Friday, May 01, 2009

The Ring Thing

A really characteristic thing about the Ring Cycle is seeing men in black suits standing around at intermission eating bananas. (They must carry them in their pockets.) Actually, everyone seems to eat at all the intervals. Concert halls that put on the Ring usually set up restaurants or sell picnic lunches in Ring intervals - at Lincoln Center they have caviar and toast points and multi-course meals. People carry in coolers and picnic baskets. I saw a man last night wolfing down a large packet of saltine crackers as if his life depended on it. It's true that the performances are mostly quite long (they generally start at 6 and end after 11), but they're really not so long as to require major refuelling.

Then there's the drinking. The entire audience seems to be buoyed along by endless flutes of champagne. At a break last night a woman barrelled over me to get to the aisle before the crowd got to their feet, and a few minutes later I saw her at the bar eagerly gulping a glass of bubbly. I myself was regrettably hung over after the previous evening of reuniting with Reuters colleagues (and drank a quintuple espresso at the first interval and a double espresso at the second), but I couldn't find anywhere in Lincoln Center that sold coffee at all, so had to resort to the Starbucks across the street.

That's another thing about the Ring: really long breaks. The first opera in the four-opera cycle has no intermission, and after that we make up for it by breaking twice a night - for as long as 45 minutes each time. Of course Wagner wanted the Ring Cycle to be populist entertainment, a change from some of the stodgy conventional opera that preceded him. The Ring has giants and dwarves, a dragon and a bear, incest and murder, romance (sister with brother, aunt with nephew), and more plot than a dozen normal operas - so it's fitting that we get a real entertaining evening out of it.

The audience at the Ring differs from other operas in ways I appreciate. It is what you'd call a mixed crowd. Everyone has paid an arm and a leg for their seats (mine were C$2,000 for one person for the four operas in the cycle) but we represent a wide strata of income. You have your designer ball gown types and then you have your hippie blue jean types. There is a nice mix of sneakers and stilleto heels. Unlike other operas, you never hear anyone snoring in the Ring: we are a united crowd in that we love this thing - and most of us have seen it many times, travelling long distances to do so.

My quibble (and it's a big one) at Lincoln Center is the people who buy cheap standing-room tickets and then move down into the main seats. Hector the mafioso usher seems to direct the operation, not only finding seats for the standing room crowd but keeping an eye out for better seats for them. That's not too bad, but there's a never-ending distraction of people filling in seats they think are empty and then refusing to move when the ticket-holder comes back - with arguments continuing even after the music has started.

The Met Ring I'm seeing this week is a 20 year old production that they're mounting for the last time. I would be sad to see it go except the next production, currently in development and scheduled some years hence, will be directed by Robert Lepage - and I am confident it will be the most exciting musical event of the 21st century.

Previous Rings I have seen have been modern, and have brought out Jungian themes and themes of pagan gods... this Met Ring is naturalistic in the best sense, especially given the amazing budget and resources of the Metropolitan Opera. We don't just have painted backdrops - we have huge soaring cliffs of (seemingly) natural rock, forests of giant trees, mammoth caves. When Brunhilde is surrounded by a ring of fire we have realistic flames and even cinders falling on the stage. The dragon is so big that it's eyes are nearly the size of the hero who slays it.

I never wanted to admit that the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto was not first flight, but now I must. When I heard Placido Domingo singing Siegmund in Die Walkurie I cried at the beauty. The intelligence in his creation of the character is not something I'm used to seeing at the opera. His Siegmund was so lonely and anguished - Domingo is 60-something but fully came across as a 20 year old, both in movement and voice. And the voice! Domingo retrained his voice some years ago, moving from Italian tenor to Helden tenor, and next year is going to sing his first baritone role in Simon Boccaneggra. (Update: The acting and singing of Katarina Dalayman as Brunnhilde in Gotterdamerung was equally spell-binding.)

All the singers, I'd say, are giving it their all in a way I'm not used to. Last night Siegfried moved from brute to lout with great gusto. The orchestra under the great James Levine seems to let loose also, rattling the rafters. It's awe-inspiring to witness the greatest artists in the world pulling out all the stops, especially when seated amongst 3,000 knowledgeable concert-goers who appreciate every second of it.


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