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Das Mississippigold: Sound Production Looks Like Zambello, Smells Like Chéreau

Das Rheingold - as found in Iowa Public Radio Pronouncing Dictionary

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R. Wagner, Das Rheingold, Barenboim/Kupfer/Bayreuth
Saturday night, the Washington Opera has raised the curtain to one of its more ambitious undertakings today: The staging of its own, complete Ring Cycle. So as not to choke on the size of the 13 to 15 hour tetralogy, it will take it in bite-sized portions; one opera -sorry: Musikdrama at a time. Director is Francesca Zambello who has become a bit of a house-director for Washington and the production team is the same as that of Die Walküre two years ago at DAR Constitution Hall. The production here is, mercifully, a different one in all respects. Instead of warmed up, self-plagiarizing Euro-trash, we will get a new, modern, original (slightly harmless) interpretation, the American Ring.

There has been much speculation about how the production might look and work – a recent press conference with Zambello, Robin Leggate (the production’s Loge), Jane Ohmes (Freia) and Director of Artistic Operations, Christina Scheppelmann didn’t do much to give a better idea of how things would turn out. (But it did unearth some of the tension behind the scenes. Scheppelmann’s perfectly true point that inaudible text was a problem with lazy pronunciation of singers, not Wagner’s writing, surely did not go unnoticed… Zambello admitted that there was still wrangling as to whether to show or not show Wallhall. Zambello, by the way, favoring the latter solution, won, as it turns out.)

Yuba River Gold DredgingNow we have the first installment of an answer and we saw every thing that she had made, and, behold, it is very good. Over those 136 bars of E-flat with which the opera famously opens (always likened to the creation of the earth, the beginning of time itself – not unlike the opening of Beethoven’s 9th or, to an extent, Mahler’s 1st) we see colors and hazy images on a screen. From blue to brown/yellow to ‘light’ to ‘water’, at points reminding of cave paintings, at others 2001 Space Odyssey flights through the universe. These images – veering between hazy, frustratingly representational and the abstract – are used throughout the scene changes. Some imagery changes seem haphazard, others are a bit obvious (flying through the clouds to and from Wallhall) but the idea is fine. If only the images didn’t look like cheap computer renderings. Here, as in most places of this production, one decries the fact that the WNO is not a repertory company: The direction here so often presents great potential marred by some annoying or unnecessary detail. If Ms. Zambello had several years, not just days, to fine-tune this production (and more money to spend – which I am sure she might like and could put to good use), it would be the Washington National Opera’s pride.

I try not to refer to it as Das Rheingold too much, because neither does the direction. Not only is the scene set out West (the curtain rises to Alberich panning gold in what might be the Yuba River), all references to the Rhine have been carefully excised from the supertitles. Rhinemaidens become Rivermaidens, Rheingold becomes “pure gold” (from the German homophone Rein(es)-Gold) and so on. These Rivermaidens climb and swing about a wooden contraption for sifting gold. It’s the rough cut American version of Chéreau’s Hydroelectric dam.

Steel Beam with WorkerThe gods are New England upper class with white V-neck sweaters, tea sets, garden parties. Wotan (Robert Hale in a white suite) takes a nap in his garden chair before being awoken by Fricka (chubby but seductively cute Elizabeth Bishop). Donner (with T-bar instead of hammer) and Froh are hapless hobby architects. Anyone for tennis? Fasolt and Fafner have a great, inspired entrance by use of one of the most quintessentially American images. Lowered unto stage, the two giants are clad in jeans overalls, having their lunch sitting on a steel I-beam. Walking on huge, oversized shoes covered by wide trouser legs they towered, if not by a whole lot, above the other characters; the hands were Edward Scissorhands-like contraptions and a hook, in Fafner's case.

Loge, arguably the most important – certainly the most interesting – character of the first Ring opera came across as a shady advocate/lawyer with a pinch of car-salesman. Arriving on the scene, he looks like he just stepped out of his 1920’s race car (including driver gloves). You could detect the attempt to make him a seedy character, but he is shifty at the most; more cunning for a good cause and very confidently so. He doesn’t toady like the brilliant, ingenious Heinz Zednik in the Chéreau production, but he is also not quite as cynical, not quite as aloof. Same words, same music: Two completely different characters; and Loge can be done in yet many more, more different ways. A continuously fascinating character.

The mine in which the Niebelungs are put to work look like a more or less realistic coal mine (without the sense of claustrophobia), the Niebelungs are an assortment of black children (make-up helps where nature didn’t) which makes a general point about American slavery and exploitation and then raises the far more delicate subject of black slave holders. Alberich, after all, is played by Porgy-cum-Schwarz Albe Gordon Hawkins. His transformation into a snake is projected onto the wall.

