CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 11 MAY 2006
Richard Wagner: Lohengrin—Prelude to Act III. Richard Wagner (arr. Lorin Maazel): The Ring Without Words. (Giancarlo Guerrero, cond.)
The error was so obvious, wrote Richard Wagner, he almost felt ashamed to belabor the point. And yet it threatened to finish off opera as an art form. In Paris, Wagner had found himself reduced, not only to pawning his possessions, but to selling the pawn tickets themselves, even as audiences fawned over such inferior talents as Meyerbeer and Halévy. So he spelled out the world's glaring mistake at the outset of his 1851 volume Opera and Drama: "a Means of expression (Music) has been made the end, while the End of expression (the Drama) has been made a means."
The remedy was the Gesamtkunstwerk—a comprehensive collaboration of poetry, dance, stagecraft, and song. And The Ring, conceived in tandem with Wagner's theory, was the sort of work that might save opera, if not the world.
Enter Lorin Maazel. The former Cleveland Orchestra Music Director was scheduled to return to the Severance Hall stage this weekend, but fell ill and was replaced at short notice by the Eugene Symphony's Giancarlo Guerrero. Nonetheless, the announced program remains entirely devoted to a work of Maazel's invention. The Ring Without Words unravels Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk, dispensing with temperamental singers and pricey stage sets and boiling the sixteen hours of The Ring down to a compact seventy minutes.
The notion evokes memories of that last resort of the Hollywood sitcom: the clip show. But the comparison's not altogether fair. For one thing, Maazel begins with material of more substance than assorted episodes of Family Ties. He retains the order of the original material. And it's worth remembering that Wagner's theory and practice, in the Schopenhauer-besotted years after 1854, came to allot the operatic orchestra a greater role than Opera and Drama envisioned.
Still, there's something archaic about Maazel's effort. One can imagine a deservedly enthusiastic welcome for The Ring Without Words in some provincial town, say, a hundred twenty five years ago—a town with limited resources, but brimming with music lovers eager for some clue as to what the fuss was about. Nowadays you can own a DVD set of the whole shebang for less than you might spend during a trip to the grocery store. Unless you've an allergy to vocalists, or prefer not knowing what Siegmund and Sieglinde get up to, there's not much point in a digest version.
So what's left? Beyond the thrill of hearing "The Ride of the Valkyries" live, there's the chance to sample the confident conducting of Guerrero. He made as much as I suspect anyone could of Maazel's often incoherent abridgment, then finished off the evening with a highly caffeinated version of the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin.
But perhaps the best way to enjoy The Ring Without Words is to disengage your brain, sit back, slip your shoes off, let the time tick vacantly by. See? It's not so different from watching Family Ties after all.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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