Sunday, March 26, 2006

Shoot-out at the Valhall Corrall

Long story short, the new 'American' Ring business at the Washington National Opera really, really doesn't work. With some notable exceptions, it isn't "oh god look away the humanity" bad, but more like "Well that doesn't really work now does it? Who thought of that??? Weak."

I guess on paper a Ring that is broadly 'evocative' of American themes and history isn't so bad. But this crosses lines. This isn't evocative so much as stuffing, willy-nilly, the greatest hits from AP American history into the most surface reading of Wagner's social critique. This results in all kinds of cognitive dissonance. Alberich is a prospector? I thought he was the petty capitalist? Wotan is Gatsby? Does that mean the Ring makes Wotan new money?

Obviously, the production team led by the otherwise awesome Francesca Zambello doesn't really care what we do with those questions, but I'm thinking Wagner, who had an opinion or two about history, would have cared how people found his analysis relevant to American society. And this Gatsby-slavery-old westy-railroad mush doesn't do anyone any favors. Indeed, I'm thinking this should actually have the Master spinning in his grave sooner than Eurotrash productions that might be vulgar but at least know their place.

At other times, the 'Americanizing' is just absurd, as when they sneak old-westernisms into the super-titles. Again, a bad idea to start with, but if you were really going to be serious about a concept called the 'American' ring shouldn't you do it in translation? Like, we can hear them saying "Rheingold," what the f does "Pure Gold" even mean? Or, when they are obviously talking about Alberich turning into a Wurm, and this big rattlesnake shows up. Does that mean Fafner is going to be Snake too? Yes these things are quibbles, but like, its the Ring. You should really try to cut down on the sloppy compromises.

Also sucky are the lamo screen savers during the prelude, which imbue perhaps the most sublime musical description of creation ever written with all the profundity of a high school science film montage. These are followed by projections during the interludes that fly us Lord of the Rings CGI helicopter shot style back and forth from Nibelheim. They are ugly looking and way too literal.

In fact, the whole thing just looks kind of cheap. Bah. Done now.

Musically, things went pretty well. I had no great love for Heinz Fricke and the orchestra, and the smaller size really did impact the sound one expects here. All in all it was fine tho. Gordon Hawkins' Alberich was exactly how I like 'em, with not a trace of sniveling Mime--just a strong, exciting voice that serves an imposing, well rounded character and formidable opponent for Wotan. Elizabeth Bishop's thrilling, mightily self assured Fricka was also a standout.

Now, I'm not going to marry Robert Hale's Wotan anytime soon. He tends to give you grande when you asked for venti. But we can totally go out a few times. Ditto for the thoughtful but not earth shaking Fasolt and Fafner of Jeffrey Wells and John Marcus Bindel. Erda-jawea had kind of a big wobble but I was ok with her.

So, bottom line, if you want to go see Das Rheingold this isn't going to kill you. They sing nice. But, in 2014 or whatever, when this whole mess is done with, let's agree that an 'American Ring' stays in the bad idea file, ok?


A.C. Douglas said...

...let's agree that an 'American Ring' stays in the bad idea file, ok?

Not a bad idea. A promising idea badly -- moronically -- imagined.


Alex said...

I dunno. I feel like it can be made to sound promising in theory but is just always doomed to suck in practice. Sort of the Iraq invasion of opera concepts.

I mean, it's one thing to take advantage of motifs and styles rooted somewhere besides Europe/ancient times. But blatantly organizing a production around cultural "themes" -- as opposed to an aesthetic -- forces you to deal in elements that bring along their own specific historical relationships.

And that's just always going to be at odds with the universal insights we're supposed to glean from the Ring's philosophy of history--hence the small-minded and half-assed feeling of the production in question.

A.C. Douglas said...

Spot-on right, Alex. That's *precisely* what I meant when I said the concept was badly imagined, and spelled out in a post on my blog in January of this year how it might have been done successfully ( ).


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