Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Art and Dynamism: Le Page's Das Rheingold, Don Carlo and La Traviata


A number of years ago, I took some family members to the Japan in the winter to watch an eight hundred year old Shinto ceremony, that takes place over four days. There's the midnight procession of the god as he is transferred from his usual shrine to a temporary one. He's moved in the middle of the night, so the evil spirits have less of a chance of seeing him and getting at him. To ensure that things to smoothly, priests drag a burning log across the road in front, dripping bits of fiery coal, so the walkway is literally burned clean. The god is surrounded by people wearing face masks and dressed in white carrying sakaki branches, which they wave while moaning like goblins.

The highlight, though, are a series of dances which start in the evening and continue late through the night. It's cold and there are four bonfires around the outdoor "stage" where the action takes place. It's all in service of the god, now in his new home. The deeper into the night you go, the wilder and more dramatic the dances become. But it's also a long, long night.

"You have to think," I said to my cousins, "of a different sense of time."


It's odd. A festival that is 800 years old really does come from a time when people moved at a slower pace. People also had a shorter life expectancy--but they also moved more slowly. And here we are, with our long life expectancies, and our concomitant desire to be entertained by things that move.

I was thinking about this when I went to see the entire Ring Cycle at the Met in 2009--you know the operas that clock in at like 5 or 6 hours per performance? Does anyone sit that long for anything any more? I guess some people do, if it's, say, to see all the Star Wars movies back to back. But in general, this kind of long-term performance viewing doesn't really fit in with a modern approach to life. You would probably only do this if you were really passionate about something enough to live and breathe it for a good portion of the day.

Still, people go to see the Ring. People like me. The new production, by Robert LePage was much hyped last fall--it's rumored to cost around $40, and while that doesn't make it as expensive as the much discussed Spider-Man musical, it's a heck of a lot to spend on an opera. Rheingold was to feature pulleys and acrobatics, and a never-before-seen contortable stage, and motion-response video screen. In recent years, the Met has become *a* if not *the* place to see new and innovative set and theater productions--the Ring was going to be a new step in this direction, as the old and beloved Otto Schenk sets were dismantled, along with the numerous Zeffirelli productions that are now stuffed with mothballs.

The good news--for me--the singing was divine. I was a little disappointed by Bryn Terfel, after having loved so many of his recordings over the years. On stage, his voice seemed too small and underpowered. I don't know if this was age or an off night, or just the size of his voice. Stephani Blythe as Fricka gave a remarkable performance. Her voice soared, her brow furrowed as she fretted over the good-for-nothing head-in-the-clouds men in her life. The star for me, however, was Eric Owens as Albericht. I felt he stole the show. Not only was his voice beautiful and full, but he gave his character so much humanity that I actually felt sorry for Albericht for the first time--a measure of how a performer can change the way you view a character you thought you knew. Like a fan-gurl, I went and signed Eric Owens' "fanbook" on his website.

And then there was the set. I believe it was Opera News which, in reviewing the production, actually used the term "park and bark," which I had never heard before. But apparently, once upon a time, this is what singers did at the opera. They parked and they barked. They howled at the moon. They didn't move around the stage. I remember these days. I remember when "The Dance of the Seven Veils" was, um, suggested and not danced because the singer couldn't . . . move. There was simply too much of her. In recent years, the tendency has been for singers to be fitter, and to be physical actors and not just vocal ones. I haven't minded this change--as long as the singing was good.

In Das Rheingold, however, the staging meant that the singers had very little room to move. Here is a scene where the gods convene.

See that middle slab that looks like a slide? The characters--the gods--entered the stage by sliding belly-first down this slide and into the crevass below. The sliding was done by a body double. Once in the "crack," as my friend and I kept referring to this crevass, the body double would exchange places with the actual singer, who would pop up and assume character. The sliding was tiresome after a while. What god enters the stage sliding? Just because something has not been done before does not mean it's a terrific idea--and just because you need a body double also doesn't mean it's a great idea. Originally, LePage is said--and this is hearsay--to have wanted to use more pulleys and suspend his actors. This idea was jettisoned after it was noted that opera singers are often heavier than actors. So we get the sliding.

Actually, this crack in the floor was immensely distracting. It cut the stage and gave the actors little room to move. And as a result, they did in fact park and bark. This is not to say--and here is where the whole idea of timing and dynamics comes into play--that I think it would work to have a super dynamic Wagner set in which actors regularly trot from one end to the other. For one thing, this would exhaust singers who have to power through a long evening (though Das Rheingold is a comparatively short opera). But there does need to be some kind of movement--just as in the 800 year old ceremony I wrote above, the dancing does become more intense, even if it takes an entire night-time and moonrise to do so. Action, in a story or a show, has to go somewhere.

In another example--the opera opens with the Rhine Maidens singing and frolicking in the water of the river Rhine. Here, the maidens were actually suspended. As they flicked their tails, the motion sensitive stage/screen behind them rippled and the video-projected stones "moved," as though teased by the water. But after a while . . . this grew old. The maidens, when "fighting" off Alberich, couldn't really do too much because their pulleys would not allow them to. The water kept rippling in the same way. What was initially thrilling became static. The scene didn't visually develop along with the music.

I found this an odd contrast to the old set (above) which was essentially static--it was a fixed and physical set--but which allowed the maidens to move around. No, there weren't suspended and the "water" didn't look as real as it did in the video projection. But the scene was able to physically unfold. As a result, the physical action of the production actually went somewhere, whereas in the LePage production, the show moved forward for a moment with the aid of some dazzling effect, only to stall. Thank God for the glorious music and singing.

