Monday, February 22, 2010

der kleine ring

In the early twentieth century, there was modernist impulse to make little out of big. This desire brought us chamber orchestrations of Mahler's gigantic works, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, Webern's Symphony. And now, a hundred years later, that same sentiment has brought us something inconceivable to the nineteenth century: a pocket-sized Ring cycle. Right now, The Building Stage is putting on a fairly literal adaptation of Wagner's epic, as four short plays (in one afternoon/evening) rather than a sequence of evening-length operas. Das Rheingold begins at 3pm, and the destruction of Valhalla is complete by 9 o'clock (each play is a little over an hour, with two short breaks and one extended intermission for dinner).

Although Wagner's cycle is now essentially eponymous with the Ring/Nibelunglied myth (which itself comes from his amalgamation of the Norse Edda legend with numerous other sources), there have been a number of non-operatic attempts to re-create the Ring. The one that comes to mind most immediately is Fritz Lang's 1924 film Siegfrieds Tod, a precursor to Metropolis which adapts Wagner's third (and my least favorite) Ring opera. The Building Stage's Ring is very much in this spirit. I had no idea what to expect when I attended the opening night (thanks you to Andrew Patner for the ticket!); I figured it would be some kind of postmodern deconstruction of Wagner's themes. But it is quite the opposite: it is wholly modernist, embracing all aspects of the work rather than commenting upon or deconstructing it (as in, say, Peter Sellars' puppet Ring).

The Building Stage's production translates Wagner's libretti almost word-for-word, with occasional cuts for practical or dramatic purposes (the most noteworthy, and probably most sensible, was the cutting of the Prelude to Gotterdammerung, which features some of the most spellbinding music of the cycle but recaps plot explained in the other three operas). I'm not sure what translation they used, but it preserved Wagner's alliterative techniques well, for better or worse. Costumes are moderately traditional, seemingly derived from the Chereau/Bayeuth Ring (a lot of trench coats), and the ingenious use of shadows made up for a low special effects budget--the giants and dragon were fairly convincing, more so than in a number of operatic, high-budget productions.

A quartet of musicians (percussion, drums, guitar, and bass) provided incidental music interspersed between and during scenes, composed by Kevin O'Donnell. Much of the music consisted of riffs on Wagner's themes or harmonic material--the opening Rheingold prelude had the feel of an upbeat jam session based around Wagner's epic Eb chord. O'Donnell's music occasionally altered the mood from Wagner's; Rheingold ended on a more melancholy note than Wagner's somewhat heroic finale. Music that now seems trite, like Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, became startlingly fresh in O'Donnell's re-imagining. But there is a large problem lurking under O'Donnell's conception. One of the main goals of Wagner's recurring leitmotiv system is to dramatically unify the work, presenting and re-presenting themes to highlight text or dramatic action. As the themes recur, they gain further significance to the audience. But because O'Donnell's ensemble simply added certain themes into certain sections, there was little sense of the musical motives as drama. O'Donnell, unfortunately, stripped away the notion of music as unifying the drama, leaving it only as an interesting afterthought. I would have rather heard a completely new score, one which abandoned Wagner's thematic material entirely for more immediate and visceral music to better highlight the spoken theater.

It's hard not to miss the original operas' music. When Wotan announces "Evening has come" before the gods enter Valhalla in the Rheingold conclusion, I was begging to hear some Wagner. And the lack of singing and orchestral interludes left a number of scenes, or even entire acts, dramatically lacking. Act I of Die Walkure, which is often performed alone and can function as a kind of chamber opera (only three characters and one setting), lasted fifteen minutes instead of an hour. All of the heightened emotions present in Wagner's score--the incestuous bond of Siegmund and Sieglinde, the jealousy of Hunding--disappear without his music. When Sieglinde suddenly proclaims her love of Siegmund, it is just that: sudden. In acts like this one, Wagner's music plays an essential character, actually telling the love story without words. Dramatic turns often (unintentionally) became comic ones, and the audience occasionally laughed at these seemingly random emotional swings.

But other sections of the work were remarkably compelling, despite Wagner's stilted prose. Loge's soliloquy in the finale of Rheingold is completely effective as spoken theater. If Wagner had written Rheingold as a play, it undoubtedly would have ended there, but opera requires a bit more of an extravagant closer. And as someone who really dislikes the first two acts of Siegfried, I actually enjoyed the version without Wagner's music a lot better; it sped by quickly, and the character of Siegfried somehow seemed less like a bully than in Wagner's version. But like the first act of Die Walkure, the budding of Siegfried's and Brunnhilde's love in Act III fell flat. Interestingly, a spoken production also loses the musical "gap" between Acts II and III of Siegfried inherent in the opera. Wagner took an extended hiatus between writing the music for Act II and the rest of the cycle, and it's very evident in the opera, with Act III of Siegfried being one of the strongest acts in the Ring. But he wrote the entire libretto for the Ring in one go---so Siegfried the play is, in a way, more dramatically unified without music.

Gotterdammerung contained the only potentially postmodern touch of the production, in which the vassals of the Gibichungs called by Hagen are, in fact, the audience. This little, extra dimension added to the sense of this Ring as decidedly small-scale, and brought together the small theater in an important way (this only a couple hours after eating our boxed dinners on the stage). Going to the Ring is always an "experience," and there was a palpable sense of camaraderie among the audience.

The most problematic aspect of the work as a whole was the character of Wotan. Chris Pomeroy, the only actor who played one single character through the whole cycle, did an admirable job of playing a role that is much past his age. Wotan requires an older actor (this happens by default when you seek out his operatic role) who can find the right voice for both the god and the Wanderer. Pomeroy's Wanderer simply lacked the world-weariness by which Wagner's music characterizes him, and the characters of Wotan and the Wanderer were not adequately differentiated (it would have helped to give him a hat instead of a hood, an odd departure from Wagner given the rest of the production's faithfulness).

Finally, of course, the immolation. You really can't do justice to the fall of the gods, and the rebirth of man, without Wagner's music. Adorno claimed that Wagner's immolation music was inadequate to depict the twilight of the gods, but I think it is more than adequate: Wagner, from the beginning of the Ring, sets up the conditions that he will destroy in the end, and the immolation and its music are the natural result of this. And I was never sure exactly what more Adorno could have wanted from the close of Gotterdammerung, pretty much the definition of a cathartic musical apotheosis. Without the music, Brunnhilde's monologue loses a lot of dramatic impact, but the staging made up for it: Brunnhilde embracing the (living, walking) Siegfried after leaving the mortal plane; the Rhine maidens swimming in the front of the stage; Wotan and Fricka watching over the mortals even as Valhalla burns. O'Donnell's music, though not quite an adequate replacement for Wagner's, brought the cycle to a close succinctly.

I urge anyone in the Chicago area to go see this. If I seem overly critical, it's only because certain aspects of this production required more commentary than others. In truth, I had no idea that a Ring ohne Musik could be as dramatically compelling or emotionally powerful as this. I am very interested in reading other reviews of this, especially from theater people who don't know the operas and will judge it on its own aesthetic and artistic merits. But even from somehow who knows and cherishes Wagner's operas, this Ring stands out on its own.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for articulating what I felt about the music. In fact, at times, the music seemed to undermine the drama as opposed to supporting it.

    Still, definitely worth checking out.