Reviewed by Miah Daley
Thai Day/International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, Feb 8, 2006
Somtow Sucharitkul isn’t afraid to try something new, and his
production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, which debuted at the Thailand
Cultural Center on Sunday, was another illustration of this composer
and director’s courageous attempts to bring Thai audiences western
hundred and fifty years ago, people were still saying the same things
about politics (through their art). What could be more
appropriate?” says Somtow of his production of Das Rheingold, which
explores the subject of greed in a contemporary manner and includes
Das Rheingold, the gods become corrupted by greed and make bargains
that benefit only themselves. Wotan, the ruler of the gods, has
promised his sister-in-law Freia, the goddess of love, to the giants as
payment for building him a new fortress. His wife objects, but
Wotan reassures his wife that he will come out on top of the deal and
that Freia will come to no harm, due to plans he has in motion.
The audience can easily draw parallels to the current political climate
in Thailand, where the prime minister is called corrupt and unclear
business deals are the order of the day.
“There is a very powerful political element in the Ring Cycle and it’s
particularly relevant to Southeast Asia,” says Somtow. So rather
than offering Das Rheingold as a Christian tale of good versus evil,
Somtow uses eastern religion to facilitate Bangkok operagoers’
appreciation of the story. The set and costumes are all white,
until Alberich steals the gold, and both change into a colorful
palette. Thus greed is presented as both good and bad, for it is
attached to all things and can even bring out color and beauty.
With interpretative touches like these, it is as though Asian
philosophy has been hidden in Wagner’s work all along.
the opening scene, the Rhinemaidens, daughters of the Rhine River,
tease the dwarf Alberich, dressed in gorgeous mermaid costumes from
traditional Thai drama. As they tempt him, their clumsy
choreography hardly seems alluring, but their voices are quite
enchanting. Alberich is completely taken with them, only to be
cruelly rejected, but then the sunlight illulminates the Rhine gold
that the daughters have sworn to protect. If this gold is made
into a ring, the wearer will have power over the whole world.
Taiwanese singer Grace Lin’s haunting voice tells us that the one who
takes the Rhine gold must renounce love. Her voice swells as she
is accompanied by drums, tubas, and soft strings. This is the
first time we hear this melodic motif underscoring the renunciation of
love in favor of goods or power. Wagner is known for his use of
motifs, which are recurrent musical melodies that represent characters,
objects, or emotions. When Alberich renounces love and steals the
Rhine gold, a giant mandala cracks open to form the two pieces of the
yin yang symbol. The mandala remains on the set throughout the
opera. It represents the ring, and the ring becomes the symbol of
all of the characters’ attachment to their own desires and of absolute
Alberich is played by Colin Morris from the UK with
fabulous energy. He occasionally lifts
up onto his toes, emphasizing that he is large and in charge even
though he is a dwarf. When he climbs onto a high platform with
whip in hand after stealing the gold and forging the ring, one can
imagine his cruelty toward the Nibelung slaves. Interesting, the
Nibelungs are played by disadvantaged children, perhaps reminding us of
Alberich’s tormented brother Mime is played by Jan-Ate Stobbe from the
Netherlands. Stobbe makes the role memorable as he plays off
Alberich and Loge, a half-god with the power to create fire, with the
ease of a seasoned performer. Mime and Loge collude to trick
Alberich and steal the ring and gold.
American Marc Deaton really made the show as the clever Loge who
devises the scheme to defeat Alberich and later warns that the destructi
on of the gods is soon to come. The tenor
skillfully navigated the libretto as his charismatic acting enlivened
the stage. While the others in the kingdom of the gods were
dressed like ancient Hindu gods, Loge showed up in contemporary
clothes, looking like one of Thailand’s many Hawaiian-shirt clad
in contemporary clothes from the start of the opera was Freia, the
goddess of love, played by Ronit Widmann-Levy from Israel.
Freia’s voice was sweet, but her outfit was distracting. She
looked more frumpy than divine in her contemporary tight t-shirt, hot
pink and black-striped socks, high-heeled sneaker boots, and extremely
short plaid skirt. The modern clothing shows that the world has
begun moving through time since the Rhine gold was stolen. The
other gods also don contemporary costumes as the story moves forward.
