Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Halfway Through The Ring

The opportunity to experience three different Ring cycles within three months is, for the devoted Wagnerian, as luscious a challenge as the predicament faced by a chocoholic who has been locked in a storeroom filled with truffles. While others may warn that too much of a good thing can be dangerous, the dedicated Wagner fanatic -- like most addicts -- will always respond that there can never be too much of a good thing.

Having experienced a spectacular Ring in Seattle this summer (followed by another Ring in Denmark), last month I turned my attention toward the Metropolitan Opera, where the first two installments of Otto Schenk's new Ring cycle were on display. While there is much to admire in Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's sets and projections for Das Rheingold and Die Walkure, I regret to say that the first half of the Met's new Ring is a major disappointment.

This Ring is quite pretty to look at but, by taking no new risks and offering few, if any challenges, it is also a safe bet for Met subscribers. While it is expensively mounted and carefully crafted, this Ring has a strange aura of artistic cowardice to it. One reason I use the term "artistic cowardice" is because the Met's stubborn refusal to use Supertitles has increasingly become a major obstacle to its audience's total enjoyment of the Met's work product, particularly in the case of Wagner's Ring.

Although Artistic Director James Levine remains adamant that Supertitles will only appear at the Met over his dead body, he would be well advised to clock the number of people who leave each Met performance before its final curtain. At present, the Met probably has the largest number of walkouts of any American opera company. Why? Because its audience is not dramatically involved in the company's artistic product. If Supertitles were adopted by the Met, Levine would probably be trampled to death by the audience in its rush to embrace the text.

While Met management claims that its subscribers are so well informed that they don't need Supertitles, the National Endowment's Patrick Smith warns that "There is a general societal illiteracy developing in America. Although it may be fashionable to think that the problem affects only the lower or street classes, that's not the case at all. It's happening right now at the middle class level."

Having enjoyed the Ring each time I've seen it performed in San Francisco and Seattle with English Supertitles -- and having witnessed a Scandinavian audience enjoy it so intensely when Wagner's epic was performed with Danish Supertitles -- I think the time has come to accuse Maestro Levine of having his head wedged up his ass each time he insists that the Met will only use Supertitles over his dead body. While no one in their right mind would wish to see Levine dead, there is no need for his audience to be bored to death by its lack of dramatic involvement.


That having been said, there can be little doubt that the Met's new production of Das Rheingold looks magnificent. The first scene, which takes place in the depths of the Rhine, is a spectacular achievement in stagecraft, filled with a shimmering sense of watery magic. Schneider-Siemssen's visions of Nibelheim, Valhalla and the rainbow bridge are appropriately threatening, awesome and inspirational. However, his massively landscaped set for Acts II and IV (from which Nibelungs seem to ooze like globules of black pus) is treacherously raked and textured. While Gil Wechsler's lighting deserves special credit for its dramatic strength one wishes that Otto Schenk's stage direction could have been more exciting.

Gerald Williams of San Antonio informs me that on the night he attended Das Rheingold (he heard the opera with the production's first cast of principals) "it was strictly Screaming Queen Night. They couldn't wait to start yelling, totally drowning out the final chord. Then there were marathon bows, with each little supporting character getting a sustained roar during a solo bow. By the time we got to James Morris and James Levine the audience was screaming as if Corelli were fucking Callas right there onstage."

However, the performance I attended (with the Met's second cast) proved to be a decidedly more sedate affair. While Siegfried Jerusalem's Loge was quite strong and Waltraud Meier's Fricka intensely appealing, the evening's best work came from Franz Mazura's Alberich and Anne Gjevang's richly resonant Erda. Although I enjoyed the femininity of Ellen Shade's womanly Freia, I found Hans Sotin's Wotan surprisingly unexciting. The Rhine Maidens (Mi-Hae Park, Diane Kesling and Meredith Parsons) and Giants (John Macurdy and Aage Haugland) were in top form as was James Levine's work in the pit.

What was painfully absent were Supertitles and a sense of dramatic tension.


If the Met's Walkure was a distinct improvement, it was primarily due to its stellar cast delivering some phenomenal singing. Tenor Gary Lakes is a spectacularly impressive Siegmund who sings and acts with an incredible amount of stage presence and vocal reserves. Aage Haugland's Hunding and Hildegard Behrens' Brunnhilde were repeats from last season when the production was new; Jeannine Altmeyer repeated her wimpy portrayal of Sieglinde while Gail Gilmore's forceful Fricka wallowed in the lush tones of a sturdy mezzo-soprano. Unfortunately, Hans Sotin's Wotan kept losing power throughout the evening until the bass-baritone found himself shouting his way through the Magic Fire Music.

Having seen the light in Seattle (where fire means fire and Valkyries fly through the air on horses instead of jumping around some styrofoam rocks as if they were doing aerobics in warrior drag) I'd urge Wagner fans to pay more attention to Ring productions which give them their money's worth. While there will always be a crowd of operatic star-fuckers who will gravitate to the Met, my guess is that the more sophisticated and value-conscious Wagner enthusiasts (who tend to prefer a unified approach to the Ring) will concentrate their financial resources on the Ring productions being staged in Artpark and Seattle during the summer of 1989 and San Francisco in the summer of l990 (three cities where the Ring will be performed in a festival format, in its proper dramatic sequence and with the invaluable blessing of English-language supertitles).

Meanwhile, the Met plans to mount Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung as individual operas in its 1988-89 subscription season. Then, following the release of Levine's complete recording of the Ring, the company will stage all four operas in Lincoln Center in April of 1990. Alas, with Rheingold opening on April 2, Walkure on April 7, Siegfried on April 13 and Gotterdammerung on April 21, I sincerely doubt that the Met's Ring will be available to opera lovers in its proper dramatic sequence during the course of any one week's time. Which makes precious little dramatic or marketing sense for one of the greatest opera houses in the world.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 19, 1987.

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