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.


Anonymous said...

Ok, I'll bite. Why are you calling him Teflon? Is he immune to criticism?

I have read your post on the other web site you have where you try to come to terms with what I think you call a disproportionate reaction to the music, or rather the experience of Wagner. Amid the admiration (eg the bit where you dispel the notion that Wagner's music doesn't contain any ideas) and the nausea (eg where you seem to say you know nothing about Mozart) I found myself wishing I could experience what for you was an emotionally intense, almost gut wrenching night out. My own experience with Wagner is rather spartan as I live in a region that will be unlikely to produce the Ring, so I am left with a recording of highlights, and of course Mr. Terfels recent recording of Wagner arias. I must confess that I was bowled over by Wotan's Farewell, and rated in very highly until I was out-clevered by some critic who informed me that Terfel's perfectionism was spoiling the emotive force of the music. Apparently if I new anything about Wagner I could prove it by enjoying Frederic Schorr instead. He may have been right, as when Terfel turns his head to sing in English, everything is over enunciated. In German I am lost.

By the way. Off this topic, I read your Dr Who post. As I moved to Canada when I was 9 (lived in Newcastle) I recall Dr Who, and your comment about putting Basil Brush on just prior had me roaring with laughter. I have very fond memories of BB and Dr Who, although BB gave my sister nightmares, and, rather embarrasingly, Dr Who could do the same for me, even if the monsters did look like Hoovers.

Anonymous said...

As one of the non-Wagerian fans I have to admit that the imagery was a mite confusing, but then imagery usually goes straight over my head (I saw a production of Hamlet once in which the entire cast wore huge woolen Arran jumpers throughout- I never did work out what that was about but a good evening's entertainment nonetheless).

I think Donner was wearing a boxer/wrestlers's dressing gown rather than Froh's effete dandy version, but the distinction was never very clear. The zombies were distinctly odd but rather appealing. Was the Rheingold meant to look like a brain? And I'm afraid the Tarnhelm looked like a Doctor Who prop throughout. Nevertheless I really enjoyed it, having forgotten quite a bit of the plot since the 1980's version.

Act 1 of Valkyrie was, to be honest, a little slow. Connor (13) nipped into the lounge, did the obligatory "It's behind you" when Siegfried started demanding a sword, hung about for 15 minutes during which time S made no attempt to actually obtain said item, and went off to play World of Warcraft again. He had a point. Nevertheless I'm rather looking forward to the next lot.

We read the blurb for Earthsea and decided that it didn't appear to resemble any Earthsea plot that we knew of, so we gave it a miss. The whole point of Earthsea is the plotting; you can't make up new ones willynilly (unless your name is LeGuin of course, and then you can do it into a comfortable retirement).

Anonymous said...

Something told me Andrew would go straight from Dr Who to Wagner.

Anyway, like the good culcha-vulcha I am I tried to watch it, and momentarily I was, indeed, fascinated. Then the Rhine maidens put their clothes on and the moment was over.

I really wish I could like Wagner: at least the Arthurian/Germanic myth ones. But I don't. Mostly because I don't understand the concept of singing in a style that makes it impossible to hear the words, and partly because when the subtitles tell you the words you discover they are utterly banal. I do admit that sometimes the music is rather good, often for whole minutes at a time, and of course the idea of portraying 'emotion' through music is very appealling: for instance I adore all of Sibelius and quite a lot of Vaughan-Williams' work and there's plenty of 'emotion' in those two. Now if wagner had composed a few tone poems based on the Volsunga sagas, then yes, I'd go for it. As it is, I'll have to pass.

I watched the Earthsea mini-series, though. As eye-candy it was perfectly serviceable; a sort of aquatic Harry Potter with the advantage that it's Ok to letch after the leading lady. Bit of a shame they called it Earthsea, though, as it had bugger all to do with the novel apart from a few character/place names. IMDB (internet movie database) has some choice comments on it and apparently Le Guin was unimpressed also.

Much, much, more important than all this stuff though, is Channel Five's re-showing of Buffy from series 1.01. Now I can find out what I missed before I tuned in during season 4. Oh joy.
Yours, Colin.
PS: Any chance of a riff on why it makes perfect sense to sack your Deputy Chairman for telling your core-voters exactly what they want to hear?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I don't understand what you are saying, here.

