When you’re staging an opera, dispensing with the singing to focus on the plot is a risky proposition. After all, the singing is pretty much the point, and the plot is usually, as my grandmother would say, nuttier than a sack of pecans.
Nevertheless, the latest production from the Building Stage is an opera without the singing. And not just any ol’ opera, either, but Richard Wagner’s four-part, 15-hour behemoth The Ring of the Nibelung. Sounds like an ambitious project and a terrible idea—but, surprisingly, it works.
Conceived and codirected by Blake Montgomery and Joanie Schultz, the Building Stage Ring cycle is far shorter than the original at six hours, including two intermissions and a dinner break. That’s still long enough to turn your ass to mush, but short enough to squeeze into a single day. Each of the four operas becomes a brisk, action-packed one-act lasting less than 90 minutes. This relative brevity (relative to Wagner and geological time, anyway) makes it easier to see and appreciate the structure of the cycle as a whole—and the production’s resourcefulness and energy, along with the directors’ dogged focus on propelling the plot forward, tighten and transform Wagner’s libretto into a cracking good yarn.
You see, there’s this ring, and whoever possesses it possesses the power to rule the world. The only problem is that the blasted thing is cursed. You can think of it as being a lot like Frodo’s jewelry in The Lord of the Rings, but only if you want to piss off the ghost of J.R.R. Tolkien, who stubbornly refused to acknowledge a resemblance. Over the course of the cycle, the ring is plucked from the Rhine, where it belongs, and passes from Alberich, a nasty little dwarf with a Napoleon complex (played with gleeful savagery by Wm Bullion), to Wotan, king of the gods, to a giant-cum-dragon (suggested by Chantal Calato’s ingenious shadow puppets), to the brave but rather dimwitted hero Siegfried (“a true Li’l Abner type,” as the Wagner-satirizing comic Anna Russell described him), and is finally returned to the Rhine, where it’s guarded by the tittering, aquatic Rhinemaidens—played in the Building Stage show by the scene-stealing trio of Sarah Scanlon, Lindsey Dorcus, and Lucy Carapetyan, who wear Esther Williams-style bathing suits and swim through the air on acrobatic silks.
Set off against that round-robin is a juicy romantic story line that pits love against authority as destruction looms. Wotan’s daughter Brünnhilde (a strong, steady Darci Nalepa) defies her father’s orders by abetting a love affair between twins, and so he banishes her to a rock surrounded by fire. It falls to the fruit of the twincest, Siegfried (an appealingly guileless Nick Vidal), to rescue and marry Brünnhilde. He does, but further intrigue and betrayal in the final section lead to his murder, her suicide, and ultimately the end of the old order.
Wagner’s cycle has inspired a variety of conflicting interpretations. Some see its Teutonic romanticism as a fount of proto-Nazism, others—including George Bernard Shaw—as an allegory of socialist revolution. Mercifully, Montgomery and Schultz don’t trouble themselves too much with what it all means, endeavoring instead to tell the story as faithfully and with as much life and inventiveness as they can muster. A versatile cast of 11 conjures an entire universe with an arsenal of stage tricks including acrobatics, puppetry, stage combat, and mime, while a four-piece band underscores the action with mood music by Kevin O’Donnell that subtly echoes the motifs of Wagner’s score. Cobbled together from various English translations of Wagner’s libretto, the streamlined text with its alliterative mouthfuls and slightly Germanic syntax conveys a strange, elemental gravitas.
Of course, speaking words meant to be sung inevitably blunts their emotional impact, and that’s the show’s one shortcoming. The Building Stage Ring cycle is well-told and exciting, but I didn’t leave feeling particularly shattered, inspired, or choked up by it. It did, however, make me want to hear some Wagner. v