Friday, May 20, 2011

Experiencing the Big "O" (opera that is...)

Herr Wagner
As I noted in my last post, our son wanted to go to the movie theater recently where a live performance of the Metropolitan Opera was being broadcast in High Definition.

The opera was the second in Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle which tells the story of the struggles between the gods and their relations with humans and the decline of the celestial order.

Die Walkure.

This opera is 330 minutes long, which includes two 30-minute intermissions. For the math challenged (sometimes me), that works out to five and one-half hours.

This sign is above Theater No. 5.
They must showing the opera here...
As I walked into the movie theater, I noted approximately 40 other brave souls. I noted too that the average age of these long-distance opera patrons was around 70. This was a big day for the senior discount! Maybe by the time you're retired you have nothing else to do with an entire afternoon of your life?

I reminded myself that my main goal wasn't to ponder the demographics and extrapolate the future of opera, but to make it through the entire performance. I had no expectation of anything other than a notable level of physical pain and psychic discomfort.

Such grim expectations appeared to be met as time passed and the big screen continued showing slides with info about upcoming opera productions. The big deal live feed for which we were paying $22 each brought us only the sounds of  the orchestra tuning up. No Maestro James Levine. No opera stars. No million dollar innovative set. No images live from New York City.


Oh no! What could this mean? It meant that we would sit where we were and be regaled with repeats of the previews and trivia about the Met's opera stars while we worked our way through a tub of buttered popcorn. Yes, eventually the curtain would open on Die Walkure.

Forty minutes late.

A thought flashed through my mind: "The opera should be halfway through Act One. But here I sit. Three hundred and thirty minutes left to go. I'm going to die..."

The Gods' Entrance into Opera
I'm not going to write a review of this production of Die Walkure. I'm sure those exist in many places and some of them are written by knowledgable critics and opera buffs. I only want to report on two things and then conclude with a flury of impressions.

1 - We made it all the way to the end! We had gone into the theater at 11 a.m. We walked out blinking into the sunlight at 5 p.m.

2 - We liked the opera! Crazy thing. My son and I are thinking about going back in November for the high-def screening of the third Ring installment, Siegried.


Twaddle Time?
I wouldn't even consider attending a long opera sung in a foreign language if they were not subtitles. But early on, as the German coming out of the characters' mouths was converted efficiently into English, the words I was reading at the bottom of the screen gave me some cause for alarm.

Only after our hero gets his coveted drink of water
do things start to become interesting...
Our noble buff looking hero Siegmund collapses on the hearth at the home of the fair Sieglinde. The latter is stuck in a forced, loveless marriage.

We know from the first chaste but flirtateous glance what's going to occur. These two are going to get together.

Except there's no cut to the chase. Instead, for 15 minutes the would-be lovers sing to each other something like this while there's much pouring of liquids into vessels and into mouths.

Siegmund: I am faint! I am thirsty!

Sieglinde: You look exhausted. You have been pursued!

Siegmund: I've been pursued. Bring me water!

Sieglinde: I'll get you water! I'll pour it in your mouth!

Siegmund: Ah, the water is good!

Sieglinde, my sweet, the mead is awesome!
You're my sister, so let's get married!
Sieglinde: I can get you some mead! The mead will give you strength.

Siegmund: Ah, mead is good! I will feel strong!

Sieglinde: The mead I'm pouring from the horn into your mouth is like oil funneled into a 12-cyclinder engine. It is reviving you and your handsome body!

Siegmund: I'm feeling better now! It must be the mead!

Fortunately, the libretto's dwelling on minituae is temporary. The twaddle ceases as these two lock gazes (and soon limbs) and they move on to more important matters.

Through further vigorous singing exchanges Siegmund and Sieglinde discover that they are twins, separated in their youth when their mother was killed and their father had to flee. Now guess what? They really feel a kinship. So much so that Siegmund concludes that since Sieglinde hates her husband there's a perfect solution. They'll get married.

Instant incest!

Of course, this is Wagner and the "Sieg" twins are offspring of the god Wotan. Different conjugal rules perhaps apply?

Seriously, Folks...
The foregoing is the only part of Die Walkure I can make fun of. I found the rest of it riveting. There are only five main characters which means we get to experience them more in depth than  if they were being interrupted by singing choruses of happy townspeople and milk maids.

Wotan is a god who agonizes and is reluctant
to use his terrible power.
It is in this respect that viewing this opera in the theater is perhaps superior to actually being in the audience at the Met. The camera is able to bring us close-ups and different angles on the characters.

I felt like I got to know them.

I watched nuances of emotion flicker across their faces. Bryn Terfel's Wotan is nearly as conflicted as Hamlet when he is forced to apply the letter of the law to his beloved Valkyrie daughter, Brunnhilde.

And in a great high definition moment, Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund drooled a long string of spit during his song immediately prior to his battle and death. He just kept on singing, spit and all, and I knew this singer making his Wagner debut was already a pro.

Brunnhilde the Valkyrie rocks!
But the real standout for me was Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde. She's a wild woman. A crazy red head. She's hot to trot onto the battlefield and do her Valkyrie job of inspiring warriors and, when they fall, she'll carry them to Vahalla where they will spend eternity serving the gods at their banquet table.
This daughter of a god has spirit, spunk, fire and mirth in her eyes.

When Brunnhilde is condemned by Wotan to become a mortal, nay, not just a mortal, but a mediocre woman who will have to serve as a doormat to an earthly husband, we can tell that she would prefer death. She then begins the greatest campaign in history to change a god's mind, even outdoing Lot's bargaining with Yahweh (Genesis 18).

Technology is Handmaiden to the Gods?
The final star of the show has to be designer Robert LePage's hydraulic moving, morphing, computer controlled set. Those involved with it call it "Le Machine." It is a series of planks mounted on an horizontal axis. As the planks spin into position and assume various shapes, projectors light them with computer generated images to give them the texture of tree bark, stone, animated fire, or whatever is needed.

Le Machine surrounds Brunnhilde with a flaming barrier
atop the mountain at the end of Die Walkure.
Le Machine is a big deal. Literally. It weighs so much that steel reinforcing beams had to be placed beneath the Met's stage. A space in the basement had to be created for the engine. It takes nearly 20 stage hands to run the beast.

Turns out Le Machine is a bit of a diva. It has malfunctioned and left the gods hoofing it off stage rather than climbing a stairway to Vahalla (Das Rheingold). It has tripped Brunnehilde (premiere of Die Walkure). It was Le Machine's fault that we waited 40 minutes for the show to begin.

Even as a technological skeptic, I was all right with Le Machine. There was a sort of cubism elan to it and, in the last act, a decided Salvador Dali-esque atmosphere. These different evocations of non-realistic art helped me slip into this surreal world of Northern gods in crisis. I also appreciated that the technology had been humbled; it wasn't perfect which made it, dare I say, almost human? Like a clanking R2D2. What's not to love?

As I see it, Wagner is all about excess. Excessive music, singing, costuming, and story-telling. So why not a gigantic, ultra-expensive Le Machine in the mix? It is all of a piece. The Ring operas are about the gods and the gods have created a gianormous mess with their philandering, quarreling and war making. Not unlike what we humans do, eh?

So the operas are a life study but it's not undertaken by staring into a puddle and counting paramecium. It's a plunge into a stormy ocean teeming with leviathans of drama and emotion.

If you're willing to get wet, I recommend it. - V.W.


No comments:

Post a Comment