While it’s possible to condense the story of “The Ring of the Nibelung” into as little as forty-five minutes, as done by the late Anna Russell, it’s essentially impossible to do it without humorous effect, and “The Skylight Ring” does definitely go for the laughs.
Wagner’s Ring over all takes up eighteen hours, is most often performed over the course of four separate evenings, and has a cast of thirty characters plus chorus, and a large orchestra. The Skylight Ring was performed by a cast of four playing two dozen characters, with one of the performers, Robert Frankenberry, also providing accompaniment on the piano. A great deal of the condensed action is delivered either as narration, also by Frankenberry, or by modernized dialog. Actually, this was our largest complaint with the performance: too much talking and not enough singing. Even if you accept the old saw that “Wagner has wonderful moments—and bad half hours—“ there’s more than enough great music in the Ring to fill a two hour “greatest hits” session. Excerpting may be a problem, as Wagner doesn’t often break his later operas down into arias, but it can be done.
Anyway, what we did get was entertaining, if pretty far from Wagner in a lot of ways—notably the ways in which The Lord of the Rings influenced this production—a “ring” of influence, if you will, since Tolkien borrowed the idea of the cursed ring that is desired by all who behold it from the Volsungasaga, the literary source of Wagner’s adaptation of the Nibelungenleid. In particular, the ring is referred to several times as having world-shattering power, an idea that comes from Tolkien, not the Icelandic poets. In addition, Alberich (Mr. Frankenberry), the dwarf who forswears love in order to seize the Rhine treasure, becomes a sort of “Gollum” figure, stalking the Ring through the generations of the Volsungs, disguised (in this version) as the villains Hunding, Mime, and Hagen. (Rather like those productions of “Tales of Hoffman” where the same bass-baritone sings all four villain roles--.)
The other singers each also took on a number of roles, with Tim Rebers pivotal part being Wotan, but covering everything from the Rhinemaiden Flosshilde to the raven Memory (Munin). Erin Sura had some of the longest singing bits as Brunnhilda, but also played Freia, Loge, The Norn, The Forest Bird, and Gutrune. Colleen Brooks, recently seen as Dora Marx in “The Snow Dragon,” played among others Fricka, Fasolt, and Erda, but had her largest role (and the most fun) playing the swaggering and shallow Siegfreid.
The simple set consisted of the stage floor done as the section of an enormous tree, referring to Yggdrasil, the world-tree, which was also represented as a kind of cartoon signpost pointing in all directions at one side of the stage. A large chest up center held props. Costumes were partial and representative (crowns, cloaks, eyepatch--), which resulted in some amusing and sometimes clever effects, as when, for Seigfried to disguise himself as Gunther, Ms. Brooks appropriates and dons the “nose glasses” Mr. Rebers had been wearing as the Gibichung.
The performance was not without musical high spots, notably Ms. Sura’s songs as Brunnhilde, and Mr. Rebers’ evocation of the ring of fire as Wotan. The piano score was well played by Mr. Frankenberry, but just does not succeed in doing justice to Wagner’s music. Wagner, of all opera composers, was perhaps the greatest master of the horns, and “The Ride of the Valkuries/Brunnhilda’s Battle Cry” without brass is, frankly, an egg without salt.
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