Bangkok Opera
February 5 and 6, 2006

directed and conducted by Somtow Sucharitkul

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 classics.
            “One 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 Buddhist perspectives.
            In 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.
            In 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 power.
            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 Asia’s sweatshops.
            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 destruction 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 tourists.
            Also 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.
            Lars 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’ passionate voice.
            One 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.
            The 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.
            In 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 again.

opera for our times

Review from the Bangkok Post, February 8. 2006

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 the stage.

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 minutes.

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 broken fins.

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

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 world.

"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 Buddhist slant.

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 beautiful imperfections.

Onstage, this is represented by the transformation of a timeless monochromatic nirvana into a brashly colorful world of Western consumer goods.

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."