Monday, March 28, 2005

What's Opera Doc

GOOD NEWS. The BBC decided to show Covent Garden's Rhinegold and Valkyrie over the Easter Weekend. Doctor Who AND Wagner. (And Earthsea, as well, but don't get me started on that.)

BAD NEWS. Bryn Teflon, who was supposed to be singing Wotan, lost his voice, so we only got Act I of Valkyrie

EVEN WORSE NEWS: Michael Portillo, who was doing the introductory talks, didn't lose his voice. At least he resisted the temptation to say "and you know, Alberich renouncing love for the ring is very like, when, as a member of John Major's cabinet, I..." which is his normal idiom.

GOOD NEWS: Bryn Teflon, whose Rhinegold was presumably recorded in advance, was as good as everyone says. He managed to put nuance into his singing and his gestures at the same time. (Sieglinde, for example, could only manage one at time. One noticed her hands wandering down to her abdomen on the high notes, and then remembering what they were supposed to be doing and reaching for a goblet.) He made you feel that "acting through music" is a natural, rather than a very strange and artificial, form of expression.

BAD NEWS: Deeply incoherent production of Rhinegold I thought. I am, as you know, very relaxed about radical and weird versions of the Ring. But. When the producer explained that the Gods were going to be Victorian but the Dwarves were going to represent a sort of industrial and scientific revolution, I started to get sinking feelings. When did you last see a production where the gods weren't Victorian? In fact, Valhalla seemed to be a random collection of unrelated items -- a telescope, a sofa -- and the Dwarfs realm was, for no reason that I could understand, a mortuary or vivisection lab. Alberich and Mime spend a lot of time moving dead bodies around the stage. The niebelungs themselves are either victims of lobotomy experiments, or corpses revived a la Doctor Frankenstien. The producer suggested that this was because the Ring represents the misuse of science and genetic modification, which it doesn't. And for some reason Donner and Froh were in dressing gowns or smoking jackets. Donner is the god of thunder. He has a hammer. The one time he is center-stage musically involves him calling the thunder down -- one of the most macho moment in the whole cycle. What is the point of making him a dandy?

GOOD NEWS: Loge was brilliant and stole the show, totally mischievous and understated and enjoying himself the whole time.

ALSO GOOD NEWS: Erda the Earth-Goddess was an old lady in a veil; possibly Queen Victoria herself. She is asleep in an armchair and wakes up for her big moment. Mr Portaloo's comments over the curtain call suggests that she was actually sitting in the armchair for the whole opera. At any rate, nice image, nice characterization.

CATASTROPHICALLY BAD NEWS: One of pundits at the beginning of Valkyrie explained that, in between the two operas, Wotan goes to Erda, learns from her, and as he later admits, seduces or even rapes her. He evidently hadn't seen last nights production. While the other gods were climbing up ladders to Valhalla, Wotan is shagging Erda in her armchair. I am trying to work out what new interpretation of the opera this was pointing us towards. I suspect it was the version which says "Our non-German speaking audience will not be following the sub-titles, so perhaps if we spell everything out in a really, really unsubtle way, they'll be able to follow the plot. (In Valkyrie, Sieglinde's line "I gave him a drug in his drink" is foreshadowed ten minutes in advance by a bit of business in which she opens what appears to be a packet of lemsip.)

GOOD NEWS: I have been told by two people who are not particularly Wagner enthusiasts that they were captivated by the production. So I am probably being over-critical.

GOOD NEWS: There was less rubbish on the stage in Valkyrie, although I still had no-idea what anything meant or was supposed to symbolize. But it gave the performers a fairly empty space to sing and act in. There were some nice little ideas. Siegmund has a big fur coat which is associated with his father, "Wolf." When Sieglinde starts to realize who he is, she unwraps a brown paper packet which contains a similar coat.

GOOD NEWS: Hunding is the unexpected scene stealer in this. Remarkable diction (I don't speak German, but I could pick out words with the sub-titles) and very charismatic action. Too often he is just the cardboard villain from the moment he comes in. Here, there seemed to be a convincing camaradarie with Siegmund in the brief moments before he realizes that they are enemies.

BAD NEWS: But the Nazi imagery of the coat was overdoing it, wasn't it?

BAD NEWS: Why oh why does that sword drive producers crazy? Siegmund is meant to pull the sword from the tree, brandish it aloft, and run into the woods with Sieglinde. As dear sweet Germain said, the symbolism is not exactly rocket science. So what is going on when Sieglinde takes the sword from Siegmund, and they go out into the woods with her holding it in front of herself?

GOOD NEWS: Singing all very good indeed, particular when the duet gets going. (I believe that Placido is going to have a go at Siegmund later in the run, if both he and Bryn can get their throats in working order simultaneously. If you want tickets for that one, Covent Garden will accept the soul of your first born in down payment.)

BAD NEWS: Got to wait til May 7th to see Acts Two and Three, at which point (you can bet) Mr Portillo will not be able to resist some political analogies.