Saturday, July 16, 2011
The closing of the Ring
This summer the San Francisco Opera presented a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, the gargantuan composition by Richard Wagner. Although there is nothing else like it, Wagner's Ring has somehow become the archetypal opera: the statuesque lady with horned helmet and spear is the iconic image that evokes grand opera.
As opera aficionados go, I'm rather eccentric. Rather than worshiping Italian divas and swooning over coloratura fireworks, I prefer the Sturm und Drang German repertory. I like Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. The only Italian opera I've ever seen in live performance is Puccini's Tosca. The only French opera I've seen is Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. The great standards, like Bizet's Carmen and Verdi's Aïda, I know only from recordings and broadcasts.
But really: if your favorite opera composer's masterwork takes over fifteen hours to perform, how much else do you actually need?
The San Francisco Opera presented Der Ring des Nibelungen in three complete cycles. I attended the first one, which started on Tuesday, June 14, and came to a close on Sunday, June 19. It was my fourth Ring—and my best Ring.
Previous San Francisco productions of the Ring were more traditional, and I confess to being partial to faithful recreations of the composer's intent. Wagner left detailed stage directions for each of his operas, but almost no one pays any attention to them anymore. The 2011 Ring was a modern interpretation by producer Francesca Zambello. Despite my skepticism (and disdain for some of the production's details), the overall production and performances had me applauding with enthusiasm at the close of each installment.
During the Ring cycle, I sent regular reports to some interested friends. (Not so interested that they wanted to go with me, but interested enough to skim through lengthy e-mail messages.) I've reworked those reports into the following commentary on Cycle 1 of the San Francisco Ring. Reading this post will be a marathon in its own right, but here you can get an avid amateur's perspective on a gargantuan work of operatic art without leaving the comfort of your computer room.
Brace yourself. Here we go, into a patchwork quilt of descriptions, reactions, and quasi-insightful analysis.
When the lights came up, the three Rhinemaidens were playing among the rocks and currents of the river bottom, with waves of stage fog concealing the ground. The evil dwarf Alberich appeared dressed as a vagabond with backpack and map, as if he were a treasurer-seeker. It's all part of Zambello's “American Ring” concept: Alberich is a gold-rush prospector seeking his fortune. I presume the part of the Rhine is being played by the American River near Sutter's Fort.
The entire floor of the stage lit up with golden lights when the maidens began singing the praises of the Rhine gold, the magical gold they're supposed to guard from malefactors. I immediately started wondering where the Rhine gold was, since the scene is supposed to end with Alberich stealing it. How could he steal the entire stage floor? This is how: At the climax of the maidens' celebration of their sacred gold, they reached down into the fog and lifted up a great glittering sheet, like cloth-of-gold, one Rhinemaiden at each corner and a bewildered Alberich groping for and finding the fourth corner. The maidens mocked him because only someone who renounces love forever can master the gold and wield its power (by forging it into a magic ring). He was so obviously desperately in love (or at least lust) with them that the gold had no meaning for him. Or so the foolish maidens assumed. Enraged, he ripped the sheet of gold from their grasp, renounced love, and stole away with their “precious.” (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
Right near the end of the scene, Loge appears stage left and witnesses the theft of the gold. That's not in the stage directions, so it's another new touch cooked up by the producer. Loge is the demigod of fire and a master of deceit and trickery. In a later scene he will relate his encounter with the Rhinemaidens, so this cameo appearance is consistent with subsequent developments. It was a harmless production gimmick.
Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister.) Wotan's power is based on the oaths and vows—including the contract for Valhalla—inscribed on the shaft of his mighty spear (hewn from the World Ash Tree). He cannot go back on his word without destroying the source of his divine strength.
Oh, is this rather phallic? I never noticed.
With Wotan and the gods at the point of despair, Loge plays his trump card: The giants want Freia because they crave some love in their lives (Freia is the goddess of love, just as Fricka is the goddess of marriage; funny how they're not the same). However, there is something even more desirable than love and he has witnessed it: the lust for the power of the Rhine gold. Would the giants accept the gold in lieu of love? The giants confer and agree they do not want Alberich to be ruler of the world (he is apparently their enemy, too) and they crave the respect that the power of the Rhine gold would give them. They tell the gods that they will hold Freia in captivity for the day as they await the outcome of Wotan and Loge's effort to steal the Rhine gold on their behalf.
