Thursday, May 31, 2012

Richard Wagner’s Ring: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In the Ring of the Nibelung, the bad and ugly guys greatly outnumber the good ones. However it is not a spaghetti western but rather the soap opera of all operas! Nineteenth century German composer Richard Wagner created his super-sized epic musical-drama over a twenty-six year period. The Ring is a fifteen-hour long four-part series, in soap opera parlance. The drama begins with the Rhinegold; follows with the Valkyries and then Siegfried and unfolds with Götterdämmerung (the Twilight of the Gods).
Not only has the Ring all the key ingredients of an archetypal miniseries like sex, deceit, and greed, but incest, polygamy, betrayal and murder are added for good measure. Essentially the Ring is “about being screwed’, and no one escapes unscathed. Wagner takes no prisoners and death usually comes violently.
The drama is full of mythical characters inhabiting a fantasy world of special effects; it is a harbinger of modern adventures like The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional epic novels. The Ring is the blockbuster of German opera buffs.
In a nut shell, the Ring of the Nibelung reveals the dealings and struggles between Nordic mythological gods, semi-gods, monstrous creatures and human characters. One could compare it to a mythological version of the British television miniseries Upstairs Downstairs. The gods live in the upstairs world and the underground’s Nibelung brothers scurry downstairs. The plot revolves around various characters who outmaneuver one other to grab a magic ring in order to achieve universal power. Hostilities go on for three generations (of humans as gods don’t seem to age) until Armageddon at the end of Götterdämmerung.
The story begins when an ugly and lecherous dwarf called Alberich is successively rebuffed by three mermaids frolicking in the Rhine River. These bimbos are entrusted with the safekeeping of the Rhine gold. Scorned, Alberich steals the gold and consequently gives up on love. He is the leader of the Nibelungs. Trouble starts in earnest when Alberich obliges his brother Mine to forge a magic ring out of the gold. Through trickery Wotan, the king of the gods, steals the ring. He then has to trade it to the giants to pay for his lavish palace. The ring goes from person to person and ends up with Siegfried, Wotan’s mortal grandson. Using a magic potion, Alberich’s son Hagen tricks Siegfried who is quickly murdered. Finally Brünnhilde the Valkyrie, estranged daughter of Wotan and betrayed lover of Siegfried, recovers the ring from Siegfried's finger and returns it to its legitimate owners, the Rhine maidens. Consequently, the doomed gods perish when Valhalla their palace, burns to the ground.
Among the Ring’s ugly individuals, Alberich is certainly the most evil. He is a paranoid control freak, a delusional and vain midget-dictator, full of hatred but dejected, possibly Hitler‘s role model. His mission is to destroy the gods, and his curse will eventually bring the gods’ downfall. Actually, evil runs through the Nibelung family: Alberich’s brother Mine and Hagen, his son, are evil too. Not only does Hagen murder Siegfried, the Ring’s only good individual by stabbing him in the back but he also swiftly dispatches his half-brother Gunther. Hagen is a frustrated bad guy. Alberich has fathered him with the wicked queen Grimhilde, Gunther’s mother. She had agreed to have sex with Alberich in exchange for gold. Coincidently Queen Grimhilde is the witch of the brothers Grimm’s fairy tale Snow White and Disney’s evil queen in the film. Hagen resents being a dwarf’s son and compelled to do his father’s dirty work. He may be an expert hunter, but he is a bad swimmer and when pushed into the Rhine River, he drowns.
In this gallery of sociopaths, Wotan deserves special mention. He is the king of the gods, and the patriarch of the lesser gods who live in his Valhalla palace; he is a dapper middle-age gentleman who elegantly dons an eye patch. If Alberich traded love for gold, Wotan gave one of his eyes for wisdom. His sacrifice didn’t help him much, as his foolish decisions lead to the violent ending of his reign and kingdom. Wotan is certainly the most complex character of the whole cast, if not the most human with flexible moral values, leadership shortcomings and contradictions. Wotan is selfish, full of self-importance, tyrannical and calculating. He abuses his power; nowadays he would be impeached for his deeds.
Wotan strikes opera goers as a very modern and flawed hero and like countless 21st celebrities, he is oversexed. He is a philanderer and polygamist who fathered a dozen kids with different women. Additionally, he uses his brood to achieve his dubious aims. To his defense one can concede that life in Valhalla next to his nagging wife Fricka must not be fun every day. Didn’t Wotan sneak out of Valhalla to have a tryst with some mortal woman? Twins Siegmund and Sieglinde are born from this amorous rendezvous. The reality check comes when the earth goddess Erda, his former mistress and mother of his nine Valkyrie daughters, informs him that his kingdom is doomed. Erda is famous for her last words.
