Yesterday I saw Berkeley Opera's final performance of The Legend of the Ring, their revival of David Seaman’s abbreviated adaptation of Der Ring des Nibelungen. On the whole I enjoyed it, particularly the singing, and the abridgement is quite skillfully done. I can see why a small but very adventurous company like Berkeley Opera would enjoy adding the Ring to their series of operatic adaptations, and it’s great for the singers to get a chance at these roles in a small house, but honestly I’m a bit uncertain who the intended audience is.
At nearly four hours, it’s much too long for most children, and it was left in German (with English surtitles), and while four hours of German opera may be less daunting than the sixteen or so of the full cycle, I pretty much believe that anyone who is interested in the Ring Cycle should just jump into the deep end of the pool – I’m not saying you should get tickets to Bayreuth without hearing a note, but CDs of the operas are as the sands on the shore, and every few months it seems there’s a new staging available on DVD, and the number of books on Wagner is by no means decreasing (my usual recommendation for anyone interested in embarking on the Ring is a combo platter of Shaw’s Perfect Wagnerite, for a social and economic interpretation, and M. Owen Lee’s Turning the Sky Round, for a more psychological approach, or you could even hunt down a copy of the graphic novel), and individual operas, particularly Die Walkure, are staged on their own fairly often, and why wouldn’t you pick one of those more obvious starting places, one that gives you a better sense of what Wagner is about?
This adaptation reminded me of seeing a great novel (particularly something long and Victorian) made into a movie – much of the texture and oddity and the little moments of characterization that made the novel great and worth the time are pared away in the interests of moving the plot from point A to point B. Many of the missing moments here – Erda’s shocking and abrupt entrance to warn Wotan to surrender the Ring, the Rhine Daughters’ cry from the watery depths as the gods ascend to Valhalla, the Wanderer’s game of riddles with Mime – are not only there to make philosophical or psychological points: they’re also stunning, exciting moments of pure theater. The adaptation unrolls the plotline smoothly from beginning to end, but who goes to the Ring Cycle for the plot?
And Wagner wasn’t really interested in the story for its own sake. And he wasn’t interested in people who weren’t willing to commit themselves to his vision. Music Director Jonathan Khuner wrote in the programbook that the Ring “does scare away the faint-hearted.” But it’s supposed to. Like the fire around Brunnhilde’s rock, the Ring’s reputation – for length, among other things – ensures an audience of heroes. (For the purposes of this discussion, I’m defining “hero” as “someone who can spare a week and several thousand dollars to sit in a theater”). You either have the experience of the Ring that Wagner intended, or you don’t. Training versions really don't convey what it's like being immersed in that experience.
Here’s one thing you miss: the sense of Time. Not just the sense of having gone through something that is distinctly an event, but the wonderful way in which, as the story moves forward, the stories we are told also move backwards, so that as we near the destruction of Valhalla, we see the Norns and hear about the World Ash Tree at the beginning of creation. Nature in general gets short shrift here, which further reduces the richness of this universe and its meanings. Erda is gone, and Spring barely glances in the window of Hunding’s hut (let alone throws open the door), and there are no forest murmurs and no Rhine journey. Maybe that was why the portrayal of the Forest Bird as a silly woman chatting on a cell phone annoyed me; it was one of the few chances to add in the natural world, and I didn't want it played for cheap laughs (and if they were going to go there, wouldn’t a bird be tweeting anyway?).
I was considering the Forest Bird and her cell phone the major directorial miscalculation until Gunther showed up – hunched over, blinking, afraid to touch a weapon – played, in fact, the way Mime is usually played. This is just wrong. Gunther is a king and a warrior, and his music tells you that – yet he still falls short of the hero Siegfried. That’s the point. You don’t get that if you play him as an obvious coward. And if he were the nebbish portrayed here, it’s unlikely that Siegfried would have heard the fame of “Gibich’s stalwart son” up and down the Rhine, or would want to be his bloodbrother.
