Monday, October 11, 2010

Rheingold (New York Metropolitan Opera broadcast at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse)

Why do people say this is inaccessible? It's got singing mermaids in it. One of them is called Flosshilde.

But seriously, I feel that I may have done Wagner backwards. When I was small, I fell in love with it watching it with my father on TV, and what I loved was the dragons and the ring and the dwarves and gods and swords and stuff. And any subtlety was way over my head, and I don't even remember being that impressed by the music at first, although that might have been more to do with the sound quality of a 1970s television than any childish inability to love music.

Thinking back on it, the Ring that I loved for its magic story and special effects was probably the grim industrial Chéreau/Boulez Bayreuth Centenary production, full of angst and pain and cynicism. The magic takes a very minor role, deliberately underplayed, while the subtext becomes the ubertext, rammed in your face.

I totally nicked this still, and I think it's from Walkure rather than Rheingold. But Rheingold is this cool! Except for the silly plastic breastplates and the hammock. Which suck.
Now I'm forty. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Rheingold on video or CD, and I've read whole books about what is going on in it.

And now the Metropolitan Opera makes this glorious cartoon version, full of light and primary colours. Subtext abandoned in a riot of special effects, Wotan's dilemma and the inexorable doom of the gods almost certainly invisible to anyone who's seeing it for the first time. If I'd seen this Ring when I was a little boy I'd have been demanding plastic action figures of the gods to play with!

And the cartoon version is brilliant. Intelligent, faithful, awe-inspiring. Magical, beautiful, colourful, and incredibly well sung and played. There's not one dud. Every character is a precious jewel, bringing something new to their role.

The rippling underlying angst is a subtext to the exciting and involving action, as it should be.

Wotan and Fricka for me will always be the spare elegance of Donald MacIntyre and Hannah Schwartz, but Bryn Terfel's take as an overweight heavy metal fan with a dodgy fringe is very fetching, and he sings MacIntyre's ass off.

Indeed the singing and the music here are the best I've ever heard, even after the losses caused by the transmission and cinema reproduction.

For the first time in my life, I wish I lived in New York. Obviously tickets will have sold out years ago, but maybe if I go and camp in the lobby for the entire run of the production somebody will have a heart attack during the first half and they'll give me their ticket so I can go and see the second.

Alberich here is pure genius. He can be sympathised with. The closest thing in the Ring to a symbol of evil is revealed here to be a creature with nothing to offer, humiliated and rejected simply for naively offering his heart to beauty. Rejected and scorned, burning with shame, he forswears love in an agony of passion, and leaves himself with nothing worth aiming for. It is longing for lost love that makes him scheme to rape the world, and he is truly pitiful when Wotan steals even that dreadful last hope from him. If there's a problem with this interpretation, which is always there in any Ring, it's that it makes Alberich forgiveable, which he really shouldn't be. I've always thought that if Wagner had lived to see the rise of the National Socialist German Workers Party, he would have identified them with Alberich, not with Siegfried as they saw themselves.

Alberich has made happy Niebelheim a hell, and the merry dwarves who loved to make trinkets for their women into pitiful terrified slaves. We shouldn't sympathise with him. We should detest him. His evil is the reason that Wotan needs to take and hold power, fatally compromising his own freedom and driving him into the suicidal mental conflict that ends the world.

I don't want to understand Alberich. I don't want to look at him humiliated and rejected by the daughters of the Rhine and think that every man knows what he's going through. I don't want to be reminded of old friends who were so desperate for love and so unsuccessful with women that they sacrificed their lives to make money in the hope that someone would one day love them for it instead of for themselves.

But I'm more than glad that this Alberich has made me think. I shall have to think some more until I can make the conclusion of my head match the conclusion of my heart.

The other characters are deeply realised and understood. The simple honest giant Fasolt, who is expecting Wotan the honourable god to pay him the agreed price for his sound work in the same way that he would expect fire to be hot or the dawn to come.

Even after the betrayal that will lead to his death, even after telling Wotan his simple insight that the Gods live by the sacredness of their word, even after seeing that the Gods are as venal and treacherous as anyone else under their honourable shell, still moments before his death he turns instinctively to Wotan to ask him to judge fairly the division of the stolen gold.

Freia's being obviously affected by his simple, honest, overwhelming desire is a masterful touch. Why has no-one ever noticed that before? It should obviously be there. She mourns him. I never thought I'd tear up at the death of Fasolt, but here it's a most moving thing.

I won't spoil the rest of it, but it's full of memorable moments. The dragon trick is glorious.

And after a weekend of great music, including two operas, one of which I saw live in Covent Garden, the take-home song, that I've been singing to myself for nearly two days is Donner, summoning the clouds to make a storm to clear the air.

Always before, I've wondered what the point of Donner was. He seems absolutely irrelevant except to demonstrate that Wotan can't just kill the giants. Dwayne Croft and his special effects, hammer swirling in the gathering tornado of light, and voice bellowing majestically as master of that storm, have tuéed le rôle. All future Donners will be conscious of trying to live up to him and his storm scene.

Even the usual tedious preamble interviewing the cast was good fun this time. One of the Rhinemaidens in particular looks at her flying-swimming-sudden-death-harness-arrangement with a sort of disbelieving sick terror. That will learn her. One doesn't become a Wagnerian soprano by accident. She's clearly loving it by the time of the performance though. A personal journey of self discovery to put alongside Wotan's.


Trying to find out Donner's real name to put instead of 'this guy', I found this exceedingly uncomplimentary review:

I had indeed wondered why Loge was booed at the end of the production, and since a vague resemblance to Gary Glitter shouldn't get a man booed, I'd decided that it was the sort of affectionate pantomime booing that Captain Hook always gets, from people who didn't understand that Loge is the only character who has survived the evening with his honour intact, indeed the only character who will survive when night falls on the gods. Apparently not.

I actually predicted the reviewer's complaint here:

And it looks as though this prediction has turned out to be true.

And what do I think?

Well done New York. For years, people have been trying to make opera accessible. And this has always seemed to mean dumbed down, or so low budget it's rubbish, or cheap seats that are cheap because you're so far away you can't hear or see properly. And accessible is now a dirty word.

Well not any more. This is what I call accessible. £20 for a good seat at a thrilling and very expensive production that you can walk to. Wagner with beautiful young women with beautiful voices playing the beautiful young women singing the beautiful songs. The audience in Cambridge loved it. And it was not an uneducated audience.

So well done New York and the commercial opera for doing what our subsidised houses have been trying and failing to do for years. The technology can only improve, the sound reproduction, which is not good currently, can become better than CD. Maybe opera can become an entertainment for people who aren't rich Londoners. Maybe Wagner can speak to the people as he wanted to do, instead of to the corporate boxes and to the German establishment.

And careful New York. You are on the bottom of the Rhine, looking at the gold. Do not forswear everything that you love for it. There is a curse on it. Beware of the curse. Do the right thing. If you can figure out what the right thing is.

There is just one problem with all this. I watched the simulcast. I heard Loge booed and wondered why. But I am sure that I also saw the whole house rise, and give the apparently pitifully bad production a massive standing ovation that went on for a very long time.

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