Almost all sung music involves sections where you are expected to pay attention to the lyric or libretto, and sections where the voice is simply being used as an instrument, and the words are pretty much irrelevant.

Scaramouche, scaramouche, will you do the fandango?

This certainly happens in the Ring, for example, when the Rhine Maidens are going "Rhine-gold; Rhine-gold; it's gold and it's shiny; la-la-la-la"; or when Siegmunde addresses the Spring before running out into the woods with Sieglinde.

I guess the problem with Wagner specifically is that where a lot of other opera uses recitative for the conversations, Wagner makes all the drama part of the composition. Often, the singer sings a line, and then the orchestra replies with a phrase to show you what the character is feeling or thinking -- or to point out some connection or significance that the character themselves may not be aware of. This can mean that the singer is competing with the orchestra, particularly, say, in the final scene of Gottedamerung where Brunhilde and the orchestra are both going at full strength.

However, in general I don't find it hard to work out what's being sung. I have the Goodale production on vinyl; this is sung in English and I can follow it without a copy of the text in front of me.

If you are talking about the audibility of the text, I'm assuming you understand German, which means you have an advantage over me. I understand that Wagner's libretto is though to be superior, considered as poetry, to most opera libretti, although I believe it is written in a fairly consciously archaic style. I have in front of me the first scene of Rhinegold. The Rhinemaidens sing:

Du klugste schwester
verklagst du uns wohl?
Weibt du den nichte,
we nur allein
das Gold zu schmieden vergonnt?

Nur we der Minne
Mach versagt,
nur we de Liebe
Lust vejagt,
nur der erzielt sich den Zauber
zum Rief zu zwingern das Gold

(My prudent sister,
No need to be cross!
Surely you know
all that's required
of him who would master the gold?

he must proununce
a curse on love,
he must renounce
all joys of love,
before he masters the magic
a ring to forge from the gold.)

Subject to obvious limitations of a translation intended to be sung, I'd be interested to hear what your problem is with this.

Obviously, if you are sitting through Rhinegold waiting for the big musical production number, then you are going to wait along time (until Donner's aria, I guess.) The key musical set pieces (the description of the Rhine right at the beginning, the gods' journey to and from the Dwarf kingdom, with the anvils being used as percussion) are definitely using sound, atmosphere and tone, rather than conventional "melody."

I thought that Michael Portillo did a reasonably good job of explaining the concept of lietmotifs; the way in which the opera is constructed out of a large number of musical phrases, each of which acquires a specific meaning. So that the tune which the Rhine-maiden is singing, above, when she talks about the renunciation of love turns up again in Valkyrie just before Siegmunde withdraws the sword from the tree. Of course, this means that you understand more of the Ring the more you listen to it, simply because you know the motifs better and spot connections more easily. There's no doubt that Wagner asks for a certain amount of commitment from his acolytes.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Act 1 of Valkyrie was, to be honest, a little slow.

Oh boy, are you going to have a fine time in Act I of Siegfried.

Andrew Rilstone said...

PS: Any chance of a riff on why it makes perfect sense to sack your Deputy Chairman for telling your core-voters exactly what they want to hear?

The core voters will vote for you in any case, Minister.

Andrew Rilstone said...

the nausea (eg where you seem to say you know nothing about Mozart)

Ah. What I wrote was "No, his operas aren't formally perfect and exquisite works, such as, (people tell me) Mozart writes." I intended that to be taken as "people tell me that Mozart's work is formally perfect and exquisite" not "people tell me that there are works by Mozart." I've seen Magic Flute, Don Giovani and Cose Van Tutti at Covent Garden and the E.N.O and enjoyed them very much. (Never heard Marriage of Figaro, oddly.) Indeed, I might even put Don Giovani in the box alongside Peter Grimes which says "Opera in the Wagnerian sense."

I guess what I was trying to do was signal my own relative lack of musical knowledge and background. I don't read music, I often don't feel I understand music. People who do read it and understand it tell me that Mozart is greatest. When I hear it, I can see how this could be so, but I don't feel it. "Hence "people tell me that Mozart is perfect..."

