Archive for August, 2009

The Ring of the Nibelung, ranked act by act (Part 4 of 4)

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

Previously: ranks 6 through 4

3. Götterdämmerung, Act Two. Once we’ve finally gotten Act One out of the way, Götterdämmerung is awesome. Here we start with a superbly creepy Alberich/Hagen duet, then the music expands gloriously as the day breaks, Hagen’s super-powerful menacing hoi-hos summon, what’s this, an honest-to-goodness chorus, who intone the beautifully simple wedding music, then Brünnhilde (understandably) loses her mind in front of everyone, and just in case anyone thought this act was too boring we finish it all off with a revenge trio. Growing up I had inherited from my composer grandfather recordings of all the operas but this one, and when I finally heard it it was a revelation.

2. Das Rheingold, Prelude and Scene One. This gets perhaps undeserved bonus points for familiarity because I’ve listened to it more than any part; as a kid I would generally start here, then fall asleep midway through Scene Two. But even so, you have the proto-Minimalist prelude, one of the most important passages in the history of music; a bunch of great tunes, including all-too-rare-in-the-Ring three-part harmony from the Rhinemaidens; and perhaps most importantly, a fast-moving and gripping plot.

1. Götterdämmerung, Act Three. Talk about going out on a high note; this last act of the whole cycle kicks ass from beginning to end. First the Rhinemaidens finally reappear, with even prettier music than the last time. Then Siegfried regains his memory and gives his recap of the last opera, delivered with such innocent sweetness that I actually feel sorry for him (he has not been particularly sympathetic up until now). Then comes his death, and the incredibly powerful funeral march, and as if that weren’t enough, everything wraps up with the epic immolation scene. It was worth the wait!

The Ring of the Nibelung, ranked act by act (Part 3 of 4)

Friday, August 28th, 2009

Previously: ranks 9 through 7

6. Siegfried, Act One. Probably the act for which my opinion most greatly exceeds the general consensus. Maybe people aren’t big fans because the hero, Siegfried himself, is kind of a fratboy asshole, and Mime is perceived as a nasty Jewish stereotype. Leaving aside the question of how intentional either of those is on Wagner’s part, the music is excellent, and both characters have lots of great things to sing. Going through these operas again, I find that one of the things that really makes an act for me is the overall structure of it. This feels like a symphony – Scene 1 being the opening allegro, Scene 2 an intermediate slow movement (and I love that Wanderer chord sequence enough that I actually like the trademark Boring Wotan Recap in this opera), and Scene 3 the triumphant finale, which even includes an honest-to-god catchy song (sing along, you know you want to) in Siegfried’s forging scene.

5. Siegfried, Act Three. This act has a reputation for being nothing but Siegfried and Brünnhilde bellowing their love at each other, but there’s really a lot of great stuff in here before we even get to that point. The introductory music is kick-ass; you can practically hear Wagner being psyched to pick up the project again. Even Erda’s scene is pretty interesting, and the tension gets heart-poundingly ratcheted way up as Wotan confronts Siegfried (this of course is another one of the climactic moments of the Ring, as the gods give way to man). Finally Siegfried discovers Brünnhilde, and the heart-stoppingly expansive music as she wakes is one of the most beautiful passages in the whole cycle. Finally, yes, they do bellow their love at each other for a bit too long, but I can cut them some slack, they’re in love.

4. Die Walküre, Act One. A great arc from beginning to end with no real weak spots — the storm and Siegmund’s arrival, the smoldering glances between him and Sieglinde, Hunding’s swagger, Siegmund’s tale (usually when someone sings his backstory in a 10 minute monologue, it’s bad news, but not here), the sword, all culminating in a glorious lyrical love duet. It’s not surprising that this is the one act of the whole Ring most likely to show up being performed by itself, and if you made this list by taking a poll of fans, this would probably end up in the #1 spot.

Next: ranks 3 through 1!

The Ring of the Nibelung, ranked act by act (Part 2 of 4)

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Previously: ranks 13 through 10

9. Die Walküre, Act Two. I know, it’s the emotional center of the entire cycle. And I actually like Wotan’s monologue fine. But it’s just too long to enjoy (as you may have noticed, this is a recurring issue with me). By the time Wotan has dictated his instructions to Brünnhilde, been relentlessly henpecked by Fricka, and then taken an entire new scene telling Brünnhilde he’s taking it all back, I’m too exhausted to deal with the only action of the whole act when Siegmund and Sieglinde finally show up. Then, when you finally think it’s payoff time, the climactic battle with Hunding that we’ve been waiting for the whole time lasts around 30 seconds.

