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Friday, 22 August 2014 16:01

Opera Preview: 'Siegfried' continues a heroic journey at Union Avenue Opera

 Marc Schapman as Mime David Dillard as Wanderer Marc Schapman as Mime David Dillard as Wanderer / John Lamb
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Union Avenue Opera is nothing if not fearless, often taking on works that strain the company's space at the Union Avenue Christian Church to the limit.

Marc Schapman as Mime
David Dillard as Wanderer
(C) John Lamb 2014

This weekend and next, the company follows its highly praised productions of Verdi's "La Traviata" and Andre Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire" with the final production of its 20th anniversary season, "Siegfried." It's the third installment of its most ambitious project yet—Wagner's mammoth four-opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (“The Ring of the Nibelung”).

The story of the "Ring" is an epic fantasy involving clashes among gods and heroes over a magic ring that gives the wearer nearly unlimited magical power but also carries with it a terrible curse. There are dwarves, giants and (yes) even a dragon—but no hobbits or elves.

As did Tolkien for his "ring" cycle, Wagner (who wrote the libretti as well as the music) used stories from Norse and Scandinavian mythology to forge a tale of the passing of the old gods and magic and the rise of humanity. For both Wagner and Tolkien, great power comes not only with great responsibility, but with certain doom as well.

To get a feel for just how ambitions a "Ring" cycle is, consider the sheer scope of the project. The four epic operas of the "Ring" were intended to be performed as a single theatrical unit over four days, running a total of around 15 hours. The shortest of the four, "Das Rheingold" (The Rhine Gold) runs around two and one half hours while the longest, "Götterdämmerung" ("The Twilight of the Gods") clocks in at around five hours, not including intermissions. For both performers and audience members, it's a major commitment.

Clay Hilley as Siegfried
Marc Schapman as Mime
(C) John Lamb 2014

The version of the "Ring" Union Avenue is presenting is not, I should point out, Wagner's original. That would be far beyond the technical capabilities not only of Union Avenue but, indeed, of every other opera company in town. The nearest city with a large and well-equipped enough opera house to mount a full production is the Lyric Opera in Chicago, and they won't be doing one until 2016. Even Wagner had to have his own theatre built for the purpose—the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, where the "Ring" and other Wagnerian operas are performed every summer at the Bayreuth Festival.

Instead of the originals, Union Avenue is using reduced versions of the operas created in 1990 by British composer Jonathan Dove and director Graham Vick for use by smaller companies without the resources to mount full-scale productions. They're noticeably shorter, but that's not the sacrilege you might think. Wagner the librettist does not always serve Wagner the composer well, and there's much in the texts or the originals that is redundant and discursive.

This reduced "Ring" is still a big deal for a small company, though, and Union Avenue deserves a lot of credit for taking it on.

Union Avenue's "Ring" got off to a somewhat rocky start in August of 2012 with a production of “Das Rheingold" marred by some technical glitches, and sluggish tempi. Things improved noticeably in last year's "Die Walküre", which packed a considerable dramatic punch. Will "Siegfried" continue that trend? The only way to find out is to see it. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., August 22-30, at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. Find more information at Union Avenue Opera. Note that there is a parking lot but it tends to fill up quickly, so you'll want to get there not later than 7:30 p.m. if you can.

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