Sunday, May 15, 2016

End of the World

You might feel, after the 5 1/2 hours of Twilight of the Gods, or Goetterdaemerrung [literally, "getting darker of the gods"], the 4th and last opera in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, that it ends in this fine Washington National Opera production with a whimper not a bang. The production of course is non-traditional, and is itself a critique of the detritus and destruction left by our modern industrial society, so dealing with Wagner's stage directions for the final scene are going to be difficult in any case.

He called for the Rhine to overflow its banks and the world, especially Valhalla, home of the gods, to crumble. I've seen at least three previous productions of this opera, two of them quite traditional, and they only could approximate those demanding orders. I do remember getting a charge out of buildings coming down, either onstage at the Met or Covent Garden in London. Brunnhilde brings about the redemption of the world as she rides her horse, Grane, into the flames of the fire started to burn Siegfried's funeral pyre. The Rhinemaidens drag the chief villain, Hagen, to his death by drowning as his final cry warns everyone else to keep their hands off the Ring.

The staging of this scene was not too close to any of those overwhelming objectives: no overflow, no crumbling buildings, and no horse. So to me, it fell a bit flat although I enjoy seeing new conceptions of most operas, including The Ring operas. And this cavil should not obscure my conclusion that Francesca Zambello's production (co-produced with San Francisco Opera) is the best-staged Ring I've ever seen.

Catherine Foster was a glorious Brunnhilde and Daniel Branna a fine Siegfried, as well as Eric Halvorson playing Hagen as well as anyone I've seen.The other singers were also excellent, in their acting as well, including Jacqueline Echols as a Rhinemaiden and she was the Forest Bird in the preceding opera, Siegfried, and Jamie Barton, an up-and-comer who was one of the Norns as well as one of the Rhinemaidens. She won the Met national auditions a few years ago.

Hearing the leitmotifs, or themes, associated with each of the characters or ideas or moods makes these operas as wonderful musically as they are. The most famed leitmotifs are Siegfried's, Valhalla, the Valkyries', the Sword, the Ring, the Spear, the Nibelungs, and Siegfried's Horn Call and Funeral March, the last a great orchestral piece itself from Goetterdaemerrung as well as Siegfried's Rhine Journey in the first act.

One unusual aspect was that the first acts of these last two operas, which tend to be slow, as is the first act of Die Walkure, the second opera, played very well and held my attention dramatically as well as musically, although one very accomplished musician whom I ran into at this last opera pointed out that drama is not a terribly strong point in these operas, even if they are often referred to as music-dramas. The final acts of the last two operas instead seemed to drag a bit, despite their rather dramatic content: Siegfried's awakening Brunnhilde from her deep sleep in Siegfried and the death of Siegfried and subsequent end of the world as we know it in tonight's opera.

And lastly, one judge friend I encountered suggested that the big problem of the opera tetralogy and for Wotan, the king of the gods and the main character in the first three operas, is lawyers. Wotan somehow had made all kinds of treaties and contracts that are imprinted in runic letters on his spear and these circumscribe his ability to take actions as he sees everything leading toward the end of the world as he knows it.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Dragons and Compacters

You don't usually hear even passionate Wagnerites carry on about the third opera in The Ring of the Nibelung: Siegfried. This is a long opera without much of the excitement of Die Walkure and the amazing music in the final opera, Goetterdaemmerung. But Francesca Zambello's amazing production for Washington National Opera injected some energy into this often-lagging interlude--if you can call a 5 1/2 hour opera an interlude.

We first meet Siegfried, the hero of heroes but also a classic Wagner innocent, in what looks to be a beat-up trailer he is inhabiting with Mime, the dwarf who for reasons unclear was the one who raised him after his parents were gone: Siegmund in the great battle with Hunding that was the start of the downfall of the gods, and Sieglinde, after giving birth to Siegfried. He is rightly suspicious of Mime, who is only caring for him so that when he fights Fafner, now a dragon, and recovers the ring and its accoutrements, Mime will be on hand to relieve the not-so-smart Siegfried of the spoils.

But the only characters whose plotting is more unsuccessful than Wotan's or the gods' generally are the Nibelungs, the dwarves. Alberich stole the Rheingold, forged the ring, lost it through trickery to Wotan and Loge, and still turns up in this opera aiming to get it back. Mime, too, is short-sighted. These characters, as it happens, also are perhaps one of the most serious pieces of evidence that looms, albeit unclearly, of Wagner's anti-Semitism at work. His descriptions of them as ugly, misshapen, greedy, less than human--even in the somewhat cleaned-up surtitles, does for a moment make you think you are hearing Der Sturmer brought to life. And add to that their role as the thief of the sacred Rheingold and using it to forge a ring that will enable them to rule the world.

