Here’s a fascinating post by Martin Filler about the history of staging Wagner’s operas:
The Wagner siblings’ [Wieland and Wolfgang, grandsons of the composer] starkly minimalist productions — in several instances the stage was left completely bare, and lighting alone defined some indoor or outdoor space — reflected two harsh realities: a lack of funding, and the need to avoid any representational feature that could be interpreted as political, given how compromised the Wagner legacy was. Significantly, these stripped-down stagings, which owed much to the reductive modernist concepts of the Swiss stage designer Adolphe Appia (1862–1928), had a purifying effect that was quite intentional in shifting audience attention toward the Ring’s penetrating psychological aspects and away from the impossible stage business — swimming mermaids, flying horses, a fire-breathing dragon, and a talkative bird, among other fantasies — that has always bedeviled directors.
Like the best abstract art, the New Bayreuth Style, as it was dubbed, allowed viewers to project their own interpretations onto a nearly blank canvas, and to draw illuminating conclusions of their own about the deeper meaning of what they saw before them. The pendulum theory of culture — which holds that action and reaction reflexively animate stylistic swings as broad as those from Rococo to Neoclassical and Pop to Minimalism — might indicate that after every last anachronistic dystopia has been exploited as a stand-in for Valhalla we might finally see a return to undistracting theatrical values more closely aligned with Wagner’s gloriously transcendent music of the spheres.
I appreciate Wagner’s music more than I enjoy it, but I resonate with Filler’s argument because I have a long-standing and oddly passionate interest in the relationship between constraint and creativity. I often think of Miles Davis, who developed his distinctively “cool” style of trumpet-playing — slow, no vibrato, muted more often than not — because he realized that he could never compete with the technical virtuosity of Dizzy Gillespie and refused to be a second-rate version of Diz.
Such creativity-from-constraint doesn’t always emerge from limitations of technique: there has rarely if ever been a more technically masterful artist than Picasso, but all he needed to make wonderful art was two pieces of an old bicycle — which I suspect was harder to get just right than one might at first think: when you only have two items to work with, their juxtaposition must be exact to create the desired effect. In a similar vein, I once heard a set designer comment that spare sets are far more expensive than elaborate ones, because in a spare set every item has to be perfect.
Many years ago I attended a performance, at the Chicago Lyric Opera, of Handel’s Samson — which is not an opera but rather an oratorio. However, the CLO had money in hand and decided to operify the performance, which they did primarily by placing a big wheeled cart on the stage, to which Samson was chained for most of the production. From time to time extras could come out and wheel the thing from one side of the stage to the other. That was all the dynamism the director could manage to generate, and the effect was to distract the audience’s attention from Handel’s music and focus it instead on the futility of the cart’s movements — which managed to drain every last ounce of energy from the room.
All this was especially sad because the singers were excellent and the music often inspired. If the CLO leadership had allowed the oratorio to be an oratorio — if the singers had just stood at the front of the stage and sung to us — I suspect it would have been a memorably wonderful evening, instead of a memorably dumb one. But the director did not trust the singers or the music. There’s a lesson to be learned from this, one that, to judge from Filler’s post, few contemporary directors of Wagner’s operas have yet learned.