|You wanted something on the Ring...|
25 May 2000
Why do people attend Wagner's complete RING CYCLE?
There are lots of intimidating experiences in life (bunjee jumping off a mile-high bridge comes immediately to mind). There are a number of others, and one of them is the thought of attending Wagner's complete RING Cycle -- in a week as he intended -- that little exercise in operatic composition that has one in the opera house for 16 1/2 hours but is a good three hours longer when one adds the intermissions. Even second-rate Berlioz, whose francophile ego was just as Herculean as Wagner's, couldn't match it; his Les Troyens is a walk in the park compared to the RING. The RING is opera's tour de force endurance contest, unmatched by anything else. What does one really need to get through it? Comfortable shoes.
One shouldn't approach intimidating experiences lightly. This one is no exception. Advanced preparation is needed, and in the case of the RING, rereading the long, wordy librettos doesn't hurt. Keeping track of all those gods and goddesses, various dwarfs and giants, whether you are underwater or in a forest or on a mountain, who is doing what nastiness to whom, can all be more convoluted and complicated than a Marx Brothers' movie. And much of it, in any context, is just as silly. Gods and goddesses co-mingling with mortals; giants building them a castle in the sky; incestuous relationships that would make a prelate blush and everybody running around lusting after some gold ring. And then, there is this dame Brunnhilde. Why did she jump in the sack with her nephew and then, just because he sleeps with some other chick, agrees to have him killed? This is the RING for pete's sake; morality is out the window. And why can't I find a Tarnhelm at my local Ace Hardware Store? The scope of this is enough to give one a migraine.
I won't get into the financial aspects of attending a RING. Suffice me to say that if one has to ask "how much is it going to cost," one probably should avoid it, especially in obscenely expensive New York, although it's relative. Attending a RING in Flagstaff, Arizona could conceivably cost just as much, especially if one drinks a lot. But then, what else is there to do in a place like Flagstaff?
Moreover, the physical effort that one must put out is simply daunting: getting dressed up, and in my case, finding matching socks; getting to the theater before they slam the doors on your toes; eating hurriedly during the intermissions; racing to a restroom as the gong is ringing; sitting for hours on end without the ability to move much more than one's hand (and even that innocuous gesture is frowned upon), and doing this for four nights, two of them consecutive, requires enormous stamina. Such Teutonic apathy for the strain on the human body, let alone the buttocks, is criminal.
Of course, it is less frenetic, but even more uncomfortable, in Bayreuth. The intermissions are one hour long and one spends the entire day getting ready for what is to come. It doesn't make it any easier though. The Metropolitan Opera House is also not a user friendly house to be in repeatedly. Whoever designed the place was in love with steps. Thouands of steps. No matter where one goes or what one does, you must go up or down dozens of steps, over and over again. It drives you nuts.
And when it's all over and done with, is it worth all the physical effort and financial drain? It's a purely subjective decision, but I often wonder if it is. Was the MET's worth it? It depends, mainly on what one goes to a RING for.
The physical production of this RING is often lovely to look at. This production is a beautiful RING. A tree is a tree; a rock is a rock. There is a fabulous rainbow bridge. And being a conservative sort who believes in seeing a stage picture that the composer envisioned, rather than some nut-case designer's reinterpretation of it, I was in seventh heaven. But many scenes were much too dark. The singers groped around on a dark stage for hours, and we had to strain to see what was going on. It was annoying, and pointless. Oh for a few hundred-watt light bulbs.
Having three different stage directors didn't exactly result in much continuity on stage. Phoebe Berkowitz, the director of Die Walküre and Siegfried, fared best, but much of the direction, including hers, was clumsy and rudimentary. Not that it's an easy assignment, taking into account that Wagnerian stars tend to do their own thing, but Wagner's message could scarcely be determined from watching what the singers were doing physically. Graham Clark and James Morris were the exceptions in this regard because both have honed their intrepretations to a fine edge from many performances, and it showed. Poor addlepated Gutrune was left to run around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off. Actually, this Gutrune would have sounded better had she had no head.
Casting its 36 roles is one of the most difficult assignments any opera house can take upon itself. In the case of the MET's RING I just attended, much of the casting was exceptional. There aren't many opera houses I can think of that would be able to muster such vocal gold that was onstage at the Met. The linchpin of these performances was James Morris' Wotan. Götterdämmerung was decidedly anticlimactic because he wasn't in it (they should have pressed him into service to sing Hagen). He did indeed sing like a God. It was stunning work. Likewise, Deborah Voigt, Placido Domingo, Jane Eaglen, Alan Held, Christine Goerke, Graham Clark, Ekkehard Wlaschiha, Philip Langridge and Kristinn Sigmundsson were vocal standouts. Alas, there was no Siegfried, no Hagen, no Fricka, no Waltraute, no Erda (no mezzos at all!), and no Gutrune, (Oh they were there, tromping around, but they made sounds that would curdle milk), and the eight maids-a-milking were awful individually, but excellent as a group. The Met's choice of Stig Andersen for Siegfried was particularly egregious. Never, in a million years, will this voice be a Siegfried. Listening to him yelp at the high notes in Götterdämmerung would have been funny had it not been truly sad.
James Levine's conducting was quite good overall, but his approach to the RING is curious at best. He seems to view the work as four individual components, rather than as a whole. There were a few eccentric tempi, and he brings out much of the lyrical aspects of these scores, sometimes too much so, resulting in a rather monochromatic sound. I found a lot of his intrepretation to be rather dull. One example comes to mind: he conducted the Funeral March like a caricature of itself. It was disappointing. These scores are chock full of little interesting orchestral things, most of which he missed. In his defense, one can probably blame the Met orchestra's inability to rehearse at great length and in detail. It costs too much. Especially in NY, it's always a matter of money.
The Met orchestra played well much of the time, except for the usual and expected burps from the horns, and perhaps it was where I was seated in the house, but strings seemed to dominate everything. I had to strain to hear the woodwinds. One missed the Bayreuth band though. The clarity one hears from them, the stunning woodwinds and brass, was only hinted at in New York.
Which one did I like best? Die Walküre. Domingo, Voigt, Eaglen (after Act II), Sigmundsson, and above all Morris, were wonderful to listen to. Least? Götterdämmerung (usually my favorite). When your Siegfried, Hagen, Waltraute, and Gutrüne are vocal duds, it becomes a long, dull night in the opera house. Fortunately, Jane Eaglen brought things to vocal life every time she opened her mouth, and the Immolation Scene was excellently sung.
I am happy I don't have any more RINGS to challenge me in the short term. I am leitmotived to death and I still don't have comfortable shoes. P13
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