Other than those unfortunate decisions, the staging (by Mark Streshinsky) ranged from effective to outstanding, particularly in the use of shadow (to the left and right of the open center stage were screens, on which location shots could be projected, or which could be backlit to show the action in striking silhouette). There was one directorial innovation I loved (or, as the old man behind me exclaimed loudly, “They changed it!”): at the end, when Brunnhilde has lit the funeral pyre, Loge the fire god returns, retrieves the Ring from Brunnhilde, and hands it back to the Rhine Daughters as the waters rise. One kisses him in thanks, and even though his “gosh, she kissed me!” expression was a little cartoony, the exchange nicely captured the theme of love and power as Loge fulfills his promise to the water sprites. It would have been even better if the adaptation had made more of a point at the beginning that Loge had made this promise, but still it was very nicely done.
The orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Khuner, was a little ragged, particularly in the brass, and underpowered; there are moments (particularly, I noticed, when Siegmund is involved) when the music should swell and spill ecstatically, and that just wasn’t happening. The singers, each playing multiple roles, were the real prize and purpose of the afternoon. Of the women, Christine Springer (Wellgunde and Brunnhilde) and Valentina Osinski (Flosshilde and Fricka) were both solid, though Osinski’s voice has sort of a metallic edge, but my favorite was Marie Plette (Woglinde, Freia, Sieglinde, the Forest Bird, and Gutrune) whose strong and free voice was beautiful in a different way in each role.
Stephen Rumph, a singer new to me though not to Berkeley Opera audiences, brought a crisp stage presence and a clear bright voice to Loge and Mime (it was nice to hear Mime sung instead of snarled), and I hope to hear him again. Bojan Knezevic (Alberich and Fasolt), Dean Peterson (Fafner, Hunding, and Hagen), and Jay Hunter Morris (Froh, Siegmund, Siegfried) were all excellent in their varied roles, but Richard Paul Fink (Wotan and Gunter) was the dominant voice among the men, as a Wotan should be. As mentioned earlier, I didn’t care for the characterization of Gunter, though he sang it well, but it was as the half-blind god that he really came through: Fink is fairly short, but solid enough to be physically imposing, and he brought both power and nuance to the role – I’d like to hear him in it when he gets a chance to deliver the Walkure Act 2 monologue, and the complete farewell to Brunnhilde.
Berkeley Opera’s new theater is a vast improvement over the Julia Morgan, even though it’s clearly not designed for an elderly audience: there’s no center aisle in the auditorium, and the narrow aisles get clogged very easily with the slow-moving. It’s certainly an easy walk from the El Cerrito BART station, once you figure out which direction you’re going in (I had to ask seven people before one of them knew where Ashbury Avenue was; of course there was no attendant at the station I could ask). Since they, after renaming themselves in true Wagnerian style – they are now the Berkeley West Edge Opera – have an exciting season coming up,* it’s good to know where they are.
Perhaps I would have been a little less impatient with certain aspects of the show, which on the whole I enjoyed, if the seat to my right hadn’t been occupied by one of those squat old women about half my size who hog the armrest. The minute the music started her mouth flew open and every breath came out with a weird whistling snort that might have indicated sleep except her eyes, Hagen-like, seemed open. The snoring, if that’s what it was, was broken during the second half when she very loudly chewed the cookie she wasn’t supposed to bring into the auditorium. And yet none of that was as irritating as the old man's occasional comments. Snoring I can understand, but there's no excuse for talking in a theater.
* Their new season isn't on their website yet, but according to brochures available at the show, they are performing Handel's Xerxes, conducted by Alan Curtis, on November 13, 19, and 21; an adaptation of Carmen called The Carmen Fixation with Buffy Baggott on March 5, 9, 11, and 13 2011; and a new opera by Clark Suprynowicz and Amanda Moody, Caliban Dreams, with John Duykers, on July 30 and August 5 and 7 2011.