Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The ring of power. No, not THAT one.

Union Avenue Opera is nothing if not fearless, often taking on works that strain their space at the Union Avenue Christian Church to the limit.  This weekend and next, though, marks the second installment of their most ambitious project yet.

That project is a complete traversal of Wagner's  titanic "Der Ring Des Nibelungen," a cycle of four operas (or, as Wagner referred to them, three operas and a prelude) that took 26 years to write and almost as long to perform ("that's a joke, son!").  The epic story spans three generations and tells the tale of a cursed ring of power that grants its holder world dominion—but at a terrible cost.  Mythical creatures abound, including dwarves, giants, demigods, and even a dragon.  If that sounds familiar, that's not surprising; both J.R.R. Tolkien and Wagner (who wrote his own libretti) drew heavily on the same mythical mother lode.  Tolkien claimed that he wasn't influenced by Wagner, but some scholars haven't been convinced.

Be that as it may, the "Ring" is a massive undertaking.  In its original form it runs around 15 hours, employes huge orchestral forces, and would be out of the question for smaller opera companies like Union Avenue—or even Opera Theatre, for that matter.  Recognizing that problem, in 1990 British composer Jonathan Dove and director Graham Vick created "The Ring Saga," a "reduced" version of the Ring for the Birmingham (England) Opera Company.  It proved so successful that other companies took it up, including Union Avenue.

Dove's reduction uses a much smaller orchestra (18 pieces; Union Avenue uses 21) and makes substantial cuts in all four operas, bringing the entire business in at around 9 hours.  Union Avenue is producing it over a period of four years, one opera per year.  It began with "Das Rheingold" last August and continues with "Die Walküre" this weekend and next (August 16-24).  "Siegfried" and the gargantuan "Götterdämmerung" will follow in 2014 and 2015.

Reviewing "Rheingold" last year, I dubbed it something of a mixed blessing, but a blessing nonetheless.  I will certainly be there this Friday to see how the company handles "Walküre."  I'm especially looking forward to Soprano Alexandra LoBianco's Brunnhilde, favorite daughter of Wotan and chief Valkyrie.  It's a long and demanding role, even in Dove's reduction, and is usually associated with older singers.  "Dramatic sopranos," writes Sarah Bryan Miller in an August 11th article at stltoday.com,  "mature later than other voice types, and at 35, LoBianco is young for a dramatic soprano to be taking on this particular role."

Bottom line: it'll be exciting to see what Union Avenue does with this difficult but rewarding material, and unless the entire idea of a Wagner opera fills you with dread, I strongly encourage you to go.  If your exposure to the "Ring" is limited to "What's Opera, Doc?" ("Kill da waaaabit!"), though, you might want to read through a synopsis of "Die Walküre" at wikipedia.  Union Avenue also offers a capsule what "Das Rheingold" ("previously on The Ring...") at their web site.

Or you can just enjoy the great Anna Russell's half-hour version.

Tickets for all performances as well as for the opening night reception at Tavern of Fine Arts are available at Union Avenue's web site.  Note, by the way, that while parking is free, the lot fills up quickly, so it's a good idea to get there early.  You can always have a snack and drink (non-alcoholic, alas) in the lobby before the show.

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