Everything You Know About the Perfectionists
Before you die, you see the Ring Cycle.
Warning: Long, feministy. Really just long, though.

First things first: the opera. It's been a week now, time to write about it. Katya and I saved our money (a dollar bill every day, into the cigar box we called "The Opera Box". When we couldn't afford a dollar, we put in an IOU. When we couldn't afford that, we took out a dollar and put in two IOUs) for over a year, and we were able to buy tickets to the Lyric Opera's production of the Ring of the Nibelung.

Before last week I'd seen two Italian and one German opera (Salome being the only one of note). Now I've seen two Italian operas and five German ones. Woot. Technically, the Ring Cycle is "A theatre festival in three nights and a pre-evening". The first opera, Rhinegold, is tiny. It's so small it doesn't even have an intermission, and it only counts as a "pre-evening". It was two and a half hours long--which should give you some idea of the scale on which Wagner was working.

Essentially, around 1850 or so Wagner realized that Germany didn't have an artistic masterpiece of its own. There was no German David, Mona Lisa, St. Paul's Cathedral, &c. So he set out to create a work of genius that would become an enduring work of art / myth for the German people.

It's the only time I've ever heard of someone setting out to deliberately create a work of genius, and succeeding. You always hear about famous artists who die poor and lonely, and hundreds of years later their pieces become priceless national treasures. Not Wagner. He worked on it for twenty-six years, and knew all along that it was going to be one of the best pieces of music in the history of mankind. Then he finished it, and pretty much everyone agreed with him, just like that.

When he started it, the average orchestra was around thirty skilled musicians. By the time he was done, the numbers had inflated to about seventy. The ring cycle requires a minimum of 120. They play instruments ranging from traditional violins and oboes, to hunting horns, to (I'm not kidding) hammers and anvils, to the Wagner Horn, a type of french horn that Wagner invented just for this opera. The man was intense.

The music is much more complex than I could understand at my level. It's complex in the way that Shakespeare or Dante are complex: people write dissertations about this music. You know how every time Darth Vader is on screen the Imperial March starts playing? That, I've learned, is called "leitmotif" and Wagner more or less invented it. Except he doesn't just use it in such an obvious way. He often uses some of the themes as commentary or counterpoint to what's happening onstage, and apparently he sometimes uses crazy variations of the themes, where they're transposed up an octave and a quarter, or something like that.

The libretto is also very interesting. I missed it all, of course, as I don't speak German. The Lyric had really nice surtitles in English, but they didn't capture much of the poetry. Apparently Wagner flouted all of the conventions in how to write lyrics for the opera, and instead of following the great operas, he used old Norse poetry as his model. Instead of a traditional operatic rhyme scheme, he used the Norse alliterative techniques. Finally, he used a lot of archaic German words, he used modern (19th century) German words with archaic pronunciations, and he coined new words by compounding archaic and modern words. It must have blown up peoples' brains back in 1876.

One final awe-inspiring thing about the piece is the conceptual depth. Many operas are about the music and how pretty it is and... well, and nothing else, really. The Ring is a very cerebral "big idea" play--my kind of theatre. Nietzsche was a huge fan of the Ring and of Wagner (at least until Parsifal, but that's another story) and the philosophies are similar. Apparently Wagner was very heavily influenced by Schiller. The opera shows how human kind will overthrow the gods through fearlessness and compassion. Odin is too afraid of death to keep his power, and his lack of morality ultimately leads to his judgement / doom.

Having said all of that, I have to confess that I found the story to be a little dumb. Dedre tells me that the story is all in the music, and that anyone who goes to Wagner to listen to the words or to stare at the actors is missing the whole point. That may be, but I would have thought that if everything else was so damn painstaking he could have spent a little more time on the plot.

I don't like Siegfried, for example, and his boorish behavior makes it hard to believe that Brünhilde would fall for him. More to the point, the treatment of women in the cycle is really irritating. Sieglinde is Siegfried's mom, and that's all she does, really. She helps Siegmund a little, and she bears his kid. Then there's Fricka, a totally flat shrewish wife caricature, and Spring-Girl, Frya, who is only there to be in peril and to call for help, apparently. Gertrune is only on stage so that Siegfried can get tricked into making eyes at her; she has no real character.

Finally, there is Brünhilde. Here's a real chance to have a kick-ass chick. She's a Valkyrie, a Norse warrior demi-goddess--she's the daughter of Odin and Erda. She rides from battle to battle taking the heroes home to Valhalla. She can kill with her stare--by rights she should be bad ASS. At one point she gets to wear the Ring of the Nibelung, becoming, essentially, the most powerful being on the planet. In addition, the critics all say that she's the hero of the whole play. She ends the curse of the ring by throwing herself (and it) on Siegfried's funeral pyre, exemplifying fearlessness and compassion par excellance and (somehow) paving the way for the Glorious Future of Humanity.

