Like anyone, I sometimes imagine what it would be like to be an opera director. Like anyone mentally ill, I suppose I should say. Some of it sounds fun, and some it sounds daunting, and I think the worst thing might be knowing that things that look one way in your head...well, let's take the kookier scenes of a Wagner opera. Somebody has to turn into a snake, for instance. Why, that's no big deal says Director You. It's no longer the 19th century and we have all kinds of technology. And that loud rushing sound you hear is the flushing of the toilet of history, and caught in the unforgiving vortex are the people who think technology is automatically going to help anything.
I'm not a very visual person. I can't picture the characters in books and if there are geographical descriptions, forget it. So I can well imagine not having any idea what it might look like if I had someone turn into a snake by
1) having them put a gold lame kerchief on their head (because contrary to what you've heard, this is not the Native American themed Ring; It's the drag themed Ring. I kid. It's neither. We'll get there)
2) having something explode stage left so they can quickly run offstage right, which is known I think as misdirection in the card trick biz, but unfortunately if you do it twice, the second time everyone's going to be all, hey, I'm watching Alberich when the thing explodes. Oh, there, I've gone and ruined the abstract quality of this little scenario. It was about Alberich all along.
3) having a big, and I mean massive projection of a snake head kind of poke down out of the flies, and then project a bunch more snakes squiggling around. Avoid outright hilarity and pandemonium only by not using any airplane imagery, thereby escaping the possibility the audience will shout en masse, "Snakes on a plane!!!", thump each other on the back, and promptly leave to have a beer and laugh about it.
Bonus points: having Alberich turn into a frog, after misdirection explosion #2, by replacing him with what appears to be a really adorably cute big wind-up frog. [Rather important tangential lesson: you don't want Wagner and cute on the same stage.] I'm just saying "...got the biggest laugh of the evening" was not a phrase I was expecting to use in a Rheingold review.
A day or so ago I wrote that I'm no fan of stultifyingly conservative productions/happy enough with crazy revisionist staging, and I am. But, just..they can't suck is all. I'll try and elaborate, but what it's going to boil down to is that my problem with the talk-of-the-town Zambello American Rheingold is not the lack or horned helmets or even the baffling presence, after the whole thing turned out not to be so Native American as we had heard, of Erda-hontas and other weird cultural mash-ups. Knock yourself out, FZ; put 'em all in white linen suits. Memorial Day is just around the corner, isn't it? The problem is that, unlike many fine Zambello productions, it is just fucking dumb. Clumsy. Sloppy.
I should pause to dole out vocal kudos where due. As far as I'm concerned, honors go to Gordon Hawkins for his well-crafted if not conceptually lived-in Alberich and Elizabeth Bishop for an echt Wagnerienne turn as Fricka. (In long Island you could plug this name in, it occurs to me, to the old joke: Fricka? I hard know 'uh!) The rest of the cast was uniformly at risk of damnation with faint praise, capable but not special. Though I think I should exempt the Froh of Cory Evan Watz, which rose a good bit above good enough; and really all three Rhein maidens (JeeYoung Lee, Frederique Vezina, and Jennifer Hines) for excelling in music that doesn't tend to make or break the opera, but can go quite badly and instead went well. Robert Hale got through the evening fine, but I can't say his performance was particularly gripping, and I don't know that I'd care to hear him in the longer Wotans.
A pretty enthusiastic nod goes to conductor Heinz Fricke, not to be confused with Fricka, or I suppose Heinz 57 Sauce for that matter. His architectural sense of the score was firm. He delivered the goods in climactic moments, ready also to speed along the occasional longeurs of this shortest Ring score. I mean, the bickering in Scene II? That shit can last for hours. It did seem that Fricke met with some orchestral lack of preparation, unless I'm simply that spoiled by the Met. And for some reason the entry of the gods into Valhalla came off as a bit flaccid...perhaps in part because of the "when's this cruise leave for Bermuda" staging and also (small point, but not) because it was not puncuated in the middle by the expected resounding CLANK; rather, the silent and inexplicable image of Donner thrusting that damned architectural t-square he'd been toting around all evening into the ground, as if to say: the next time a bunch of farshtunkeneh dieties ask me to build them a weekend place, I'm upgrading to computer drafting. As well he should, if we're not being all hoity toity about time periods.
Behind, above, and all around these singers was some of the lamest crap. A special nod in this category, the lameness award (a golden crutch) to Mark McCullough, another person whose work I'm sure I've enjoyed elsewhere. I think at Glimmerglass, actually, so you'll know I'm not just being pro forma with the snark-mitigation. The ploddingly literal use of color, from the froggy green of the tarnhelm scene to the stop-sign red for Erda, was [pep talk: ok, Maury. What are the chances someone being written about here will read this? Obviously not that great. Go ahead and be cunty.] embarassing. Only slightly less so: the giant digital graphics projected on a scrim during each orchestral interlude and the riveting opening bars of the opera. No fooling around, can you remember the early days of screen savers with the one where stars were coming at you? Because that was one of them. Don't get me wrong; they were all pretty. They were also reminiscent of a deadly awful Tales of Hoffman I saw as an undergraduate, put on by a department that had just purchased a $10,000 laser and figured they had damn well better use it. As I recall, all it would do was it would spell out the words "Tales of Hoffman" every once in a while, as if wielded by kid who has learned only one trick. Well, it had better be a good trick and not too reminiscent of Koyanisqaatsi, a video game, or (god forfend) a meditation video.
I'm sort of tripping over myself to mention all that was wrong. Because, truly, I'd be remiss in not asking: what in the name of all that is good were the Fafner and Froh costumes about? More presumably unintended visual references here, this time to Freddy Kreuger. Freddy Krueger with huge feet. Please stand and join me in a chorus of "huh?!" I guess it's true what they say about guys with big feet: they build big celestial mansions, and then abduct your sister. And the murder of Fasolt went for nothing, choreographed with all the assurance of a high school play. A middle school play. A Christmas pageant in Fort Stockton, Texas.
I am trying to imagine what went wrong. Zambello was responsible for, among other things I've liked, the Met's enthralling new Troyens a few years back. Perhaps someone was very taken with the idea of an American Ring, and didn't think through what is clearly not a good fit, like how everyone says "Rheingold!" a lot, and no matter what's going on lately with American public education, someone in the audience is bound to recall that an interesting thing about the Rhein is that it's pretty much just not in America. So your supertitles can say "Pure gold!" if you think that's an intellectually honest approach to translation, but if you ask me, they might just as well say "Russ Feingold!" or "Hermione Gingold!"
But as usual, I wasn't consulted. I'm not even going to carp about the clearly audible brouhaha backstage as the sets were changed. Me, I'm just not going back for seconds next year when Walkure two-steps its way onstage.
Next up, today's Met Council National Auditions. Meanwhile, here's a link to a review from someone who liked the above a lot more than I did.