But no one has ever said that Wagner is an unmitigated blessing. I do think too of Deems Taylor's short chronicle--The Monster--of all the miserable aspects of his personality and his behavior and then the inspired conclusion that the glory of his music means that everything in the indictment doesn't really matter.

Zambello's envisioning of the dragon as a huge trash compacter is superb, and when Siegfried kills the dragon and Fafner, now returned to his original status as a giant, falls out and has a death scene, you start to sympathize for the not-so-smart giant, who craved the gold when Wotan refused to yield the beauteous Freia to him, and is now dying as the last of his race.

The forest bird whose chattering Siegfried understands after tasting the dragon's blood is played in a charming manner by Jacqueline Echols. In my vinyl recording of the Ring, no less than Joan Sutherland played the role. Wotan's encounters in the last act with Erda and Siegfried were also better than I had recalled from previous productions--the old Met traditional production of the late 20th century by Otto Schenck and the recent cumbersome mechanical one by Robert LePage.

The singing quality has been high throughout but the biggest disappointment to me after what had been an amazingly enjoyable Siegfried was the famed last scene where the title character finally reaches Brunnhilde after charging through the ring of fire (not seen). Usually the tenor is exhausted from his hours of singing while the soprano is fresh as she has been waiting all this time. After the famous laugh line by Siegfried: "This is not a man!", the scene really dragged. Brunnhilde obviously needs some time to awaken after 18 years asleep but coming after all this anticipation, the scene fails to live up to expectations.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Blazing Valkyrie

It's not stretching things too much to suggest that Die Walkure (The Valkyrie) is Wagner's greatest opera. Some might hold out for Tristan und Isolde, with its deathless love music in the famed love-death (Liebestod) but I would hold with Die Walkure as overall the most satisfying and exciting of Wagner's several music-dramas that have continued to hold the stage in the more than a century since his death.

The opera proceeds through three full acts, getting better with each one. The opener features Sieglinde unhappily married to Hunding, and suddenly aware that there is a world out there--romantic as well as pleasant--with the arrival of the stranger "Wehwalt" who turns out to be her long-lost twin brother, Siegmund. The two siblings, known as the Volsungs, are also pawns in Wotan's great plan to recover the ring and the power to run the world with which it ostensibly endows its holder.

Hunding is revealed as a rustic brute which makes somewhat short-sighted the defense of marriage with which Wotan's wife, the goddess Fricka, assails the chief of the gods when she demands that Hunding be triumphant in the ensuing sword fight with Siegmund. Wotan and his warrior-daughter Brunnhilde, who leads the Valkyries who bring the heroes to Valhalla upin their battlefield demise, of course see Siegmund as the hero who deserves to win against Fricka's upholder of marriages, even unhappy ones, and much less the rights of a domestic violence offender. Fricka also has this old-fashioned distaste for the incest in which Siegmund and Sieglinde have engaged.

All these sordid plot elements have implications for the end of the world, no less--das ende, as Wotan intones when he is at his most despondent. Wagner never lets any little piece of his stories go to waste. Wotan in the second act--gazing at the skyscrapers from his high-tower corporate aerie, possibly in Manhattan--is beset with his desire to go with Brunnhilde and favor the hero they both love and then the argument from Fricka to uphold society and propriety (sounds for a moment like George M. Cohan's Marie in his song Mary).

As usual with Wotan's big decisions--in the pre-performance lecture, the dramaturg of the San Francisco Opera informed us that there is a special leitmotif in the Ring for major decisions--he probably gets this one wrong too, just as he failed to heed Erda's prophecy in Das Rhenigold and return the ring and gold to the Rhinemaidens. Here his conceding to Fricka alienates Brunnhilde who defies him and tries to help Siegmund win, after which he must disown her and punish her by placing her within a ring of fire for the first man, presumably heroic, to recover her, now no longer a god.

Through all of this we hear the perhaps too-well-known Ride of the Valkyries but also the always magnificent Wotan's Farewell and the fire music. Beginning with the last part of Act One, the opera becomes exciting and the tension and drive proceed at a high pitch, rarely stopping and never letting you lose your compelling attraction to and interest in the stage proceedings as well as the music. By Act Three, you are totally enraptured by the themes and the acting and the whole experience, much as the megalomaniacal genius Wagner surely intended.

Wagner was a showman and his ideas permit all kinds of staging--traditional, as in the old Met Otto Schenck production to this contemporary or 20th century version set in deteriorating industrial locations as well as corporate boardrooms, all clearly facades for a society that has been corrupted. Patrice Chereau, with Pierre Boulez on the podium, launched this kind of production years ago at the Wagner shrine, Bayreuth, and Francesca Zambello has refined it for the Washington National Opera, where she tested out the first two operas some years back and then the full cycle in San Francisco, the co-producer.