8. Das Rheingold, Scene Four. Despite it coming at the end of a few hours of continuous music, the final scene always keeps my interest. Alberich’s rant is gripping, the treasure-piling keeps the pace up, and the rainbow bridge sends things out on a high note. Only Erda’s attempt to throw a wet blanket on the proceedings slows things down.

7. Die Walküre, Act Three. I don’t care how much it’s overused, the Ride of the Valkyries is pretty excellent. And although it sounds like a recipe for tedium, Wotan’s long dressing-down of Brünnhilde works well enough to get you through to the rightfully famous Magic Fire music. I actually like the fact that this is basically an act-long epilogue; the important stuff all happened in the first two acts, and this is just cleaning up the fallout. And despite the lack of action, there are plenty of spine-tingling musical moments.

Next: ranks 6 through 4

The Ring of the Nibelung, ranked act by act (Part 1 of 4)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

I am a sucker for ranking things, especially artistic things. I know that it goes against everything art stands for, but as long as you don’t treat it as a search for objective truth, but rather as a tool to help collect your thoughts about a variety of works, it can be a lot of fun. And it’s great fun to read other people’s lists and say “You put what as #7?” As I recently made my nth journey through Wagner’s Ring cycle, it occurred to that it might be fun to rank its constituent parts.

The rules: each opera is broken up into acts, except for Das Rheingold, which is broken up into scenes, since that’s all it has. Prologues and interludes are considered part of the following act (or scene). Here, therefore, spread out over four nights in homage to the original, are the 13 parts of the Ring cycle, from worst to first:

13. Siegfried, Act Two. How can an act featuring a battle to the death with a dragon be boring?  Somehow Wagner has managed it.  First you get Alberich and Mime bickering for a while, then Siegfried finally shows up and (spoiler alert!) duly dispatches the dragon in a disappointingly brief scene, then we are subjected to an interminable “comic” scene as Mime repeatedly attempts to poison Siegfried despite the fact that Siegfried can read his thoughts by virtue of tasting the dragon’s blood.  At least the Forest Bird scene provides a few moments of desperately needed relief.  No wonder Wagner took a twelve-year break after composing this act before continuing.

12. Götterdämmerung, Prologue and Act One. There is plenty of good music here, but it is just too damn long. If I recall correctly Wagner even had second thoughts about the length afterward. I actually like the Norns’ scene and am generally happy to listen to any scene with Hagen in it, and the climax with Siegfried and Brünnhilde is great, but it takes so long to get there. I always think we’re really close to the end and then Waltraute shows up and I realize how far we still have to go, argh. At least you get to snicker at “Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt”. My advice when listening is to break it up into two or three chunks. Of course in a live performance you don’t get that luxury.

11. Das Rheingold, Scene Two. It’s surprising how undramatic this scene feels given that it consists almost solely of gods (and giants) yelling at each other. For one thing, none of them are particularly sympathetic (of course, this is an issue throughout the whole cycle). There are a few bright spots in the midst of the relentless exposition (the Valhalla theme emerging out of the mists as Wotan wakes, the giants’ heavy metal walk-on theme) but they’re the exception.

10. Das Rheingold, Scene Three. This edges ahead of Scene Two by virtue of the awesome intro 9/8 anvil music. Once we actually emerge into Nibelheim it’s not all that interesting, and the trick by which Wotan and Loge trick Alberich is eye-rollingly stupid, but at least it doesn’t last all that long, and the Tarnhelm theme is pretty cool.

Coming up next: ranks 9 through 7!

Thomas Pynchon: Inherent Vice

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Remember when it wasn’t clear if Pynchon was ever going to write another book after Gravity’s Rainbow?  Now he’s practically churning them out.  The mammoth Against The Day was just published a couple of years ago, and now here’s Inherent Vice, which is — well, I guess you’d call it a hard-boiled detective novel, except that private eye Doc Sportello is more often baked than boiled. It’s Southern California circa 1970, and most of the scenes, as Sportello bounces back and forth from one typically paranoia-inducing coincidence to another, seem to involve either looking for weed or being offered it.

