November 29, 2010

The newest Ring cycle, by the New York Metropolitan Opera, is -- something else. Something exquisite, but also in a way opera rarely is: something that speaks not only to the opera lover but also to those who yearn for experiences with some depth to them.

I did not see it in person. I can see where that experience would be very different. Parts of what I saw may definitely have been improved by the high-definition feed: and I must wonder if future productions will always be designed with an eye to the filming and the feed. One thing the sound balance was not able to filtre out entirely was the sound of a 25-ton set re-adjusting: and that too would have been more noticeable in future.

I cannot speak of the voice quality of this singer or that. I do not have that kind of expertise. I know only that in what I heard, I have no complaints: but I also recognise that this too may be a function of sound balancing. Other reviews have different opinions.

At times, reading those other opinions felt like a war of the traditionalists vs. the innovators: except that each seems to want nothing less than a completely traditional performance or a complete innovation with no traditional elements whatsoever. Some liked the innovative set, others hated it: but each wanted more of the same direction in the entire production. (All wished the set could be made more soundless.) For the traditionalists, the old static sets should have been brought back in their entirety. For the innovators, costuming that created the illusion of ancient epic was too traditional. Ironically, many of those who complained that the set did not show enough (eg. Valhalla, suggested rather than shown by the rainbow bridge) also complained in different places that the set showed too much. If the ransom hides Freya from the giants' perspective, must it hide Freya from the audience as well?

Especially, the reviewers this time seemed caught with their backs against the wall in an end-stage holding action against the epic. Many noted that this production would appeal to those who enjoy epic films: as though that were a mark against it.

Oddest to me was the assumption that the production ought to "say" something. It has been the fashion for many years now for theatre circles to re-interpret productions through costuming, setting, even selected editing to give this message and reject that message. Some pieces lend themselves to such ambiguity. One of the beautiful open questions of Evita is whether Juan PerĂ³n truly loves his mistress or simply uses her.

Yet Wagner's Ring cycle can stand quite firmly on its own themes, without any need to drag in outside metaphors. Wagner's Ring grants power at a cost. This is something which simply is. To forge the gold into the Ring, Alberich must give up love. For those who would wish to possess the Ring after it was taken from Alberich, they must accept his curse along with the power. There is no inherent imperative or morality within that basic truth, unless we wish to create one.

When left to its own devices: what we see in a Ring which tries to stay clear of such imperative or morality is what we bring to it. Should we then complain that the production does not show what we think it should show?

The one thing that has always stood out to me when I listen to the Ring cycle -- the one thing that no one else ever seems to mention -- is its striking similarity to the plotline and themes of The Lord of the Rings.

This Ring will be the first to have been produced in its entirety since Peter Jackson completed his film version of LotR, and the set and light work and even the costumes definitely evoked some of LotR's camera work and costuming. When Wotan and Loge descend into Niflheim: that dizzying "vertical" illusion stands up astoundingly well against the LotR camera swoop from Gandalf's lofty prison down to the mining depths. If the similarity is deliberate: perhaps this Ring says much more than we think it does.

For myself: I can say only that the New York Metropolitan's production of Die Rheingold held me spellbound from beginning to end and for many hours after, when my thoughts drifted back to what I had just experienced. Avatar cannot hold a candle to that.

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