Monday, July 30, 2007

The other day I said to Fritz, “this laptop was absolutely made especially for me.” “How can you tell?,” he asked. I said that I’d been working on the review of the Kirov production of Wagner’s RING of the Nibelung that the head of the Wagner Society of Boston had asked me to write for the Society’s newsletter. When I typed in the name of the company’s music director, Valery Gergiev, the name Gergiev was obviously already in the spell check’s dictionary since it didn’t appear with a red line underneath it. That’s my kind of computer


Something popped into my head the other day, an incident from the late 1980s when I was working on the creation of Theater Arts at MIT out of several performing groups. I was on a search for a director/acting teacher and had received something like 375 applications. We had done the first cut, the “total slaughter” cut and were beginning to look at the resumes from which a short list would eventually be chosen.

I used to say jokingly to friends and colleagues that when you opened more than half of the applications for such a search, you could hear a voice calling out from far, far away, ”please--PLEASE--get me out of the mid-west!” As it happened, one application from a director at one of the big mid-western universities made it to the second round in which we progressed beyond resumes to checking credentials and references.

The first two were routine, from colleagues with whom the candidate had worked. The third was from his department chair. I read through the praise for his productions, teaching and leadership in service to the university and then was stunned to run right into, “but most importantly, he is a manly man.” I couldn’t quite believe it, so I went back and read the paragraph again and there it was at the end, “he is a manly man.”

My first thought was, “well, I guess that tells US effete east coast liberal academics.” Then I thought how completely inappropriate the comment was. Finally, I wondered at the mind that could have so smugly considered a man’s (presumed) heterosexuality more important than all of his professional, intellectual and artistic accomplishments. Other members of the committee were as surprised as I except for one who had seen something like it before. The candidate didn’t make it out of the second round, but not for that reason--none of us would have disqualified him for his department chair’s bigotry.


I submitted the Kirov Ring review to the Boston Wagner Society last night and am reprinting it below. I know that a couple of you are into opera and thought that others might be interested in the kind of writing I do for newsletters and arts journals from time to time.

A bit of background: The Ring of the Nibelung is a massive four opera retelling of the Nordic/Teutonic myths of creation, the introduction of evil into the world, redemption, and the end of the world by fire and water. As with so many cultures, there are parallels to the creation/destruction myths of other civilizations. The Nordic gods, for example, share major characteristics with the Greek deities, and Brunnhilde is a female version first of the Mesopotamian/Christian Lucifer (being ejected from heaven for refusing to serve as commanded), and then of the Christian Jesus as she gives her life for the purification of the world from evil. Here’s the review:

The Quirky, Compelling Kirov Ring

Premise: Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung seen through the prism of the Slavic myth and culture of the production’s creators.
Context: The Metropolitan Opera whose audience (except for the briefly seen Herbert von Karajan production) has never experienced a non-pictorially realistic Ring in New York City.
Reality: There’s very little money in Russia these days to produce epic-scale theater and opera.

Russia once had an admirable Wagner tradition until two massive global conflicts with Germany banished his operas from Soviet stages. The Kirov Opera brought to this year’s Lincoln Center Festival a Ring that reclaims the great work for Russia in a contemporary style that generated endless speculation and debate.

Music director Valery Gergiev and designer George Tsypin created this Ring together without a theatrical director. A unit set, very few props, and as few costume changes as possible provided a fast moving, singer-oriented production that Gergiev populated with extraverted, athletic, passionate singers whose intensity and enthusiasm made up for occasional vocal deficiencies. The result was fresh, endearing performances.

The Kirov orchestra exhibited all the characteristics of traditional Russian playing—biting brass tone with a healthy snarl, aggressive strings and pungent winds. Gergiev took brisk, purposeful tempi and climaxed the entire cycle in a visceral, all-enveloping performance of Siegfried’s funeral music that packed a huge wallop. In the pit, as elsewhere in this production, taking risks and pushing the envelope was preferred to safe, predictable routine.

The stage was set with three enormous faux carved wood idols (I immediately thought of the three idols of Wotan, Fricka and Freia that were to be set up outside any Nordic house, Gibichung Hall included). A white surround took projections and abstract color patterns that changed mood more effectively than place. Russia’s financial woes no doubt account for the occasionally cheap and amateurish execution of some production elements. Better to concentrate on the ideas rather than their realization.

