Sunday, March 26, 2006

Winged Toasters of the Gods

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 " 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.


T. Ambrose Nazianzus said...

You saw that mess as well? Where did you sit? I had the good (or bad...probably bad) fortune to be in M 7, and the noise backstage was terrible. That's the virtue of abstract don't make a lot of damn noise.

It was so quiet when the bass/baritones were singing. Erda and Fricka were the only two I enjoyed, probably because I could hear them. I still thought Froh was bland, though (and I think, in your post, you meant to say Donner, instead of Loge, in terms of the clank).

I still thought it dragged a little, though you are right, scene two was the only spot I didn't think it was a problem.

The prelude and the entry were both a little weak, in my opinion.

I have better hopes with Die Walkure, if only because I have faith in the Wotan of Alan Held.

Maury D'annato said...

Hi Terry. I was in good frontish balcony seats. We kept peering over the ledge to see if Condi or Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in a box, to no avail. I love me some Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Donner, right. Not Loge. We here at My Favorite Intermissions like to think of the constant flow of misinformation as a potential source of drinking games: everyone do a shot when Maury makes a glaring factual error.

I didn't so much enjoy Zaremba as Fricka, but de gustibus a son gout.

You'll have to let me know how Walkuere goes...

Paul said...

I love the idea of the Golden Crutch Award! It has the potential to create the same sort of buzz one expects from The Razzies, don't you think?

And speaking of operatic drinking games, my wife came up with a doozie: Down a shot of tequila every time someone sings the name "Margarita" during Gounod's "Faust." We tried it once but passed out before the end of the first act. Of course, we're Jews, so our cultural background didn't exactly help there. Maybe next time we'll try it with Manischewitz - hey, just in time for Pesach!

Maury D'annato said...

I once thought up an Opera-L drinking game, too. It was a bit mean spirited so I'll elide the details--I'm feeling a bit of remorse for my wicked ways after writing such a harsh review.

I'm afraid it's true: we Jews were not meant for drinking games...but when the Scrabble board comes out, batten down the hatches.

Brett said...

Ooh--Elizabeth Bishop was one of the alto soloists when I sang the Mahler 8 here in Madison. Wonderful singer.

Anonymous said...

Now I have something to tell my kids about today when we talk a little bit about productions. I'm still laughing my ass off at the idea of 386/486 era computer screensaver aesthetics in a Ring production.

And c'mon, post the Opera-L drinking game. We can always write a r.m.o. version, too.

Saw Lysistrata this weekend. Enjoyed myself. Pretty complex piece, though--may take another go at it and bring friends, because how often do you get an opera with dick jokes?

Maury D'annato said...

Ha, I'm now going to claim around town that my writing has been used as a text at [Prominent University.]

The main rules of the Opera-L drinking game were you had to do a shot when A Certain Person ended his post with "Vergogna!" or A Certain Other Person dropped the name of a diva that gave him the time of day. I'll say no more. [Maury looks around nervously...all very film noir] I've said too much already!

Hm, how about a film noir Ring? No, that would suck. (See, certain directors? Ideas can be dismissed if they just don't work.)

I'm not sure how I'm disposed toward Lysistrata...

Anonymous said...

Ooh, I like that drinking game. shame about the two posts a day limit...

rysanekfreak said...


Opera-L drinking games.

How about every time "that person" punctuates using more than 5 exclamation marks?

Or every time that person crossposts the exact same text on seven different opera boards?

Or every time that person spells more than ten words incorrectly per post?

Or every time that person insists he is not banned from a certain opera board?

We would all be perpetually drunk with livers that looked like huge chunks of turquoise!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Maury D'annato said...

I'm afraid I've touched a nerve, Rysanekfreak!

Princess Alpenrose said...

How about a drinking game where everyone downs a shot each time a glaring typo or a criminally stupid mistranslation scrolls across the supertitle screen?

That way, we'd all be so drunk that when Act II of whatever it is we're watching rolls around, we wouldn't care anymore. That sure would be a relief ...!

Grrg said...

Just incidentally... The film noire-ish, 1920s Ring you just created in your mind and then discarded? Um... it's happening in less than a month:

Still time to get on a slow boat to Kobenhavn...

Maury D'annato said...

It looks like it might be lovely. And it has Stig Anderson and Tina Kiberg, who I believe got nice reviews in Wagner in the U.S. a couple of years back. I believe they're married.

Ron Ozer said...

I saw this on Friday evening and was shocked at the poor direction, costumes and acting by many in the cast (plus Wotan was 2 sizes too small in voice). The costumes were uniformly awful if not laughable. There was no consistent directorial voice unless you call Whimsy a voice. So many bad ideas stuck out. Erda. The T square. The giants costumes (those feet, those hands, oh my!) The snake!

I actually liked the animations between scenes, but not the snake or frog. I think using kids for Nibelungs doesn't work great, I could probably have gotten them to scream by raising my fist with no ring... I did like the underground set, but the Erector set for Scene 1 was abysmal. Loge was the best actor out there, Alberich second. Freia as an older Patty Hearst? Froh as a golfer? The Titanic boarding at the end? My kids came with me, my 12 year old liked it. My 13 year old daughter was baffled. I told her I was also. My wife hated the staging...

I would not go back for the rest, sorry.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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