What is the value of a woman? How many bags of gold must be piled up to hide one woman so she cannot be seen? What about the man of a certain size who dons a gold head covering and then, to prove his power, he becomes a toad?
The Dresser asks in our current political climate, could we be talking about real estate mogul Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Presidential Republican nomination? Or are these surreal scenes from Richard Wagner's opening Ring Cycle opera The Rhinegold seen by the Dresser on April 30, 2016? Washington National Opera's Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has updated the four operas of The Ring of the Nibelung to more current times. Let's say this is the turn of the 20th century at the time when the first skyscraper was built and people were buying and driving their first automobiles. Women still didn't have full voting rights in the United States and were under legal domination by their fathers or husbands. Clues of this time include the entrance by the giants lowered to earth on a steel girder and the white clothing worn by the gods that look like the dust coats worn for driving as well as the fashion of the early 1900s.
Now let's look at the story of The Rhinegold.
Scene1: A dwarf named Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) lustfully chases the three beautiful Rhine maidens until he renounces love in favor of stealing their gold. Why? Because they reveal to him that if their gold is made into a ring, the person owning it will be all-powerful. But the catch is that the stealer of the gold must renounce love.
Scene 2: Meanwhile, the chief god Wotan (Alan Held) has gotten himself into trouble by promising the two giants Fasolt (Julian Close) and Fafner (Soloman Howard) who have built Valhalla, his new home--his sister-in-law Freia (Melody Moore) as payment. Yes, she is the woman whose value is measured by how many bags of gold it takes to hide her. What's more she is goddess of youth so if the gods lose Freia to the giants, then they will lose their eternal youth. While Wotan's wife Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop) berates Wotan for trading away her sister, Freia's brothers Donner (Ryan McKinny) and Froh (Richard Cox) snap into action but to no avail. However, the fire god Loge (William Burden) suggests that Wotan steal Alberich's gold. Taking Freia hostage, the giants say they will come back that evening for the gold.
Scene 3: Pleased with himself, Alberich terrorizes his underground community and plays with the Tarnhelm, an invention by his brother Mime (David Cangelosi). It's a golden chain-mail helmet with magic power that allows the wearer to transform himself. You guessed it--this is the man of a certain size who puts on the gold head covering and transforms himself at the trickery of Loge. This allows Wotan to grab Alberich cum toad and drag him from his caverns of Nibelheim up to earth.
Scene 4: And, yes, now Wotan steals the gold, the gold ring, and the Tarnhelm from the imprisoned Alberich. However, the dwarf casts a curse on the ring which means anyone who takes possession of it will suffer trouble, envy, and death. When the giants return they demand that Freia must be entirely hidden from view by the gold and then they also demand the Tarnhelm and ring since they can still a twinkle from Freia's eyes. Wotan doesn't want to give up the ring but the earth goddess Erda (Lindsay Ammann) magically appears and severely warns Wotan to give up the cursed ring or face the consequences. The last beings on stage are the Rhine maidens now covered with mud because they have lost the radiance of their gold.
The Dresser, who is not a big Wagner fan, loved this production and had seen Zambello's earlier version done by Washington National Opera in 2006. Among the enhancements are the rich projects that fit right in with Wagner's philosophy of making his opera flow seamlessly. As the projections begin, the Dresser thought amoebas and the underwater puppetry of Basil Twist. The imagery just flowed into the mists of the Rhine where the the three Rhine maidens Woglinde (Jacqueline Echois), Wellgunde (Catherine Martin), and Flosshilde (Renée Tatum) frolicked in yellow light. It seemed like an enactment of an Antoine Watteau painting. Even the scene in the caverns of Nibelheim are rich with painterly color--this time orange--and energy. Projection makes it possible to see Alberich changing himself first into a scarily large serpent.
The Dresser's favorite player was William Burden as the fire god Loge. His antics particularly enlivened scenes 2 which the Dresser found overall too static and talky. Wagner has a way of overdoing recitative and so the burden falls to the director and the players to spice things up.
The orchestra under the baton of Philippe Auguin pleased with its sound variety, including the always surprising chorus of anvils.
The Rhinegold has a run time of just over two and half hours without intermission. The time flowed beautifully.
In "Two Chairs," Kajal Ahmad's searing commentary on the plight of women without equal rights, conjures in part 1 the image of the Rhine maidens in the last scene of The Rhinegold as well as gives a hint in part 2 of earth goddess Erda who reiterates to Wotan that the Nibelung ring is cursed. Could the speaker of "Two Chairs" be talking about love? Perhaps the love that Freia felt for the giant Fasolt?
News of my dark days:
not drunk, not dim,
they won't listen
to song. My sobbing
is their music. I laugh through
tears until, cackling,
the red creek bursts. I cry
through laughter until
I am mad, confusing happiness
An optimist, am I
allowed to ask, "What do you want
from me?" Look here,
a Middle Eastern man sits
on a chair of my virtue.
He crosses his legs.
Each foot says, one hundred times,
"On my honor"--ay, the rotted honor
of a Middle Eastern man.
I walk the sky. I carry
the ball of earth
in this small, heavy
head of mine.
I walk the earth
and he sits
in my head.
This chair is gold, or is it
woven strands of hair?
I don't know.
The chair's feet
penetrate my soul,
my veil--I can't sit--
it must not break--
he shatters me--
by Kajal Ahmad as translated by
Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, Mewan Nahro Said Sofi, Darya Abdul-Karim Ali Najm, with Barbara Goldberg, Series Editor, The Word Works International Editions
from Handful of Salt
"Two Chairs" copyright © 2016 Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse
Photos by Scott Suchman