Several of those ideas made absolute sense. When Siegfried died, the vassals placed his body not on his shield but in his boat, lifted it and carried it into the hall for cremation—a classic Nordic hero’s ship funeral. A small company of dancer-mimes shifted scenery and played many roles, including Loge’s familiar spirits, fire imps with electric magenta hair who were present at Brunnhilde’s mountain top and around Mime’s forge. One particularly haunting image was Erda, slowly spiraling aimlessly upstage into oblivion, after her final interview with Wotan.

Failures? A few. The cataclysm at the end had to be taken on faith. After the Rhine Maidens sent Hagen spinning upstage to his doom (it worked fine once but shouldn’t have been repeated), we sat there and listened to the music without much else taking place. Fortunately, Wagner made it happen in the orchestra. One feat of inadequate casting was Oleg Balashov’s Siegmund. An attractive light tenor and ardent actor, his voice fell apart up top and lacked the strength for the end of act one in Walkure. He pulled himself together for a credible act two, but the damage had already been done. And for all his good singing, Mikhail Petrenko was too recessive and almost benign as Hagen

Singing may have been variable, but it was rarely less than dramatically compelling. There were seven stand-outs: Alexei Tanovitsky’s commandingly tall, gauntly handsome Wotan with a strong and tireless bass; Vasily Gorshov, a superb actor whose finely focused high tenor sounded brilliantly through Loge and the Siegfried Mime; veteran Larissa Diadkova whose classic Fricka just keeps deepening; young Mlada Khudoley, a Sieglinde whose wide-ranging soprano and intense, charismatic acting could make her a worthy successor to Leonie Rysanek in this role; Olga Savova, an opulent, intense Gotterdammerung Waltraute; and Victor Lutsuk, the genuine article as the same opera’s Siegfried, tireless and full-voiced to the end. Last and very much not least was the venomous Rheingold Alberich of Nicolai Putilin

Honorable mention to: Leonid Zakhozhaev in the title role of Siegfried. A lyric tenor with a pleasant timbre and admirable stamina, he arrived on Brunnhilde’s rock in surprisingly fresh condition and sang the part straight through to the end; Gennady Bezzubenkov’s scary, richly sung Hunding--this man knows when doing nothing purposefully is the most powerful on-stage gesture you can make; and Yevgeny Nikitin’s unusually interesting, vibrant Gunther.

One singer’s accomplishment was emblematic of the entire enterprise. Olga Sergeeva’s Brunnhilde had its great (the Immolation) and not so great moments (a wild war cry, Brunnhilde’s awakening) in an unfailingly exciting and involving performance. Left totally alone on stage and kneeling by Siegfried’s body in this staging, she lovingly and forgivingly addressed the beginning of the Immolation directly to him rather than to the audience as a star solo. Her performance frequently recalled the Brunnhildes of Gwenneth Jones and Hildegard Behrens, with all the minuses and plusses that statement implies. In the end, this was a Ring that thrilled, provoked thought, and satisfied in surprising ways, as a loudly enthusiastic audience confirmed evening after evening.


And since we’ve gotten to opera, here’s a new picture of “barihunk” Nathan Gunn that has appeared recently on some websites.

Tuesday AM update: Just this morning Nathan was on Good Morning America singing (not lip-synching) a cut from his new pop/classical album, looking gorgeous (what else?), sounding wonderful, and being boyishly charming.

i very much enjoy reading your thoughts on opera; and I am a big Wagner nut.
Thanks for your review of the Kirov Ring which I have read about but not seen. I visited Norway a few years ago and remembered during that trip the legend that the Flying Dutchman was inspired by an unscheduled stay in a Norwegian harbor because of bad weather. So the Russian Ring is an interesting Nordic spin. (Wagnerites: see Alex Ross's blog or google for info on listening live to the Bayreuth festival via Internet Radio - Siegfried was yesterday.)
Will, I agree...a shirtless Nathan Gunn is about as hot as it gets in the world of opera. I really want to see him do a Billy Budd somewhere while he is still prime grade A beefcake.
gregg--I suspectthat the next time the Metropolitan Opera revives Billy Budd they'll cast Nathan in it. Last time I saw the opera with him he was playing the Novice and got all the reviews (I suspect that even then he was covering the part. In the meanwhile, He's become one of the most high profile Billys in the business.

inter--thanks for being in touch. If you'd like, please send me an email and let me know who you are.

spo--it's great to have a fellow Wagnerian reading and commenting!
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