Three aquatic maidens, whose squirt-gun breasts hose down a lurking sexual predator, are hoisted above the stage in glass tanks. Behind them, a giant, digitally projected image of a golden human embryo glows and begins to fill the stage with light. As the radiance beams forth the aquaria illuminate, and then, in a bizarre synchronized moment, the three nymphs ovulate, issuing roe-like guppies; the load descends from Tyvek-wrapped dispensers strapped about their hips to the bottom of the tanks. Their progeny are tennis ball-sized: glassy pods with tiny replicas of the giant prenatal idol that looms above. So begins Wagner’s Rheingold, the prelude to his Ring, in one of the most extravagant, really outré, productions ever staged.
My space odyssey is rudely interrupted by a crunching sound and the redolence of buttered popcorn. Wagner would undoubtedly be upset with the woman munching in the next aisle. I suppose I won’t see her at Bayreuth next year. Back to the birthing.
The Kubrick-like embryo now reappears, and when dwarf Alberich utters his terrible curse, the image begins to morph into a mouldering crumble of ashen clay. More crunching noises, some buttery whiffs, and any salacious fantasies one might have had about moist nymphs are dashed. Some popcorn would be great about now—after all, I’m really not at Bayreuth, nor at the Met, but at the Spectrum 8 Cinema in Albany, New York. Those fish-fems, whose spawning we’ve witnessed, are the Rhine Maidens at the start of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen. Their offspring, as it turns out, form the Rhinegold, the priceless hoard that is stolen by Alberich. His craven act and renunciation of love unleash events that topple gods, morality, fate, and all socially-bound conventions. Wagner’s recondite symbolism is tough enough without our having to ponder those golden human fetuses: material guys ’n gals? Aryans? Later, we learn that the eggs are “processed” in a massive underground Rube Goldberg contraption that serves up the finished booty: guys in golden leotards. The Rhine Maidens, useless post partum, are wrapped up like kippers in fish nets and hauled off, ready to whine about their tragic loss.
To quote Anne Russell’s famous line, “I’m not making this up, you know!”
Here, on Delaware Avenue, at the Spectrum 8 Theater, I have experienced the latest brand of Gesamtkunstwerk: an immersion in Wagner’s music, poetry, drama, with a healthy blast of 21st-century stage effects, in the cozy ambience of a local movie theater. This HD production was part of a serialized Ring broadcast from the wondrously futuristic Palau de les Arts in Valencia, Spain. The production features the avant-garde antics of La Fura dels Baus, a Catalan theater company, termed, appropriately, “cutting edge.” Their website (http://www.lafura.com) is as disconcerting and provocative as their mixture of echt Industrial art, Cirque du Soleil athleticism, and the haunting déjà vu of the Heaven’s Gate futurists. The Valencia Ring is the latest manifestation of Regietheater, the at times disorienting European indulgence in recreating opera along lines the composers could hardly imagine, or perhaps approve.
The music didn’t seem to matter. Nor did the orchestra (Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana), the conductor (Zubin Mehta), or the singers (Juha Uusitalo, Matti Salminen, Stephen Milling, Sabine von Walther, John Daszak, and Franz-Josef Kapellmann). This Rheingold was about torsos, gods on forklifts, giants in robotic body suits, futuristic digital backdrops, bungees, and a crew of contortionists that effectively distract any effect of the music or its performance. In fact, Mehta’s tempi were purposely ponderous to synchronize his musicians with the labored effects on stage. At Rheingold’s end, with the magnificent “Entrance of the gods to Valhalla,” the circus ring came, um, full circle: Valhalla, portrayed by a suspended net of acrobats that sucked the singers up in its web.
When I first saw Cirque du Soleil about fifteen years ago and moaned about their surface virtuosity and total lack of depth, little did I know this would be the future of Opera. Ah well. La Fura is several degrees more flamboyant than Cirque.
Conventional alternative to all this, of course, are productions that attempt to represent the composer’s idea of mise-en-scène, plot, and costumes: the Otto Schenk Ring, recently staged at the Met, was widely heralded, voraciously attended, and hugely profitable. Another approach, rampant in the 1990s in Europe, is what has been derisively coined “Eurotrash” by detractors: concupiscent and garish staging in which almost everyone seems to appear nude, sport a Glock, or is compelled to perform a requisite vulgarity on stage. Well-heeled Europeans, sick of this approach, have actually flocked to New York this year to attend the hoary Schenk Ring. The Valencia Ring is just the latest manifestation of a new aesthetic for opera. The old debate of word vs. music has now been elevated to a discourse on what is most exciting: digital effects, eroticism, or athleticism. The musical value, like the world’s economy, is diminished. The gauntlet thrown is now the challenge of marketing these new musical products.
Modern conceptions do have a real market as long as opera steps beyond traditional constraints of location, expensive seating, and social snobbery. Nothing, however, in the recent history of opera has seemed as significant as the new digital dissemination, which now reaches new audiences (read markets) in movie theaters or at home, in front of their PCs.
This highly profitable outreach was pioneered by Peter Gelb, manager of the Met, a few seasons ago, when he succeeded the conservative John Volpe. Gelb’s techniques have pioneered the marketing of opera-for-the masses in our new century: live HD broadcasts, satellite radio, and streaming subscription digital feeds—a brilliant move on his part. Every major opera house seems to have followed suit. HD broadcasts from La Scala followed in short order. Even the Bayreuth Festspeilhaus has a way for you to pay and watch live Wagner productions on a PC (for a mere 49 Euros, or $77).
Although there is no direct connection between productions like the Valencia Rheingold and the mass marketing of opera, both are gestures to reach different sensibilities, alternative economic classes, and younger people of more modest means. In our area, The Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington and Time and Space Limited in Hudson are certified to present the Met HD broadcasts. The Met does lay down some rules of decorum here: food is not allowed during the performance; audio and video apparatus must conform to very high standards. Other venues, like the Spectrum Cinema, not confined by Met rules, seem to offer a much more casual evening.
Of the past year’s “Metflix,” the production that foreshadowed the spooky Spanish Ring was Robert Lepage’s conception of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust: digitally morphing backdrops were in full glory, along with circus performers on bungees. It is rumored that after retiring the Schenk Ring, the Met will be letting Lepage design the new Ring production. The Valencia Ring will be a hard one for the Met to top.
What’s next? While I wait, I’ll just spin that great 1935 EMI reissue of Walküre with Lauritz Melchoir, Lotte Lehmann, and Bruno Walter. [now available in better sound than ever from Pristine Audio Direct] I will listen to stunning singing and direction, and daydream of those ill-fated twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. I’ll limn in my mind the magnificence of Valhalla, Brünnhilde vigor and beauty, and mighty Wotan’s pathos. I might even have some popcorn.