Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Review of "Das Rheingold" National Theater production, April, 2005

Das Rheingold is the first of the four operas that make up Wagner’s “The Ring of Nibelung.” For its part in the Ring Cycle, Rheingold tells the story of Alberich, a Nibelung troll, who comes to earth, renounces love, and steals the gold of the Rhine—from which he fashions a Ring that he can use to rule all the earth. (I know you raised your eyebrows there, but try to remember that the Nibelung myths that Wagner based his Ring Cycle upon predate Tolkein by several centuries.) Wotan, King of the Gods, takes Loge, the God of Mischief down to the underworld to retrieve the Ring and the gold, which they hope to use to pay two giants who have built a castle for them, in lieu of Friea, the sister to Wotan’s wife Fricka. Through cunning, the two Gods manage to reclaim the Ring, but at a price: Alberich places a curse upon the Ring and Wotan must foreswear it in the end, giving it to the giants as their payment for building Valhalla.

This is a story of a struggle for power and the lengths to which men and gods will go to get it: Wotan never intended to give Freia to the giants as their payment for building Valhalla, he had planned to trick them. He tries to set the gods Donner and Froh upon them, but only the intent to use Loge’s trickery in the end holds him back. Alberich, who first steals the Rhine gold, never wanted to woo the Rhine Maidens, he only wanted their gold to fashion the Ring. Loge wanted to use Wotan to recover the Ring for the Rhine Maidens, and laughs at the power of the curse in the end when the Ring falls into other hands. Even Fricka, Wotan’s wife, wanted the Ring for herself to rule her husband, but she falls silent at the end, seeing what the Ring has done to Wotan when he has it. In the end, one of the giants kills his brother to obtain power. A single, powerful theme dominates this first of four parts, and the intensity, heights, and depths of the music and the libretto match it every step of the way.

For such a resonant theme, this production did little to inspire or engage, and this happened for a number of reasons. First, whoever chose the costumes needs to find another line of work. In Das Rheingold, Gods, giants, trolls, and maidens make up the entire cast. Donner wields a giant hammer and Wotan carries a spear for the whole performance—he even uses it to stab Alberich in the hand when he wrests the Ring from his finger. Yet all of the characters, including the giants, sport clothes that men and women would have worn when Wagner wrote the opera. Wotan wore a tuxedo with long tails to compliment his spear; Donner donned a top hat and sport coat to go with his hammer. In the story, Alberich fashions a helmet that allows him to turn invisible; here the costumer makes the helmet a handkerchief that he uses to cover his head like a child on Halloween. Loge was the worst of all: the little hair he had left was dyed bright red to match a horribly ill-fitting three piece suit that could barely fit over his immense stomach. To top it off, he carried a cane because he was so immense that he needed one to get up and down the “mountain set.”

Speaking of the sets, for almost every minute of the performance, a screen hung in front of the stage, blurring the action. Most of the time, this happened for no reason. No lighting was used to create any effect with this in acts two, three, and four, yet the screen stayed down. This made the staging awful, because you could not see through the scrim. I sat in the eighth row and had difficulty enjoying the visual aspects of the opera. I can’t imagine how bad the screen ruined the staging for the people in the balcony or the galleries. Maybe this represented the director’s cheap (and only) theoretical attempt to separate and distance the audience from the “world of the Gods.” Maybe he should remember that we know we’ve come to the theatre, but that we also want to see what we paid for. The only inspiring, if not immaterial piece of set design was the underworld of the Nibelungs in Act Two, which for some reason contained a merry-go-round. During this scene, Alberich demonstrates his power by turning into a frog, which the prop master made a cheap puppet—and whose movement was controlled by an obvious stick attached to it. Even though the orchestra played through this, you could hear many members of the audience laugh embarrassingly. Here I thought this town did a nice job with marionette theatre.

I can’t criticize the entire production, because the singing redeemed much of it. The men playing Wotan and Alberich, whose numbers dominate, both sang remarkably well, and were very consistent in their presentations of the characters—both in acting and singing. Wotan, struggling with the Ring, deftly displayed his mental turbulence in song in Act Four; Alberich, equally conveyed his lust for power and dominance throughout the entirety of his performance. Fricka and Freia both had lovely voices, when you get to hear them, and Donner added a deep, rich baritone when called upon as well. Their parts are minor in Das Rheingold. The best, and unfortunately least singing came from the man playing Froh, who only sings one full song and snippets in others. His voice was rich, clear, and carried full weight; you wish that the director had cast him instead as Loge, who sang and acted abominably. Something is wrong with a production when you can’t hear the principal tenor’s voice over the orchestra in the eighth row. His voice was very thin and airy, and to coin a term, nearly a-melodius. I often thought he was speak-singing his part in order to make himself heard at all. However, for a man playing the God of Mischief, he looked like an aging queen, and acted that way. When the curtain comes down in Act Four, Loge laughs mischievously at the folly of the Gods and the curse of the Ring. But the laughter reminded more of Nathan Lane in “The Bird Cage.” Maybe I should note that Loge is also the God of Fire—and maybe that’s what the director was going for here.

The director did achieve some nice, albeit minor effects here and there. The giants played and looked their parts well—they wore something akin to (American) football shoulder pads under their costumes, giving them a hideous and grotesque presence. The Rhine Maidens not only sang well, but looked well, even in their Victorian costumes. However, the costume and make up people achieved a wicked appearance for them, a cross between sprites and witches. The maiden wearing a blue dress had blue streaks in her hair and blue lipstick and eye shadow, and likewise for the maidens in the purple and green dresses respectively. Although you couldn’t really see it with the screen in the way, it certainly looked aptly striking when they gave their curtain calls.

All told, the production did little to inspire. For a libretto and story that deals with the machinations of Gods and monsters, you think you could get a staging that at least attempts to equal it. This director didn’t even try. It’s not so much that the production was or seemed flat, but you never for a second felt drawn into it the story. This is understandable for say “Cosi fan tutti,” but seems unimaginable for an awe-inspiring high drama by Wagner. (Again, note to the director and set designer—maybe the scrim did that too). The action and pacing did not keep up with the music or the intensity of the singing required at all. Alberich is the only one that managed this throughout, but I credit him, rather than the director for this. Of course, the best part of the night was the music, and the singing of the principals, save Loge. You can’t beat Wagner for operatic intensity, and this aspect of the Ring does not fail to achieve majesty in the Romantic heights of the word.

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