So . . .
Woke up at 3 a.m. yesterday, flew out of Austin and into Toronto by mid-afternoon, and had enough time to get a brick of Stilton in Kensington Market and experience anew the peculiarly passive-aggressive hustle of Toronto street people before going over to the new home of the Canadian Opera Company and settling into the new production of Das Rheingold — the first opera of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy.
There’s been some hatin’ on Wagner here at Dial M in the last couple of days, and I think I’ll have to put off writing the full-length post to deal with the categorical objections that Wagner inevitably raises. But for now I’ll just note that sitting through 16 hours of opera over six days is a certain kind of limit experience, an experience for which you must fortify yourself, with exercise, meditation, and good food, and if you do not enter into it with full charity, with the sincere belief in the rightness of the enterprise, it will become intolerably burdensome. You can enter the opera house in full awareness of Wagner’s arrogance and cruelty and his baleful influence on history, but when that low e-flat sounds and the curtain goes up, you either bracket that thought and set it aside and give yourself over to the sheer sensual presence of what is unfolding in front of you, or . . . you’re in for a long night. Life is short, you have to get your kicks where you can find them, and I didn’t get up at 3 a.m. to sit there and stew over Wagner’s wickedness. I chose option A. And was rewarded.
Mordecai Richler (I think) used to talk about how, as a Jewish novelist, he was always finding his work being judged on the basis of whether it was good for the Jews. Canadian cultural productions more generally always have a similar subtext. The long-deferred opening of Canada’s first purpose-built opera house has made this production of the Ring a statement on the state of Canadian culture. For the umpteenth time we ask, is this good for Canadian culture? Have we come of age? Are we at last competing on a world stage? I haven’t lived here in a long time and never felt all that invested in this question anyway, so I don’t know, though I suspect that this production, however magnificent, will settle nothing. Canadian cultural insecurity, like most kinds of insecurity, is immune to arguments and proofs. Canada is trying on the Ring like a girl trying on a new pair of pants, glancing back anxiously in the mirror and asking “does this make me look fat?” (No, really dear, not at all. No really. You should buy it. Really you should. It looks great.)
Anyway, the production really does look great. Each opera has a different director: Walkure, which is tonight, is being directed by the film director Atom Egoyan, and Rheingold is directed by Michael Levine, who is also the production designer for the entire cycle. Levine has managed something very difficult. He gives us a modernized Rheingold, creating a look that strips away the now-comic traditions of helmets and breastplates and stony ramparts and whatnot. But “modernization” often means cute bullshit like putting the whole cast on roller-skates or setting the Magic Flute at a Shriner convention or something. Or else it means stripping away the visual richness of the traditional images (breastplates, ramparts) and replacing it with bare abstractions (visually sterile sets that always seem to involve scaffolding and exposed ductwork) meant to allow us to concentrate on the opera’s “meaning.” As if opera’s meaning is separate from its sensual richness. Levine has avoided both pitfalls in an interesting way. The images he creates — like a Valhalla made of bland neoclassical scale models that are wheeled in on tables — are functionally denotative (when people sing about Valhalla’s mighty halls they have something plausible to point to) and also a little abstract. But what you lose in visual specificity and density through this kind of abstraction you gain through the lighting, which is a marvel. Levine has set up a bank of thirty or so bell-shaped utility lamps — the kind you put in your wood shop, with a nicer metal finish — on each side of the stage. (They function as a kind of interesting visual texture in themselves.) The lamps shoot their beam directly across the stage, which means that they can pick out very precise individual things on the stage without casting a shadow on the floor — the effect is of a kind of film noir mystery lighting. And this is just one effect. Again and again the lighting pulled me into the elementary mystery of simple things — gold cloth, a spot of blood on the floor, a chair. I’m sitting at the top of the gods, looking down on the stage from a high angle, and this is actually a plus, because it has the effect of bracketing the entire stage and setting it off as a pulsing, glowing light-filled box. Music-filled, too, I should add. I haven’t said anything about the singing or orchestral playing. Later . . .