Coda: The Performance I Can't Forget

by PETER SAGAL

Coda Performance Can't Forget 1115
Chéreau’s Bayreuth Rheingold, a milestone for opera-lover Sagal
© S. Lauterwasser/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2015
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Sagal, host of NPR's Wait, Wait .... Don’t Tell Me!
© Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images 2015

This all began with Lüchow’s, the classic German restaurant that once upon a time served up wursts and sauerbraten in Lower Manhattan before the neighborhood got all hip in the 1980s. My parents, just once, took us from New Jersey into New York to see a show — I can’t remember what — and then to Lüchow’s for a German meal. I can’t remember what we ate. What I do remember is the murals on the wall — heroic figures with swords and armor, fighting giants and dragons. To a seven-year-old boy, this seemed almost unfairly cool — I mean, in comparison, the decor at McDonald’s was completely lame.

The plaques on the wall explained that the murals were illustrations of the Nibelungenlied, the ancient Germanic saga of gods and heroes, whose plot I couldn’t pretend to understand, but I absorbed enough of the detail — a hero with a named sword, a magic ring — that when I came across 
J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings some years later, I knew that Tolkien had lifted much of his plot from an older, Germanic original.

So when PBS broadcast Patrice Chéreau’s production of Wagner’s Ring cycle — originally seen at the Bayreuth Festival in 1976, its centenary year — I made sure to be sitting in front of the TV at the appointed time. (That’s how we used to roll, kids.) My father was an opera devotee, but I had never liked it, as I didn’t care to watch fat ladies singing in Italian about being sad. 

On the day in question, in 1983, I was eighteen, and I wanted to see myth and monsters and heroes and named swords. Instead, as the curtain rose on Das Rheingold, I saw fog and, when the fog cleared, a hydroelectric dam. And three women dressed in the frowsy parody of class associated with Victorian prostitutes. And a sweaty, bearded oaf who chased them, before he forswore love forever and a compartment in the dam opened to reveal the girls’ treasure.

Much has been written about Chéreau’s Ring, I subsequently discovered, and a lot of it isn’t very nice. Wagner purists hate how Chéreau dragged the story down from primeval myth to grubby Dickensian realism, either to mock it or just to stage his Marxist politics. Musicians hate Pierre Boulez’s allegedly tentative, subdued conducting. I didn’t like it, either — at first. I wanted to see gods and monsters, not Wotan as a Victorian baron with an eye-patch and a spear he carried like a walking stick. But images from that cycle remain with me to this day, after only a single viewing, most especially and importantly Siegfried’s funeral march. This is the most sweeping and astonishing of Wagner’s culminating crescendos, in its dramatic power far outdoing the more familiar Ride of the Valkyries. In the libretto, Wagner calls for men-at-arms to carry the hero’s body up a hill, as the music builds from low rumbles of despair to a triumphant fanfare.

But in Chéreau’s production, plainly dressed people slowly come onstage from the wings. They surround Siegfried’s body, staring at it, hiding it from view. Then, starting with a single woman, they turn and face the audience, staring out. The TV camera scanned their faces, showing —nothing. Grief? Incomprehension? Stoicism, as they knew that whatever music played, whatever hero died or lived, their lives would remain the same? As the swelling music reached its climax and resolution, the chorus continued to stare out at the audience, emotionless, unmoved and motionless. 

I had no idea what to think; maybe for the first time in my precocious adolescent life I didn’t think. I had no idea what this meant, what Chéreau was trying to say. The actors were watching me watching them, all of us listening to this epochal music that seemed both transcendent and irrelevant. I was profoundly moved in a direction that I didn’t know existed. The person who was convinced, with an eighteen-year-old’s confidence, that he could understand, analyze and judge everything as it happened disappeared that day.

I have seen many operas since then, including ones that featured a number of fat ladies (and men) singing about being sad, in Italian and German, not to mention English. And I have been able to experience a few fleeting moments like I had in front of that TV in 1983, but not enough. Not nearly enough. But I keep going back. spacer 

PETER SAGAL is the host of the nationally syndicated NPR program Wait, Wait .... Don’t Tell Me!

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6