There’s nothing wrong with an occasional wallow in the lower depths. I go to Norm’s for lunch now and then; I own two pairs of Doc Martens; I’ve been known to watch a soap or two. But gee whiz, folks, there’s a limit, and a week at the Hollywood Bowl wherein the offerings included Lalo’s turgid, gesturesome Symphonie Espagnole on Tuesday and the spineless First Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff two days later should, by rights, have pulled down the wrath of the Environmental Protection Agency.
If ever a work, once popular, has outlived its utility, surely Lalo’s tired pastiche of Hispanic phrase turns — with nary a memorable melody to justify its half-hour-plus duration — must be it. Its presence was, I suppose, considered an enhancement to the first of Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s two Latino programs by proving that even French composers can venture past the Pyrenees in search of inspiration. The rest of the program, with music by Ravel and Chabrier, proved that point. The performance of Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, even through mikes and speakers, came across a glorious wash of color. Christian Tetzlaff, a fine violinist who has given us Beethoven and Berg in previous visits here, played the Lalo — overmiked as if he were offering a batch of show tunes — seemingly unreached by any idea of what he was doing in that piece or that locale. That made two of us.
Impertinent question: Would anyone bother with the Rach 1 if it weren’t for the Rach 2 (and, if you insist, 3)? Here is a straggling, shambling piece of work that can only injure its composer’s reputation by existing. Put it forward, in a land where it is hitherto unknown, as a parody of the bad Rach manner (as with Mozart’s Musical Joke) and you might get somewhere. Young Vardan Mamikonian played a lot of notes, but got nowhere. Harth-Bedoya was again in charge, demonstrating with his slap-’em-silly performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol the superiority of Ravel’s traversal of the same territory.
I like Harth-Bedoya’s work, the quality of his music making and the nice atmosphere he creates around it with his ingratiating (and blessedly to-the-point) spoken intros. He is on a roll lately, as he deserves, with podiums in New Zealand and Texas and guest shots all over the map. I don’t need to spell out his special value to this highly varied community, underscored with the Latino content in his programming (including his next Music Center date in November). I’ll bet he steps outside that frame in Texas and New Zealand, though, and he should do that here as well. (He will, with Dvorák’s Seventh Symphony, next March.)
In Seattle earlier this month there were simultaneous Siegfrieds — one who sang and another who lip-synched. Fafner the Dragon filled the stage, both terrifying and adorable, a velociraptor right out of Jurassic Park. Rhine Maidens cavorted on the flying trapeze, singing all the while. This was the Seattle Opera’s third production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen since 1975, when the company launched its campaign to transform itself into America’s Bayreuth. It comes ever closer. Its main competition this summer has been Seattle’s Mariners, who dominate the percentages like Wotan at Valhalla, and whose tickets are as hard to come by as the Rhine’s Gold.
The Mariners lost the night I went; the Ring, by and large, triumphed. Stephen Wadsworth’s concept was revolutionarily retro, a “return to nature” that even Rousseau might approve. The tall conifers of Thomas Lynch’s Rhineland forest, bearded with moss and in garments green, might have been rooted anywhere in Western Washington; Speight Jenkins, Seattle Opera’s voluble, Texas-born honcho, allowed as how the production neither could nor would ever be borrowed by another company. Revivals are set for 2005, 2009 and 2013; if I know Seattle’s Wagnerites, the box-office lines are already forming.
Wadsworth’s plan of action pretty much followed the book; his Valkyries even sported the old-fashioned winged helmets that you see in all the parodies. One nice touch: Rather than the wholesale burn-up at the end, the curtain fell on a happy family reunion — Wotan and Brünnhilde with the Siegmund family, all smoochy at the bottom of the Rhine. Jane Eaglen, on whose, er, broad shoulders the role of Brünnhilde currently rests in many major houses, became more profound, more thrilling night after night. Stephanie Blythe, a mezzo-soprano of comparable proportion, was a stupendous Fricka. Alan Woodrow, whose Siegfried was to be the summer’s major debut, tore a quadriceps muscle the day before and sang from a stool at the side of the stage, lip-synched — more or less satisfactorily — by the understudy, Richard Berkeley-Steele. (In the two ensuing performances of the cycle, Berkeley-Steele had the role to himself in both sight and sound.) Denmark’s Stephen Milling was the Hunding, a hugely resonant bass; I would kill to hear his Sarastro somewhere, sometime. The dry-voiced Phillip Joll was the inadequate Wotan; as his adversary Alberich, Richard Paul Fink sang with far greater eloquence. Franz Vote’s conducting was, shall we say, okay; I missed having my throat clutched at by Siegmund’s capture of the sword and by the collapse of Valhalla at the end.
Like Bayreuth, Seattle at Ring-time is an object of pilgrimage, of addiction if you prefer. Wagner societies thrive in many cities — there’s one here and another in San Francisco — and their devout members migrate from one shrine to the next. I dined one night with representatives from several branches, and when I confessed that I’d never been to Bayreuth, the reaction was as horrified as when Tannhäuser sings his obscene song at the Wartburg. Wagner T-shirts sell like Freia’s apples at the Opera House’s shop, and some people — not many, I’m happy to say — showed up at performances in Valkyrie helmets and similar gadgetry, as people at rock events sometimes dress as the performers.
Apropos gadgetry: It did no harm that the neighborhood industry, Microsoft, was on hand to help with high-tech lighting and stage-design graphics. It’s interesting, in fact, that after all the recent Ring productions in futuristic, industrial-age or punk-bar settings, contemporary technology has made it possible to return the work to Wagner’s own vision of forests, fairy-tale monsters and winged helmets. George Lucas, already at work on Los Angeles’ upcoming Ring, will probably agree.