Wagner: Das Rheingold

Bayreuth and the Première of The Ring

Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 1900. Detroit Publishing Co Photochrom print collection, Library of Congress

Above: Bayreuth Festspeilhaus, c.1900.
Detroit Publishing Co Photochrom print collection, Library of Congress.

In his effort to create a Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art that fused music, drama, stagecraft – all the arts – Wagner went all out and built a theatre that would be a shrine for his art, a place specifically dedicated to the performance of his operas.

This theatre, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (Bayreuth Festival Theatre) opened in August, 1876, with the very first full production of Wagner's four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Das Rheingold, the Prologue to the Ring drama, had already received its world première in 1869 at the National Theatre in Munich. This sneak preview was on the orders of Wagner's patron, King Ludwig II, but against Wagner's own wishes, for he had wanted all four operas to receive their first performances together, as a cycle, over a four-day period.

In 1876, Das Rheingold became the first opera ever performed in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Wagner's operas – and only Wagner's operas – continue to be staged there each summer during the world famous Bayreuth Festival. Bayreuth is, in the words of writer Finn-Olaf Jones, the Woodstock of the opera set.

The opening of the Festspielhaus was a massive event, covered by press from all over the world. It was attended by royalty – Kaiser Wilhelm I, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Brazil's Emperor Dom Pedro II, and an assortment of Grand Dukes and Princes – as well as by musicians and writers – Bruckner, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Liszt, Nietzsche, and Tolstoy.

Music critics from around the world attended, some reporting almost daily for a couple of months as the Festival revved up. Critical reactions to the operas were intensely mixed, but a great deal of the commentary focused on the theatre, the town, and the celebrities.

The Sydney Morning Herald noted:

It was a polyglot gathering indeed, and to move around amongst it gave one an idea of the confusion that must have prevailed at the foot of Babel. German, French, English, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Polish we heard all at the same time ... emperors, kings, dukes, princes, and mightinesses of various orders.

This from The Guardian:

The people flocked to the theatre building early in the evening, and the whole way was double-lined by peasants and poor townspeople, who cared more to see the celebrities and royalties drive by than for the march of the musical gods across the rainbow bridge.

The influx of visitors into the small town of Bayreuth completely overwhelmed the local restaurants, as was pointed out by Tchaikovsky, who wrote a series of articles on the première for the Russian Register:

Each slice of bread, each mug of beer has to be taken by force, by means of incredible exertions and tricks, all requiring a patience of steel. And even if you are lucky ... the coveted dish that is finally brought to you by the waiter looks as if it had been worked upon previously by several other forks and knives ... For the whole duration of the first series of performances of Wagner's tetralogy, the predominating interest for everyone turned exclusively upon food, by far surpassing in importance any artistic interests as such. People talked much more about beefsteaks, cutlets, and fried potatoes than about Wagner's music.

Edvard Grieg wrote a cycle of articles for the Norwegian Bergenposten, in which he mentioned some of the glitches that plagued the production.

In spite of much there is to criticize ... this music drama is the creation of a true giant in the history of art, comparable in his innovation only to Michelangelo. In music there is nobody to approach Wagner...
If Wagner has been annoyed by the imperfect scene-changes and sloppy stage management then he has every right to be, for they all left a lot to be desired. Things like the rainbow on the wrong side of the stage and scene-changing so tardy that the orchestra had to slow down to match up with the action – these are hardly what the Master wanted.

Little has changed in the intervening years: at the opening performance of Robert Lepage's high-tech 2010 production of Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera, a malfunctioning rainbow bridge forced the gods to take an anticlimactic detour to Valhalla.

Wagner designed the theatre at Bayreuth specifically for the performance of his operas, and in doing so made some revolutionary changes.

It was he who first darkened the entire theatre for the performance so that the audience could focus on the music and drama. Contemporary critic Charles Henri Tardieu of L'Indépendance belge was particularly eloquent about the impact of this innovation:

Immediately, the gas lights are almost completely extinguished. We find ourselves plunged not only into silence, but into darkness. The sudden darkness raises us out of ordinary life and into the domain of pure art. The room no longer exists; our neighbors no longer matter ... even the Emperor of Germany is forgotten ... The theatre of Bayreuth ... is the absolute affirmation of the work ... the realization, the incarnation of the dramatic dream. We are ready for anything, even the supernatural, even the impossible.

Wagner further minimized distractions by burying the orchestra in a sort of covered cave under the stage so that the conductor and musicians were hidden from the audience.

