Sunday, September 16, 2012

Opera Watch: The Ring Cycle Parts 1 & 2

Again - I know absolutely nothing about opera.  Nothing.  I'm also not particularly up on my Germanic/ Norse mythology, my Wagner, or basically anything to do with what I've committed upwards of 18 hours to watching.  And, you know...  it's nice to try something outside of my 21st Century comfort zone, especially when I can do it from the comfort of my living room using the power of DVR, HD TV and state-of-the-art, semi-avante-garde (by opera standards) production.

Musically, the show is familiar in part because it's been endlessly repurposed over the 20th century for cartoons, movies, commercials and television.  Most famous is the "Ride of the Valkyries" theme from the second opera in the cycle, which everyone knows at least in part because of the helicopter scene in Coppola's Apocalypse, Now.  Hell, this cycle of operas provides the reason behind the common imagery of the zaftig broad in the viking helmet with a spear belting out the high notes.

@#$% is gettin' real in Valkyrie town

The production shown on PBS last week was not the one recommended to me a few months back.  That was the 1992 production, also recorded at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  While the production made it to DVD and the sound quality is excellent, the video suffers from the limitations of the time and an insistence by the videographers to shoot the opera more or less from an audience member's distant vantage.  I can't comment on the vocal performances knowledgeably, but the actual acting performances in this version are noticeably stronger and assisted by the camera's ability to get in much closer.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the set, which is a monstrous machine comprised of 24 plank-like beams each suspended in the middle on a hydraulic and the center balance itself placed  on hydraulics which lift and lower the contraption.  Add in incredibly high-tech ideas like video projected on each plank individually, occasionally producing interactive effects to synch with the movements of the actors, and you can turn the set into everything from caverns to winding stairwells to the head and massive wings of a flying horse.

The first opera, Das Rheingold, is a sort of pre-amble, following the creation of The Ring of the Nibelungen.  And, yes, if you're wondering if JRR Tolkein copped some ideas from Wagner and this mythology, you get a door prize.

"What do you mean I can't just swap your sister for this new mobile home?"

I considered writing a plot synopsis, but, frankly, Wikipedia is out there already.

What Wagner manages to do with all of his characters, even in the framing of operatic declarations of  feelings, is imbue his characters with a sense of true motivation.  And he seems to have a fine appreciation for how very human gods outside the Judeo-Christian concept of dieties can be - capricious, even.

The first opera, set at what seems to be the beginning of much of northern European mythology, as Valhalla is bargained for, as Wotan (read: Odin) consolidates power, sets in motion the events that will precipitate the story of at least the second and third opera.

Visually, the first opera is a mix of underwater landscapes both suggested and concrete, the space between Earth and what will be Valhalla, and the underworld of the Niebelung.  Watching the set twist and turn, and the various performers working with the ever-changing machine is a feat, but it never takes away from the play itself, and that's impressive.  

"You're right.  I shall defenestrate my 'World's Best Dad' mug."

By the second opera, Der Walkure, it's clear the producers had a better handle on the set and how to work with it, and were able to manipulate it beautifully and seamlessly - changing from forest to great hall to a cavalcade of horses to a mountainside.  Fascinating work.

Despite the supposed avant-garde nature of the production, the costuming is still fairly traditional, the props undistracting, and the music itself seemingly untampered with.

I was deeply impressed with the performance of Deborah Voigt, who plays Brunnhilde, the lead Valkyrie.  She seemed to elevate the performance of everyone around her, most impressively Bryn Terfel, who had already been quite strong even without sharing the stage with her.

Also, ladies, if you're looking for a new look this season:  I highly recommend the Valkyrie look.  It is smashing.  Or at least Ms. Voigt really makes it work.

Anyway, like I said, I know nothing about opera, so this is all very, very new to me.  But after not checking in for a week, thought I'd report what media I'd been consuming.

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