The dragon transformation was introduced with a flash of stage pyrotechnics, enabling Alberich to vanish offstage while the projection system fired up and displayed a sinuously oscillating pattern on the stage's backdrop, making it look like the stage was enclosed in the coils of a giant serpent. Loge and Wotan acted appropriately impressed, but Loge expressed further doubts when Alberich resumed his normal form. Turning into a big thing like a dragon was probably pretty easy with the Tarnhelm. It would presumably be much more difficult to become tiny, like a frog, and slip away through a narrow crack to elude one's enemies. Rising to the bait, Alberich demonstrates than nothing would be easier. Another flash of light and Alberich vanishes again, this time to be replaced by a small toad hopping in a spotlight on the stage. Loge gleefully grabs him and the gods leave Nibelheim with their captive.
Scene 4, the final scene, is back up at the country house. Alberich is back in mortal form. He is forced to use the ring to summon his minions to deliver his gold, which is stacked up on stage. Wotan then wrests the ring from him, whereupon Alberich curses the ring and flees. The giants return with Freia. In a new (to me) piece of stage work, she is obviously now smitten with Fasolt, the kinder giant who sings the praises of her beauty and gentility. His brother Fafner cares only about getting the gold. Fasolt says he won't be able to part with Freia unless she entirely vanishes from his sight.
Wotan objects, of course, but is eventually prevailed upon to surrender the ring. A brief appearance by the earth goddess Erda helps, since she warns Wotan of doom if he does not relinquish it. The moment the giants have the ring, they fight over it and Fafner kills his brother to take sole possession. (The curse is working!) While Freia weeps over the body of the dead Fasolt, her brothers help Fafner gather up the cargo net of gold, which is attached to a cable and hauled up off the stage. (I've never seen it done that way before!)
Loge, however, hangs back. He's thinking of whether there's new mischief he'd like to do.
Huge applause and lots of cheering. The biggest cheers of the night went to Loge. (I admit that I yelled “Bravo” when Margita took his bow.) The producer was not brought on stage to take a bow, which surprised me a little. Perhaps she was not in town. Normally a new production's creator is brought out so that the audience can boo and cheer (there are always guaranteed to be a mix of both).It turned out that she was saving it up for the final night of the cycle.
I have seen Die Walküre more often than any other Ring opera, as it is frequently staged independently of the complete cycle. Back in 1981 I was privileged to hear the great Birgit Nilsson in the role. The new Walküre had a splendid cast giving a splendid performance. It was a rocking event.
The San Francisco production was full of effective touches in Act I. Sieglinde's arms bore the bruises of domestic violence, underscored by Hunding's boorish treatment of his wife during the action, occasionally pawing at her or peremptorily bossing her about. Hunding's behavior was dialed back a notch from last year's debut of this production and was not distracting as it had been before.
For some reason, Zambello decided it would be a nice effect to have Hunding shackle Siegmund to the ash tree to await the morning's duel—as if it was likely that the hero would run away during the night. It would have been easier to dismiss that decision as a quirky choice by the producer had not Siegmund's fetters included a length of chain that kept clinking through his soliloquy. It seemed to me at one point that the tenor was minimizing his movements—whatever the stage directions might have been—to stop the damned noise. If so, good for him.
The business with the sword in the tree awaits an imaginative producer who will finally score a coup de théâtre by suitably dramatizing its revelation. It could be as simple as partially concealing the sword beneath low-hanging foliage, letting it glitter within the leaves during Siegmund's soliloquy and then blazing in the light when Sieglinde tears away the concealment. It's not rocket science, folks.
Brünnhilde remains to face her father's wrath. Wotan arrives in a fury and denounces Brünnhilde's disobedience before her sisters. He decrees that she will be banished from the ranks of the gods and from Valhalla. He condemns her to become a mortal housewife. (He really does. It's explicit in the libretto.) Brünnhilde shrieks in horror at the prospect of domesticity and her sisters flee in terror, quaking at the thought of sharing her dreadful fate if they do not abandon her.
The End (except for two more operas)
The parachuting valkyries in Act III were theatrically effective and jollied up an audience jaded by cinematic special effects. It was engaging live action. The disjunction between what the women were actually singing and the supertitles was slightly irritating to those of us who knew the meaning of the German libretto, but much can be forgiven when you're being richly entertained.