Waage from Denmark as Wotan lacked the authoritative presence of a
king, but his interpretation of the character was so human that Wotan’s
bad judgment was credible. Fricka’s pleas for her sister Freia to
be saved from the giants were made believable by Barbara Smith Jones’
of the show’s most memorable moments is when the giants Fafner and
Fasolt push Freia onto the stage in a shopping cart. They have
decided that they will accept the gold rather than Freia as payment for
the fortress they built.
symbolism is not hard to miss, The giants trade the goddess of
love for a shopping cart full of gold. As a playful touch, the
gold was shaped like various modern appliances and computers.
the final scene, the gods ascend to their new home commissioned by a
ruler who never intended to pay for it. The castle turns out to
be skyscrapers and, with Freia returned to them, the gods are safe once
Review from the Bangkok Post, February
Wagner's opera, 'Der Ring De Nibelungen', is given a contemporary
overhaul with a Thai touch
In his director's note, Somtow Sucharitkul acknowledged that Thai
audiences weren't yet ready for Richard Wagner's grandest operatic
work, Der Ring De Nibelungen, but that that was the reason why he
decided to put on the German composer's four-part epic: To challenge
our minds, ears and eyes; surely a noble aim for any artist. Staged at
the Thailand Cultural Centre on Sunday and Monday, Das Rheingold, the
prologue to and first part of the Ring Cycle, is also the first fruit
of Bangkok Opera's five-year plan to produce the entire series. It
brought together Wagner specialists, soloists and musicians from some
10 countries, including Thailand, and was a first both for the Kingdom
and for Southeast Asia.
Not only has Somtow taken on the supremely challenging task of staging
this lengthy opera, he also gave Das Rheingold a Buddhist angle plus a
Thai look and feel. At the end of the evening, it was the sheer
audacity of his vision that the audience recognised, noted, in part, by
the hearty applause. The longest cheers were for Somtow _ for his
ambition, for his five-star effort and for his skill in conducting a
pitch-perfect, 100-piece orchestra that spilled over from the pit onto
Originally written as a poetic drama, the language of the Ring Cycle is
unlike that of most operas: It has practically no arias and mostly
comprises dialogue, making the rhythm of the interaction more realistic
and similar to that of a straight play.
A lot of the time, the script for Das Rheingold requires the players to
simultaneously sing and physically interact with each other _ a much
more demanding task than that posed by the general run of operas. In
addition to being able to sing, the cast members must possess acting
and movement skills strong enough to meet the opera's demand for swift
actions and interactions. But the performers for the Bangkok production
rose to the challenge with great aplomb, with only a few uncomfortable
or unclear moments that could easily have been avoided had the staging
technique been better.
One of the highlights was the incredibly smooth, resonant voices of
Ralph McDonald and John Ames, who filled the roles of the demon
brothers, Fasolt and Fafner. If this pair had been playing more
refined, gentlemanly types, some members of the audience would surely
have been sighing and swooning in their seats.
Another high point had to be the performance by Colin Morris, whose
Alberich possessed the poignant and pathetic vulnerability of a man who
has given up love for power.
But Julia Oesch, who played Erda, the goddess of Earth and wisdom, was
responsible for the evening's most memorable moment. With a formidable
presence and a voice that possesses an other-worldly quality, Oesch
gave a haunting performance that elicited instant cheers from
theatre-goers. Unfortunately, however, Erda was on stage for only a few
The weakest point of this production was its choreography. In the
movie-making business, if an actor cannot dance, a double is recruited
to perform this task. In opera, however, you simply shouldn't ask
singers who lack the ability to move gracefully to do interpretive
movements. Grace Lin, Grace Echauri and Julia Oesch, who played
Woglinde, Wellgunde and FloBhilde, respectively, are fine opera
singers. But having to move like a fish while singing at the same time
can prove a distracting task. In the event, these three simply looked
awkward; instead of three beautiful Rhine maidens we got fish with
The combination of Thai classical dance and ballet worked out quite
nicely. However, instead of making this an integral part of the
story-telling and using it to create a more visually magical world, the
dancers were only employed to set a scene or two and distract the
audience during scene changes, making them seem more like a superficial
attempt to blend Thai and Western aesthetics.
