Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The German Opera Project: Maiden Voyage

I made it through part one. How was my first experience?

My first question, if you recall from my first post, was: where were the Viking helmets?

When I first settled in to watch Das Rheingold (literally "Gold of the Rhine River") and couldn't spot any, I knew I was in for some trouble, or at least make peace with the fact that this is a postmodern interpretation that may be beyond me and require a brush-up of my contemporary literary theory lectures from college. Keep in mind that this is the controversial, much-discussed and now-legendary centennial production at the Bayreuth Opera House, which ran from 1976 to 1980.

German opera is like German food: it's heavy, it's rich in texture, it's altogether satisfying, but it is a large undertaking and chasing it with a light aperitif is required to wash it all down. A glass of red wine in a twilit room, as my Wagnerite friend K said, is perfect, and she was right.

The story of Das Rheingold is this, in a nutshell: the dwarf Alberich tries to seduce one of the Rhine maidens, who guard the Rhine River gold lodes. They mock his not-ready-for-Madison-Avenue visage and he steals the gold. They then tell him that whosoever rejects love and fashions the ring out of the river gold will infuse it with the power to control the universe at large. By extension, anyone who holds or wears the ring rules the world. The narrative struggle, naturally, is concerned with the powers of the ring, who wears it, and who must have it. 

Seized by capitalist zeal, Alberich becomes an entrepreneurial sort and builds a factory where trolls and humans toil under his dictatorship. 
Alberich's "factory".

He is eventually killed by the god Wotan (Oden, to some of you) for the ring and, as he lay dying, curses the ring so that whoever wears it will be seized with paranoia and obsessive fear of losing the ring and its uncontested powers to others. 
Wotan, all fiery and dressed to go to lunch with Donald Trump

Wotan, sometime after the ring was initially fashioned, commissions a new home to be built for the gods by the giants, in exchange for his sister-in-law, Freia, as a commission in full payment of the home, to be named Valhalla. He does not uphold his end of the bargain and the giants seize Freia as payment. Wotan comes into possession of the ring and exchanges it to the giants for Freia. One of the giants, seized by the ring's power and its attendant curse, kills the other, who is, incidentally, his brother. If we read this as an origin story, one being is the first to commit breach of contract and the other is the first in this world to commit homicide. The gods retreat into Valhalla, but we are warned that their day in the sun is almost over: that's right, the gods are fallible and vulnerable.

Valhalla, post-renovation. That's Freia under the giant's hand on the right.

Despite how I was tried as an opera neophyte to strap myself in for two and a half hours on an introduction, something struck me about the production's visual aesthetic. Rather than Eden-esque gardens and Boticelli-esque sopranos, I was surprised to see that much of the set had a heavy, industrial, abstract quality. Consider that the opening, set in the Rhine River (yes - in it), is comprised of replica monolithic beams from 2001: A Space Odyssey, lined up and stacked with a neat bar on top, giving a heavy look to the "river". The river has, in fact, been turned into a hydroelectric plant. Smoke and dry ice obscure the ground to give a further impression that we are not in a natural setting, nor a naturalistic one, but in a highly symbolic abstraction.

The Rhine "River", now churning power to compete with Mr. Burns on "The Simpsons".

The aesthetic seems a tad precious at first. However, as it turns out, no less than George Bernard Shaw is a huge fan of Wagner's Ring Cycle. In his essay "The Perfect Wagnerite", he views the opera through the prism of economic theory and sees in it a potential collapse of capitalism. In fact, to appreciate the mammoth scope of the entire work, one cannot simply view it as a collection of episodes involving a shiny piece of bling. As he put it:

"Only those of wider consciousness can follow it breathlessly, seeing in it the whole tragedy of human history and the whole horror of the dilemmas from which the world is shrinking today."

This influential essay explains why the work inspires such devout fervour and seems so inaccessible. Viewing the work as sociopolitical allegory ties it more intimately into contemporary discussion. In other words, this is no mere entertainment, it is a living, breathing thesis put to song. You can read the entire essay here.

The set’s highly stylized look also instantly recalls the dimensions of Fritz Lang's memorable silent movie Metropolis. Lang's classic film depicts a world where the mega-wealthy oligarchs live in gleaming towers at the top of the world, and one cannot visually fathom just how high up they are and how low the worker classes live and toil below. Consider that the scenic design of the lower depths of Alberich's factory, where he controls his workers, is a subterranean cavern with very low ceilings and where all the workers are either vertically challenged or hunched over. There is heavy machinery and the low ceiling looms large, visually and physically oppressing all those who toil beneath it. Already Chereau's production brings to mind the age-old struggle of the masses against the classes and references that tired old adage about absolute power corrupting absolutely. This is a curious, yet perfectly logical way of reminding the audience that although the Norse mythology on which The Ring was based is thousands of years old, that Wagner wrote his magnum opus for an Industrial Revolution audience, therefore emphasizing the modern parallel to his story and possibly render a critique of the capitalist model. It is at this point that the purists can come after the writer with pitchforks for attempting an anachronistic interpretation, but that is likely what Chereau set out to do. It is also no accident that Valhalla is abstract and has exaggerated ceilings, rendering it similar to the towering sets in Metropolis.

Despite all of the large ideas in Das Rheingold, and in particular this production, one must remember that this is the prologue and the first part of the entire cycle. Most of the action to come involves the Valkyrie Brunhildr and the hero Siegfried.

For further reading on the outrage of the centennial Bayreuth production, click here. Take note that this production caused such a stir physical fights at the premiere, with fisticuffs and catfights (everything but duels, evidently). As outrageous as this production and the story surrounding it are, there still remains considerable furor over taking such artistic liberties with such hallowed source material. This production proved to become influential and propagate a series of similarly adventurous and avant-garde undertakings such, as the spring 2010 LA Opera production and the upcoming San Francisco Opera production.

Such heavy art for this blogger to consider! Onto part two, Die Walkure, soon!