A new play in Berlin by Nobel Prize-winning Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek mixes snippets from Wagner's "Ring" cycle with heavy doses of political and cultural critique - and electronic music.
Austrian Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek's new play "Rein Gold," set to songs from Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle, ranges from the tedious to the brilliant. Its premiere this week at the Staatsoper Berlin drew a younger crowd than usual to the renowned opera house, with around a third of audience standing out from the sea of white hair and elegant women's hats.
Jelinek's "Rein Gold" updates the storyline from the first opera in Wagner's four-part masterpiece and puts criticism of modern capitalism at its core. Wotan, played by Jürgen Linn, decides to take on a mortgage to build Valhalla, but his daughter Brünnhilde (Rebecca Teem) is conflicted. The actors playing Wotan's children - Philipp Hauss, Katharina Lorenz, and Sebastian Rudolph - also alternate into speaking roles attributed to Wotan, Brünnhilde and Siegfried. That makes for a complex production in which some roles, like Wotan's, are taken on by more than one actor over the course of the performance.
The children hate the idea of Valhalla being built with money from the bank and accuse their father of enslaving himself to the finance industry. Wotan responds to their protests in song, drawing in part on the score to Wagner's "Ring" cycle.
But the music for the over three-hour production, which ranges widely from opera to electronica, is unlikely to be to Wagner purists' tastes. At one point, Linn belts out an opera-inflected rendition of "No More Heroes" by English 80s punk bank The Stranglers. At another, the actors engage in a series of monologues that are set to soft electronic music.
Jelinek's play makes frequent reference to anti-capitalist critique, with the actors delivering lines like, "Huge amounts of money are being moved around, but nothing comes of it," "Property itself is theft, and, in the end, we are all thieves" and "Even God has become a slave to money."
At one juncture, actors wheel out a piano and a platform filled with synthesizers and computers - seemingly in an effort to suggest how the worlds of modern finance and technology can collude to render workers obsolete. Hauss motions to the orchestra members' empty seats, and then the synthesizers, exclaiming, "These machines have replaced the workers!"
Long before the play reaches its climax, older audience members begin to exit the opera house in droves. But they leave many of their younger counterparts glued to their seats.
What the frustrated theater-goers may not realize is that many of the ideas about property and money in Jelinek's work stem from Wagner himself - in particular, from his essay "Die Revolution" (The Revolution), written in 1849 and published in the playbill.
Strong performances, brazen effects
When it comes to Wagner's music, the performances are quite strong at points. But the script often calls on the actors to talk - loudly, into microphones - while Brünnhilde and Wotan are singing. As Linn sings snippets of "Wotan, Gemahl, erwache!" from Wagner's "Das Rheingold," Lorenz begins shouting at him, "Why do you promise me a hero? You always make promises that you don't deliver on!"
The stage effects are also bold and jumbled, featuring waste paper basket fires, Brünnhilde dressed as a 1950s Stepford wife and money that rains down on the stage, followed by bodies dropping from the ceiling. An actor dressed in a pink panther costume places the bodies into garbage bags - the pink cartoon figure being a reference to the symbol used by the German neo-Nazi group NSU, who killed Turkish and other immigrants with seeming impunity over the course of a decade.
The Rhine maidens fondle the pink panther while singing, "Germany is ending as a nation, but at least it has learned to have a sense of humor."
Meanwhile, Wotan drives on stage in a 1970s VW camper - the roof of which is on fire. Then, the actors reenter, riding bicycles around a bellowing Wotan and thrusting up signs with messages such as, "Germany, the future is in your hands."
Musically on the safe side?
Though visually striking, the production includes some questionable choices, like forcing the stage actors to croak out arias alongside seasoned Wagnerian singers like Teem and Linn.
However, the work proves that Wagner's music can mesh with the right electronic effects - for a lovely result.
The scene in which the Rhine maidens sing the famous central motif of "Das Rheingold" offers one example. Draped sensually, like Las Vegas lounge singers in their sequin dresses, the maidens sometimes whispered, sometimes belted out the Rheingold song. Some of their many renditions were set to rumbling bass notes from modular synthesizers (operated by Thomas Kürstner and Sebastian Vogel) and to David Robert Coleman's piano accompaniment.
There was no shortage of musical dabbling on stage. But in talking with the younger people in the audience - and perhaps those older Wagnerians who stayed for the entire hours-long affair would have agreed - there was a shared sense of wanting more musical experimentation than Jelinek's "Rein Gold" provides.