Remember how our mothers would bake cookies but only offer samples so as “not to spoil our appetites?” Those same tantalizing sensations vexed opera lovers this weekend when the Minnesota Concert Opera (MCO) hosted two performances at the Cowles Center (September 13 and September 15, 2013) of David Seaman’s Mini-Ring version of Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”
For a decade Twin Cities Wagnerites sought to have one of the Master’s four-part cycle performed locally. But the costs in producing one of these gargantuan (four-plus hours) epics precluded their being mounted. Then MCO’s artistic director Stanford Felix and conductor Jonathan Khuner realized that by using Seaman’s “Der Ring an einem Abend,” all of Wagner’s magnum opus could be performed in one evening by sticking to Khuner’s simple plan “to retain the story line and omit everything else as much as possible.”
Their result succeeded in capturing the essence of Wagner’s Ring, but also left the audience wanting more. Vibrant and compelling as the singing of Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried/Siegmund), Lori Phillips (Brunnhilde/Wellgunde), and the rest of the cast was, their doubling and tripling of roles diminished the impact of each. The Ring contains some of the most challenging and beautiful music in all opera, but Seaman’s version puts Wagner’s brilliance (and excess) on a tight leash. Some operatniks also might laud excising Wagner’s “non-dramatic episodes of reflection” and “repeated narration of events or ideas,” but these supply the dramatic and metaphysical backbone of his sumptuous orchestral interludes, the “gravitas” that is the genius of Wagner.
While fine for showcasing the performers’ vocal talents, stringing the arias together diminishes the music of its beauty while highlighting the omission of some arias such as that in Brunnhilde’s immolation scene. Though Seaman’s version retains the characters' musical motifs, it removes their chromatic development through the fabric of the narrative, thus robbing the music of its power and beauty.
The concert opera format confines Wagner in other ways, too. Some performers gave straight renditions of the music on the page while others breathed interpretive life into their characters, in particular, Richard Paul Fink as a slyly devilish Alberich and Philip Skinner as the imposing leader of the gods, Wotan. In substituting for a full orchestra, some members of MCO’s seventeen-piece ensemble worked themselves to near-exhaustion trying to project the fullness of Wagner’s music.
Still, opening night was a triumph for all concerned when the audience lavished its appreciation with two standing curtain calls. Hopefully, their heart-felt response encourages some local angel to replace the Wagner-lite version with a full-fledged repast with all the Ring's sonic and dramatic glories (and excesses) intact.