Wednesday, June 29, 2011

One down: Das Rheingold beautifully sung...but is it enough?

By Jeff Nytch, guest blogger

One of my favorite moments in the entire Ring happens at the beginning. No, I'm not talking about that wonderful drone of E-flat which opens our journey, a drone that grows into pulsing waters and then, like the primordial sun breaking through the clouds for the first time, introduces us to the trio of Rhinemaidens swimming in the depths. I'm talking about the orchestral interlude that follows that first scene, the musical reaction to Alberich's renunciation of love. This should be one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the whole cycle, for it is here that the dominoes begin to fall. In Alberich's renunciation we have the encapsulation of the great tragedy of human existence, set off by loss of innocence and the irrevocable sundering of humanity from primal purity. The interlude will take us from the depths of the Rhine to the heights of the gods' newly-finished castle, Valhalla, but before we embark on that journey Wagner allows the weight of what has happened to sink in for a moment. It's an orchestral outcry that usually brings me to tears, even though we are still very early along in our journey. And it's the first of several tests that for me will define whether or not the production in question is going to get the job done.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. Where to start?

Let's start with the singing, as I'm sure Taminophile is waiting for me to do. There is some seriously fine singing in this production. Renée Tatum as Flosshilde stood out among the Rhinemaidens, with a darker voice than one normally encounters in that role but possessing a golden and focused timbre; I would love to hear her in a bigger role. Ronnita Miller's Erda was also a stand-out: played as a Native American priestess, Miller sang with a dark, forbidding and authoritative presence. Andrea Silvestrelli was hands down the finest Fasolt I've ever heard: all the power and heft the role demands, but with a laser-sharp focus. Daniel Sumegi's Fafner was also fine, but I found myself hoping that Silvestrelli will take over the role of Fafner in Seigfried; it was truly one of the vocal high points of the evening. (I must also say that the giants' costuming bore an unfortunate resemblance to Mario and Luigi of the "Super Mario Brothers" video game....)

The other vocal highpoint was Stefan Margita as Loge. That the role will be filled with a lighter voice is standard practice, but Margita had both the power and finesse to take the part beyond the usual trickster approach. Here we had a fully fleshed-out Loge, cynical and manipulative, the ultimate opportunist, with voice, body language, and characterization in full force. More on this below, but his was the most complete performance of the entire evening.

(And while we're talking about music, I'll take a moment here to applaud the orchestra, led by Donald Runnicles. Though the maestro's tempi were at times a bit brisk to my ear, the orchestra played with a lustrous tone, precise but expressive. I look forward to tonight, where the muscular tuttis of Rheingold will be supplemented with the exquisite solo writing -- chamber music, really -- that we encounter throughout the more intimate Walküre.)

You'll notice I've skipped the three main roles of the evening, Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop), Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) and Wotan (Mark Delavan). It's not because they didn't sing beautifully: all three were vocally wonderful, and I'm confident that Delavan has both the strength and finesse to carry his role through the next two operas in convincing fashion. But of course these three roles require more than great singing; they are the dramatic focus of the story. And that is where the waters get a little more muddy (if you'll pardon the metaphor in this context).

The theme of this production, by Francesca Zambello, is that of the American West: vast, primeval nature is despoiled by industrialization; robber barons, driven by greed, exploit these resources for their own gain, indifferent to the lasting effects of their activities. But economic and natural ruin await.

It's an interesting approach, and in the wake of our own greed-driven economic calamities is timely. Had I not read about this beforehand, I'm not sure that "American" or "West" would have immediately sprung to mind (though Alberich's entrance in Scene One is obviously that of a prospector looking for gold, perhaps during one of the 19th century's gold rushes). But the costuming and sets (Valhalla is a huge steel and cement tower in an early 20th century style) reveal enough for the metaphor to fly.

The problem with such approaches, though, is that as soon as we put the action into a specific time and place, we run the risk of losing its sense of timelessness, its universality. If Wagner's stated aim was to combine psychology and myth, the myth side of the equation can greatly suffer under this kind of treatment. That said, I'm not opposed to putting "the classics" into unconventional settings -- the great works can tolerate such treatment precisely because they have universal application: they can be put anywhere and their message will still come through. But if one decides to put them into such a specific setting, then hopefully the audience gains insight and understanding they would not have had before -- otherwise, what's the point? It's still too early to know whether or not this production theme will open up the story in a unique way, but in the meantime I have a concern: where do the characters fit in with all this?

Let's start with Alberich. Whether he be a 19th century prospector or a dwarf of legend, he still needs a reason to renounce love. It has to be more than, "I got spurned by the Rhinemaidens so, what the heck, I'll go over to the Dark Side." We need to sense that his rejection is more than sexual frustration -- it's the final humiliation, the final straw of rejection and hurt in a lifetime of rejection and hurt. He's had it. And he is so consumed with the failure of his life, his searing loneliness, that there's nothing left but the lust for power, a power that will be so absolute as to finally drown out his pain.

Hawkins sings wonderfully, but his character came off as nothing more than an angry brute. His renunciation of love seemed random, insufficiently set up by his preceding interactions with the Rhinemaidens. His curse of the ring after it has been seized by Wotan was flat, lacking in menace or any of what should be seething hatred for the gods and everything they represent. For to Alberich, Wotan is far more than the one who has stolen the ring; he is the embodiment of the "winners" who have always triumphed over him -- and then gloated over the victory. But we got nothing of this last night.

Likewise, our Fricka failed to show her more nuanced dimensions. Instead, per usual, she was played as just a shallow nag of a wife. But I've always felt that Fricka was a kind of comparison case with Alberich: frustrated and humiliated by Wotan's ongoing infidelities, she too has a choice of what to do with her pain; her love of creature comforts (Valhalla, hoping the Rhine's gold might make some pretty jewelry) are really just faint compensations. Deep down, her self-righteous attitude is driven by that deeper pain: virtue is all she has left, and so she clings to it. It takes an accomplished and subtle actress, and careful direction, to pull this off; I wish I'd seen it last night.

And of course, we have Wotan. Playing him as an industrial baron works in terms of highlighting his flaws -- his greed, his lust for power, his tragic lack of introspection, his deafness to Erda's warning -- but we lose his god-like characteristics. His closing monologue, as the gods prepare to cross the Rainbow Bridge, lacked grandeur. We see his nagging doubt as he turns his back on the pleading Rhinemaidens, but we don't see what it is that is giving him the confidence to do so -- his status as a god. It comes off purely as arrogance, as hubris.

And perhaps that is Zambello's intent: that all we view as great and powerful is just an illusion -- an illusion that will literally go down in flames before it's all over. But the arc of the story, from the golden heights of Valhalla to the flames and destruction at the end, still requires the strength of the individual characters to carry it -- regardless of the particular setting the director chooses. And that is my hesitation at this early stage: not whether or not this particular approach will work, but whether or not there is a sufficient connection between that approach and the shaping of the characters.

All of this aside, it is still a remarkable experience to sit in an opera house and experience this work Live, with world-class singers and orchestra. Wagner's world, which we have just begun to enter, is vast and glorious and moving almost irrespective of the directorial treatment. As with all great works, the greatness has a way of shining through. But one comes to the Ring hoping for transcendence, and the jury is still out on whether or not that awaits us; we will learn much on this question tonight as we go into Walküre.

And so we go back to the beginning of this post: that pivotal moment of orchestral anguish following Alberich's renunciation of love. Did I shed any tears?

Yes, but only a little.

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