Sunday, May 17, 2009

Il crepuscolo degli Dei

I went to Florence to see the end of the world and I did. I got what I wanted, and then some. As it ended, it was redeemed by love.

What more could you ask for?

It was the Maggio Musicale's controversial Fura dels Baus production of Wagner's Die Gotterdamerung, the closing opera of the Ring of the Niebelungen.

I did not see the three previous parts, so I don't know how the visual imagery and production concepts interlinked, as they must. My impressions are based solely on what I saw and what I know of the Ring of the Niebelungen from previous viewings in a variety of production styles and from thousands of hours of listening accumulated over a lifetime.

It's easy to be disappointed, especially with Wagner. His demands on the singers are inhuman and, on the orchestra, Herculean. To successfully stage a battle with a giant dragon, or portray the frisky subaqueous antics of mermaid-like Rhine Maidens, or depict the Warrior Maidens called valkyries riding through the air on valiant steeds, is never easy. In the closing minutes of Gotterdamerung the world, from Valhalla, the palace of the Gods on high, to the earth below are consumed by flames and flooded over by the Rhine, submerging everything while the orchestra delivers its final redemptive chords. It takes brave and imaginative staging to pull this off.

Fura dels Baus originated as a street theater group in Catalonia in 1979. Since then they have worked in all forms of experimental theater and have a considerable history staging operas. They are in themselves a most interesting phenomenon, and a fascinating (and controversial) choice by the Maggio Musicale festival to design and direct their Ring cycle.

You may have ideas about Wagner and his music, you may not have a clue, but wherever you come from, this production would have made you sit up and take notice.

For example, in the first scene of Act 3, the doomed hero Siegfried encounters those watery vixens, the Rhinemaidens. They try all their wiles to talk Siegfried into relinquishing the ring on his finger, but he will have none of it. They warn him of impending doom but he doesn't listen.

Imagine now, three aquaria suspended above the stage, glass cubes filled with water. There is a Rhinemaiden in each. They flip and charm and, occasionally, fully submerge, posing and beckoning and playfully splashing Siegfried. All the while they are singing enchanting, subtle and fiercely difficult music, making it look easy and fun.

There were moments that didn't work for me. It wasn't enchanted by Gutrune, the Gibichung princess in go-go boots riding an exercycle suspended in a spherical gopher cage. In the fact, the whole Jetson's aesthetic of the Gibichungs left me cold, but Hans Peter Konig was so galvanizing as the evil Hagen, his manipulations of Gunther and Gutrune so chillingly cold-blooded, and his immense barrel-organ bass so overwhelming and insinuating that it took your breath away, reducing everything else to quibbles.

Jennifer Wilson as Brunnhilde gave it everything she had, and if she sometimes came up short it was not for want of trying. She also had to deal with unflattering costumes whilst singing from various contraptions suspended from cranes (see below). There can hardly be a more difficult role to sing and in the most intimately compelling moments she scaled the heights, as in the long scene with her Valkyrie sister Waltraute, and in her final Immolation Scene, her soft, sad "ruhe, ruhe..." was heartfelt and heart-rending. She did not ring out brightly in Act 2 trio, but she was palpable, filled with anger and hurt, pitted against the dark side of The Force.

As for Lance Ryan as Siegfried, it should be enough to say that he sang part of his Act 2 confrontation with Brunnhilde while hanging upside down in gravity boots attached to the keel of the same suspended metal boat that ferried her back captive of his absolute betrayal. He sang that way for several minutes until he was released. Many tenors fail on their feet to sing what he sang upsidedown. He is attractive and physical onstage, and his voice both spoke softly and carried a big stick. He sounded fresher in Act 3 than in Act 1. I don't know if it was because it was the last performance of the run, or because he was particularly inspired, but his Act 3 was sheer bravura, dramatically and vocally. It soared, as if, instead of being about to die, he was just getting started. It made his death all the more startling. He did not appear for curtain calls, but it would not be hard to imagine that he was spent, having given a gigawatt performance.

Siegfried is killed by Hagen at the very moment the magic potion which has blinded him releases him. He has rapturously remembered the forest bird telling him of the sleeping Valkyrie, his voice sweet and ecstatic. Then he remembers his radiant warrior bride, whom he has so horribly betrayed, to the music of her awakening from her long sleep surrounded by the magic fire -- their first meeting. It was devastating emotionally, dramatically, musically. The Funeral March which follows his murder was savage; Zubin Mehta beat it out of the orchestra and they played as if their own families had been murdered and they were fierce and angry and sad while a phalanx of GIbichungs paraded the dead hero's body through the audience.

And then there was the end of the world. Brunnhilde lights Siegfried's funeral pyre, setting heaven and earth on fire. She rides into the fire on the surge of love that conquers time and space and redeems the universe.

Bodies, suspended high, linked acrobatically, writhed in the fire light above the flood and what I saw was the dissolution of the primal DNA, the glue that held everything together, dissolving back into the sea of primal nothingness and already forming the bonds of a new world. So that we did not miss the point, stage hands pushed two rectangular blocks across the front of the stage, upon which was written "L'AMOUR". It was a very 60's touch, but having lived through that, it was resonant in a pleasant way. It was also part of the Circus/Jetsons/60s aesthetic that characterized the production and that annoyed many. Not serious, they said; Star Wars stagecraft. For me, on its own terms, it worked.

It certainly worked for most of the audience, an unusually high number of whom were under 30, hip, alternative, and enchanted; they were still there, dazzled, at the end of the six-hour night filled with music and magic.The metal boat suspended from cranes; Brunnhilde and Gunther inside, Siegfried and Gutrune below. When challenged, he is suspended from the bottom, upside down, in gravity boots. And sings...

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