Alan Held was a strong Wotan, without some of the range that makes the leading character more enthralling, while Catherine Foster, for whom the great Christine Goerke filled in last week, was a fine, spirited Brunnhilde. Elizabeth Bishop, a friend of a good friend of ours, was a fine strong Fricka, Meagan Miller and Christopher Ventris gave adequate dimension to the Sieglinde and Siegmund roles.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The First Pot of Gold

Even Wagnerites don't always take Das Rheingold as seriously as the three massive operas which follow it in the Ring tetralogy: Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Goetterdaemerrung. First of all, unlike the others which tend to run towards four or even more than five hours (some productions come close to six), the first opera of the four runs barely over 2 1/12 hours. Of course, it's four scenes are now often performed without intermission, so it does become its own kind of challenge.

But this opera has lots of exposition, more story than sustained singing--no major songs, no Ride of the Valkyries. But tonight at Kennedy Center, we saw it as the first in the second Ring cycle that Washington National Opera is presenting over a three-week span. And the staging, the orchestra, and the singers were absolutely magnificent.

Wagner's music is the supreme ingredient--exciting, compelling, even at times subdued and enticingly seductive. Conductor Philippe Auguin deserved the rave reviews he and the orchestra received for the first cycle. This opera introduces all the leitmotifs--the musical themes that Wagner associates with ideas as well as characters. There's one for the Rhine, for Valhalla, for each of the main characters, and this time, I couldn't help noticing the strains of the fire music that will end Die Walkure but which is associated with Loge, who is a principal character only in Das Rheingold, and is the god of fire summoned by Wotan near the end of Act III tomorrow night, 

Loge, here a demigod who does not share the heedlessness of the privileged gods, provides the element of trickery that Wotan requires to recover the Rhine gold from the dwarf Alberich. His status was higher in the Norse version of the same Germanic legends Wagner drew on: he always appears as a tricky character, rarely to be trusted. Here he saves the gods' bacon and you end up respecting him more than them.

Wotan also receives his first prophecy from Erda, the earth goddess, who warns him about wanting to hold on to the ring. We will see, of course, that his grand plan comes undone, at times by his own limitations of imagination. The gods in Wagner are far from being omnipotent nor omniscient in these operas.

This was a wonderful opening and I'm looking forward to the three longer but fuller evenings, beginning with tomorrow's Die Walkure, with its three acts that get progressively better and each contains so many marvelous musical moments.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Eye in the Sky

Was convinced to see a new movie, Eye in the Sky, about use of drones in third-world countries, featuring Helen Mirren as a British air force colonel hell-bent on taking out terrorists she's been tracking for several years. She runs into the need for clearance by higher-ups--civilians--both Americans and Brits, who are concerned to greater or lesser degrees about collateral killing of uninvolved civilians.

Performances are excellent--Alan Rickman's last playing the British general who has to meet with the Attorney General, the Foreign Ministry rep, and other high-level types, and Barkhad Abdi, who played the lead pirate in Captain Phillips, as an on-the-ground agent of the Brits. The scene in Somalia--where it was filmed--is classic third-world, with a sympathetic local's uninvolved presence near the house where the terrorists are meeting keeping everyone involved in deciding whether to order the drone strike on tenterhooks.

It is a thriller in that it keeps you on the edge of your seat. Rickman's voice is a treasure. Richard McCabe as the U.K. Attorney General seemed the perfect British bureaucrat. There also are good flash scenes with the British Foreign Secretary and U.S Secretary of State. 

The ethical issues are compelling as well. The participants mull how the likely death of a sympathetic local character matches up with the far greater number who would perish if the two suicide bombers at the meeting in Somalia escape the drone strike to commit their acts of terror in shopping malls. 

The whole experience makes you realize if you didn't already how you can be tracked so easily and so effectively. So all in all, this was both an entertaining and sobering film to see.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Opening Day in Cricket...er, Baseball

This is opening week in baseball--and I'm planning to be at Opening Day late Thursday afternoon in DC and perhaps attend the Orioles tonight (Weds) in Baltimore. Weather forecast is good for tonight, not so good for Thursday.

While waiting for the season to start, and as I happened to be in Sri Lanka on a consulting trip focused on improving caseflow management there, I was able to follow the major world cricket tournament then going on in India. The matches were carried on TV there and this cricket format--called T20--generally runs about 3 1/2 hours, which is very quick for cricket and may explain its increased popularity. West Indies, a great cricket power in the 1970s and 1980s, managed to oust home team India in the semis, and the always underrated English managed to muddle through and then trounced New Zealand in the other semi.

