Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Viking Sagas

Founded by the Vikings in about 1000 A.D., the city of Aarhus lies on the East Coast of Denmark's Jutland peninsula. A major university town (as well as one of Europe's largest ports for containerized shipping) Aarhus's main cultural attraction is Der Gamle By, a collection of old buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries which have been preserved with such astonishing grace and beauty that, as one sits on a bench near the Old Town's fountain, one can easily imagine the Three Musketeers galloping into sight or Sir John Falstaff drunkenly staggering across the porch of the Mayor's house.

Since Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung is a combination of Norse and Germanic mythology -- and because Aarhus is located only two hours from the German border -- I thought it would be interesting to catch a staging of the Nibelungen saga on its own mythological turf after attending this year's Ring cycle in Seattle. Therefore, having boned up on the text with the help of English-language Supertitles, I boarded an SAS jet in mid-August and took the polar route to Scandinavia.

Needless to say, there were plenty of other Ring addicts in attendance, traveling to Aarhus from Copenhagen, Paris, London, New York and various parts of Germany. In fact, an 81-year-old man from UC-Davis who travels around the world attending Ring cycles took great delight in telling me that the only reason people sat through Nikolaus Lehnhoff's recent Ring fiasco in Munich was so that they could boo the director off the stage when it was all over!

Prior to the matinee of Gotterdammerung, I got a hearty chuckle from watching a naked two-year-old brandish a popsicle at operagoers as he ran in and out of the theatre's lobby. Birgit Nilsson stood by, calmly chatting with friends (I sat behind the retired Brunnehilde on my flight to Copenhagen the next day). Following the Ring, a man from Tel Aviv told me the real reason he came to Aarhus: "I can get plenty of sun and beaches at home but what I want on my vacation is what I can't get in Israel: gay sex and Wagner."

Alas, my friend found little, if any gay sex in Aarhus and the opera we experienced raised severe questions about what happens when the Ring is underconceived, overproduced and not especially well sung.


Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, Den Jyske Opera (the Danish National Opera) performs in a modern, 1,500-seat theatre whose acoustics, sight lines and backstage facilities are most impressive. For residents of Jutland, the fact that Den Jyske Opera (rather than the Royal Opera in Copenhagen) was producing the first Ring to be heard in Denmark in at least 50 years was a source of tremendous local pride. Lars Juhl's handsome sets and costumes looked as if little expense had been spared and, with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra in the pit, the audience's expectations were quite high.

It's a lucky thing I attended the Seattle Opera's Ring first because, in Aarhus, the Supertitles were written in Danish! While it has apparently been a life-long ambition of the company's general director, Francesco Cristofoli, to conduct the Ring, it often became painfully obvious that he had bitten off more than he could chew. Orchestral work was quite sloppy during Die Walkure, with lots of clumsy entrances and massive flubbing from the brass section. Many singers were visibly ill at ease while trying to follow the maestro's downbeat.

Although, in his program notes, director Klaus Hoffmeyer offered a sharply iconoclastic and rather confused explanation of how he hoped to stage the Ring, his final work product proved to be another unfortunate instance wherein a stage director -- not really knowing what it is that he wants to do with or say through the dramatic literature at hand -- resorts to cheap gimmickry in an effort to titillate his audience. Hoffmeyer's abominable blocking was often made worse by the limited amount of space available onstage (this director really needs a lesson in why he is having people move to certain places) and, as the Ring progressed, his directorial gimmicks turned mercilessly against him.

Once, while watching a porno film about some horny young executive who was threatening to blow up an airplane (the protagonist was coaxed out of his deadly mission by a pack of sexually voracious stewardesses) I couldn't help but laugh at the carelessness with which the filmmaker had inserted extra footage designed to show a jet plane flying through the air. As the aircraft continued on its travels, it kept changing from a DC-9 to an MD-80 to a 737 until, as it landed safely at its final destination, it had been transformed into a giant 747! Hoffmeyer's similar lack of consideration for the dramatic impact of quick directorial tricks on the Ring can best be appreciated by outlining his creative ruses as they appeared onstage.

Before any music was even heard from the pit, Das Rheingold began with an elderly Erda, dressed in Victorian garb, stomping through a brilliantly backlit cunt-shaped opening and making her way through a downstage trapdoor. The long, flowing train of her black silk dress (symbolizing, no doubt, the onset of the Earth Mother's menses) followed her into the depths of the Rhine where the cherished gold was first seen as a naked blond stud flashing lots of dick and asscheek at the audience as the Rhinemaidens kept pawing his nubile young body. Loge made his entrance on a skateboard and later (when he and Wotan descended into the depths of the Earth to confront Alberich) found Mime waving a red Socialist flag over the oppressed workers of Nibelheim!