This writer’s favorite bad guy is Loge, the semi-god of fire. Broadly speaking, Wagner’s wicked characters are either bass or bass baritone singers. On the other hand, Loge is a tenor. Is this a signal for being less evil? Loge is Wotan’s cunning henchman, his trusted “fixer”, the street-wise underling who consistently cleans the mess left behind by Wotan’s bad judgment. Loge’s major accomplishment is to trick Alberich into losing the magic ring. Cool-headed Loge is certainly the smartest individual in the Ring. He is no dupe and openly mocks the vanity of the gods. When disaster strikes, he escapes.
In Wagner’s drama the good guys are typically individuals of little significance like Fricka’s two brothers and her sister Freia. The twins Sieglinde and Siegmund could fall into the good guy category, except that their adulterous and incestuous love making disqualifies them. Freia is the goddess of love, youth and beauty. She doesn’t peddle youth activating creams but apples which protect the gods from aging. This important function seems to have been lost on Wotan who, without her consent, had bartered her to the twin giants as a payment for his castle.
Two individuals stand out in Wagner’s drama: Brünnhilde, Wotan’s favorite daughter and Siegfried the product of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s incestuous affair.
Siegfried is an orphan. His father Siegmund was killed by Sieglinde’s jealous husband, Hunding, before his birth, and his mother died in childbirth. He is adopted by Mine, Albrecht’s malicious and jealous brother. Mine is not much of a tutor and Siegfried develops into a strong, brave but wild and reckless youth. Without a proper role model, and formal education Siegfried does plenty of dumb things which hurt people he cares for and lead to the unraveling of the drama. He becomes a clueless, instinctual man, both sweet and nasty with a short fuse and short attention span. It is hard to understand how he elicits Brünnhilde’s love. True, she had not much experience in the romance department. Towards the end of Götterdämmerung, Siegfried is swiftly murdered by Hagen. Wagner is a master of funeral music and the piece he composed for Siegfried’s funeral is the most magnificent and poignant. Siegfried is obviously not this writer’s preferred character.
Brünnhilde gets more sympathy. She and her eight sisters are the Norse version of Amazons. Although she enjoys the privileges of Valhalla, Brünnhilde is only a semi- goddess, and Wotan’s foot soldier. A bit wild, an impulsive and plucky tomboy she loses her independence and nearly her mind when she falls madly in love with the nincompoop Siegfried. Her twenty-some year beauty sleep on top of the mountain protected by a wall of fire did not make her wiser. Her hysterical attitude in Götterdämmerung leads to two opposite interpretations depending on whether you are a feminist or a Wagner devotee.
This writer is of the first category. Blinded by her love for Siegfried, Brünnhilde behaves like a silly school girl and acts very unpredictably. She is giddy with the ring, Siegfried’s gift to her. She refuses to return it to the Rhine mermaids knowing that her decision will cause fatal harm to the gods. Is this pay-back time for Wotan’s cruel attitude towards his daughter? Or is it the reaction of a woman in love? When Brünnhilde learns that Siegfried has cuckolded her with Gudrune a sexy husband chaser, she became uncompromisingly vengeful and betrays him by revealing his vulnerability to his assassin. Finally she understands that she has been taken for a ride by three men: Siegfried (he drank a potion which made him forget her), Gunther, her replacement husband and Hagen. Subsequently she returns the ring and commits suicide by riding her horse Grane into Siegfried’s pyre. I felt sorry for the steed. There was no disclaimer to the effect that “no animal was hurt in the course of the opera!”
Wagner buffs see a completely different picture; it is their heroine’s immolation. Before leaping into the fire, Brünnhilde commits the selfless world-redeeming act of returning the damned ring to its rightful owners, the Rhine maidens. After fifteen hours of musical drama, we are back to square one.
the Ring
In 2011 and 2012, the Metropolitan Opera of New York City staged a new Ring production with magnificent singers and an impressive set (see above picture from the Met gallery). Artistically speaking, it was a very successful opera feast: it attracted Wagner buffs from all over the world. Too bad they were confronted with a couple of logistical shortcomings: during the five-hour long Götterdämmerung, neither the bars nor the restrooms could cope with the traffic!
The star of the current production is a 45-ton “machine” which moves like the fingers of a hand rising, flipping, and falling independently. This behemoth is the brain child of Robert Lepage of the Cirque du Soleil in Quebec. Videos projected on the background make the plot live. The result is mesmerizing, both fantastic and realistic.
After watching and hearing the Good, the Bad and the Ugly for fifteen hours with a sore butt and stiff legs, one can take comfort remembering that Wagner spent twenty six years composing his masterpiece. The glorious music and the intensity of the drama make you easily forget the Ring’s gallery of sociopaths, notably Alberich who is still alive somewhere ready for new mischiefs.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