The first scene of Act II had Wotan and Fricka confronting each other in a corporate boardroom, presumably in Wotan's skyscraper offices high above the high-tech world he rules. The anachronistic spear lay on the conference table and made one wonder whether CEOs would be more effective if they carried such weapons into staff meetings. I'm guessing yes. Brünnhilde jumps up on the table and teases her father with the spear, Nina Stemme being one Wagnerian soprano who can do that without collapsing the table.
The second scene of Act II was staged under a decrepit freeway interchange, with a conveniently abandoned car seat providing a perch for a moment's rest by the fleeing twins. Hunding's hunting dogs ran across the stage a few moments before the climactic duel, but the hounds were clearly well-trained animals who ran their course without dillydallying or causing the audience to coo over the puppies. Zambello may have removed the horses from Act III, but she added dogs to Act II. Does that balance things out?
The ovation at the end of the opera was thunderous. The audience screamed and pounded its hands to a pulp. Soprano Nina Stemme won rapturous acclaim from the attendees for her Brünnhilde. She established herself that evening as the unchallenged star of the evening and raised everyone's expectations for the rest of the Ring
Morris was taking on a big job. In the eponymous opera, Siegfried forges a sword in Act I, slays a dragon in Act II, and sings a love duet with a Wagnerian soprano in Act III. Guess which task is more frightening? As the libretto makes clear, Siegfried knows not fear until he meets Brünnhilde.
Sounds about right.
The Ring is full of people who try to manipulate others to do their bidding. Wotan does it because he wants to do things forbidden to him by the divine law inscribed on his spear. Mime does it because he is not brave enough to accomplish his goals himself. Fricka and Loge are the most successful string-pullers, Fricka because she has law on her side and Loge because he knows its loopholes. Wotan and—as we shall see—Mime are less fortunate.
Siegfried grows up into a restless young man who despises his guardian, but without quite understanding why. He's unaware of Mime's schemes and knows only that his foster-parent can't seem to live up to his reputation as a skilled craftsman. Why can't the little man provide his “son” with a proper weapon? Every new sword that Mime gives him shatters on initial use. Siegfried is too strong for Mime's handiwork. Under pressure, Mime finally reveals that Siegfried's real father was a warrior slain in battle and that he has the father's broken sword. He just can't repair it for Siegfried.
Siegfried returns (there's some incidental business with a bear he drives before him) and finds Notung still in pieces. Mime is rather in pieces, too. Siegfried impatiently chooses to reforge Notung himself, which succeeds brilliantly (as expected). How can mere expertise compete with bumptious self-confidence and super-strength? Mime tells Siegfried that the boy is now ready for adventure and a quest against the dragon Fafner. Siegfried is intrigued, especially when Mime tells him that Fafner can teach him the meaning of fear, something Siegfried has never experienced. Mime hopes to kill two birds with one stone: If Fafner teaches Siegfried fear, he will no longer match Wotan's prophecy of Mime's future killer. If Siegfried kills Fafner, Mime will have an opportunity to steal the ring as well as some gold. It's a brilliant plan!
Wotan is keeping watch over Brünnhilde's sleep when Siegfried encounters him. Wotan is initially pleased to see his grandson in person for the first time, but not does reveal their relationship. He at first intends to let Siegfried proceed freely, but then takes offense at Siegfried's casual dismissal of him as just another interfering old man—just like Mime. When Wotan tries to teach him a lesson by barring Siegfried's way with his spear, Siegfried cleaves the spear in two with Notung, reversing the outcome of the last encounter between Wotan's spear and Siegmund's sword. Defeated, Wotan stands aside. Siegfried plunges into the magic fire, finds the sleeping maiden, awakens her, and then learns fear. (Be afraid! Be very afraid!) They have a passionate love duet (at some length) and the opera ends in jubilant celebration. Happy ending! Happy ending! (But only for now.)
Complaints and quibbles
The tenor missed a horn cue in Act I. No big deal, but after missing the first phrase, he raised his horn to his lips and pretended to play the second phrase. No need. When he realized he had missed the cue, he should have ignored the rest of it. Letting the horn theme play in the orchestra was enough, as punctuation to Siegfried's statement that he had a splendid hunting horn. Yeah, we get it. Miming the playing of it was unnecessary.
The bellows in the forging scene was anemic, moving only a few inches when Siegfried pumped it. When you have a big-ass set of bellows on the stage for the forging scene, make that sucker travel, make it move. You want to make the audience believe it could pump up the forge to the heat necessary to reforge a sword that an expert like Mime could not handle. That detail was kind of sad. I did, however, like the sparks that were thrown off by the anvil during the hammering.
