Richard Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" hadn't been seen in Buenos Aires for decades. On the eve of the year marking the composer's 200th birthday, it returned to the Argentine capital - in a daring abridged version.
It's… a baby! The Rhine daughters sing an ode to the Nibelung treasure. But rather than gold, it's made of flesh and blood. The scene is a reference to the many children who disappeared during the Argentine dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s, abducted from their parents, who were often dissidents, and given to families loyal to the regime. It's a subject that still stirs up emotions in Argentine society.
An audacious idea with which director Valentina Carrasco provokes the audience right from the first beat of the "Ring" saga. "Strange, very strange," remarked a young woman during the first intermission. "I like it, but sometimes it's difficult to bear." "It's all very abstract and lacks a certain grandeur," said another opera-goer. "The Argentine angle is riling. It moves some and gets on other people's nerves."
Military, not myth
The "Argentinization" of Wagner's abridged magnum opus proceeds throughout the entire evening and reaches a grim climax when Wotan's daughters meet at Valkyrie Rock to gather up fallen heroes: corpses strewn, helmeted heads impaled on speers, Valkyries in green uniforms, swords drawn.
All-too-familiar imagery to a public with military dictatorship and the Falklands war, Argentina's great traumas of decades past, still fresh in memory. Stage director Carrasco systematically spins forth the theme, trading in Wagner's grandiosity, pomp and myth for recollections of not-too-distant Argentine history.
In this, she is abetted by the sparse scenery originally sketched out by German stage designer Frank Schlössmann: steel staircases, towers, barricades, craggy rocks - and an obelisk resembling the one on Avenida 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires' beautiful boulevard. As expected, the treasure is restored in the end, embodied not by the Nibelung hoard in the Rhine but by the kidnapped children rushing onstage. The effect is a nearly full-frontal collision with agitprop theater. The echo: enraged boos in the sumptuous opera house.
Valentina Carrasco labored under enormous time pressure, called in to rescue the project only six weeks before the premiere after Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter and original stage director, had abrogated the contract.
"I started at square one," said Carrasco, "and had no idea what had been planned. The only thing I had to work with were sketches of Frank Schlössmann's scenery which he allowed me to use and modify. I didn't come here to pick up where someone else had left off."
Vehemently defending the controversial idea of shortening the "Ring" into a compact version, she continued, "It makes Wagner accessible to more people. It makes him easier to discover. The work is more open, free of repetitions."
It's in the music
The audience response backed that up. Ovations for the musicians, at least, were warm. Little was said about the excerpts made in the work, much about the performance of the singers and instrumentalists. The Teatro Colon's dual orchestras were amalgamated into two Wagner ensembles, dividing up the evening between themselves and playing with bravura under conductor Roberto Paternostro. The soloists, all steeped in the art of Wagner singing, generated storms of applause.
As Brünnhilde, Linda Watson brought listeners to the boiling point and earned minutes of standing ovations. The soprano was a recurring theme amidst champagne and hors d'oeuvres in the intermissions: "A miracle! A luxury that fills my heart!" intoned one enthused spectator. "Such a level of musicianship, very impressive!"
Just before midnight, after a long day at the opera that had begun in the early summer afternoon heat, some faces were less beaming. The director's concept? Risky, to say the least. Wagner's music? Definitely fabulous!
It had been many years since opera fans had seen a Wagner production in Buenos Aires, but the "Ring" composer is back now. From that point of view, the compact "Ring" at Colon turned out to be what it had been billed as: "the theatrical event of the year."