One Opera, Three Acts, Three Different Stagings
In the late 1990s, the Stuttgart State Opera in Germany raised some eyebrows and hackles when it divided the four operas in Richard Wagner’s epic “Der Ring des Nibelungen” among four directors, one installment each. That was a major break with tradition: “Ring” cycles had traditionally been the work of a single directorial vision since Wagner himself supervised the first complete staging in 1876. It even became common to refer to a given production as “Patrice Chéreau’s ‘Ring’” — or Harry Kupfer’s, or Robert Lepage’s. But Stuttgart’s experiment was a critical and popular success, and the company is now taking that venture one step further. Each of the three acts in its new production of “Die Walküre,” the second opera in Wagner’s tetralogy, which opens on Sunday, has a highly different staging, each devised by a different creative team. Three unrelated interpretations, overseen by three groups of directors and designers, performed by one cast and one orchestra, for a single audience. Cornelius Meister, the company’s music director, said the term used in-house to describe the situation is “multi-perspectival.” But it’s also been a grand juggling act, with overlapping rehearsals, many rounds of costume fittings and a mounting air of suspense, with the company only getting a clear sense of how — or if — the acts might coalesce at the first full dress rehearsal, two weeks before the premiere. The company’s general director, Viktor Schoner — who arrived in 2018 and brought in Meister and the dramaturg Ingo Gerlach — said that the approach was “no big deal,” citing the longstanding practice in the dance world of combining a cluster of unrelated ballets into one evening. “Diversity is a topic of our time,” he said. “So we decided to ask different people.” “Walküre,” perhaps alone among the “Ring” operas, is well-suited to the approach, Schoner said. Each act tells a distinct (if connected) story, typically featuring scenes for two singers — allowing ample room for interpretive imagination.
Act I is being staged by Hotel Modern, a Dutch theater company known for productions featuring scale models and animation sequences. The group is projecting live film — of a tiny, destroyed world — onto a rear-stage screen, as a way to dramatize the story of Sieglinde and Siegmund, passionate lovers as well as (initially unbeknown to them) fraternal twins, whose child, Siegfried, the title hero of the cycle’s third opera. Pauline Kalker, the member of the group’s artistic trio who has taken on directing duties for the act, said she saw the towering filmic set as “moving paintings.” The self-conscious, high-concept design intermingles grip-like technicians onstage among the singers. Hotel Modern recasts the characters as rats that have survived a calamity, and the singers occasionally wear and carry rat masks, while the film sequences recount scenes of devastation and brutality. Gerlach, the dramaturg, who acted as a liaison between the company and the three creative teams, said that the film was intended as the visual equivalent of “backup vocals.”
The German lighting designer Urs Schönebaum, a frequent collaborator with Robert Wilson, is responsible for Act II. Here, Schönebaum uses lighting effects and a dark palette to dramatize the conflicts between Wotan, the chief of the gods; his outraged wife, Fricka; and his beloved but defiant daughter Brünnhilde. Schönebaum said that “lighting is part of the set,” and has come up with what Gerlach called “a refined visual approach” that is realistic compared with the other two contributions.
The German artist Ulla von Brandenburg, who is based in Paris, is the creative force behind Act III, in which Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sisters try to protect her from Wotan’s wrath. Von Brandenburg, known for using bright textiles in her videos and installations, has created multicolored, ever-shifting sets fashioned out of the same painted cotton that she has used for the costumes.
Stuttgart has a huge off-site rehearsal facility, equipped with two halls the same scale as its theater’s main stage. Schönebaum, whose act requires exceptionally precise lighting, had to divide up crucial access to the real stage with the other teams, leading to a schedule that he called “extremely tight.”
Brian Mulligan, the American baritone singing Wotan, appears in two of the three acts, and consequently had around 15 shoe, wig and costume fittings. (He said a fraction of that would be closer to the norm.) Even Schoner, who settled on dividing up “Walküre” in fall 2020, admitted it was a challenge choreographing a curtain call that would accommodate the three teams. Goran Juric, the Croatian bass who sings Hunding, Sieglinde’s brutish husband, worried that the evening might be “kind of schizophrenic for the audience.” That concern also arose among the company’s management. Siegmund’s sword is an important prop in all three acts, and early in the planning, Gerlach suggested that the same sword remain as a kind of Wagnerian leitmotif through the evening; that idea was rejected. Nevertheless, he said in an interview not long after the first dress rehearsal, continuities have emerged “without being planned by us.”
Hotel Modern’s Act I film, for example, has a post-apocalyptic feel, including scenes of toylike cities apparently destroyed by war — images that echo in Schönebaum’s Act II, which ends with a dimly lit battle and a stage littered with corpses. The opera itself ends with the disobedient Brünnhilde put to sleep by Wotan in a circle of fire, which von Brandenburg and her co-director, the French actor Benoȋt Résillot, render with a ring of LED lights that encases a body double floating above the rear of the stage. Using an elegant lighting effect, recalling the style of Act II, in the same spot and on the same scale as the film of Act I, the image serves — if coincidentally — to unify the production. The singers have also done their part to make connections. Though the opera has been reconceived, in effect, as three one-acts, Mulligan said he was making an effort to create a unified character. “I do similar gestures to remind the audience who I am,” he says, including holding his spear in Act II and Act III in a similar way.
In keeping with what now amounts to a Stuttgart tradition, the other three “Ring” operas in this new cycle will each have different directors. “Die Walküre” arrives some five months after the company’s “Das Rheingold,” which got a circus-trash staging directed by Stephan Kimmig, starring Juric as a glam-rock Wotan. The new “Siegfried” is borrowed from the old cycle and directed by Jossi Wieler, while “Götterdämmerung,” directed by Marco Storman, will premiere in January 2023. Then, over the course of five days that April, audiences will be able to put all the pieces together.