I think it was also an allusion to the official Funniest Book in the English Language: "I have been told by people who have tried it that a clear conscience makes you very happy, but a full stomach does the job just as well and is more easily and cheaply obtained...."

Andrew Rilstone said...

I recall Dr Who, and your comment about putting Basil Brush on just prior had me roaring with laughter.

BOOM! BOOM! I suspect that, when I was 9, the mere existance of a Pun convulsed me with laughter. But now that I am quite a few years older than 9, the mere fact that two words sound the same doesn't raise a chuckle. I knew a man with a big hooter. But what a man: a paragon of morality and integrity. And what did they call him? "Goodness Nose".

I'll get my coat.

Anonymous said...

I am about to commit an act of heresy.

I don't like most Mozart. (There. I've said it, and I'm glad!) I find his music shallow, emotionally manipulative, pious rather than genuinely anything in the Requiem, and, basically, boring.

I don't like Brahms much, either.

All of this may have something to do with the fact that I was raised by a musician who loved opera and made sure I was exposed to lots of Great Music(tm) as a babe in arms, long, long before this was fashionable. Oddly enough, it's Beethoven, most of the Russians, a few French composers, and Bach that became favorites, but I could gladly bypass nearly every Germanic composer (the two I've named excepted) for ever and ever.

Proof, if more proof were needed, that there's no accounting for taste.

Oh, and the word "hooter" is usually used in the plural on this side of the Pond and refers to the female breast. Which made your Pun slightly mind-boggling for a moment. Two nations separated, etc.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't feel justified commenting on the singing as I tend to listen to my Wagner on a very cheap CD player and suspect I can't tell the difference between good and really good in live singing.

The production was an awful mix of tired and irrelevant. The gods as decedant victorians has been done so often it is almost obligatory. I actually quite liked Donner as a sort of ringmaster/boxing promoter although the idea of him as a tired showy fake does not go with the music of his calling down the thunder - he isn't that tired yet.

With regard to the awful von Hagen set I guess the producer was taking the line about Albrecht having wanted to have what the Gods have and saying something about a Dr Frankenstain style attempt to turn dwarves into Gods - or maybe the messge was that cutting people up whilst still alive makes them unhappy (true but not the point) or maybe it was just an attempt to outweird the ENO and get a slot at Glastonbury.

Some of the set for the Gods temporary accomodation looked as though they had borrowed it from the EN0 production.

Or was it a case of don't mention the war? Traditional Wagner is sometimes deemed too politically incorrect. So instead they set the scene in something akin to a laboratory experimenting in human (or in this case dwarf) engineering? Without getting into the whole debate about Wagner's politics couldn't we sometimes have a production about something other than this aspect?

The worst thng about it was that it fought against the music. When the music is saying industry and mining with loud and distinct hammer blows it makes no sense for the stage business to be half dead people beating their flacid hands on a security window in a laboratory. Also, if the dwarves are spending all their time engaging in vivisection where does all the gold come from for the ransom? A bit of weirdness/symbolism/metaphor is fine but this just made no sense as well as having nothing to do with the music or the words of the opera.

A good production should add to or illuminate the opera and not be an irrelevant heavy handed attempt to make a completely different point altogether. Its not as if the opera is short on ideas and themes after all - love, greed, corruption, betrayal, for a start. Surely enough there for a decent production.

A good example of unusual but successful was the ENO Siegfreid with the hero as a lumpish teenager. It made sense of the character. It allowed us to like him as a potential hero without being uncomfortable at the way he spoke to Mime at the beginning and at no point was the stage business fighting against the music. The well endowed giant in the bath was however quite another matter..

All in all I'm glad I didn't succeed in getting a ticket. I hope ENOs offering on Saturday will be much better or at least bad in a more interesting way.

Anonymous said...

Ah. I see I was guilty of sloppy language earlier. What I actually meant was that I wish I could 'get' Opera so that I could 'like' Wagner; given that many of Wagner's operas deal with myths I already appreciate.
My criticisms of Wagner were intended to be criticisms of classical opera in general (I say classical opera because I actually like Brecht-Weill)
My real problem, I suspect, is that I just don't enjoy the noise opera singers make in much the same way others may be unappreciative of, say, Bluegrass. But at least I can acknowledge that it's my loss.
Yours, Colin S