Bayreuth Festspielhaus orchestra pit

The Bayreuth Festspielhaus orchestra pit is covered by a hood so that the orchestra is completely invisible to the audience. From Wikimedia Commons

This had the happy side effect of creating marvellous acoustics: the orchestra sound is projected back toward the stage, and the singers can easily be heard even over Wagner's massive instrumentation. Like Wotan creating Valhalla, he was making an acoustic home fit for the gods. (Paul Griffiths, New York Times, 2002).

Although the theatre's acoustics are legendary, the pit itself is crowded, uncomfortable, noisy, and hot: During the 2006 Bayreuth Festival, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote the following:

Since there is no air-conditioning in the Festpielhaus, the musicians playing in the pit on a humid July night must feel as if they were immolating along with Valhalla and all the gods at the fiery climax of "Götterdämmerung" ... One tradeoff for the festival musicians ... is that because no one sees them, every day is Casual Friday in the pit at Bayreuth.

For more entertaining observations from Anthony Tommasini, see his Bayreuth Journal, in particular his Day 3 account of A Peek Into the Pit.

The lack of air conditioning for the summer festival was a complaint from its very beginning, as we see in the New York Times review of the 1876 Das Rheingold:

The heat ... was intense, for, the doors being closed and even overhung with tapestry, and there being no windows or ventilating apparatus of any sort, the air was never renewed. The suffering of the spectators must be accordingly in direct proportion with the greater or less length of each act of an opera.

Wagner oversaw every aspect of the 1876 festival, from the theatre design and construction to coaching and directing the conductor and the cast. He obsessed over every part of the production. One of his biographers, Ernest Newman, wrote,

He was a far better conductor than any of his conductors, a far better actor than any of his actors, a far better singer than any of his singers in everything but tone. Each of his characters, each of his situations had been created by the simultaneous functioning within him of a composer's imagination, a dramatist's, a conductor's, a scenic designer's, a singer's, a mime's. Such a combination had never existed in a single individual before; it has never happened since, and in all probability it will never happen again.

However, Wagner found fault after fault with the production, and his dejection was not helped by the huge deficit incurred by the first Festival. What was at the time state-of-the-art stage technology, including magic fire gas jets, an imfamous mechanical dragon, and wheeled carts to move the Rhinemaidens around, couldn't live up to his vision, nor could some of the performances.

As Frederic Spotts notes in Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival

He had sought perfection and fell short. He had counted himself a King of infinite space and found that he was bounded in the nutshell of a stage.

  Alberich and Rhinemaidens, 1876 Hoffmann sketch

Detail of a design sketch by Viennese artist Josef Hoffmann for the 1876 première of the Ring Cycle. Shown are Alberich and the Rhinemaidens in Scene 1 of Das Rheingold.

  Franz Best as Wotan, 1876

Franz Betz as Wotan in the 1876 première of the Ring in Bayreuth.

The New York Times review of the première said, Herr Betz, who personated Wotan, has a voice of rare force and a commanding presence thoroughly in accord with the physical attributes of the majestic character he portrayed. The costume design is by Carl Emil Doepler.

With the caption: Costume Portrait from the Bayreuth Stage Festival. J. Albert, publisher, Munich. Copyright, 1876.
Albert, Joseph, 1825-1886, Portrait of Franz Betz (1835-1900) as Wotan. Online Exhibits@Yale, accessed July 30, 2014, http://omeka.med.yale.edu/project/items/show/8204.


Carl Emil Doepler: costume design for Donner/Thor, 1876

Carl Emil Doepler's costume design for Donner (Thor), 1876. The costume designer for the first production of the Ring was Carl Emil Doepler, whose winged and horned helmets have been part of Ring lore ever since – even though they lack historical accuracy and were not what Wagner wanted.

Wagner told Doepler that he wanted costumes that evoked a timeless mythological world – something unique and inventive, with no association with any known experience. Neither Wagner nor his wife Cosima liked Doepler's designs. In her diaries, Cosima called Doepler a hack and complained that the designs revealed an archeologist's fantasy, to the detriment of the tragic and mythical elements and bore, along with their ethnographic absurdity, all the hallmarks of provincial tastelessness.

Nevertheless, even after Wagner's death in 1883, Cosima enshrined the original designs, insisting until her death in 1930 that all subsequent performances be copies of the original, following to the letter Wagner's stage directions and the original look of the Cycle. Most productions elsewhere in Europe and North America followed suit well into the middle of the 20th century.

Image from http://www.germanicmythology.com/works/DoeplerRing.html.


Unless otherwise specified, all images are public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

Maureen Woodall




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