Thursday, September 23, 2010

REVIEW: Der Ring Des Nibelungen at the Shanghai Grand Theatre

I can’t believe that I have survived the Ring Cycle and actually enjoyed it. This is of course had a lot to do with the fact that I had 4 friends watching it with me and meeting up with one of my multitude of readers, who was there for both cycles, all the way from Australia!

For any of my readers who may not be familiar with the Ring Cycle, here’s a brief introduction. The complete name of the Ring Cycle is Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). It is a cycle of four epic operas by the German composer Richard Wagner. The four operas are Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walkure (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The stories are loosely based on characters from the Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied. I will not go into the details of the stories as it involves a whole host of characters (water nymphs, dwarves, giants, gods, mortals) doing things that are too weird or too wild (incest, slavery, blackmail, murder… okay, maybe neither weird nor wild). However, if you should be so intrigued by this introduction, google it.

The complete Ring Cycle is the Louis Vuitton of the opera world. It may not be the best opera in the universe, but every opera house or company wants to either produce one or at least host one because it is prestigious (read very expensive). This is also almost true with opera-goers. It is not everyday that one can afford the time and money to prepare for and see the whole Ring Cycle; and being able to do it and enjoying it is quite special. Despite the fact that the cycle was finished in 1874, it was only in 2005 that China saw its first Ring Cycle in Beijing with the Nuremberg State Opera. This second appearance in Shanghai, meanwhile, was with The Cologne Opera. As for Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra tried to do a concert version of the cycle but failed due to cost.

The Cologne Opera’s Ring Cycle had two runs at the Shanghai Grand Theatre. The first and the one I saw were on September 16 to 19; and the second on September 21 to 24. The Cologne Opera production directed by Canadian Robert Carsen, in the German tradition of being untraditional, tries to set the story in an ambiguous 1940-50’s military milieu. As usual, these translations of fantastical-mythical stories to a realistic world produce both amazing and absurd results. It was quite a pleasant surprise to see how the giants Fasolt and Fafner were transformed into union leaders with a large cohort of workers (tasked to build Wotan’s mansion). On the other hand, the whole story about forging a sword amidst a sea of machine guns just seemed a bit pointless.

Aside from some head-scratching moments brought about by the production, the singers and the orchestra were admirable. I am most impressed on how committed the singers were to their role. Nothing was too precious. Each singer dug deep and brought the story to life and made suspension of belief easier. The singing was a fairly balanced and finely cast with only very few weak links.

Catherine Foster’s Brunnhilde was a force to behold. Appearing for three consecutive nights, she admirably paced herself and shone in moments that really mattered. Her Brunnhilde was of girlish ardor and rage possessing a gleaming and silvery tone.

Catherine Foster

Greer Grimsley’s Wotan was a touch lacking in heft that limited the coloring needed for this psychologically complex role. This is not to mention how this production had him leaning on a walking stick rather than wielding the almighty spear; and I wonder how this subliminally affected the audience’s perception of his power and intent. Otherwise, Greer seemed perfect for the role and it would be quite interesting to see how he develops the role in the future.

Greer Grimsley

The role of Siegfried was performed by Stig Andersen in Siegfried and by Lance Ryan in Gotterdammerung. Hands down, I prefer Lance’s bright tone, which helped in his portrayal of the confident but confused youth. Lance also took up the role of Siegmund (Siegfried’s father) in Die Walkure. Here, he showed clear distinction of interpretation. Stig, on the other hand, was miscast. He does posses a respectable voice but unfortunately not enormous enough to ring through the orchestra. He tried his best to act young and in some moments he did so successfully and looked genuinely vulnerable. However, most of the time, he just looked and acted like an adult pretending to be a kid by acting clumsy. Apparently, there were members in the audience that agreed with me as Stig was booed during his curtain call...totally uncalled for though.

Lance Ryan

Stig Andersen

This review will not be complete without mentioning two roles that were perfectly cast and performed; that is Oliver Zwarg’s Alberich and Martin Koch’s Mime. Both performers showed total commitment to their character all throughout the cycle. Oliver Zwarg’s bass-baritone voice travels with menace and pain. Martin Koch’s tenor voice was effortless and clear. His interpretation of Mime was within the scope of the production but was rendered with delightful details.

Oliver Zwarg

Kurt Rydl performed the roles of Fasolt, Hunding and Hagen. When taken separately, each role was beautifully managed; but when put side by side, they all seemed to overlap each other with not much variation. Kurt Rydl’s voice, however, showed great weight but had too much wobble for my taste. Thanks to casting, the wobble did seem to suit the character of these shady roles.

Kurt Rydl

The Cologne Philharmonic, led by Markus Stenz, was at first a bit underwhelming. The orchestra was not the usual size one expects of a proper Ring Cycle, and it sounded so. However, once one got over that fact and tried to focus on the balance, color and interpretation, it was not difficult to be swept over by the music. Stenz held the orchestra together beautifully and intuitively managed the balance with what was happening on stage. He showed a lot of care in working with the singers. The chorus, though playing a minor role, was just a mess.

Markus Stenz

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