and clarifies the orchestral architecture to the point where every sinew and nerve, so to speak, of the piece is visible. Let me put it this way, imagine putting a magician or an illusionist in a white room, surrounded by bright lights and cameras, and then asking him to show you his tricks. There would be no illusion to it, because you can see every nuance of every move. Clarifying and simplifying Wagner's orchestration does just that. The illusion to be created by Wagner's orchestration is lost. Also, I might note that Richard Wagner was a composer of no mean talent: if he wanted skeletal renderings, then he would have arranged for them.
The cast is about as good as one could expect for 1976-1980. That's not saying a whole lot, though. Gwyneth Jones was in her Wagnerian best for Karl Böhm in the 1968 Bayreuth Meistersinger.
Chéreau's staging is unabashedly Marxist, though it doesn't go for Stalinist socialist realism. Indeed, the allegory to be found in Chéreau's Konzept is trivially obvious. If one takes a teleological view of the Ring, then the pursuit of wealth and capitalist excess, in Chéreau's view, will lead to the end of the world. Only the labors of proletarian heroes like Siegmund and Siegfried, despite their divine lineage, will bring things back to order. I'm sure that there are far better explanations offered by Chéreau and others, but the symbolism is so trivially obvious that it forces similarly obvious interpretations.
Now, an astute student of Wagner would realize that the problems begin when Alberich renounces love to gain the Rheingold. Now, there are some general dramatic and musical problems with Götterdämmerung, which others have examined elsewhere, but it is clear that Brünnhilde's act of love restores balance by wiping away the corrupt and debased world of the gods. Indeed, the theme of love is apparent throughout the Tetralogy in a way that silly Marxist screed is not. George Bernard Shaw was an intelligent and perceptive critic, but I don't think he should be taken as the final authority on Wagner. In any event, assuming Wagner regressed to 1848 (which isn't impossible for Rheingold, done in 1853-1854, though it's unlikely) and wrote a socialist parable, why make the allegory obvious? That's not dramatically clever, so such a move on Wagner's part would be massively out-of-character for Wagner.
Chéreau's staging wasn't all bad, and it's downright reactionary in the light of productions like Harry Kupfer's or Alfred Kirchner's 1997 show. It does do some clever things moment to moment, even if it's a little obvious in the long run. It would, however, be more appropriate to a Zeitoper revival than Wagner's supreme artistic achievement. Jonny spielt auf is not Siegfried, hard as that may be to believe in our time.
I do like the set, though Philips' recorded sound is a little anemic. Boulez' interpretation requires some close-miking, otherwise it sounds weak. It's unidiomatic and dramatically sort of obvious, but it's enjoyable. Boulez has a different take on Wagner, and his approach deserves attention, even if it is ultimately rebuked. Chéreau's production is important for the history of Wagnerian performance and for theater generally. Whether or not that approach was the right one, or even well done in its scope, is a lingering question, but it deserves attention. It's not a first recommendation, like Solti or Keilberth, but it deserves a listening/viewing -- like Karajan or Böhm.
You're depriving yourself of a valuable Wagnerian experience if you don't give the Boulez/Chéreau Ring a view. It is simply impossible to understand Wagnerian staging in the second half of the twentieth century without seeing Chéreau's production. I might go so far to say that the 1976-1980 cycle was the last really interesting one at Bayreuth. Peter Hall's production was a failure even at the time, and Georg Solti couldn't save it (for a lot of reasons, not least because of casting holdovers like the odious Manfred Jung). Harry Kupfer's production is even weirder than Chéreau's, though Barenboim turns in a musical contribution that is more idiomatic and full-throated, so to speak, than Boulez' (and Tomlinson simply embarrasses McIntyre, as do some other singers to their counterparts). Kirchner's has been, more or less, forgotten (though it has its moments of being reminiscent of Wieland Wagner's Neu Bayreuth). I can't be bothered to remember the last couple of directors, though it was a shame when Lars Von Trier pulled out of the Ring.
You see, then, that the very heart of Wagnerian performance has Chéreau's Ring as a major artery. You can say what you will about the trend of Wagnerian staging post-1976, but make no mistake: the most recent epoch (excepting really offensive productions like Schlingensief's Parsifal) is most assuredly denoted "post-1976." It is, of course, fairly easy to punt on the Boulez/Chéreau Ring, though -- in my opinion -- Levine's DVD set is dull as dishwater, even by traditional standards, and I understand that. Siegfried is the weak link, with Rheingold and Götterdämmerung (sans the "epilogue," which I can and might discuss later) coming out strongest. The thing is, as I keep saying, musically and dramatically, it's unidiomatic. It's also a little obvious in places, which isn't good for effective theater outside the mystery or morality play genres. It is however both important and instructive.
The benefits, in my mind, of a traditional approach are not clearly shown by excessive productions like Kupfer or Kirchner, but by productions like Chéreau's, which are not so apparently revolutionary with a few decades' worth of hindsight. The latter sorts of productions force consideration beyond a visceral reaction. Wagner's music-dramas deserve at least serious consideration, if not serious study.