Art groups the world over continue to recover from the pandemic, having lost years of direct, live contact with audiences which in some cases are today smaller than before we were inundated with Covid-19.
Smaller audiences and smaller budgets make for difficult decisions by arts organizations. Opera, for example, has taken a particularly hard hit because it requires all the elements of theater (a stage, director, sets, props and lighting) as well as all the elements of a classical music performance (an orchestra or small ensemble, conductor, solo singers or a chorus). Such large forces cost money and one way opera companies can reduce their costs is to offer concert versions of opera. These have always disappointed me. The great singers with great orchestras seem to beg to have the full regalia of opera storytelling just as much as a conservatory concert featuring top students. While the music may be presented with glory and snap, without the full sweep of the drama unfolding in appropriate settings, the event is incomplete.
One answer to this problem has been the semi-staged opera. This approach typically has little or no sets at all, but does involve at least some moving about the stage and also permits some interaction between characters even while primarily standing and singing while facing the audience.
I have recently discovered an archived opera stream that has contributed some marvelous ideas to semi-staged concert opera. Opera North is a British opera company based in Leeds. On its website, Opera North describes itself as “Rooted in the North of England, international in outlook, we create extraordinary experiences, every day.”
Opera North has available indefinitely their complete Ring Cycle, the four operas Richard Wagner labored over for years and which for many represent a pinnacle of the operatic canon. You can stream them on demand for free and thereby discover some inventive and intriguing ideas that make these operas in concert far more delectable and inspiring than the usual concert opera experience.
“Das Rheingold” is the first opera in Wagner’s Ring and the only opera I’ll review here. It sets the stage for the sprawling story of gods, demigods, and humans in a mythological prehistory. The title “character” is a cache of pure gold in the Rhine River, guarded by Rhine maidens. The dwarf Alberich, who found flirting with the maidens yielded only harsh mockery, steals the gold for himself. He creates a ring and a magic helmet, each giving him power.
Woton, the head of all the gods, is ready to take his court to a new fortress, Valhalla, which has been built for him by the giants Fafner and Fasolt. When the two giants show up to be paid for their construction project, Woton tries to stiff them, and the giants respond by taking a hostage: Freia, the sister of Woton’s wife Fricka. The giants agree to return her if Woton steals and gives them Alberich’s gold and so Woton visits Alberich in his underground kingdom. His magic helmet, the Tarnhelm, permits Alberich to become any creature he wishes and he proves this by turning himself into an enormous serpent. But can he also become a tiny creature, in order to hide himself perfectly? Yes he can. He does. And is captured and forced to give up all the gold for his freedom. His final act of protest is his curse upon anyone who wears the ring. It is not long before the curse’s potency is realized: upon receiving the gold, Fafner kills Fasolt, so he does not have to share the loot. The Rhine maidens weep for their lost gold while the gods ascend a rainbow bridge up to the fortress Valhalla.
It’s obviously a boldly imaginative and unusual story, often produced with lavish costumes and exotic scenery. So to make this compelling in a concert setting is a real challenge. Opera North meets this challenge primarily with the use of video technology. The orchestra is on the stage with the singers at the very front. Behind the stage is a large video screen, divided into six segments. Three at the bottom are large. Each of those has a smaller screen above it. Sometimes there are six different images projected, sometimes a single one. And I believe the streamed version is more than simply a camera in front of all this. It seems that for the final version, more video effects have been used, typically with video and live singers combined to make an otherworldly effect via superimposition.
The smaller, upper screens often show us a small slice of what the orchestra is doing. As the stream opens, we see a close-up of a double bass sounding the first, quiet, low notes. When the giants make their entrance, we have close-ups of the timpani on one screen, the brass on the other, together providing the music that defines Fasolt and Fafner. When Woton travels to Nibelheim we see details of the percussionists creating the clanging hammer strikes of the enslaved workers. The musicians and the singers are nicely juxtaposed throughout the performance.
Mostly during purely orchestral moments, the screens are used to heighten the effect of the story, rather than to actually tell it. We see the Rhine, we see the mountains, we see the darkness of Nibelheim, but we never see anything specific. Often the screens seem abstract, urging you to find in shards of light and dark the deeper meaning of the story and its symbols.
While there are no true costumes, it is clear that they were specifically dressed for this occasion. While the men mostly wore dark suits, these differed according to character. The lesser gods might have white shirts and jaunty ties. The giants are clad all in black, except for the matching blood red ties and pocket hankies. The Rhine maidens each have the exact same dress, long gloves, and elaborate necklaces, rather like bridesmaids at a fancy wedding. For the most part, this was very effective. The only real disappointment was outfitting Woton in the tweeds and whiskers of a rather stuffy looking Edwardian gentleman.
Sometimes the action is elegant, as when the Rhine maidens move about in a simple dance with watery images lapping their feet. Sometimes the action is entirely symbolic, as when Fafner kills Fasolt. We know he has done this because he takes the blood red hanky out of Fasolt’s pocket and holds it in his hand. It is as chilling as if he had ripped the giant’s very heart out.
This opera features a cast of solid singers, most or even all of whom you won’t have seen live before, including Michael Druiett (Woton), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Loge), Jo Pohlheim (Alberich), Yvonne Howard (Fricke), James Creswell (Fasolt), and Mats Almgren (Fafner). Richard Farnes conducts with confidence and authority. Peter Mumford directs and also created the lighting and projections, and is separately credited with creating the film.
View this and the entire Ring Cycle at OperaNorth.co.uk or search for Opera North’s YouTube channel.
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