Wagner’s Ring (the “good parts” version)

Yesterday in Nashua I got to see a concert performance of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, cut down to three hours including an intermission. The performance was fantastic. The experiment of squeezing it down had a mixed result.

1876 scene from Das RheingoldSymphony NH, Nashua’s resident orchestra, combined forces with the Lexington Symphony Orchestra and a group of soloists in Keefe Auditorium, Elm Street Middle School. The stage had to be extended to accommodate all the musicians. Between the two orchestras, the contingent was close to what Wagner specified; they even had Wagner tubas and anvils. It was my first time seeing anything close to a live performance of the Ring, with or without constumes and staging. There are some thing you need to see to appreciate, such as singers who can hold their own against a hundred-piece orchestra. I was particularly impressed by Alfred Walker’s Wotan. Wotan’s definitely the main character in Rheingold and has a good claim to it in Walküre, and walker brought a lot of power and emotional effectiveness to the role. (By the way, his skin is dark. Take that, Nazi Wagnerians!) Pawel Izdebski, who played the giant Fafner, really is a giant, a head taller than any of the other singers. Many of the singers covered more than one role; Sam Handley doubled as a dwarf and a giant.

Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the name of the singer who really deserves mention. Thomas Studebaker, who was supposed to play Sigmund, was sick, and Jonathan McPhee somehow found a substitute who was up to the part. Can you imagine getting a call saying, “Are you free to play Siegmund this afternoon? With cuts you’ve never seen before? Sorry, we’re cutting ‘Winterstürme”? But the singer (I’ll update the post with his name if I learn it) (Update: His name is Alan Schneider) did a really impressive job, only losing the thread once. (The orchestra kept going, as did the projected titles.)

The cuts were brutal, of course. You can’t chop two Wagner operas down to three hours without shedding blood. Rheingold is the shortest work in the Ring cycle, but it’s also the leanest. Donner was completely gone, with the wonderful music under which he conjures up a storm near the end. Walküre has more material for cutting, particularly in Wotan’s endless monologues. Walker’s a wonderful singer, but Anna Russell was right; Wotan is a crashing bore. Unfortunately, cutting them means cutting necessary exposition (“As you know, Brünnhilde…”) and character development, so the plot was left something of a mess. As I mentioned, “Winterstürme,” the closest thing to an aria in the whole cycle, got the axe as well. It doesn’t advance the plot.

Still, it’s as close to a live performance of the Ring as I may ever see, and it was a wonderful one. My seat was far up in the balcony, but Keefe Auditorium has impressive acoustics throughout. I prefer the balcony seats for the view. In the fall or next year (I’ve heard both), the two orchestras will combine again to perform Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, which will require even more cutting. I hope to be there.

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