Imperfect Wagnerites

The Ring? Wrongly Rung

The performance annals of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung abound in tales of solemn ritual, of audiences driven to ecstasy thousands at a time, of published philosophical analyses by the ream. To George Bernard Shaw’s Perfect Wagnerite, the heroic Siegfried is the nihilist Mikhail Bakunin reborn; to Anna Russell, he is Li’l Abner. Nobody merely attends performances of The Ring; the operative word is pilgrimage. Whether that is exactly the first definition that comes to mind during freeway traffic on a Friday afternoon on I-405, or while experiencing a damp sandwich, standing up for lack of lobby space, elbow to elbow with a jabbering Ringling in plastic Wagnerian helmet, I leave you to decide.

Yet those four days at Costa Mesa — celebrating not the 20-year-old-and-already-shabby Segerstrom Hall but the glossy new one still being worked on across the way — added up to a Ring of sorts, if a Ring fashioned as though from the far side of the moon. “You have to remember,” a friend wisely noted during one of the endless intermissions, “that in Russia there was no 20th century.” Wagner had gone unstaged there since before the First World War, until the defiant Valery Gergiev forced a rediscovery on his forces at the Kirov Opera in the late 1990s. This Ring, brought to these shores by Kirov forces that looked like a fair portion of St. Petersburg’s population, was listed as a “conception,” not a stage direction, by Gergiev and the designer George Tsypin (he of the recent Grendel and its famous wall). Absent any more specific clues, it seemed to be a creation that had been allowed to grow of its own cumulative energy. Ideally, that can turn a stage into something very exciting, a massive improvisatory force joined toward some end. Otherwise, it can result in a mess.

This one was a mess. On a stage that looked as if someone had simply overturned the contents of some theatrical warehouse in which most of the props were damaged anyhow, gaunt giants stood by, encircling the stage, some headless (like the ones in the Long Beach Opera’s mini-Ring last January and just as useless), some with heads that lit up from inside like distorted lava lamps. Smaller, bulbous creatures with single headlamps were scattered here and there; the sharp-eyed Bernie Holland of The New York Times spotted them as Shmoos, enhancing the Li’l Abner identity. Singing actors of varying levels of proficiency trudged through a fair likeness of Wagner’s music — in itself one of the world’s awe-inspiring creations. Awe-inspiring, too, was Gergiev’s command of the rise and fall, the surge and the impetus of this incredible score — including, by the way, several passages usually cut that were left intact this time.

The problems were compounded, however: first because, though the orchestra itself — as the world has discovered on its previous visits — is a force of awesome resonance and beauty of tone, in Segerstrom Hall it was obliged to play in a pit too small and too poorly designed to show off its splendor. The mess was further thickened because the casting night after night seemed to have been carried out on an eeny-meeny-choice basis, seldom with any two singers properly matched. I heard excellent tenors (our own Plácido, for one) matched with small-voiced sopranos, a wooly-voiced Wotan past his prime with a Walküre Brünnhilde of splendid strength, a first-rate Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde against a wimp of a Hagen (in drag, by the way) who was also greatly outsung by the Gunther whom he is supposed to dominate. It would have taken the acumen of Stalin’s secret police to determine, from the various printed programs, which singer was actually singing which role on which night. I would swear, for example, that the aforementioned “Brünnhilde of splendid strength” was the same terrific soprano (Olga Sergeyeva) on three consecutive nights; the programs had it otherwise. Oh, and I almost forgot, the Siegfried who looked so svelte in his red jammies one night was replaced the next night by a chubbier hero trying to fit into the same clothes, but not quite at home there.

Not Only Godunov, but Better

The Russian forces encamped at Costa Mesa for this 17-day “Maryinsky Festival” sufficed to populate two full opera projects, plus ballet and symphony galore. Nothing in these offerings proved more valuable, however, than the four performances of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, the most prototypical and, up to now, most inexplicably neglected hereabouts of all great Russian works of art. Even in its later, bowdlerized transformations — its harmonies and orchestrations sweetened by lesser hands, its plotlines tampered with by the addition of love duets and a ballet — our local companies have shied away from Boris as if it were something other than the raw, daring, imperfect but astonishing masterpiece it truly is. In its original 1869 form, it was rejected by the ancestral Kirov company, which then triumphed mightily with bastardized versions. Three cheers and a “Slava!!!” then for the intrepid Gergiev, who brought the original Boris back to the company in 2002, recorded it and has taken it on tour.

Another few cheers, as well, for the result. There is undeniably great music in the additions made by Mussorgsky himself in his 1872 revision: the mighty choruses in the “Coronation” scene, the scene in the Kromy Forest with the Idiot’s monologue that provides the opera’s devastating ending. The five-CD Philips recording led by Gergiev is the ideal way to compare 1869 and 1872. It contains both versions; the 1869 Boris is the marvelous Nicolai Putilin, who also sang the role in Orange County last Sunday, the best single performance I heard during the entire Kirov visit.

But the 1869 Boris is more than a rough sketch. Its very terseness lays bare its personal drama. From the moment in the dialogue with the sardonic Shuisky when the specter of oncoming doom is laid bare, through to the end, the music doesn’t waste a breath, and neither do you. Suddenly, all that hanky-panky with gods and dragons from the previous nights seemed in retrospect like four nights of Ring Around the Rosie — fun, though.?

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