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.
Even so, it's still a matter of opinion whether they are works of complexly wrought artistic structure or something more akin to a drug. The operas in general spawned a huge wave of adulation throughout Europe in the second half of the 19th century and beyond. The Wagnerites were a social phenomenon in themselves, drunk on the composer's storming of the very heights of dramatic tradition and, according to Nietzsche (who had reason to know what he was talking about) reinstating the rituals of Dionysus from which ancient Greek drama evolved. These four Ring operas are myths turned into ritual if anything is.
The argument for opera-as-myth is elaborated in Peter Conrad's book A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera (1989). Here the celebrated critic claims that opera as an art form originated in a specific attempt, by a group of Florentine intellectuals called the Camerata, to re-introduce the worship of the pagan gods of ancient Greece and Rome into early 17th-century Italy. Ever since, opera has represented a sustained opposition to Christianity, championing every virtue except meekness, selflessness and piety. Its status as effectively an alternative religion was most clearly recognized by Wagner, he argues, and he constructed his Ring cycle, not as four conventional “operas,” but as “a stage festival play for three days and a preliminary evening.”
That “preliminary evening” is Das Rheingold, to be presented in Taipei next Friday at 7.30pm. The three massive main works follow, Die Walkure on Saturday Sept. 16, starting at 5pm, Siegfried on Friday Sept. 22, starting at 6pm, and Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods) on Sunday Sept. 24, starting at 3pm.
Central to the much-anticipated production will be the appearance of Linda Watson in the lead female role of Brunnhilde. One of the world's leading Wagnerians, she has just completed her debut season in the same role at Bayreuth, the theater Wagner himself built for the production of his music dramas and which remains the high temple of all modern Wagnerites.
At the time of writing there were approximately 200 tickets left unsold for each Taipei performance, at prices ranging from NT$900 to NT$2,000. For more information visit www.artsticket.com.tw, or call (02) 3393-9888.
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