Fri, Sep 08, 2006 - Page 13 News List

'The Ring' works its magic

Staging Wagner's epic series of operas is a massive undertaking and this month's performances are a huge coup for Taiwan's musical establishment

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

It was initially disappointing to learn earlier this week that James Morris will not after all be traveling to Taipei to star in the National Symphony Orchestra's (NSO) production, beginning next weekend, of Wagner's Ring cycle of operas. He's apparently suffering from the after-effects of knee surgery, and flying would present difficulties. As one of the two major celebrities scheduled to lead the pioneering event, the first homegrown Ring production ever in the Chinese-speaking world, he will be sorely missed.

But his replacement, Robert Hale, has been garnering golden opinions recently for his portrayal of the god Wotan, the cycle's leading male role. He has even sung the part at New York's Metropolitan Opera, the theater in which Morris so often appeared in the part. Rumor has it that one of the other guest soloists expressed positive delight at the news of Hale's engagement.

Otherwise, things are proceeding largely as planned. The forthcoming sit-in demonstration led by Shih Ming-teh (施明德) is thought unlikely to pose problems of access to the National Concert Hall, and the reason some Ring rehearsals have been re-located to the Zhongshan Hall are more likely to be aesthetic than tactical.

The medium-sized rehearsal room in the National Concert Hall building did indeed feel cramped on Tuesday afternoon when sections of the third opera, Siegfried, were being run through. The room has never been ideal, and Wagner's music demands the biggest of orchestras, though not all sections are needed for every act — the harpists, for instance, have little to do in Act Two of Siegfried.

Familiar faces were present among the soloists. Alan Woodrow, who will sing Siegfried himself, had not yet arrived in Taiwan and his words were sung sotto voce by the German vocal coach. But the dwarf Mime proved to be Lin Chien-chi (林健吉), Don Ottavio in last week's Don Giovanni from the Taipei Symphony Orchestra. The giant-turned-dragon Fafner was also familiar — Liau Chong-boon (廖聰文), Leporello in Giovanni and Bartolo in the NSO's recent Figaro.

Most in demand, however, appeared to be Chen Pei-chi (陳珮琪, Marcellina in Figaro). In Tuesday's rehearsal she was singing the earth goddess Erda, but she will also appear as Wotan's demanding wife Fricka, and as Waltraute, the fellow-Valkyrie who has an important scene with Brunnhilde in Act One of Gotterdammerung. She has come a long way since she appeared as Marguerite in the NSO's Damnation of Faust in 2003, then little known, and unsure if the role really suited her voice.

The extent to which the production will be staged remains unclear. The orchestra will be on-stage, and action reportedly will largely — maybe in its entirety — take place on levels above them. There is a stage director, the Taiwan theater director Li Huan-hsiung (黎煥雄, director of the NSO's Norma in 2004), but the news is that he has asked all the soloists to wear black clothes of their own choice, so it would appear that theatrical costumes aren't being planned. If there aren't costumes, how far can the production be considered “staged”? To date, no one has an answer to that question.

Not many people these days believe any other operatic works equal Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungun (The Ring of the Nibelungs). The composer has had more than his fair share of adverse criticism, and his declared anti-Semitism, plus Adolf Hitler's fondness for his operas, have been particularly damaging. (He can be held to account for the former but not, of course, for the latter). Nonetheless for sheer scale, musical complexity, dramatic power and philosophical ambition, these four epic musical dramas have no equal.

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