There are times when the reviewing mind boggles at what it is seeing. I literally sat with my jaw agape for close to three hours watching Das Rheingold, uncertain whether this could actually be some sort of weird, quasi-classical edition of Punk'd I had stumbled into as the unwitting practical joke victim. After repeatedly checking my home entertainment environment for hidden cameras, I slowly came to the shocking realization that this production of Wagner's prelude to The Ring cycle actually was taking itself seriously, my reaction be damned.
I knew we were into, as my friend Broadway orchestrator Larry Moore calls it, a "Eurotrash reimagining" of this vaunted work when it started not with Wagner's famous Eb ostinato, but instead with a spoken introduction (in verse, culled from Wagner's own Prologue to Siegfried's Death) by three young Aryan lasses wearing hand sockpuppets. Though these puppets looked like dragons, all three girls were saying "Quack, quack, quack." I thought for a moment Shari Lewis had dropped acid and directed this fascinating, little known bit of Wagneriana, at long last found and restored to its rightful place before the piece really begins. Once the opera actually began, I literally could not believe what I was seeing. Alberich and Wotan, wearing more or less modern dress, stared at each other as the famous four minute musical prelude gathered its fury. And then the Rhinemaidens actually appeared above the dwarf and the gods, standing on a sort of cardboard cutout that, while visually interesting, made loud "thunk" noises every time the women's undulating arms mistakenly hit it. Now that's hard water.
But wait, it gets better. Alberich, who appears to be standing at full height, despite his dwarf status, is then suddenly a precursor to Tim Conway's Dorf character. I kid you not. He dons little red boots, attaching them to his knees, and then hobbles around for most of the first scene with his little fake legs flailing in front of him. I half expected him to take Wotan's spear and turn it into a golf club. It is one of the most patently hilarious things I've ever seen, all the more incredible when you consider what a tragic character Alberich is supposed to be.
But the hilarity doesn't end there. When we get around to meeting Fasolt and Fafner, the putative giants, it's yet another one of a growing number of "WTF" moments that become ever more outrageous. I'm not quite sure what the visual intent for these characters was supposed to be; suffice it to say they're evidently on stilts (it's hard to tell exactly), wearing big fat suits which make them look like rejects from the old "Culhane" sketches on Hee Haw, and are both adorned with large foam rubber hands and ears, with both of them wearing quasi-Kabuki makeup. Poor Richard is probably turning over in his grave.
The sad thing about this is this is one of the more magnificently sung and played Rheingolds I've heard, especially in the sumptuous orchestral work of Staatskapelle Weimar under the splendid direction of Carl St. Clair. This is some of Wagner's most deeply burnished music, and it is played here with Úlan and often magnificence. And the singers are uniformly excellent as well, from Mario Hoff's towering Wotan to Christine Hansmann's incredibly languid yet forceful Fricka. But how are they to overcome the rampant stupidity of Michael Schulz's stage direction?
I am all for "re-visioning" any kind of classic theater, including classic opera, to give it a new and sometimes unexpected vantage point. But when something like this mess dribbles across the stage, it simply points to an excess of directorial hubris. When Valhalla becomes nothing more than a wooden frame in which the Gods form a sad final tableaux, you know there is definitely something wrong with this picture.