Despite the book’s brevity and fairly lighthearted tone, this is definitely Pynchon all right; it’s just that usually the goofiness is there balancing out the deep shit and rhapsodic prose-poetry that occupies the majority of his writing.  Despite all the danger that Sportello gets into, you always get the sense that Pynchon is looking out for him and is not really going to let him come to harm.  This feels like a relatively recent development; I didn’t get that sense from Pynchon’s earlier novels, and for goodness’ sake in Gravity’s Rainbow he lets the main character just kind of disappear two-thirds of the way through.  Maybe he’s mellowing in his old age.

Anyway, it has lots of the things I generally dig about Pynchon.  The sentence-to-sentence prose style is a tasty blend of informal and poetic (as compared to, say, David Foster Wallace’s tasty blend of informal and coldly analytical), and although the characterizations never seem to get that deep, they’re shallow in a pleasing way.

So I definitely did enjoy it, but then again I’m kind of a Pynchon fanatic.  People seem to be claiming that it’s the best way to ease into Pynchon, and I see their point, but I’d actually recommend The Crying of Lot 49 first as a relatively painless introduction to the themes that permeate his work.

Daniel Abraham: A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

These are the first two books of Abraham’s fantasy series The Long Price Quartet; the final one was just published last month.

They are technically fantasy, as I said, but it’s more fantasy in the style of Guy Gavriel Kay; they’re normal human character-driven stories set in a vaguely Asian-style culture that doesn’t happen to exist in reality. Although the existence of the supernatural is important for the culture (largely for economic reasons), the use of magic very rarely enters the plot itself.

These books are excellent in a fairly quiet way. There’s a lot of thinking relative to the amount of doing, but it’s quality thinking. The plot moves at a deliberate pace, but that gives everyone time to react to it instead of being carried along by it as it hurtles to a climax. The characters are well drawn, react believably to the situations they find themselves in, and change interestingly over the course of the books. Some of them have more moral fiber than others, but no one’s purely good or evil, and the “bad” ones have some redeeming qualities while the “good” ones have real and believable weaknesses.

Fifteen years pass between the first and second book, and my understanding is that there are similar gaps between the others. As I said when I reviewed The Judging Eye, I like this approach, as it keeps the plot from getting bogged down too much as the author feels the need to continue every thread left over from the previous book. The later books have just as good reviews, if not better, as the earlier ones, so I will definitely finish the series out.

William T. Vollmann: Europe Central

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

I have an ambivalent relationship with William Vollmann.  His first book, You Bright and Risen Angels, was a glorious spewfest, so unrestrained in its messiness that the “transcendental” table of contents was overflowing with promises of later chapters that the actual novel never even got to.  After that he kept the logorrhea but dialed back the technicolor craziness, which can turn his novels into a bit of a slog.

Europe Central, winner of the 2005 National Book Award and considered by many to be his best work, turned out to be about par for the course.  It’s a sprawling linked collection of stories, mostly featuring actual historical characters, taking place in the Soviet Union and Germany over the course of the 20th century, linked mainly by World War II.  The main character, if there can be said to be one, is the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, but many others appear, largely artists and military men.  The loose theme is how people’s lives are changed (usually, ruined) by politics and war.

Many of the historical people portrayed in this novel were fascinating, and new to me: Andrey Vlasov, Friedrich Paulus, Kurt Gerstein, Hilde Benjamin. I might not have been as interested in the book if I already knew these people’s stories (and maybe if you follow those links you won’t be anymore either), since much of the interest for me was just the discovery of the stories themselves. It was worth reading the book just to find out about them.

But at the two-thirds point or so (of a 750-page novel) I started to get a little fatigued.  For one thing, things started to get a little magical-realist in some of the stories, which was not really the ride I signed up for.  Also, there’s a really long and slightly tedious section on the latter half of Shostakovich’s life (basically a long and futile attempt to write the music he wanted to unmolested by the demands of the Communist Party), and this story I did already know.

So by the time I staggered to the end I was pretty relieved to finally put it down, and I certainly didn’t enjoy every page, but I am glad I read it, although I will probably take a decent break before I read Vollmann again (including the 1344-page Imperial, just out this week!).