The Ring day 2

Phil Ford

I need to correct a couple of things from yesterday’s post. First of all, I should have given the name of the lighting designer, David Finn, rather than giving the impression that Michael Levine had dreamed up all the effects I was getting all rapturous about. And second, I need to ease up on the rapture, because the stage design of Die Walkure exemplified some of the worst aspects of modernized stagings I described yesterday, right down to the weird modern-opera fetish for scaffolding. Rheingold, while the first opera in the cycle, has been produced last, and has been performed by the COC for the first time this month, on its new stage, whereas all the others have been done separately at the old O’Keefe center in the last couple of years, with Walkure having been designed and staged first. But of course I experienced Rheingold first, and now suspect that its luminousness and richness probably represents a sort of do-over of Walkure, a way of addressing some pretty grave problems in Walkure‘s staging.

Namely, the fact that the stage set is a tangle of broken scaffolding surrounding a tree trunk and a pile of broken masonry and dirt. That’s it. For five hours. It’s sort of interesting for the first few minutes, but after the first-act intermission you return to your seat and . . . still the pile of dirt. And then a couple of hours later, returning from the second intermission for the last act, again with the dirt. The fact that the Valkyries are tossing shrouded dead bodies around like beachballs while prancing through the dirt does nothing to alleviate the basic lack of visual interest that dirt might be said to possess.

This production had the feel of being dug in on a bad idea. My program book tells me that the set was intended to recreate the feel of photos from Germany at the end of WWII and is aimed at “presenting a world in chaos as a result of Wotan’s addictive obsession with the gold and the Ring.” No, what it presents is the art world’s addictive obsession with the threadbare visual tropes of the avant-garde. All the little piles of dirt on gallery floors, all the tangles of industrial materials in arte povera installations, all the anhedonic anxious obsession over “commodification.” You know, a pile of dirt on the floor is just another commodity — but an ugly, unlovable one whose value is assigned by the command economy of academic art criticism. The avant-garde keeps up its pretense of growing organically out of of the present historical moment through its negation of it. This would imply that the avant-garde is not a style but a moment of trangression sanctioned by History. But in truth the avant-garde has become just another style, just another set of mannerisms to be copied by artists and institutions anxious to appropriate something of its cultural capital.

But enough of that. The singing was great, the orchestra sounds better than it ever has, and although Richard Bradshaw is no great charismatic maestro in the James Levine mold, he gets the job done. One disappointment is Wotan, originally supposed to be sung by Pavlo Hunka but taken over by Peteris Eglitis, who isn’t really heavy-metal enough to be Lord of the Gods. He kept getting swamped by the orchestra, and when he was supposed to vent his rage at Brunnhilde he just, I dunno, he just didn’t sound all that mad. Phillip Ens, on the other hand, sang Hunding with a voice of iron, a little crackle of thunder in his voice that suggested real menace and danger. Watching Eglitis’s good-natured Wotan strike him dead was like seeing Sonny Liston knocked out by your Dad. (Unless your Dad is Muhammed Ali.) I loved Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde — she managed the trick of projecting a silvery, sweet sound out into the boundless reaches of the Universe, sounding at once intimate and monumental. She’s a Canadian singer but she’s busting out all over, apparently being acclaimed as the “Sieglinde of our times” at Bayreuth, which one hopes would help ease the perennial Canadian worry over how we’re doing on the world stage. Though it probably won’t.

*UPDATE*

I just realized that the guy who took over from Pavlo Hunka was Peteris Eglitis, not John Fanning. I’ve corrected this post, and, uh, sorry . . . that’s why I’m not a critic, I guess . . .

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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