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Semi: Colon

The abrupt withdrawal of Katharina Wagner from an abridged seven-hour Ring cycle she was to direct at the Teatro Colón last year prompted no shortage of scorn and Schadenfreude. It also triggered a salvage operation by director Valentina Carrasco and a creative team that synced half-cooked designs with a patchwork musical score over six weeks to get the show off on time.

Much of the backstage drama is chronicled in a new 93-minute documentary by German producer Hans Christoph von Bock, The Colón Ring: Wagner in Buenos Aires, that may actually surpass the staged production for making the cycle accessible to general audiences. It’s a feel-good celebration of pluck, moxie and improvisation, form-fit to a Glee-like narrative, that’s free of judgments about what’s frankly an artistically dubious project.

Von Bock, retained by Deutsche Welle to chronicle Wagner’s directorial exploits in South America, won the trust of the befuddled international cast and crew after the Bayreuth impresaria summarily walked out on the first day of rehearsal, citing insufficient stage and costume preparation.

What makes the ensuing events more than a routine story of theatrical tsurris is the degree to which the entire team wings it. The musical arrangement by pianist/composer Cord Garben arrived in sorry shape, and the film suggests he provided only limited help correcting errors from afar. Music librarians are shown cutting and arranging parts with the determination of the Iranian students reassembling shredded documents in Argo. Meanwhile, Carrasco has to figure out how to layer her avant-garde take, laced with imagery from recent Argentine history, on a spare revolving stage with tiered platforms that Wagner intended to use to have scenes run parallel to one another. The experienced singers pore over their parts, focusing as much on what’s being left out as what they’re supposed to sing.

Eschewing narration, von Bock uses brisk transitions and lots of establishing shots of the city and theater to take viewers through the preparations, accompanied by ever-present countdown graphics. There’s a reality TV, fly-on-the-wall feel when frustrated conductor Roberto Paternostro walks out of one rehearsal and when word arrives that tenor Torsten Kerl bowed out as Siegmund, prompting a staffer to nonchalantly tear up his dressing room nameplate.

Ms. Wagner comes off as icy and preoccupied in a handful of opening scenes, returning with a lawyer after her walkout to, as she puts it, “clarify the situation” and allow aspects of her konzept to be used. The documentary doesn’t delve much into how Garben thought up the idea of shrinking the tetralogy or managed to get Wagner’s blessing. Von Bock also doesn’t spend an excessive amount of time probing the singers’ thoughts about the undertaking, which bass-baritone Andrew Shore, the Alberich, likens it to trying to driving a car through abrupt gear changes.

The emotional center of the documentary is Carrasco, a diminutive firecracker from La Fura dels Baus, who cajoles and hectors her singers into accepting an approach that sacrifices otherworldy grandeur for gritty historical realism. She dresses Wotan and Fricka as Juan and Eva Peron and portrays the Nibelheim as a military prison where newborns are snatched from dissident parents (the “gold” Alberich steals in the opening scene is also is an infant). The Valkyries appear as Gurkha soldiers from the Falklands War, surrounded by corpses. In the final scene of Gotterdammerung, the treasure is restored when the kidnapped children are reunited with their parents.

Von Bock offsets the artists’ feverish preparation with amusing scenes set to music from the operas. The Valkyries at one point emerge from their hotel rooms en masse and stride into elevators to the strains of their famous Ride. The Siegfried and Mime, Leonid Zakhozhaev and Kevin Conners, work through their scenes together under huge rubber trees in a local park, with Conners obsessing over the German diction. The opening night audience arrives to Fasolt and Fafner’s ominous entrance music.

Garben, in an interview, says he intended to punch up the Ring’s theatrical impact by stripping out philosophical dialogues and scenes in which characters recount past events. That no doubt limited opportunities to probe motives and power struggles or to bring out the conflict between free will and fate that runs through the cycle. It also appears to have left Carrasco reliant on silent movie-like gestures and lots of supernumeraries to convey plot developments.

The excerpts from the prima move with the pace and predictability of an NFL highlight film, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the merits of the final product. With her warm and rich middle range and powerful upper register, veteran Brunnhilde Linda Watson clearly dominates her scenes and also displays an earthy sense of humor during her off-stage banter with Carrasco.

Bass Daniel Sumegi pulls triple duty as Fasolt, Hunding and Hagen, helpfully explaining the director’s concept for each heavy during his costume changes and looking quite natural dispatching Siegfried with a golf club. Shore and Conners are excellent as the dwarves while Jukka Rasilainen is stiffer and a bit disconnected as Wotan and the Wanderer. Other principals include Stig Andersen as the replacement Siegmund, Simone Schroder as Fricka, Marion Ammann as Sieglinde and Gary Jankowski as Fafner.

Paternostro leads a beefed-up Teatro Colón orchestra that was split into separate ensembles for Rheingold/Walkure and Siegfried/Gotterdammerung segments, employing brisk tempi and emphasizing the lyrical aspects of the music. The film somewhat predictably ends with footage of wildly applauding audience members, shots of laudatory local newspaper headlines and Carrasco leading the cast in a cathartic scream at a post-curtain dinner.