Die Walkure began with flames all over on the stage as hunters searched for Siegmund. During Act II, Scene I, four dead heroes stood upstage (no doubt guarding Valhalla) and kept shuffling around in the background while the principals were singing. Alas, one dead hero was chewing gum throughout; another fainted from the heat. In Act III, Valhalla's guardians were enacted by three musclemen who were constantly being pushed around by the Valkyries and treated as if they had been brought to Valhalla to service the girls sexually (one overeager warrior maiden got so carried away while grabbing an impressive set of pecs that she almost went down on a dead hero). This particular gimmick lost its impact when Brunnehilde was thrown against one of the bodybuilders and, horrified at becoming the sex object of a mere mortal, recoiled in disgust at the thought of his embrace.

In Act II of Siegfried, Fafner the dragon looked like a cross between a giant clam with two eyes and a human heart muscle (so that, no doubt, when Siegfried killed the dragon he would be able to taste Fafner's blood). To my total shock and amazement, the director had Siegfried give the ring to Mime so that, upon killing the evil dwarf, the orchestral playing of Wagner's curse motif would be fully justified. Unfortunately, any fool knows that if Mime had gotten his hands on the Ring first, he would have instantly used its magical powers to kill Siegfried.

In Act III of Siegfried, as the three Norns looked down from rocky perches, Erda made her entrance through another cunt-shaped slit whose textured styrofoam background resembled the interior of the Earth Mother's vulva. Although the director did a nice job with Brunnehilde's awakening scene, he ruined its dramatic impact at a crucial moment by forcing an overly ripe soprano to leap into her tenor's wary arms. Neither Laila Andersson's Brunnehilde or Elliot Palay's Siegfried was able to pull this number off convincingly.

Act II of Gotterdammerung revealed a male chorus divided into beggars, lederhosen-clad Tyroleans and some suspiciously Aryan types who resembled Nazi henchman. Later, during the hunt, when Siegfried was given a potion to refresh his memory of Brunnehilde, she appeared onstage wearing a black shawl over a silver lame evening gown in order to become the raven who distracts Siegfried at the moment when Hagen stabs him. This, of course, left everyone's favorite warrior maiden sitting onstage trying to look introspective throughout Siegfried's death scene (the soprano subsequently marched across the stage, placed a coat made out of rabbit pelts over Siegfried's dead body and left him there to enjoy the set change).

There was no funeral march to bring Siegfried's body back to the hall of the Gibichungs. Instead, the hero was left lying on the floor while the scenery shifted into something resembling the barbed-wire-enclosed courtyard of a concentration camp. At the rear of the stage, a circular opening with rifle target markings focused on an image of Wotan and his dead heroes in Valhalla -- which later exploded on cue. For the Immolation scene, Brunnehilde shed her silver lame gown to reveal a Raggedy-Ann schmatte made of red cloth streamers. After mounting Siegfried's pyre, she then changed her mind and came back down to the front of the stage to sing her final aria to the audience while looking as intuitively tragic as possible.


Many of the Scandinavian singers heard during this Ring proved to be provincial rather than world-class talents. During the first act of Die Walkure, the Sieglinde (Lisbeth Balslev) lost her place just before "Du Bist Der Lenz" and took a long time recovering her wits and cues. The Siegmund (Sven Olof Eliasson) displayed a bizarre tendency to keep his jaw hanging agape when not singing -- which made him look like an epileptic in the early stages of a seizure. Although Laila Andersson's overeager Brunnehilde sang well for most of Die Walkure and Siegfried, her work lacked subtlety, nuance or much evidence of understanding the text. Leif Roar's Wotan started loudly but rapidly faded until the baritone was merely barking his lines (his indisposition forced Roar to withdraw from the first Ring cycle midway through the performance of Siegfried).

On the positive side of things, the production's big and burly Siegfried, Elliot Palay, did quite an admirable job. This tenor from Southern California has the stamina and voice required to get through the role and moves well onstage. Minna Nyhus's Fricka also made a strong impression -- this lady is an interesting artist who obviously knows what she is doing. Hans Jorgen Laursen's Mime, Jorgen Klint's Alberich and Margrethe Danielsen's solidly-sung Waltraute were carefully-etched portrayals. Lars Waage's Gunther, Eva Johansson's Gutrune and Aage Haugland's appearances as both Hunding and Hagen were among the more impressive performances in this Ring.

Musically, Gotterdammerung proved to be the best performance of the cycle. The orchestra played with much more vitality and the appearance of Karin Mang-Habashi as a rock-solid Brunnehilde helped matters tremendously. Although there were many moments in the Danish Ring which would have been booed off the stage in America, at the final curtain, the audience applauded ferociously and stamped its feet for a good ten minutes. I'd give it an E for effort.

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 29, 1987.

No comments: