What's Playing? - Confession of an unreconstructed Wagnerian / Arden Anderson-Broecking
Recently, Channel 13 offered high definition telecasts of Richard Wagner's monumental masterpiece, "The Ring of the Nibelung," over four nights. Shown were performances of the Ring cycle by the Metropolitan Opera in New York over the last two seasons.
Admittedly, Wagner is heavy going, but for anyone who loves it, it was a great experience.
The four operas are one connected story, combining a pantheon of flawed gods; sagas of dwarves, giants, heroes, villains and dragons; the Norse Edda; and a long poem called the Song of the Nibelung.
They require an enormous orchestra and singers with voices of heroic proportions -- not always easy to find. Wagnerian singers with the power and the physical stamina to sing the roles are somewhat rare. Fortunately, the Metropolitan Opera has both of these at present.
One thinks of past singers such as Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr, Hans Hotter, and in more recent years, the incomparable Birgit Nilsson, James King, Jess Thomas, Thomas Stewart, James Morris and John Macurdy to mention a few.
There are a lot of jokes about these singers, who do sometimes come super-sized, but this is less often the case now. The Valkyries still wear armor and helmets, but the costuming is different from the ponderous breastplates and horned or feathered helmets of yore.
The Met's most recent production of the "Ring," I confess, didn't exactly excite me at first. It's high tech, making use of enormous steel panels that were moved by computers, which formed the sets. (There were major glitches at first. On opening night of the first opera, "Das Rheingold," a major breakdown forced the gods to detour into the wings to get to their new home, rather than ascend a rainbow bridge.
Seeing the operas in sequence, and watching 2 The Machine, as it's known, work smoothly, brought to life by the lighting genius of Etienne Boucher, was a revelation, despite a few disadvantages, such as having a lot of the action take place a few feet below the front apron.
The stage director, Robert LePage, had the idea of making the front apron the domain of the gods only, but evidently that didn't sit too well with some of the singers. LePage had the sense to readjust his thinking, and otherwise his direction was truthful and exciting.
There were a few close calls on the set for some of the singers at first, but over the course of the production everything worked wonderfully. The steel panels became the lair of the dwarves and a dragon, a house, a palace, a forest and a fiery mountain, among other effects.
The theatricality of the "Ring" aside, these operas probably require some of the most demanding singing ever. All are between three and five hours long. Wagner wrote what he wanted to write, and found the singers afterwards.
He founded the Bayreuth Festival and created a unique theater specifically to perform his operas. (There's a years-long waiting list for festival tickets, by the way.) He also wrote his own texts. Great musicologists have been analyzing and debating Wagner's work for several generations, and but what matters is the music-drama itself.
Wagner's use of "Leitmotifs," basically special individual themes for characters and significant happenings in the drama helps a listener, who takes the trouble to bone up on what they will hear and understand what's happening in the story, musically foreshadowing future events or recalling moments in the plot, which really is a "ring." The final musical moments of the last opera "Goetterdaemmerung," ("The Twilight of the Gods") recall in the deeply moving postlude exactly the early moments of the first opera, "Das Rheingold," ("Rhine Gold"). The epic story has come full circle.
Individually, each opera can stand alone, but hearing them together four evenings in a row, as the Bayreuth audience does, makes a difference, certainly to this reviewer.
This production was enhanced by two conductors, the great James Levine, who had to withdraw halfway through due to serious health concerns, and Fabio Luisi, who displayed his Wagnerian soul. The singers included Bryn Terfel as Wotan, who loved the human race almost too much, and failed to heed the advice of the earth mother, Erda, Deborah Voigt as Bruennhilde, Wotan's beloved but disobedient daughter, Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, Wotan's faithful wife who loves him in spite of his many mistakes, and several outstanding gods and dwarves. Eric Owens sang the part of Alberich, the evilest of the dwarves and was a magnificent villain. There are demi-gods, children and grandchildren of Wotan. The two leading tenor roles were sung by two really handsome men, Jonas Kaufman and Jay Hunter Morris, (who took over his formidable role less than 10 days before the premiere of the third opera,) as father and son, Siegmund and Siegfried. It would take several pages more to list all the remarkable singers who took part in this cycle, and the wonderful orchestral playing as well.
The "Ring, Revisited," seen in this complete way, was a revelation. Perhaps Wagner would have envisioned something like this, while doing the best he could with the stage techniques of his day. It will be rebroadcast, and even if you think you won't like it or you've already seen it, (it's looong, especially the final one,) at least taking the time to follow the story this closely might just change your mind, not just about Wagner, but about the amazing theatricality of what can happen in these days of technical miracles and great music, both vocal and instrumental.
Arden Anderson-Broecking, professional singer and musician is a music critic and feature writer living in Fairfield County.