Later in the production, Wotan ventures down to see the dwarf Mime to try to get the Ring. In the previous production, the "descent" was managed via a set which lowered slowly, simulating the descent through the earth to the world of the Niebelungs. In the LePage production, the entire set straightened, then twisted into the shape you see here. Body doubles, suspended from cables "walked" across this twisted platform. And then, in a bit of stage direction that made me giggle, the two "walked" back the same way they had come. I realize that I was supposed to assume that they weren't really "walking back" but were walking deeper into the underworld. Instead, the image felt incomplete.

As I watched the LePage production, I couldn't help but think of another theatrical "descent,"--the Phantom of the Opera (don't laugh), another show which was criticized for its expense, until the thrills a minute and the plot and music so captivated the public's attention that Andrew Lloyd Weber was vindicated. There is a moment where Christine and the Phantom "descend" to his lair. They cross a platform stage right to left and exit. The platform then reverses its angle, and Christine and the Phantom cross it again. The audience knows it's the same platform. But because the platform is lower each time, the abstraction works, and the descent feels "real."

Repeatedly in the LePage production, I felt let down. I was let down that actors slid on their stomachs. Loge sort of suspended felt like he was "sort of suspended." The actors crossing "down" into the Niebelungland felt like a compromise. I saw good ideas that were not complete. I felt jerked around by the timing--at some moments, we were supposed to be in a show that was going to move quickly--and then it didn't. A new staging detail that was interesting would show up, and then stall. The dynamics ended up uneven.

The only exception would be the last few minutes, in which the set folded up and displayed a vibrant rainbow and then the cosmos. Then I felt thrilled. Then I felt the set was able to act on its own, to its full capacity and actually complement and elevate the music and story. I don't doubt that video at some point is going to be integral to thrilling modern staging. I just don't see it yet with this production. Curiously, I found myself thinking about a show that is more than 20 years old--another musical: Chess (again, don't laugh). I only saw the London version in 1988, but I remember a Chess board that doubled as Tirolian mountain, a Bangkok street scene and a serious chess match room. I remember the use of video and how this amplified the show. All these elements I remember working extremely well together, even if the design was nowhere near as sophisticated as the multi-million dollar set for Das Rheingold. But each element was integrated. I tried very hard to find a video clip to include to show you, but none seems to exist (ditto for any stills from the original London production).

A few more notes to complete this post--I also saw the new Don Carlo production and La Traviata. Don Carlo is a long opera--it clocks in at just over 4 hours. The staging here was also new, this time by veteran English director Nicholas Hytner. The Times called the production "Cautious but Winning." I disagree. I thought it was superb. Because no definitive version of Don Carlo exists, the director often gets to make up his mind as to how the opera will end or unfold. And this of course impacts staging and direction. At over 4 hours, we are back in "800 year old Shinto ceremony" time. To match the pace of the show, Hytner carefully orchestrated lighting and sets, so that actors moved and set pieces were introduced to give the opera a slow by appropriate feeling of "unfolding." At one point, a couple of columns simply floated down to divide a space in two (diagonally). The room--a church--felt transformed. We the audience of course knew that the stage was still the same stage, but with just this move, the director was able to suggest that we were somewhere else. For me, these kinds of measured changes really worked--the opera felt fluid, unfolding and surprising us in a way that worked with the music and singing--until the very end.

I had a different experience watching La Traviata, which starred Marina Poplavskaya, recently the subject of a very interesting and not altogether flattering article in the New Yorker by Gay Talese. The production here was staged by Will Decker. The production is challenging. Violetta, the main character, is on stage nearly the entire time and does not get to "park and bark." She must ride a sofa held aloft by men in black, writhe on a clock, and play hide-and-go-seek under upholstery. At the start of the second half of the opera, Violetta is traditionally out of the room and her lover, Alfredo, sings of their love. Decker has her onstage, mimicking Alfredo and miming that she does not want him to go to Paris when he declares that he will go and take care of her debts.

For me, this bit of new direction did not work. Why would Violetta just "mime" that Alfredro should stay by her side? Why does she then seem surprised when he comes back? I understand that the new staging was meant to avoid the very kind of "park and bark" that I was making fun of earlier--in this production Violetta runs around. It's a very physically demanding role. And yet, in her dress, bright red against a set that is otherwise black and white, Violetta's limitations as a physical actress become apparent (speaking of which--did no one read "What Not to Wear?" A woman with a small bosom, muscular arms and short neck should not wear a sleeveless, square necked dress. Christ-at least give her a V-neck. Consider redesigning the dress depending on the build of the singer, please). Singers aren't necessarily dancers. And movement isn't why we go to see opera (at least I don't).

What was more, the sets and harsh lighting and color scheme for me did not elevate or even match the lush music. La Traviata has parties and dancing--and then sadness and gaiety. The Decker production seemed to be some sort of Germanic comment on mobs and sex and, at least in tone, seemed more appropriate for, say, Don Giovanni or even Boris Godunov. If Das Rheingold felt bizarrely static, then La Traviata felt overly dynamic.

Dancers--and athletes--talk all the time about "follow through." When I shot archery, I was constantly told to think about "follow through." Ditto for tennis. Ditto for any action in ballet. Ditto for any kind of story, which begins in its own universe and inherent dynamics. You must complete an action when you begin it. The audience--and the action itself--will know if you do not.

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