The only trouble is, she's kind of lame. We never see her in battle, and the only time she actually threatens anyone is Siegmund, and she starts crushing on him immediately. She spends the rest of the second opera hiding from and whining to Odin, who punishes her by forcing her to accept the first person to kiss her awake as her husband (which in this case means Lord and Master). She begs him not to force her to be subservient to a coward, so he puts a burning ring of fire around her rock.

In the next opera Siegfried find her and kisses her awake, and they have the Annoying Sex Duet (see below). It's pretty clear, though, that no matter how she feels she will accept him as her Lord and Master because, hey, that's what Odin wanted.

The last opera opens with her singing about how great it is to have sex with Siegfried, and how she's no longer worth anything as a person because she's given everything to him. Lovely. He goes out to have adventures (because that's what men do) while she stays home at the rock, thinking about how great he is (because that's what women do). He gleefully downs some Magic Juice that makes him forget her and fall in love with Gertrune, and he ends up going back to the rock to claim her as the bride (read: property) of some other man. How nice. There follows this rather dis-empowering scene in which Brünhilde pleads with him not to take her away, and then tries to defend herself from him, to no avail. Wagner makes it clear that there is no textual sex taking place ("My sword will lie between us this night" or whatever) but it's pretty open subtextual rape. And the worst part is this: you know the ring? As in, the Ring? The Ring of the Nibelung, where if anyone wields it, they could rule the world and overthrow the Gods and what not? The ring that makes it's wearer the most powerful person ever? Brünhilde is wearing it throughout the whole damn scene!! Siegfried rips it off her finger like nothing.

Brünhilde has one final scene in which to let me down. She arrives at the palace, all unhappy, and sees Siegfried standing there with a shit-eating grin on his face and a new bride, and he introduces himself to her. Mind you, for upwards of ten hours now we've been heard about how damn wise Brünhilde is, how she's the wisest of the Valkyrie, wiser than anyone, wiggy-wiggy-wise, right? And so, naturally seeing the love of her life standing there, married to someone named Gertrune and offering to shake her hand as if they've just met, she assumes that he's betrayed her and instantly tells the bad guys how to kill him. Oh, yeah, really wise there. Don't try to scout of the situation, ask any questions, probe the man little. Clearly he's cheating on her, stab him in the back. Oh, wait, she's girl, that's right, clearly she can't stab him in the back, better find some man and have him do it.

If you can't tell, I'm a little irritated with the plot.

The Annoying Sex Duet is just that Siegfried is all, "Mommy?" and she's all, "Wait, I don't want to have sex!" and he's all, "You aren't mom? Ok, I'm so in love with you!" and she's all, "Don't touch my limpid pools, I am a chaste maiden, (Sah'est du dein Bild im Klaren Bach?) although it sounds interesting, doesn't it? (Göttliche Ruhe ras't mir in Wogen;)" and he's all, "Sex? What's that?" and she's all, "You're afraid of my womanly passion! (fürchtest du nicht das wild wüthende weib?)" and he's all, "Ok, then, sex it is!"

It don't know if the "love means sex" message bothers me more than the "sex means sin" message, but the "I'm the conquering hero so bow to my will and that means love" message is the one that really killed the scene for me.

Finally, I never understood, on a textual level, why the gods had to go. On a subtextual level I got it, all this existential stuff, "Thus Sang Zarathustra in high C" and all that--humans have to throw out the gods in order to be fully free and to live up to their own potential. Sure. But in the story, why did the Gods die? There was this complicated thing where Odin gave the ring to Fafner as payment, and because Odin is the god of oaths and treaties he couldn't ever kill Fafner and take the ring back. I understand that. But then Siegfried kills Fafner. I know Siegfried is hot shit and all, but surely the God Odin could have taken him?

And if not (and he doesn't do so well later on, when they randomly meet in the woods and decide to fight for no reason I could see) Siegfried really is a nice boy, and always does what he's told. If Odin was all, "you should trade me that tiny ring for this Wondrous Godlike Item that I've just created out of a couple sticks", or something, Siegfried would totally have bought it. Or Odin could have traded him Brünhilde--he was in the market for a wife, and Odin had an extra daughter lying around.

Or, failing that entirely, Odin could have just told the truth, and said, "Siegfried, you rock. But you know that ring there was stolen from the rhinemaidens. Awwww, the poor rhinemaidens. I bet you feel sorry for them, don't you? You know, a true hero would go give them their ring back. Or aren't you brave enough for it?" and that totally would have worked. Especially with that "aren't you brave enough" bit, he would have run straight to the Rhine without stopping and hucked the jewelry as deep as he could. Bang, end of problem.

