Sunday, August 31, 2014

Union Ave. Opera - Ring Cycle Part 3

     Well, I want to begin a few reflections by stating outright that over all Union Ave Opera has achieved a great thing.  It is not easy to put on the Ring Cyle, and St. Louis has never seen a fully staged Ring before.  So hats off to them for this great achievement.  It was really pretty well done on the whole, so bravi tutti.  2ndly, i want to note that Siegfried was the 3rd in their series having produced Rheingold in 2012 and Walkure in 2013 (my reviews of those are below).  This is also the 3rd opera in their 2014 season, having performed Traviata and Streetcar Named Desire earlier in the summer.  I saw both - Traviata was good; but Streetcar was really outstanding.
    The cast for Siegfried was very strong on the whole.  The standouts were Clay Hilley as Siegfried, Jordan Shanahan as Alberich and Alexandra LoBianco as Brunnhilde.  I also really liked Marc Shapman as Mime and Cecilia Stearman as Erda.  Kate Reiman sang well as the Forest Bird, Nathan Whitson was a strong and effective Fafner whose part was drastically cut - unfortunately - and David Dillard was The Wanderer.  Of the cast I suppose David Dillard's Wanderer was the least effective as an actor, in my view, despite his beautiful and rich baritone (he's really not a bass/baritone).  He was a bit too dapper for my taste.  He was costumed in what looked like a very stylish long leather coat and he moved quickly on stage - though he was sporting a perplexing limp when he first entered and then just as quickly lost it.  I am not sure what the stage director was trying to accomplish with that.  Surely Mime would not have been fooled by the limp after all Mime had met Wotan in Rheingold - oh, oops, that scene was cut!  At any rate, I just felt he needed more gravitas in the role of the Wanderer.  After all, he is Wotan, the leader of the gods, the master of contracts and promises, the god in whom all power resides, but who is seeing his power slip away.  He is wandering in order to try to find a way to stop this from happening.  There needs to be a weariness and a sadness about him.  This Wanderer was more like he was on an cool adventure.  Especially in the scene with Siegfried there needs to be a certain amount of grave inevitability.  It was simply missing.
    Those who know me will be able to guess what my principal complaint is going to be, and it is not with the production (which I will return to in a moment).  My principal complaint is 1st and mostly with Jonathan Dove and 2nd with Scott Schnoover the conductor.  So, the full version of Siegfried has three acts and together there is over 4 hours of music.  This production put acts 1 and 2 together for the first act and then act 3 comprised act 2.  It was over in 2 hours and 20 minutes!  That is a shorter evening than Traviata!  (I timed things - The opera started at 8; Siegfried forged the sword at 8:35 and Fafner died at 9; Act 2 started around 9:30 and it was all over by 10:20).  Now, I get that the length and Wagner's long-windedness in repeating parts of the story over and over again are a problem for some audience and so I get that the point of this production is to reduce the operas to a shorter length in order to make it into a more typical evening at the opera.  But Dove's reduction of Wagner's original acts 1 and 2 was nothing short of a hack job.  As bad as the cuts were in Rheingold, these were worse.  The music suffered, the plot suffered and the opera felt like we were on a roller coaster ride.  The worst cuts of the evening for me were mostly out of Wagner's act 2: The opening scene between the Wanderer and Alberich was kept but the Wanderer waking Fafner, and the audience experiencing Fafner before the fight later on was cut (needlessly); the middle section of the great and brilliant horn solo was cut. What was left of this solo was played beautifully by 1st horn Nancy Schick, BTW.  I think they probably saved all of 30 seconds with this cut - what was the point, the word I want to use would be offensive so I'll just say that this cut was wrenching; the scene of Alberich bickering with Mime - cut.  If all of these had been restored at least in part it would have probably put the opera at the 3 hour mark.  Which would have been fine by me and it would not have felt like Dove was just ripping the score apart.  However the absolute worst cut of the evening was a the end of Wagner's act 2 / Dove's act 1: Siegfried runs off the stage following the Forest Bird and there are exactly 30 bars of music to close the act.  It is in a very fast tempo so I takes maybe a minute and half at most.  Dove cut most of it and tacked on an awkward fortissimo chord.  End of scene.  I almost left.  I was so upset by this cut.  The problem with these cuts is 1st, that they don't really save much time but they ruin the musical integrity of the score.
     The other major cut was, of course, the entirely of the Mime/Wanderer scene.  I am however sympathetic with this cut, even though I really love this 6 questions contest.  But it doesn't move the plot ahead and it just rehashes all that has gone before.  The problem though was that they cut from the set up of the contest to the last question - who will forge the sword.  And the titles included references to the Wanderer having won Mime's head, and having engaged in this contest.  But they didn't so, if you didn't know the story it would have been unclear as to what in the world this was all about.  Which leads to my 2nd complaint - since they are cutting all of the background information scenes it seems to me that either more info in the program or a pre-performance or intermission lecture might help.  The guy sitting next to me left at intermission - he could not figure out the plot.  And it is true that if you do not know the Ring it is very hard to follow, especially with all of these cuts.  So I understand why this cut was made, but the other ones were indefensible in my view.
    And if this were not bad enough, the tempi of Wagner's act 1 in particular were very, very fast.  Too fast.  This is my complaint with the conductor.  I felt like he was in a race.  The tempo he chose for what was left of the Mime/Wanderer scene was way too fast.  Also, I suspect they are working within a tight budget but the orchestra really needs more rehearsal.  There was a lot of sloppiness in the strings and not one of the woodwind chords during the Brunnhilde wakening scene was in tune - not one!  BUT - there was (finally) a tuba, and it made all the difference.  I complained after Rheingold and Walkure that the brass has no bottom.  Well finally there was a TUBA and it really improved the over all sound of the orchestra.  Dove needs to add this tuba back into the other Ring operas.
    Except for the Wanderer's dapper leather coat the costumes and the production were all good and effective.  This is not the Met, they don't have the Met budget.  But with what they had they did a great job.  They used the projections very effectively.  And I liked the projected dragon.  I thought it was kind of cool.  Better than the silly Muppet dragon they use in the current Met production.
    Finally, I want to reiterate that I believe the company performed the piece as they received it from Jonathan Dove.  My problems are with him - and are mostly the cuts which I think are way too ragged.  On the other hand, the Wagner act 3 cuts (like the Walkure cuts) were not as bad.  But the earlier cuts were horrible.  The company should be commended for their hard work and commitment to this project.  The other benefit I think is for the singers - LoBianco, Hilley and Shanahan may well some day take on these complete roles in a bigger house.  At the moment these are young and immensely talented singers.  This is a great opportunity for them to start getting familiar with these roles in a shorter version and smaller venue that I would imagine would not be as vocally taxing.  As it was their voices were almost too much for the space - they have big beautiful voices.  It is a darn shame that the cuts meant that we only ended up with about 10 minutes of Alberich and 15 minutes of Brunnhilde.
    So, tonight I think I am going to listen to a new recording I have of Siegfried conducted by Daniel Baremboim.  But I am glad I got to see Union Ave Opera's production and I look forward to the last installment next year of Gotterdammerung.