Whilst the Bayreuth premiere production of Parsifal (1882) could be considered a paradigm example of an opera production created »in the eyes of the Master« as it remained on the programme schedule essentially unaltered for decades thereby establishing a normative tradition of Wagnerian direction, the debut production of the Ring of the Nibelung (1876) already fell into permanent oblivion after only three performances at the first Bayreuth Festival. Richard and Cosima Wagner’s negative critique of the 1876 production, as expressed in Cosima Wagner’s journals, may help to explain why the Ring of the Nibelung was not performed at all in Bayreuth for two decades before it returned to the stage in 1896 in an entirely new production under Cosima Wagner’s direction. This critique and further witness accounts of the Bayreuth production are comprehensively examined in the article. Furthermore, the role of theatre semiotics in the reconstruction of historical opera productions will be discussed. Documents on the staging, such as those concerning the premieres of Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal, could contribute significantly to gaining an understanding of the multimedia oeuvre that is opera and its various sign systems, and at the same time serve as a stimulus for contemporary productions. A true to detail reconstruction of an »imperfect« production from a historical perspective (or from the perspective of Richard and Cosima Wagner) and a less than exemplary production such as the Ring of the Nibelung of 1876, would certainly be a questionable undertaking. A more sensible approach would seem to be the integration of the comprehensively documented accounts from the premiere production into a contemporary "historically informed" performance. While this may not be »true to the original«, it may well do »justice to the original«.
Translation: Jennifer Smyth