Teatro Colón artistic director Pedro Pablo Garcia Caffi suggests a bit defensively early in the film that precise, punctual Europeans can learn things about the creative process from their more spontaneous South American colleagues. It’s a nice thought, but the evidence suggests the story of the abridged Ring was less about national identity than a team’s collective professionalism confronting an endeavor that, like a war story, sounds better in the retelling.

18 comments

  • operaassport says:

    At first glance, all I saw was the “colon ring” and it was not a pretty picture :)

  • PetertheModest says:

    How can you abridge the Ring ? It is sacrilege.

    • Baltsamic Vinaigrette says:

      Well, Anna Russell did a bang-up job…

    • tiger1dk says:

      Why is it sacrilege, Peter? Sometimes the choice is not about abridging it (and reducing the orchestra) or not -- but whether to play it in an abridged and reduced version or not at all. Is it not better to see a reduced version than not see it at all? As long as it is clearly marked as abridged and reduced, I do not see the problem at all.
      I believe a successful abridged version was played somewhere in the UK a few years back and then later used in Denmark (and maybe some other places).

    • alejandro says:

      Wagner and the Ring great loves of mine (albeit loves that I will have to spend the rest of my life exploring because I can only absorb so much of this music at a time) but dramatically speaking there is so much exposition in The Ring. It works if you see the operas out of context, but if you are seeing them back to back, there so much “PREVIOUSLY ON THE RING . . .” going on.

      (I forgive because hello, this music is AMAZING).

      • La Valkyrietta says:

        Bodanzky used to abridge Wagner, as did most conductors early last century, but he did it not for artistic reasons, as good a conductor as he was, but, according to viper tongues, just to get home to play poker :) .

        I don’t think repetition is a good reason to abridge the Ring. Nothing is repeated exactly, as in Phillip Glass (think “one two three one two three one two three ad nauseam), and no one wants to abridge Glass either. You know most of what Wotan says in his second act monologue, but a Walküre without a Wotan monologue is no Walküre. Most of what the Norns say is known, but, please, don’t tamper with those droopy sisters, as Anna Russell called them, they are fab. Siegfried is a perfect opera, what they repeat there feels freshly new. Wagner is long, but Wagnerians don’t want a single note, a single rest removed.

        I don’t think a seven hour Ring is a sacrilege, it is just not Wagner’s Ring. Something for a lazy Latin -they did not like Sutherland at the Colón either- or for a working girl who does not want to get into a XIXth century mood, or for the wine merchant that has to hurry back to his accountant. A seven hour Ring is not for culture vultures. Perhaps the intention is good, to make some curious about all the missed hours. Would I see it? Maybe with a good conductor. Late in his life, I went to Avery Fisher to hear Leinsdorf conduct the end of the Ring and I trasure that memory much more than any of the machine Rings I saw. But if you have the people to do a Ring and choose not to, well, I would agree that is sacrilege.

  • meowiaclawas says:

    When I saw the older fellow at 0:47 say: “I realized you could easily cut out ten pages without anyone noticing that it was ever otherwise.” I felt sadness. When the image in the video was pages being ripped out of the score, I felt like a dagger was sunk into my heart.

    I take this music seriously. That man’s attitude towards Wagner’s music is horrific.

  • DonCarloFanatic says:

    Well, yes, you can abridge just about anything. The question is, should you abridge the Ring? I don’t think so. Sixteen hours sometimes does not feel long enough.

  • redbear says:

    Maybe an expert here might help but didn’t Wagner do his own “reduction” for the hundreds (thousands?) of small opera houses around Germany. BTW I love the brillant final words…” a team’s collective professionalism confronting an endeavor that, like a war story, sounds better in the retelling.”

  • PetertheModest says:

    Have they ever tried to compress the Ring into one opera, that is, one night lasting a few hours ?

    • jatm2063 says:

      Yes I believe there is a version that lasts only about 4 hours for the whole thing. Did it someplace like Pittsburgh as I recall.

    • quoth the maven says:

      Peter Sellars did a puppet RING when he was a Harvard undergrad. It lasted about four hours, and covered the whole cycle.

      • havfruen says:

        The Salzburg Marionette Theater does a 2 hour ( I believe) ring which will be at the Met (Museum) in December. Music with Solti if I remember correctly.

    • derschatzgabber says:

      A 3-hour version for chamber orchestra has been prepared by David Seaman. Berkeley Opera performed it in 2004 and 2010. All of the big orchestral interludes are gone (what’s the point with a chamber orchestra), and about 9 singers are needed. It’s not a real replacement for an actual Ring, but it makes a nice “Cliff Notes” introduction to the full cycle.

      It’s an interesting option for a small community opera company. When I saw it in Berkeley, part of the fun was seeing how a company with limited resources handled even a scaled down Ring. Berkeley Opera’s two productions made very clever use of limited resources.

      But I think I would have been disappointed if I had seen this version of the Ring at a major opera house.

  • tiger1dk says:

    The one I mentioned earlier was done by Jonathan Dove and Graham Wick and called The Ring Saga. It lasted 9 hours (so still a lot of music) and the orchestra had been reduced to 18 persons. It was done in Birmingham. And other places also.