The tacky house trailer that served as the residence of Mime and his ward was perfectly consistent with the production and somewhat amusing. At one point Siegfried was sitting at the table in the trailer and pushed a mug toward Mime, which Mime trepidaciously accepted and began to sip. It was an action underscoring Siegfried's words that he had tried his best to endure Mime's company, but could never find him anything but irksome and irritating. Since Wagner's stage directions have Siegfried constantly abusing his foster parent, it is all too easy to make Siegfried appear as nothing more than a muscle-bound thug who terrorizes his diminutive companion. I appreciated that moment, which was an effective tonic for Siegfried's otherwise aggravating behavior. Yes, we're supposed to sympathize with Siegfried as the good guy because Mime is plotting his downfall, but Siegfried does not know that yet and it detracts from his character to have him behave purely as a bully.
In Act III the supertitles were screwy. When the Wanderer announces to Erda that her “waker” has come to rouse her from her slumber, the supertitle said, “Wotan has come to wake you.” No, no, no, and no. Wotan says “waker” in the actual text because he is in disguise. Erda does not initially know who he is. By explicitly putting Wotan's identity in the supertitles (though not, of course, in the sung dialog, which is sacrosanct), the production obscured the parallels between Acts I and III, in both of which Wotan shows up in disguise and starts asking questions. In both cases, Wotan's respondent eventually recognizes the king of the gods and realizes that big matters are afoot. While the singers onstage in Act III were acting out one scenario, the supertitles were misleading the audience into thinking that it was another—just a reunion between old friends. Only we opera cognoscenti understood that it was a partial replay of the Act I drama. Ach! (Of course, need I add that it gave us opera cognoscenti a warm feeling of superiority over our less-enlightened neighbors? Maybe they did it deliberately so that we could enjoy our snooty disdain for their faux pas.)
There is a bit of dialog in which Erda specifically says that her vision of the future is clouded by earthly matters because she was “once” mastered by a conqueror (mich Wissende selbst bezwang ein Waltender einst). The conqueror was Wotan and the result was the birth of Brünnhilde. So where did the other valkyries come from? Anna Russell famously assumes that they are all Erda's daughters (“She then bears him eight daughters!”). This mysterious eight-daughter-gap in Wagner's Ring mythos remains unexplained.
The fourth and final Ring opera was mercifully offered as a Sunday matinee, saving everyone from a post-midnight final curtain. (I'm sure concerns about overtime pay had something to do with the scheduling decision.) We emerged into the bright afternoon light following the performance, our heads spinning from the experience.
Briefly, Nina Stemme blew the doors off the production and left the rest of the cast blinking in astonishment—and doing their best to keep up. Unless she blows a gasket (damaged vocal chords being an occupational hazard in the world of Wagnerian singers), Stemme is on track to be the Brünnhilde of her generation. Perhaps she already is.
In a masterpiece of timing, Siegfried shows up, asking to meet Gunther, the son of Gibich. He wants to fight Gunther or be his friend. It appears to be a requirement of the hero business that you go along knocking over the more famous tribal leaders or making alliances with them. The somewhat cowardly Gunther agrees to be Siegfried's friend and ally—and offers him a drink. Gutrune brings Siegfried the spiked brew and he immediately forgets Brünnhilde and proposes marriage to Gutrune. (Gutrune, by the way, unlike Brünnhilde, is not Siegfried's aunt, so this is the Ring's biggest departure from its incest theme.) Gunther agrees that Siegfried can have his sister if Siegfried will obtain for him the hand of Brünnhilde. Siegfried is astonished to hear about the sleeping warrior maiden surrounded by fire atop a mountain peak, just as if he had never heard of it before. He agrees to disguise himself as Gunther (using the Tarnhelm) and woo Brünnhilde on Gunther's behalf. Siegfried and Gunther swear blood brotherhood, promising faithfulness to each other or hope to die (no, really; they declare themselves worthy of death if they break faith with their brother; Hagen does not participate, but now has an excuse to slay Siegfried).
Except for the electronic environment of the Norns in the prelude, nothing is particularly shocking about the production of this opera to this point. Now the producer gets a bit cute. Hagen is usually depicted at the beginning of Act II as standing night watch. Zambello has him instead dressed in his jammies, lying on a big bed, and watching television, clicking a remote control impatiently. Gutrune is on the bed next to him, demonstrating an excessive coziness with her half-brother (and renewing the Ring's incest theme). Hagen shoos off Gutrune, turns off the TV, pops some sleeping pills, and passes out on the bed. Alberich appears and counsels his son in his sleep to remain true to the quest for the ring. Hagen drowsily swears it is his highest goal. Alberich then uses the remote control to lower the scene-changing curtain and the audience burst into laughter.
