At an Argentine production of Wagner's 'Ring,' there was plenty of behind-the-scenes drama. A documentary now tells the story of the difficult show. Its premiere in a Berlin theater was an audience hit.
Just a few weeks ahead of the premiere in Buenos Aires, pages were being ripped out of scores. Players were threatening to leave. The conductor, annoyed at the orchestra's sound, left the rehearsal room in a fit of rage. Stage elements were still being hammered together, and a leading role suddenly lost its singer.
But a young director was there, radiating energy and drive. It was clear that the production depended in large part on her will to succeed.
"Betrayal! Deceit!" belted out Linda Watson, on stage as Brünnhilde. Behind the curtain, it was clear that the theme of betrayal wasn't just resounding during rehearsals. The question on everyone's mind: will the premiere - and the film about it - flop?
Race against time
The background: Richard Wagner's four-opera cycle, "The Ring of the Nibelung," was set for its premiere in an abridged version in November 2012 at South America's grandest theater, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter, was slated to direct the staging. But six weeks ahead of the premiere, she arrived to discover that preparations for rehearsal were inadequate. She left on the same day, reappearing a week later with her lawyer at her side. Both parties - Wagner and the theater - agreed to go their separate ways.
Four weeks before the premiere, a new director was found. With scenery and cast in place, Valentina Carrasco came up with a concept and stage direction in very little time.
Accompanying the whole process was film director Hans Christoph von Bock, who aimed to capture the Argentine "Ring" production on film. Those familiar with DW's high-gloss approach to classical music films were in for a surprise. Von Bock's take is more akin to reality TV.
A documentary about an opera premiere could hardly be more full of suspense. There's perhaps nothing better that could have happened for von Bock than Katharina Wagner's cancellation, although project manager Rolf Rische sees things a bit differently on that point.
"That was more than a setback. It was almost a collapse," he said, but added, "There were decisive factors that made people stick with it. World stars like Linda Watson didn't pick up and leave. And instead of turning the dispute with Katharina Wagner into a legal battle, the theater director took the practical path."
Wagner is known as loud - and, above all, long. As music producer Cord Garben put it: "You can cut twenty pages out of the 'Ring' at a time, and no one unfamiliar with the score will know it."
That statement was followed by laughter and applause from the audience at the documentary's debut. Words like "blasphemous" or "sacrilegious" don't pass people's lips these days when it comes to shortening Wagner. But perhaps the composer rolled over in his grave? Garben doesn't believe so, at least.
"I was in Bayreuth in the spring because we did a CD - major scenes from the 'Ring,' adapted for two pianos. We stood at Wagner's grave and took pictures, and nothing happened," the arranger quipped.
The shortened version offers a way for newcomers or for smaller theater to access Wagner's work. Nevertheless, soloists were shocked at precisely "those" parts of the music that were cut to turn the "Ring" into a version that still clocks in at just under eight hours. At multiple junctures in the film, the visibly strained theater director Pedro Pablo Garcia Caffi gives himself a pep talk and contemplates a plan B. But his facial expressions give everything away - to the documentary audience's amusement.
Valentina Carrasco was hired to save the production by taking the helm. Did she also have a plan B?
"In Spanish, B stands for 'bombero' as in fire department," she said in an interview with DW on the evening of the film's premiere. "I came to put out the fire. I thought about a possible concept. There was no time to keep on thinking. I asked for 48 hours to reflect, made sure I could work with the team there and then accepted."
A decisive and strong concept was on display at the premiere on November 27 in Buenos Aires. The father of the gods, Wotan, appears in a general's uniform as former President Juan Perón with his spouse Fricka in an Evita costume - two legendary Argentine rulers. In Carrasco's version, the dwarf king Alberich does not steal the Rhine gold but a baby instead. The world's riches are symbolized here by children - children who experienced a terrible fate during the era of Argentina's military dictatorship. Their parents imprisoned, tortured and murdered on political grounds, they were put up for adoption. For years, they did not know who they were or where they came from.
Carrasco delivers a provocative and at times discomforting piece of musical theater that takes up the theme of the country's coming to terms with its political past. Local critics reacted with distance and coolness, but international voices were sympathetic to enthusiastic.
All's well that…
Like the production itself, the documentary develops in the course of its 93 minutes an arc of tension that traces the dilemma of everyone involved. Director Valentina Carrasco admits that during rehearsals, she drew strength from a higher authority: "I always think of the words of Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. On the subject of a poor translation of 'Don Quixote,' he said: 'Quixote is strong enough to survive every miserable edition.'"
Carrasco came to the same conclusion. "It doesn't matter how miserable Cord Garben's adaptation or my directing or Roberto Paternostros' conducting might be: Wagner is stronger than all of us combined."
The documentary, which will be broadcast on DW TV in German, English, Spanish and Arabic on May 11 and 18, received long and continuous applause in Berlin's Delphi Filmpalast.
The documentary and the multi-camera live recording of the "Colón Ring" were produced by DW in cooperation with Bernhard Fleischer Moving Images. The complete recording will appear in May in time for the Richard Wagner bicentennial on the label C Major Entertainment.