Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, October 07, 2004


I had my first live experience of Wagner last Saturday in Chicago, the night after my first live experience of John Cage in Kalamazoo. The Cage piece was put on for free by amateur performers at an art opening in a non-profit gallery & studio. The Wagner piece had hundreds of sponsors, ranging in sponsorship from $500 to $100,000 for the season, and $500 to $10,000 for this particular production of “Das Rheingold.”

I’d listened to recordings of Wagner before, though not anything from the Ring Cycle. I once listened to a cassette set of Tristan straight through on a rainy Saturday, and I didn’t regret it. Wagner is a master of harmony and texture.

The opening of “Das Rheingold” exemplifies his genius for atmosphere. Quiet, quiet, quiet pulsing waves setting the scene of the underwater Rheinmaidens, lowly glowing and slowly growing as the action starts. Magical, spectral, expectant.

But once the action started, mostly I was like, omigod, this is dorky. And not in any sort of charming way. This is kitsch. Opening scene: A weed covered fat troll trundles lustfully after the three waternymphesque Rheinmaidens, one after the other; the maidens lure him and tease only to spurn him; the music “Mickey Mouses” the action, with “comical” bumptiousnesses underlining the “slapstick” of the spurned ugly thing tripping over his feet as the lithe & lovely maidens swim away. (Swim away in a very cool way, in the Chicago Lyric production, where the program quotes the choreographer as congratulating Chicago Lyric for being the first American opera to authorize the use of bungee cords. These waterbabes were swimming through the air!)

Spurned troll renounces “love” in exchange for wealth and power. Yeah, maybe I would care if the troll had any believability on any emotional level whatsoever, but this was sub-Saturday-Night-Live sketchiness. It’s a very didactic script (written by Wagner, as for all his operas).

And tunefulness? Not hardly. Wagner’s mastery of harmony and structure and texture allowed him to stitch all the wandering sung talk-talk seamlessly, but a good tune takes more than mastery, it takes inspiration. Wagner had his inspired moments -- the cool, dark, watery opening instrumental passages of this opera, The Ride of the Walkure from a later opera in the Ring, the famous stately wedding march (from Parzifal, maybe?), the Liebestod from Tristan.

A few tunes did appear later in the opera. A character called Erda sang a pretty one near the end, though I couldn’t remember it at all afterwards.

But didactic? Let me tell you. Wagner’s story is interesting, and a web search I’m sure will turn up a synopsis if you’re interested, but his characters are mostly way thin. Wotan, king of the gods (who rules, we are told, by virtue of cleverness in treaties, just like a contemporary businessman, in a funny anachronism) invites his wife to join him in the new digs he’s had built, a magnificent castle (called Valhalla) that embodies all he’d hoped for it. His wife, Fricka, instead of saying “wow, gorgeous house,” or, “yes, my sweet, I want nothing more than to live with you,” says, “why’d you call it Valhalla?” Wotan answers, “I’ll tell you later,” setting up, I’m guessing here, a LATER PLOT POINT WITH PHILOSOPHICAL RAMIFICATIONS.

I’m being misleadingly harsh and flippant. I did enjoy the spectacle, I enjoyed the singing and the sound of the orchestra, I’m curious to see how the whole Ring cycle would turn out. I’m glad for the experience. But I wouldn’t seek it out again.

I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was unsure. As soon as the opera finished, people poured out of the aisles to leave before the clapping was done -- I’d guess half the people were gone while clapping still continued, not being assisted by the quick exiters.

& I didn’t get a vibe of, wow, what a great experience, from anybody in the hall. A few singers did get ovations with extra-special enthusiasm, especially the magnificent bass Andrea Silvestrelli who sang Fasolt. But the general moods seemed to be semi-resented obligation and not-greatly-impressed curiosity. Count me in the latter category, though not completely -- as I said, I was impressed by the musicianship, including that of Wagner’s, and the sets & costumes & spectacularity were terrific.

Great contrast from the night before, where the audience for Cage was genuinely enthusiastic.

When I was a teenager a member of my church who had gone to Europe to sing opera professionally -- her name is Susan Anthony, believe it or not, and she’s on CDs now -- would occasionally come back and sing an informal Lieder recital in the church’s social gathering room after Sunday morning service. People would stand and listen, and I remember being blown away by the power and beauty of her voice. And I heard her for free, in a “chamber” setting. I’d really like to hear an amateur production of an opera. I’m not saying that musicians shouldn’t get paid, but with amateurs, my confidence that someone is doing it for love goes way way up.

I just didn’t get this “Rheingold” business. Opera was the movies of its day (I think Alex Ross said this, probably Nietzche too), and Wagner was a king of spectacularism. And unfortunately for him, his 19th century spectacularism is way dated. Hopelessly dated. Shakespeare’s sword fights and pursuing bears still help sell tickets, but they aren’t what keeps his name alive. Wagner’s dramaturgy ain’t what’s kept his name alive either. I don’t recommend “Das Rheingold” as evidence for the viability of his theater.

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