The Buddhist interpretation was interesting and both socially and
politically relevant, yet it was bogged down by inconsistencies and
easy choices. Costumes were used to symbolise the differences between
material and traditional values; traditional Thai garb represented
noble values, while flashy contemporary attire symbolised a money- and
power-driven mindset. The big question here is whether the West is the
sole source of the materialism that is changing time-honoured attitudes
in Asia. Why make this a battle between Eastern and Western values?
Loge and Freia were dressed in contemporary clothes in stark contrast
to the rest of the gods who wore slightly tweaked, traditional Thai
costumes. With the nonchalant gait of a surfer dude, Marc Deaton
portrayed Loge _ a combination of two Norse deities: Logi, god of fire;
and Loki, trickster and enemy of the gods most of the time _ with
appealing slyness and wryness. Decked out in typical surfer gear
(complete with a loud Hawaiian shirt), Deaton was most successful in
living up to his costume. However, there was no good reason to dress
him in this manner since he is not the only character who is driven by
greed and power.
An even more confusing interpretation was that of Freia, the goddess of
youth, love and eternal beauty who is promised by Wotan, ruler of the
gods, to the giant demons Fafner and Fasolt in return for building the
fortress of Valhalla for him. But Somtow dresses his Freia like a
naughty, Catholic-school girl _ a la Britney Spears in her ... Baby One
More Time music video.
Perhaps the director was trying to poke fun at today's warped ideas
about what constitutes beauty, but by making these two characters look
like the most overused of contemporary stereotypes, he also made them
an easy target for cheap laughs rather than a vehicle for intelligent
reflection on social and cultural issues. This device also prevented a
logical transformation of the characters.
At the end, all the characters change from traditional Thai to glittery
(and downright tacky) Western clothes. This would have worked better if
the audience had got to witness the characters' physical transformation
alongside their inner transformation. And for the supporting
characters, the costume change seemed a merely random device.
This new interpretation of Das Rheingold was most successful when it
focused on current social and political issues in Thailand. In the
final moments of the opera, the gods ascend to their newly built
fortress, blind to Erda's warning that their race is coming to an end
due to rampant greed and abuse of power. What the deities in Somtow's
production ascended to was Bangkok _ the City of Angels we know today
with landmark high-rise buildings towering over a tiny Democracy
Monument. When this particular portrayal of Bangkok was unveiled, it
was also the moment that Wagner's 1850 opera about greed and man's ugly
obsession with power hit home the hardest.
Wagner opera rings familiar in Southeast Asian debut
By CHRIS HAWKE
The Associated Press
BANGKOK, Thailand — More than 120 years after his death, German
composer Richard Wagner makes his operatic debut in Southeast Asia with
a performance of "Das Rheingold" that portrays a divine Eastern kingdom
humbled by greed and Western culture.
With its themes of power and political corruption, the opera could have
been crafted for modern-day Asia, said the show's Thai director, Somtow
Sucharitkul. "It's all about how the gods become corrupted, so it fits.
"Maybe we'll end up getting arrested or sued for libel," he added,
alluding to the frequent fate of government critics in this part of the
"Das Rheingold" — the prologue of the four-part "Ring" cycle — opened
Sunday in Bangkok with an international cast and orchestra. And while
none of the words or score has been changed, the production takes a
The theft of a golden ring, traditionally portrayed as a kind of
Christian original sin, in Somtow's version launches the Buddhist cycle
of karma, fueled by attachment or greed, that creates life and all its
Onstage, this is represented by the transformation of a timeless
monochromatic nirvana into a brashly colorful world of Western consumer
In the first act, the singers wear Southeast Asian royal court
costumes. By the time the curtain falls, they are wearing decadently
Western attire; an Elvis-like golden jacket, a naughty-schoolgirl
outfit and a Hawaiian shirt that would be right at home on a tourist in
a red-light district in Bangkok.
Valhalla, the paradise that the chief god Wotan has sacrificed his soul
to build, here is a modern Asian city.
The implications should be clear to the audience in Thailand, where
thousands of people recently rallied to call for the ouster of the
prime minister over allegations of corruption and abuse of power.
Somtow also drew a parallel between his Asian "Das Rheingold" and the
opera's original premiere in Germany in 1869: The audience and
performers for the most part are unfamiliar with the music.
"It's like turning the clock back 150 years," he said. "That's why it
could be very exciting, despite imperfections."