Imagine a small Chicago theater company choosing to do something that even a major opera company such as Lyric Opera wouldn’t dare think of doing in such uncertain economic times: put on a complete Wagner “Ring” cycle.
The “Ring” is the short name for Richard Wagner’s four-part epic “The Ring of the Nibelungs” cycle of music dramas which consists of the individual works “The Rhine Gold, ” “The Valkyrie, ” “Siegfried” and “Twilight of the Gods.” The “Ring” has no parallel, and is the most ambitious stage work ever written, occupying the mind of its creator for more than twenty-five years.
Logging in at some nineteen hours of performance time performed across four separate evenings, the theatrical demands of the “Ring” were such that Wagner designed and built his own theater outside of the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth that could properly meet its unique demands, a city whose principal industry remains its Wagner performances and its ongoing reputation as a Wagnerian shrine. (The waiting list for tickets there is some eight years ahead.)
The original plan was simple enough: Wagner became fascinated with the ancient Scandinavian, Germanic and Icelandic sagas of the gods and wanted to focus on the hero Siegfried. Thus he wrote the poem “Siegfried’s Death”—in effect the libretto for “Twilight of the Gods”—before it became obvious that one work would not be enough to properly explain who Siegfried was. “Young Siegfried”—in effect the libretto for “Siegfried”—was the result, where too, Wagner realized that in order to understand who Siegfried was, the audience needed to know where he came from. Thus, “The Valkyrie.”
Going even further backwards into the story and in order to set the scene for the entire epic, Wagner wrote “The Rhine Gold” as a one-act prologue to explain how the ring was forged from the gold of the Rhine river by the dwarf, Alberich, and was stolen back by Wotan, king of the gods, and Loge, the god of deceit and fire.
Alberich has put a curse on the ring, however, and Wotan is persuaded by the earth goddess Erda to give the ring to the giants Fasolt and Fafner as payment for their having built the gods their new mountaintop abode. Almost immediately the curse takes over as Fafner kills Fasolt for possession of the ring, which after all, is said to give the one who possesses it all the power in the world, even greater than that of the gods.
Would it be possible to effectively tell such a complex web of interrelated stories preserving the essence of Wagner’s own librettos but lose the singing and the large orchestra and focus instead on the sheer drama of these works? I would not have thought so, but am happy to report that in the hands of the Building Stage, it is possible, and it works magnificently.
The Building Stage has taken each of the four “Ring” works, distilled them to their dramatic essence to an hour plus in each case, taking a ten-minute intermission between each, and a forty-five-minute dinner break at halftime where the audience picnics with the cast and crew on stage (you can bring your own, as many did Ravinia-style, or purchase on site), to make for an overall theatrical experience of six hours.
“Don’t think of this as a six-hour epic,” said Building Stage artistic director and “Ring” co-director Blake Montgomery in welcoming the audience, “think of what you are about to experience as four short stories, about an hour each.” The truth of that claim is that after entering the theater at 3pm, I came out after 9pm and was actually surprised to discover that it had become dark out. Time flies when great stories are compellingly told and having a chance to experience all four of these works in a single sitting is something that would be impossible to achieve in the opera house.
One of the chief ways that Wagner achieved continuity through all four of these works was through the use of leitmotivs, or what comedian Anna Russell refers to as “signature tunes.” These are recurring themes associated with characters, objects, events and emotions that allow for various transformations across various scenes, often in amazing combinations.
Wagner called his leitmotivs “melodic moments of feeling,” and indeed, what is extraordinary about them is how magnificently they emotionally evoke specific feelings from an audience. Wagner is, undoubtedly, a shameless manipulator of passions, which is why his music always has and continues to provoke such immediate and extreme responses.
How do you approximate this same sense without singers or an orchestra in a shoebox theater? You adapt a handful of these leitmotivs into a wailing, minimalist soundscape for rock quintet that regularly comments on the action.
How do you approximate the grandeur of such a massive epic with a cast of not even a dozen? You have cast members take on various roles and guises, often so effectively that you really do think of the characters as separate entities. And thanks to the youth and acting chops of the cast, dramatic credibility is never strained, something that can rarely be said of an opera house “Ring.”
It was also refreshing not to have some artificial social construct fit over the epic, as is so often the case. Yes, this is a “Ring” in contemporary dress, but there is no attempt to see its struggle for power as an allegory for the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, or as a world becoming Nazi-fied, as an allegory for Communism versus Capitalism, or as a prophetic warning for a post-nuclear age. The stories are blessedly allowed to be heard on their own terms.
No, such an adaptation is no substitute for a full-blown operatic “Ring” cycle with all of the trimmings. But as another take on one of the towering monoliths of Western art, it is a worthy endeavor and the perfect antidote for midwinter blues. (Dennis Polkow)
“The Ring Cycle” plays through March 21 at The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter, (312)491-1369. $32-$40.