The Costa Mesa Mariinsky Festival “Ring”. Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”

New review by Welton Jones. October 8, 2006:

The Russian “Ring,” which landed on American soil Oct. 6 with “Das Rheingold” at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in California,shouldn’t disappoint anybody except those hoping for a fiasco.

Judging solely from the first of the four operas, this is a polished, self-confident “Ring,” musically solid in the hands of a major traditional conductor, competently sung by an experienced ensemble and visually goofy only within the requirements of individual artistic inspiration.

If Wagner himself couldn’t bring tidy order to this most majestic of epic legend-myths, no definitive version should be expected by now. That’s the gracious public position that has dominated for over a century, during which countless producers, commentators and lovesick swains have been sure privately that THEIRS was the true way.

This particular vision of the cycle is attributed to Valery Gergiev, the master conductor who also runs St. Petersburg’s legendary Mariinsky opera, ballet and orchestral ensembles, and his Russian-born, American-trained designer George Tsypin. (No stage director is credited for this production.)

Gergiev conducts in the grand manner with stately tempo and dignified crescendos and his orchestra – brought along intact with the ballet and opera companies for this impressive 17-day residency in Costa Mesa – plays with attentive swagger.

Mikhail Kit, a late substitution for Alexey Tanovitsky, sang Wotan carefully, marking some of the exchanges with Fricka and suggesting more the fond parental balladeer than the scheming and driven empire-builder. Vasiliy Gorshkov, promoted from Mime on this occasion, was a crowd-pleaser as an urbane Loge, decidedly cool for a god of fire,and his singing was lusty if not error-free.

The best singing of the evening came from Andrey Spehov as Donner, a ringing baritone with edged thunder throughout his displayed range. Vadim Kravets and Mikhail Petrenko, though precise and accurate from inside their Fafner and Fasolt apparatuses, created little in the way of gigantic intimidation. Nikolai Gassiev’s Mime whined and wheedled with admirable enunciation and Edem Umerov found a complex, ambiguous vocal plan to match his dour physical concept of Alberich, perhaps the most interesting acting of the evening.

Or perhaps not. Anastasia Kalagina, who sang the bits and pieces assigned to Freia with luscious decorum, displayed a superbly shaped body language that stop just short of becoming a distraction while suggesting an approach which might invigorate all Wagnerian acting. She’s due back as Siegfried’s Woodbird.

The Rhinemaidens – Margarita Alaverdian, Irina Vasilieva and Lyubov Sokolova – were particularly well-matched vocally and fleshy but fetching as cavorters. Zlata Bulycheva’s Erda benefited from excellent staging while Svetlana Volkova’s Fricka, a thankless part at best, suffered from her Wotan’s distraction.

A musical ensemble, in short, not to make headlines but to bring credit on the producers as responsible Wagnerians. And what is there to see? A mixed bag of abstractions in a search for cohesion not achieved in the first quarter of the tetralogy at least. The “Das Rheingold” landscape is dominated by four large and irregular cigar shapes hanging parallel to the stage lip throughout and adjusted in reference to each other as scenes change. Eventually, these come to suggest supine mummies of warlike gods, an interpretation heightened when they bend into a semi-seated posture before the final curtain. The stage itself is scattered with dozens of blunt, moveable lumps which, as they began lighting up and skittering about, resemble various “Star War” characters – R2D2, Yoda, the desert scavengers whose eyes glow beneath their cowls. Each major character is assigned a squad of costumed extras and Mime’s Nibelungs, possibly children serving as supers, push the shapes about pretending to clang upon them for the underworld scenes.

Many of the key props are so awkward they approach silliness. The tarnhelm is a sparkly sombrero; the Rheingold resembles a weekend handyman’s gazebo. The giants are especially lumpen: crude earthenteapots which the singers inhabit with the dignified grace of Michael Dukakis wearing a tank.

Poured over all these pancakes is the syrup of Gleb Filshtinsky’s deeply textured lighting. At the beginning, it’s black light, highlighting long yellow wigs on stationary forms giving a garish air to the fauna, presumably, on the bottom of the Rhine. Other scenes require other hues right up to the decidedly earth-toned Rainbow Bridge and the gorgeous golden sunset.

Costumes, by Tatiana Noginova, are equally emphatic. The gods wear elaborate but restrained outfits of rich fabric with lots of pleats. The Rhinemaidens are kitsch, the various platoons of followers either work – the mysterious band assisting Erda – or don’t – a quartet of muscular lifters who carry Freia off for the giants. The most problematical spectacle was Alberich with the Rheingold, a chartreuse cockroach sniffing at a spoiled cantaloupe beneath rotted dirigibles.

Much of the décor, alas, consisted of bold ideas not followed up. And, oddly, there was little vertical orientation for a work set in so many levels of existence. Nobody flew. Nobody even climbed very far up on anything.

Abstraction become too personal does little for the “Ring,” which has all the ambiguity it needs built into the music and the story. Arbitrary tricks, as opposed to the simple bucolic theme park envisioned by Wagner, simply add another level of onionskin to be peeled away from the complex puzzles. But Wagnerians – who flocked to Orange County’s Russian “Ring” in cultish force – seem never to mind the added complications.

By Welton Jones

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