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Summer Opera: The Ring in Pittsburgh (Part 1)

I'm in Pittsburgh today, in my neverending crusade to bring you interesting content on opera. In a weird twist of fate, I am staying in the beautiful hotel where Mrs. Ionarts and I had our wedding reception, so I have also been experiencing a trip down memory lane. Mrs. Ionarts grew up near and went to college in the 'Burgh, so we had our wedding here, but another company apparently bought the hotel since then, so I didn't realize this was the same place until I got here.

As mentioned in my Opera in the Summer 2005 post, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh is moving into a brief summer season this year, with a production of Jonathan Dove's adaptation of Wagner's Ring cycle. Dove made this adaptation several years ago, for the use of smaller British touring opera companies, and it is the perfect solution for a smaller city's opera company that wants to produce Wagner's great tetralogy.

I know that some people will disapprove, but no matter how much Wagner's operas delight me, I think that judicious editing would certainly benefit them. So, the question that Dove faced was, if you had to cut an hour or two out of each of the Ring operas, what would you cut? I brought the full orchestral scores along, so that I could try to follow what got cut. Dove's goal was to condense the operas so that none of them exceeded three hours of performance time. I heard The Rhinegold last night, which clocked in at 1 hour and 45 minutes, and sitting in the Byham Theater, I did not perceive any great loss in what Dove cut. The English singing translation, based mostly on the libretto Andrew Porter made for English National Opera, although sometimes ridiculous, helps make the impact of this streamlined version more immediate to an American listener, too.

Are any of the characters in Das Rheingold unnecessary? You couldn't get along with only one of the giants, because Fafner has to kill Fasolt, and their jealousy about how they will be paid is too important to the story. All of the gods are crucial, except when you get down to Donner and Froh. You don't really need to have both of them, and so Dove decided to keep only Donner, probably because he summons the bridge to Valhalla at the opera's conclusion. He also cut the role of Mime, which must have been a harder decision to make. Alberich still tells us that "my brother Mime" made the Tarnhelm for him, but the scene in which Alberich, invisible, tortures Mime is gone. I didn't miss it that much. Most of the orchestral passages, including the famous evocation of the Rhine that opens the opera, are shortened. This makes sense for a small company's production because, even shortened, the interludes usually were still on the long side, in terms of what had to be done to change scenes.

The greatest amount of work that Dove did was to pare down Wagner's immense orchestration to a sleek one that could be managed by 35 players. Looking at the score beforehand, I didn't know if it was possible, but Dove did an excellent job of preserving everything he could. Some compromises were necessary, of course. In the transition into Nibelheim, Wagner calls for a remarkable percussive effect on 18 tuned anvils. I remember hearing that sound for the first time, on the Solti Ring as a teenager, as if it were yesterday. Although Dove could have cut that passage altogether, he achieves the sound, albeit a shadow of what Wagner wanted, with three percussionists in the pit. The other crazy moment in the orchestration is the conclusion, where the outlandish number of six harpists are put through their paces on individual parts cluttered with arpeggios. In the full score, these harp parts cannot fit onto the page with the rest of the orchestra, so they have to be notated in an appendix, shown below. (There is also a part for an onstage 7th harp.) The sound is incredible to hear, but this obviously had to go, and Dove gets by with one harpist in the pit. Seven harp parts! It's amazing that the Ring cycle is ever performed anywhere.

What I missed in Dove's orchestration, although it is brilliantly done and quite faithful to the spirit of Wagner's work, were the huge crushing fortissimo sections, with that outrageous brass section (8 horns, 4 tubas, contrabass tuba, 3 trumpets, bass trumpet, 4 trombones!) blasting their guts out. The members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the pit did a great job, but their reduced numbers mean naturally a reduced sound produced. Anthony Negus's conducting was generally clean, with crisp tempi, but there were a few moments of ensemble disconnect. The only noticeable instrumental slip on Friday night was a high-note splat in the horn part near the end of the opera.

Do I like Dove's adaptation? If you want to experience Wagner's Ring, you should see a full orchestral production, in German, in Bayreuth if you can afford it. Yes, it drags like hell at points and it's expensive, but the chance to sound the depths of Wagner's nutty vision (and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible) is well worth it. However, what Dove's version makes possible is for the city of Pittsburgh to have its first production of Wagner's cycle. Ever. There are people here, and doubtless many other places, who will have the chance to see The Ring on a stage, which is something that I hope even the most strident Wagner purist can appreciate. However, I would have thought that more Pittsburghers would come, but the theater was only about two-thirds full on Friday night.

Jonathan Eaton, the daring artistic director of Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, directed this production. The minimalistic set (scenic design by Danila Korogodsky) is one circular platform with a central depression that serves for all scenes, highlighted by the different beautiful color concepts of lighting designer Christopher Popowich. The costumes (also credited to Danila Korogodsky) were a strange mishmash of ideas. The Rhinemaidens had Grace Jones mohawks and 80s techno jumpsuits with starburst armbands. They looked they would have sunk to the bottom of the Rhine and stayed there. The giants were represented by huge, clumsy puppets (nearly knocking down the hanging Valhalla shield when they were wheeled on and off by the stagehands who controlled them), to which the corresponding singer was attached by a red scarf. The award for the worst costume went to Donner: in a horrible red and black biker leather outfit with Wolverine-like claws and a fake flail (which he called a hammer), he looked like a refugee from Mad Max. Fricke, Wotan, and Freia wore cream-colored evening wear—Wotan was in pyjamas—with bright Liberace shoes. Loge's bare midriff had a blue dot on it. I think you get the idea.

The singers are a combination of local artist-teachers and career performers, with mixed results. Tenor Joel Sorensen was a treat as Loge, with a consistent voice and a Puck-like stage presence, leaping about in a spritely way, twirling his fire-tipped rod, lounging at the edge of the stage to watch the action, appealing directly to the audience for symphathy. He received the strongest ovation at the curtain call. Rod Nelman was convincing as Wotan (strangely, the part will be performed by a different singer in The Valkyrie this evening; this is probably because both operas will be performed back to back on Sunday), and Jessie Raven had good moments as a bald and hectoring Fricka. Nathan Bahny acted and sang well as Alberich, but his diction was not always clear (especially in the first scene, when I had trouble understanding him and, even worse, the Rhinemaidens). The other advantage of the reduced orchestration is that lesser singers, in terms of the volume needed to compete with Wagner's orchestra, can sing in this sort of production.

I'll relate my impressions of The Valkyrie tomorrow, hopefully with some pictures. If you are in or near Pittsburgh, you can see both operas on Sunday, July 17, for their final performance. Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods will be staged here in Pittsburgh next summer.

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