The San Francisco Opera's general manager appeared onstage—never a good sign—and told the audience that the lead tenor had voice problems. (We knew!) However, the opera's staff physician has treated him and the tenor would bravely try to perform Act III. We braced ourselves for what followed and hoped that the tenor was exaggerating his distress (and correspondingly exaggerating his success if he did a decent job for the rest of the opera).
Siegfried shows up and greets them, saying he's hunting with the Gibichung and got separated. The Rhinemaidens try to get Siegfried to give up the ring. He seems tempted when they ask him nicely, but recoils when they warn him the ring is cursed. He won't give them the gift as a ring if they threaten him. So there! The Rhinemaidens run off and Siegfried is joined by the rest of the Gibichung hunting party.
Gunther cries out in horror, believing that Siegfried has now confessed to betraying him. (Gunther is a bit dim, not realizing that Siegfriend's brain was scrambled by the love potion, despite having participated in the scheme to drug the itinerant hero.) Hagen takes advantage of the “confession” to stab Siegfried in the back with his spear. Mortally wounded, Siegfried takes some time to sing of his love for Brünnhilde. Wagner may have been a revolutionary in many respects, but he could not resist the tradition that fatally wounded characters must be allowed one more rousing song. (The tenor was struggling at this point, but he did a reasonable job of his last lines. Despite the curse!)
The passage known as “Siegfried's Funeral Music” accompanies the scene change back to the hall of the Gibichung. Hagen calls Gutrune to come greet her dead husband. She denounces him for treachery, since she was not part of the plot to kill Siegfried. Hagen goes to take the ring from Siegfried's body, but Gunther forestalls him, accusing him of trying to steal Gutrune's inheritance. Hagen strikes him down, so now Gunther is dead. (The curse!)
Brünnhilde sang the Immolation Scene, took a torch, and marched slowly to the back of the stage, going over the edge as the flames begin to rise from the landfill. No dramatic jump into the funeral pyre in this production, but Stemme's final notes were still ringing in our ears and they were good. Hagen dashed out for one last try to seize the ring but the Rhinemaidens put a trash bag over his head and suffocated him. He died surprisingly quickly for such a robust guy, but this is one of the few places that Wagner doesn't linger.
The maidens then rushed backstage as the flames died down (and the music of the river Rhine came up in the orchestra). They returned with the big gold bedsheet, the ring having been transformed back into its original form as seen in Das Rheingold. The gold has been restored to its river guardians and all is once again as it was.
At this point, Zambello decided to rub our noses in the symbolism just a little. A small girl appeared at the back of the stage holding a small sapling. She solemnly proceeded to the front of the stage and gently placed it in the ground, planting it to begin cycle of renewal. I sure hope it was an ash tree!
Several reviewers and commenters noted that Zambello had created a feminist finale to the Ring by keeping the men off stage for the Immolation Scene (except for Siegfried's body and Hagen's libretto-mandated final line). The producer also elevated Gutrune's role in the final scene by having her directing the Gibichung women in the preparation of the funeral pyre. Then, of course, there was the decision to have the Rhinemaidens appear before their customary musical cue of the Rhine's leitmotif in the score.
I was not unduly perturbed, although I think the Rhinemaidens have more dramatic impact if they arrive at their usual moment, revealing at the last minute that the river is about to reclaim its gold. They have no lines to sing at the end of the opera, so their impact is in their appearance. Zambello reduced them to extras as they prepped the pyre and then stood around waiting for their cue to grab the ring.
Having women take care of the Immolation Scene is unique to this production, as was the little girl with the sapling (not in Wagner's stage directions).
During the curtain calls, the first was reserved for Nina Stemme, standing by herself. The audience jumped to its feet and shouted its approval and gave her thundering applause. It took some minutes before it died down enough for other cast members to take their bows. Even the poor Siegfried got some sympathy applause. He wasn't bad (when we could hear him). Only when the producer came out did you hear booing from those who disliked the production. A group of especially noisy detractors were near me in the balcony. They did not hold back. Overall, though, I think the producer enjoyed the audience's approval.