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R.Wagner, Das Rheingold, Chéreau/Boulez/Bayreuth
In the fourth, final scene Wotan carries a spear (a wimpy thing with feathers dangling from it) for the first time and the second overt ‘American West’ reference emerges: Elena Zaremba (so impressive as Fricka back then) as Estsanatlehi or something of that sort. Freia, meanwhile, has developed a case of the Stockholm syndrome and cares an awful lot about fallen Fasolt. (Then again, Fasolt truly loved her, as we can tell from the music in the second scene, where he gets the most tender line of the Ring to the words “ein Weib zu gewinnen, das wonnig und mild bei uns Armen wohne…”) Lightning is summoned by Donner (although it blinks about on screen for half a minute before the actual thunder comes out of the pit) and the Gods cross the bridge into Wallhall (not visible, off stage) which descends like an ocean-liner’s boarding stairs (E la nave va comes to mind).

Filled with good (not always perfect) acting and hopefully good singing, this is, will be, a promising start to the Washington Opera's very own ring cycle... an achievement that offers plenty criticism - but more enjoyment still. I, for one, was positively surprised. It's neither hackneyed nor radical, it's something that hasn't been done that way, even if it reminds of other productions in several moments. Within the limits of calculable risk, this is a definite winner.


Garth Trinkl said...

Thanks for your very interesting and generous review Jens. I am very happy that you think "it" [The Sopranos and Rivermaidens meet 2001 meet the Wallhall X-files meet the Golden Chakra Girl in the Wild West?] is a 'winner'. I am as yet undecided, having also seen it on Saturday, and I feel relieved to not be a leading D.C. music critic/reviewer -- like you, Tim Page, Joe Banno, and others -- who have to make fairly snap judgments on these matters in order to push public cultural enlightenment a few centimeters up Capital Hill and Cathedral Hill. Overall, I did find much of the acting and singing successful, if not the overall concept and production.

You photos are great and helpful. I think that if WNO and Kennedy Center programs were more serious they could have included some of the images that this "creative team" used to develop their 'American' Ring. I also agree with you that this team was at the beginning of something interesting and insightful and might have accomplished much more if they had had more time and resources (money). By the way, while you are correct in referencing the Yuba River (it makes alot more sense), the program note references the Colorado River -- which I recall hazily from my public high school days in California -- is not close to the Gold Rush lands of 1848. Did you get the Yuba River from the Press conference or your own depths of geographical/cultural literacy? (Or perhaps Wallhall will ultimately indeed be revealed to look like Hoover Dam, rather than the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center or the Getty Museum Wallhall in Los Angeles.)

(This morning I had the depressing feeling that this project's costumes had been borrowed from WNO and MET productions of Susannah, Mice and Men, Great Gatsby, and ... and ... and ... maybe The Savage Land WNO - Chinese world premiere production for the Giants hands. I know however that they are new; having seen the drawings for them in the programs.)

I'm also intrigued that it was Mr Domingo who proposed an "American Ring". As you mention, this is probably doable, but would have required a more mature visionary American director and her or his creative team to spend months studying the painting and technology collections of the National Gallery of Art, Corcoran, and Smithsonian museums -- as well as the specialized, historical libraries of Northern and Southern California if this were indeed going to be conceived as a German artist and intellectual's response, from afar, to the California Gold Rush days -- which as you know attracted significant numbers of German adventurers, capitalists, writers, and visual artists. (Including the German capitalist who once owned one-third of San Francisco's land and who built his Bavarian-style 'castle-folly' above Seal Rock and Land's End, near today's Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum.)

(Given that this is a coproduction with the San Francisco Opera -- rather a depressing thought as it now stands -- this serious 'American' Ring could indeed have been possible with proper and careful administration and funding (and not rushed and underfunded as was also Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld's War in Iraq to avenge Bush Senior). Former Californian State Librarian and Historian Kevin Starr [or heck, even PBS's darling, Kevin Burns!] could have properly been brought in as a special consultant to the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center on this "major landmark" project.

Again, Jens, you have offered some very interesting insights and are to be thanked (and hired by the WNO to give Opera Insight lectures around town and in the suburbs).

Last comment... I invited an artist friend and 'grand' opera/music drama novice to attend with me, and he had the insightful comment that the underworld in the third scene reminded him of Sebastiao Salgado famous b & w photographs of Brazilian Amazonian pit gold mining in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Thanks again. No time to edit. Sorry.

jfl said...

I blush. Thanks for the kind words and ideas et al. The "American" aspect of the Ring probably won't come out until the second or perhaps even third installement... the disjointed nature of the Rheingold (scenes 1 vs. rest plus Erda) would be fixed if it were a long-running production. Alas...

The less said about Zambello's ideas and thoughts (the Eco-Ring, raping of our environment landscape, nature and the great American untouched, native American-owned lands, Enron, Haliburton -- and all that other high-falootin' naivete) the better: I am surprised that the outcome is so (relatively speaking) coherent given the odd mix of ideas that went into it. She's a professional, after all.

Yuba River... didn't actually read the program notes -- and I've heard Colorado River, Rio Grande, Mississippi... but none of them look like the opening scene, anyway... none of them had much to do with the Gold Rush and 49... and looking at on-line photos of a few rivers I checked out, the Yuba actually looked the most like what I imagined was behind the ideas for the first scene. (I may have read about the Yuba in in a J.A.Mitchener book as a kid...)