It’s kind of disappointing when you’re turned off something you’ve wanted to see for a while.
It’s no secret that my tastes in music are extremely eclectic. One only needs to look at the playlist I use at work on my iPod to see how varied my music collection is. As such, it shouldn’t be too surprising that I enjoy opera, even though I rarely get the chance to actually watch it. As a fan of fantasy and mythology, the one opera series I’ve always wanted to see has been Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, better known as the Ring Cycle. The Ring Cycle is made up of four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. It’s based on Norse mythology and tells the story of the struggles to obtain a magic ring with the power to rule the world (sound familiar?), and how it brings about the downfall of the gods.
The problem with performing the Ring Cycle is its sheer size. Each opera ranges from three and a half hours to five hours in length, and the stage directions and effects necessary make it prohibitively expensive to perform. In fact, the number of opera companies in the United States that have performed the Ring Cycle is in the single digits. As you might imagine, then, I was excited to learn that Houston Grand Opera is performing all four operas over the space of four years.
As it so happens, Das Rheingold is being performed this month. While I would normally go ahead and buy tickets, I had two concerns. The first concern was for Jennifer, because she doesn’t like opera. She would go for me, though, and while I do appreciate that with all of my heart, I don’t want to put her through something she’s not going to like. The other was that I had no idea what the production was going to be like, so I’d like to see a review first. After doing a web search, I ended up finding a review by the Dallas Morning News.
With set design by Roland Olbeter and video design by Franc Aleu, with sci-fi costumes by Chu Uroz, this is a Rheingold for our attention-deficit age. Nothing is ever still. Water and vague protoplasms splash and spin across giant projection screens spanning the upstage. The descent to Nibelheim takes us through a dense, diabolical factory.
The gods move about, rise and fall on hefty booms manipulated by visible stagehands. Red-lit Loge, demigod of fire and general mischief-maker, whizzes around on a Segway. The giants Fafner and Fasolt are giant tin-man puppets. Highly effective lighting, originally designed by Peter van Praet, is realized here by Gianni Paolo Mirenda.
I guess I can see the point of the gods-on-booms: actually only pawns in the game of life (apologies to Blazing Saddles‘ Mongo), they only think they’re in control. But I’m completely befuddled by the various realizations of the Rhine gold as a giant human fetus and, later, a pile of human bodies, apparently manufactured in Alberich’s sinister factory. And what’s with the portrayal of the gods’ new home Valhalla as either a spidery human bust or a tower of suspended acrobats? Sorry, don’t get it.
That is not promising at all.
If all of that were an opinion of the quality of the performance, then I’d take it with a huge grain of salt. As it stands, though, this is a factual description of what happens during the performance (and a local review, while glowing, confirms the presence of the Segway). I guess you could call me a traditionalist in this sense, but that pretty much destroyed any desire for me to see the production. While I appreciate different, this just seems too offbeat to me.
It’s a shame, because I would like to see the Ring Cycle at some point. However, the Houston Grand Opera version just strikes me as different for the sake of being different, and I can’t get on-board with the changes they’ve made. An opera isn’t just a musical piece. It’s a theatrical piece that requires good set design and good acting. However the music might be in this performance, I just can’t see myself enjoying myself if I keep going “WTF” with the set design.
Maybe in the future I’ll see a live performance of the Ring Cycle. It’s just not going to be right now.