So here's the final--West Indies, which these days has lots of solid hitting (back in the old days they were also powerful bowlers, i.e., pitchers, with five men on their squad who looked and acted like Bob Gibson, the great St. Louis pitcher), versus England, with a bunch of guys who weren't great at anything but managed to win a lot during the tournament.

The setting: one of the classic cricket venues--Eden Gardens in Kolkata, nee Calcutta. Used to squeeze upwards of 200,000 in but figure that only could've happened if the home team had made it to the finals. They renovated the place a few years ago, and stated capacity went  down from 150,000 to 66,000. Whatever, the place was packed and they were screaming.


England was put in to bat first--in this match, West Indies won the coin toss and usually it's preferred to go last since you then know what total you need to catch up to win. The English are very workmanlike, they don't miss catches (for outs, or wickets as the term has it) and they're good at seizing opportunities. They have two men in the middle of their batting order who seem to do well together (remember, two are up at bat at one time, one at each end). With one of them doing very well, they managed to get at total of 155 runs, which is ok but not great. 
West Indies came in to bat and they started out terribly, losing three of their best hitters very quickly. One man came in and seemed to steady them, gradually building up runs but slowly (as if he were playing a five-day game). They tend to be carefree and hit away but here he was being cautious--very English, not West Indian! He stayed in for the rest of the match--no one else was great for W.I. but he had a few big hits and at the very end they were about 20 runs behind with 10 balls left to hit. This means they needed some big hits--which get you 4 or 6 runs each-- and they had not had many. 
So a new bowler comes in for England and pitches to a man who hadn't done much hitting and he sends a powerful shot over the boundary--equivalent of a home run; this gets him six runs.
Then he does it again on the next pitch!
Then he does it a third time on the next! This one ties the score.
And finally he does it yet once more, on the fourth straight pitch and they win! This was like ending a game by hitting four straight homers--and of course, it was a walk-off too!

They actually had two balls left that they didn't need (and to recall the famous cricket phrase, both batsmen were "not out"--that is, left standing at the end--).
As you can imagine, the West Indians went crazy--for most of the match, it looked like they would lose but the commentators kept saying that these guys could explode at any time--so they did, at just the right time! Thrilling finish!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Spain's Hold on Our Outlook

Today's New York Times had two major articles devoted to the Spanish Civil War. To me, this merely demonstrates that this regional conflict of the late '30s (1936-39) still plays a major part in the way we think about politics, war, government, and yes, lost causes. The first piece was a review of Adam Hochschild's new book, Spain in Our Hearts, which explores how we still must reckon with the influence of this particular conflict.

As the reviewer, Dwight Garner, notes, just on the artistic side, this war produced two of the greatest works of literature: Hemingway's novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and George Orwell's memoir, Homage to Catalonia.  The Spanish Civil War, of course, was where Orwell must have acquired his deep hatred of both Fascism and Communism. He fought for the Loyalists (Republicans), who, when not fighting the Nationalists, Franco's side backed by Hitler and Mussolini, were resisting being dominated by their major supporters, Stalin's Comintern. Orwell was no sunshine soldier: he suffered injuries in combat in Spain that likely helped shorten his life.

But if there is any magnificent and totally sobering artistic legacy of this war, it is, of course, Picasso's incredible huge mural, Guernica, depicting the carpet-bombing of a Spanish city by Franco's forces, but perhaps the most all-encompassing depiction of the horrors of war. This was produced by surely the preeminent painter of the 20th Century, who also sympathized all his life with the Communists, despite the wealth his art provided him, probably because he never forgot that the Communists supported the democratic government when no other great powers, not Britain, France, or the U.S., came to its aid. Not only would he not return to his native Spain while Franco ruled, but he kept Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art in  New York until Spain eventually returned to democracy after Franco's death.

Thus there has always been something highly romantic about the brave volunteers who went to Spain on their own dime and put their lives in danger on behalf of an idea, that of the world's powers, only the Soviet Union was supporting. The Americans formed the American Lincoln Brigade, and last year, the last veteran of that noble cadre, died at age 100. Today he was memorialized by none other than John McCain in the Times, who respected Dwight Berg, who never renounced his Communism, for fighting for what he believed in on the side of the good guys in Spain.

It was good to see McCain behaving again like the maverick he was until he toed the party line to get himself nominated for President by the Republicans in 2008. In the 1950s, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade vets were not treated so kindly by Lincoln's GOP. The McCarthyites hounded them as Communists, whether or not they were such and, more important, whether or not it mattered in terms of their fighting in Spain. Many of them ended up fighting the Stalinists as fervently as they waged war against Franco.

The reason the memory of this unsplendid little war will never die was best expressed, perhaps, by Albert Camus, from whose words Hochschild took the title of his book: 
"Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts. It was there that they learned … that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit and that there are times when courage is not rewarded."