Here's what I fail to understand, though. Odin doesn't do any of that, but before too long everyone dies and the Rhine washes in and the maidens claim their ring and the curse is lifted and all, but the gods still die. WTF? And you know how they die? Odin stacks firewood all around Valhalla and then burns himself up. For fun. For no reason. WTF? Coherence? And we don't even get to see them do it, the gods aren't even involved in the final play. Valhalla burns up in the distance Or, in this production, a bunch of plastic tubes drop from the ceiling. You know, same thing.

Speaking of, one last section here and then I'll go to bed. This is already way too long, and no one has even read this far down. But just in case Duane Schuler (the lighting designer) happens to read this, or for me when I read it in a year or two, I thought that there were some serious issues with the production on a technical level.

First off, I'm not saying that I could have done better or that I didn't love it, on the whole. I am saying, it's the Lyric Opera, dude, and i paid over three hundred bucks just for my seat, and there were 3500 other people in the theatre that night, and it should have been fucking perfect.

Like, there was a lot of Random Neon. And by neon I don't mean "bright colors, like neon would look" I mean giant strips of honest-to-god "eat-at-joe's" style neon tubes. They were wicked cool, but I never did understand what they meant, or why they flew in during some scenes but not others. I can't critique that choice because I don't understand it. However, apparently you can only by neon tubes in ten foot segments, and sometimes they wanted twenty feet of neon. They made this happen by sticking two tubes next to each other, and dude, you could see the seams between the tubes. Could they really not solve that? It looked kinda bad.

I was always told by every lighting design professor that the most important thing was to light the actors faces, so that the audience wouldn't miss the slightest facial twitch of the great actors--until I studied under Heather Carson, who told me that the most important thing was to create Art and the enhance the play. She did mostly opera, which makes sense because from our seats (and we had decent seats, I think) I was lucky to tell when the actor was opening and closing her mouth, let alone twitching her face.

However, in some places I really thought the lighting was pretty awful. I don't know if they were just having a bad night, or they lost a half dozen fixtures in a freak accident, or what. The worst, for me, was when Siegmund fights Hunding. For a start, Placedo Domingo was playing Siegmund, and he's about a hundred and seven, so the fight was rather lame. They took a couple wide swings at each other very slowly. Anyway, then Odin pointed his Yggsdrasil Stick at Siegmund, and there was a flash of light. I gather that the sword Nothung splits in half. At that point they were all in shadow, I couldn't see his head (let alone his face) and I certainly couldn't see his sword. I'd read the argument before hand, so I happened to know that one of the key elements in the cycle is that Odin breaks Nothung, but damned if I could see it happen. Lame. It just occurred to me, my Placedo's contract had specified lame fight choreography so as not to risk the Great Talent. Maybe decent lighting was too blinding, and he was afraid he might get poked. Maybe I shouldn't be too hard on Duane, maybe it was a necessary compromise. Screw that, art shouldn't compromise. Certainly not at this level...

The set design was very modern, and on the whole I thought it didn't really work. The rhinemaidens were on bungee cords, and that was brilliant. It really looked as if the stage floor was at the bottom of the Rhine, and the maidens were swimming all around. The effect was audacious and awesome and everything that live theatre should be. They tried it again, later, putting the Valkyrie on trampolines. To me, that just seemed silly, and took me out of the play.

By far the worst aspect of the design, however, is that it was thirteen years old!!! I understand that the set for an opera of this scale is pretty damned expensive, but if I couldn't afford to create something new, why bother to re-hash it? I mean, the set was designed when I was a freshman in high school. I also think it de-emphasized the gods before the text was ready--Odin was still an imposing force in Valkyrie, but the set (fifteen-foot high chairs and what-not) made him look rather puny. This is partly the fault of the story, however, because although he's still imposing in that scene, that's also the last scene that you ever see him in as a god, so there really isn't time to make a gradual statement about his loss of power.

So there you have it. Well worth the time (18+ hours) and the money ($700+) for the music and the rhinemaidens and Donner's (Thor) solo about raising the mists, with him swinging his hammer around and all. Still and all, if it weren't the height of hubris to say that my production would have been better than the Lyric, and my plot would have been better than Wagner's, I might say just that.

For one thing, when Siegfried walks up to "claim" her, (while Brünhilde was still wearing the Ring) she would be a lot less passive. Hell, she'd bitch-smack him into the second balcony like a rhinemaiden on a bungee cord.
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