Thursday, November 22, 2007

Ring Resplendent

For the past few months, the Ring of the Nibelung has dominated the minds of operagoers who (if not attending live performances of Wagner's tetralogy at the Met and the San Francisco Opera) have been watching, videotaping and evaluating the Met's recent telecast of all four operas over PBS. Due to my insane travel schedule in June -- which was derailed by a fire in the control tower at O'Hare, a crack in a pilot's windshield in Houston and numerous other delays -- I was only able to catch snippets of the Met's Ring on television before returning home to attend the San Francisco Opera's fourth and final Ring cycle.

What I did see on TV disturbed me greatly. Although I am deeply thankful that modern technology allows millions of newcomers to be introduced to the wonder and mystery of the Ring via television, I find myself resolute and inflexible regarding one aspect of mass media. Like most operas, Wagner's 19-hour epic was written for and intended to be experienced in a live theatrical arena. On television, too many close-ups deprive the viewer of the Ring's sweeping emotional and panoramic impact. Hearing the Ring on television (even when simulcast over a good stereo system) does not hold a candle to the sensation of sitting (or standing) in an opera house and feeling the sound as it rises from the orchestra pit, resonates through the auditorium and engulfs one's body in a richness too wondrous and titillating for words. To me, experiencing the Ring on television is about as accurate an experience as reducing 19 hours of intensely emotional love-making to a capsule review. As actors so often claim: "You have to be there -- living in the moment."

Of course, with orchestra seats costing $400+ per cycle, living in the moment can be a wee bit expensive. While the San Francisco Opera (which reported 93% sales) and the Met (which clocked in at 91%) were both surprised that their Ring cycles did not sell out, my guess is that many viewers chose to videotape the Met's Ring and pay for their next month's rent with the money saved on tickets.

Be that as it may, the performances I caught in San Francisco (Cycle 4) were worth their weight in gold. Each evening captured the mythical, psychological, musical, emotional and spiritual impact of the Ring with startling clarity and communicated Wagner's ideas to the audience with remarkable sensitivity. While I have attended numerous performances of Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung over the past twenty years (either separately or in festival format), I have never seen an audience so enthralled by the music and so visibly shaken with emotion by the time the curtain came down at the end of Gotterdammerung.

That's a great credit to the creative team working behind the scenes in this revival of the San Francisco Opera's Ring: designer John Conklin, lighting designer Thomas Munn and stage directors Laurie Feldman and Peter McClintock (who, with directorial guidance from Lotfi Mansouri -- and new projections created by Ron Scherl -- made many small and meaningful improvements which greatly enriched Nikolaus Lehnhoff's original concept).

Equally important was the contribution of the Supertitles written by Francesca Zambello and Jerry Sherk which added new and pristine layers of depth to the Ring experience. One might wonder why, at this late stage in the Supertitle game, I would feel so differently about the process (especially after having experienced the Ring operas with Supertitles in Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, and Denmark). The answer is that, for once, all the elements came together to form a richly meaningful and awesomely dramatic whole.

Perhaps I should explain why. When I first started going to the opera in 1966, I had to overcome severe perceptual handicaps in order to learn about this very complex art form. If I listened to opera on records while reading the libretto, the theatrical element was missing. If I imagined the visual while reading the libretto, the musical element was missing. When I finally got into the opera house and could combine the aural and visual sensations of the operatic experience, I found that with the exception of the simplest words ("Addio" and "Maledizione") I could not maintain an effortless and immediate understanding of the text.

All that has changed, thanks to Supertitles and, with the audience fully attuned to what's happening onstage, the Ring becomes a much more intense experience. Although I will discuss individual performances in next week's column, I want to stress the fact that much of Cycle 4's artistic success came from a tightly-knit ensemble of skilled acting singers who were so committed to their work (and so well prepared musically) that they could "live in the moment" without being riveted to the prompter's box. Thanks to the dramatic strength of James Morris and Hildegard Behrens, Cycle 4 offered audiences an incredible meshing of visual, aural and psychological elements which lent the Ring a musicodramatic synchronicity of extraordinary power.

Fueling the experience was conductor Donald Runnicles who, more than any other Ring conductor I can remember, kept the proceedings on a tight and supercharged schedule. Not only did Runnicles steer clear of the temptation to slow down and milk every Wagnerian pause for all it is worth; his tempos inspired the San Francisco Opera orchestra to make their instruments sing with the kind of lyricism, brio and eclat one rarely associates with Wagnerian music-making. Indeed, the combined efforts of the stage and orchestral ensembles under Runnicles' baton made each performance in Cycle 4 seem as if it had been kissed by the Gods.

We had ignition.

We had lift-off.

To be continued...

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 19, 1990.

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