As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m blogging my way through a viewing of the La Fura Dels Baus staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle, starting with the prologue, Das Rheingold. Das Rheingold is made up of four scenes with no intermission: it runs a total of a little less than three hours, and it’s the prologue to the three operas that make up the bulk of the cycle.
I went into this thinking that this particular staging of the Ring shouldn’t work. The design is a hodgepodge of twentieth-century SF influences: the underground chamber where the dwarf Alberich forges the Ring recalls the factories of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; the costumes of the singers are a cross between those of 1950s B-movies and David Lynch’s Dune; Loge, the trickster figure of the opera, zips around the stage on a Segway, chased by a red spotlight. Performers sing while submerged to their necks in water or suspended from the ceiling by cables. Dozens of acrobats in spandex suits writhe and cavort across the stage in all manner of strange ways. It shouldn’t work, but (at least for me) it does, very well.
What this twentieth-century SF staging does is highlight a tension between technology and magic (or spirituality and religion, if you want to go that far), a theme that I’m always partial toward. One of the best examples of this is in scene two—this is after Alberich, a Sméagol-ish sort of dwarf, has renounced love in order to steal the gold from the Rhinemaidens that he will later use to forge the Ring. (Of course, the Rhinemaidens don’t think that anyone would possibly be so crazy as to renounce love, even after they’ve teased poor hideous Alberich to the point of humiliation—needless to say, they’re proven wrong.)
It’s worth pointing out here that the gods of the Ring Cycle don’t always come off as terribly godlike. Their hold on power is tenuous at best, dependent on one of a number of the plot’s MacGuffins—in this case, the golden apples that grow in an orchard tended by Freia, and grant the gods eternal youth when eaten daily. As scene two begins, we find that Wotan has hired two giants, Fafnir and Fasolt, to build a castle for him that will later be known as Valhalla; foolishly, though, he’s promised Freia (the sister of his wife Fricka) to the giants in trade when the work is done, hoping that Loge the demi-god trickster will find a way to help him weasel out of the contract in the meantime.
The big reveal when Fafnir and Fasolt first appear on stage to demand their fee is not just that they’re giants, but that they’re giant robots: the two singers who portray them are clothed in enormous mechanical exoskeletons that are supported by cranes and manipulated by teams of puppeteers. Without changing the libretto or the music, then, this staging adds a new theme that fits neatly in with everything else without twisting Wagner’s original intent, while also explaining away the problem of why Wotan hired out the construction of Valhalla to mortal lackeys instead of handling it himself. In this version, being a god will only get you so far without technological assistance. And the problem isn't so much that the gods’ lives are imperiled, but that the gods themselves are in danger of being outmoded by technological advances. (In a comical moment, after Freia is taken away by Fafnir and Fasolt, to be held for ransom until Wotan and Loge can find something valuable enough to redeem her, the cranes that hold the gods aloft lower, their bodies slump, and deprived of the apples that keep them young, they begin to breathe from oxygen masks.)
The biggest MacGuffin of all in Das Rheingold, bigger than the apples that provide eternal youth, or the helmet that gives its wearer the power to become invisible or change shape into a dragon, is the Ring of the Nibelung, forged by Alberich the dwarf in the bowels of the earth with stolen gold, sealed with a curse. It’s made clear here through the opera’s design that the Ring is not just a magical source of ultimate power, but (like Fafnir and Fasolt) a product of machines and engineering, and after it bounces from person to person over the opera’s running time to land in the hands of the giants as a ransom for Freia, Wotan, once charmed by it, seems to be glad to be rid of it. By this point it’s already been the cause of one cold-blooded murder, and the tone of the opera’s final minutes is generally ominous—bathed in deep blue light, the gods seem to be retreating to Valhalla not just to revel in what’s left of their glory, but to wait out a siege. More trouble is guaranteed, as the Ring is likely to do what cursed rings of power generally do.
(A couple of additional notes: the recording of the Ring that I’m most familiar with is the Georg Solti version on CD, and though I think I’m still partial to that so far, I really enjoyed this performance. Most notably, the singers, all of them, are also good actors, and perform well under strange conditions that can't be conducive to concentration. And the Blu-ray sounds incredible—if you have a surround-sound setup, this disc will remind you why.)
Next up is Die Walküre (which, given its length, I may have to split into multiple posts).