So Close, So Far: The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

This recent Air France TV commercial may have attracted your attention: Two dancers perform a pas de deux, a duet on a salt mirror in the middle of a desert landscape. To add hip to the beauty of the scenery, Air France chose the well-named dancer Benjamin Millepied (mille pieds means thousand feet in French), retired New York City Ballet principal dancer, choreographer of the film Black Swan and husband of the actress Natalie Portman. The shoot took place in a remote part of the Bolivian altiplano, the mythical Salar de Uyuni.

                         Extract of the video clip “l’Envol” by Air France.

The Salar (salt flat in Spanish) is one of these places so close distance-wise but so far logistically speaking. This blogger had several times tried to travel there but saw her plans dashed at the last minute. This article is written out of the frustration of organizing a trip to Uyuni. Fortunately there might be is a window of opportunity next October. Stay tuned.
The Salar de Uyuni is located in the south-west corner of Bolivia in the Andean Cordillera. It the world’s largest salt plain covering some 10,000 square kilometers. It contains more than 10 billion tons of salt and 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves (lithium is used in batteries).

                                 Satellite picture of the Salar de Uyuni.

This region is a world of nature superlatives. Nothing compares to it: its geological setting, geothermal springs, brine lakes, flora, fauna and history make the place unique and fascinating. It is a photographer’s dream. Colors of the scenery change by the minute. The clash of colors is awesome as the surrounding reddish-yellow sierras and volcanoes reflect in the white salt flat as in a vast extraterrestrial mirror.

                                  Picture freely downloaded from the Web

As the advertisement implies, Air France may fly you hassle-free from Paris to Bolivia, a landlocked country. In case you live in Rio de Janeiro, you have no such luck, as not a single airline will deliver you non-stop to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. La Paz is only 2700 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro, not that far by South American standards. Brazilians don’t go to Bolivia in general and to Uyuni in particular. Brazilians who never felt very latinos in the first place, predominantly enjoy traveling to the United States and Europe. Well-healed Brazilians occasionally explore their own vast country whose landmarks are usually more expensive to reach and enjoy than Miami or Lisbon. Brazilians eventually visit their hermanos of Argentina and Chile (both countries are renowned for their good wine); but rarely venture beyond these urban locations; places like Bolivia are still very much terras incognitas.
Uyuni appeals to the more adventurous travelers. From Rio, it is a 24 hour long slog to fly to La Paz; it takes two different airlines, three separate tickets, and an overnight lay-over before landing at La Paz El Alto airport, 4061 meters above sea level, with possible altitude sickness as a bonus upon arrival.
The next step is to fly to the lovely colonial town of Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia. This is the easy part of the adventure. It takes another 9 hours on a dusty trek on the Altiplano to reach Uyuni. As there is not much money to be made on this labor-intensive itinerary, travel agents don’t cater to this breed of exotic travelers.
This is not to say that the Salar de Uyuni is a no man’s land, quite to the contrary. Many people visit the region during the dry season between July and November in the southern hemisphere winter; they are mostly backpackers from Europe. They come by bus and join local tour companies for a three to four day, 4wheel drive tour. They commonly squeeze six to seven in each vehicle. This thrifty option is by far the most popular. Travelers looking for a more comfortable visit have unfortunately little option. This blogger knows firsthand. It is either feast of famine!
A luxury alternative is offered by a posh resort in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile south of the border. The week-long package costs a whooping US$ 10,000, airfare not included.
After an extensive Internet search, this blogger discovered a tour operator in London who offers a comfortable ten day package for less than half the above price. The solo traveler will enjoy her own 4X4, driver and guide. Oddly, the tour was even cheaper than a similar itinerary quoted by a travel agency in Rio! The great adventure is finally planned for mid-October.
Up to now, if dancing takes place on the salt mirror it will be a solo number unless one or two travel companions join this surreal escapade.