Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Caution! Rhine Maidens Slippery When Wet

Just got back from a fabulous Blogger Break spent with gods, demigods, giants, dragons, dwarves, flying horses, magic swords and water nymphs.  Who knew you could find all that in Seattle, Washington?  

Entrance to McCaw Hall
Yes, dear Readers, you can fnd all that and more at the Seattle Opera's McCaw Hall.  And during 16 hours of thrilling music over four nights, you can take an incredible journey with these mythical creatures in Richard Wagner's masterpiece Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).  Prepare yourself for lust, anger, love and hate, adultery and incest, murder, death and destruction, and a wronged woman's final revenge.  You'll neve have so much fun!! 

The “Ring Cycle,” a series of four operas, is a monumental undertaking for any opera company.   Few ever attempt it.  It takes years to produce something this massive from conception, staging and costumes to opening night.  And then, there are the singers………….at any given time in history, there are only a handful of singers in the entire world capable of producing a sound big enough to fill an opera house, cut through a 110-piece orchestra blasting away, and do it for five to six hours at a clip without electronic amplification.  These are not Broadway Babies.  The vocal and physical stamina required to do all this is staggering.

The magnificent Swedish soprano,
Birgit Nilsson (1918–2005), was the reigning Brünnhilde for decades.  No one I have heard since can come close to producing her glorious sound.  She could caress you with a tender tone one minute and knock you back in your seat with the power of a mighty Valkyrie in full battle cry the next. 

She was also known for her delightful sense of humor.  When asked once what advice she would give to young singers preparing for these long Wagner roles, she replied, “Wear comfortable shoes.” 

Among opera goers, the Wagner groupies who are willing to fly anywhere in the world to attend a “Ring Cycle” are affectionately known as Ring Nuts.  They are the Trekkies of the opera world.  You’ll see them wandering around the auditoriums wearing their own horned helmets, which they politely remove during the performance.  While I do not have my own helmet, I do number my husband and myself among the hard core Ring Nuts.  We’ll go anywhere for a “Ring,” and by my count, this makes 15. 

The first opera of the “Ring Cycle” (Das Rheingold) starts off in the Rhine River (yes, that’s right………IN it), where we find the three beautiful Rhine Maidens frolicking about in the water as they guard their father’s Gold.  An ugly dwarf named Alberich, who is smitten by their charms, tries to catch one of the water nymphs, but Rhine Maidens are very slippery when wet.  So, the furious Alberich renounces love and steals the Sisters’ gold, which sets everything in motion.  At the end of the fourth opera, 16 hours later, we find ourselves right back where we started……….IN the Rhine River with the frolicking Rhine Maidens whose gold has been restored to them.  I kid you not!  But what a journey it’s been!

In this production of Das Rheingold each Rhine Maiden is suspended on two cables attached to a harness on either side of her hips, while two unseen technicians high above her work to create the effect of swimming.  Not only are these water nymphs required to sing incredibly difficult music (it is, after all, Wagner, my Dears), but they are in perpetual motion, executing mid-air somersaults and constantly flipping their flippers back and forth in unison with undulating arms.  The three singers who perform the roles went through months of physical training to accomplish these mid-air acrobatics, and the effect is truly spectacular. 

Here the Rhine Maidens come up for air to plead with the hero Siegfried to return their gold, now in the form of a golden ring. 

Having slain a dragon to obtain it, he refuses to return it.  Unfortunately for our intrepid hero, the ring has been cursed and he pays the ultimate price in the final opera. 

Here’s a little sample of how it looks.

Now, I should warn you that, other than the svelte Rhine Maidens, you will see some rather hefty singers in this clip.  We Ring Nuts expect a bit of bulk on our Wagnerian singers.  By and large, Wagnerian voices do not come in Kate Moss bodies.  Frankly, Wagnerites don’t care what you look like, so long as you deliver the vocal and dramatic goods.   On that, we insist. 

So, that said, have a little look and a listen….

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games in the Rhine last week. 

We also had the great joy of spending an afternoon with my dear friend, Véronique (“French Girl in Seattle”).  Here we are having lunch at Véronique’s favorite restaurant in Pike Street Market, Café Campagne.  Notice the two Kirs in front of my husband and me, both of which I drank.  Hmmm! 

And here we are (Véronique and I) outside the Café looking very happy and rosy indeed following a wonderful lunch and two Kirs each.  I highly recommend having the Duck Confit salad in the company of a gorgeous gasconne in a marinière who knows how to add that all important dash of je ne sais quoi and joie de vivre to any meal!!   Big bisous, ma chère amie.

For Véronique’s take on our delightful afternoon and the joy of friends and friendship, click here. 

And, if I’ve managed to whet your appetite even just a little for the “Ring Cycle,” you’ll love Anna Russell’s (1911–2006) hilarious take on it.  The late, dearly missed Anna Russell, was a singer, musician and comedienne par excellence, whose parodies of Wagner and Gilbert & Sullivan became legendary. 

Here she explains the first opera of the “Ring Cycle.”  (Note:  The picture quality is fuzzy and grainy, but Russell’s facial expressions come through with Wagnerian clarity.) 

So, dear Readers, have I convinced you to take the plunge?  Come on in.........the water is fine.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Wedding on the Veranda

A while back I mentioned that I had two weddings to attend during the month of June, June being the high-water month for weddings.  The first was on the beach in Cape May, New Jersey, about an hour from my home.  The second was on the veranda of a private home in the Main Line near Philadelphia, also not far from my home. 

Main Building (formerly a convent) at Rosemont College

The Main Line is an area I know well.  I grew up in a neighboring town and spent four wonderful years as a student at Rosemont College, a private Catholic university for young ladies nestled in the heart of the Main Line.   Rosemont is now co-ed, and I confess I still have mixed feelings about that, but times change and so must educational institutions, if they wish to survive. 

You fans of the soap opera All My Children might find this tidbit of interest.  The long-running and still hugely popular soap opera, created by Agnes Nixon, debuted in 1970, the same year I began my studies as a lowly freshman at Rosemont College.  And…………..the town of Rosemont is, in fact, the model for the fictional town of Pine Valley, Pennsylvania, where the TV series takes place.   

You won’t find the Main Line listed as such on any map.  It’s more of a socio-cultural designation than a geographical one.  The affluent communities that grew up along the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad (hence the name) were originally a collection of country estates built by wealthy 19th Century Philadelphians, such as the Drexels and the Biddles, who maintained large homes in the City, but wanted even larger and more magnificent country estates as retreats from the growing congestion and summer heat of Philadelphia. 

Entrance to the Ardrossan Estate

Perhaps the most famous estate in the Main Line is the one that inspired first a successful Broadway play, then a wildly successful Hollywood film of the same name, while revitalizing the moribund career of an actress who had become known in the industry as “box office poison.” 
The film was the 1940 MGM mega-hit, The Philadelphia Story, starring Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and the formerly “poisonous” Katharine Hepburn. 

Salon in the Ardrossan Estate

The Ardrossan Estate in the city of Villanova (right next to the town of Rosemont), built from 1911-13, was used as both backdrop and inspiration for the Lord Estate in the film.  This 50-room Georgian revival mansion was named after the family’s ancestral Scottish home and was originally comprised of 800 acres in the heart of the Main Line. 

Helen Hope Montgomery Scott at the annual Devon Horse Show in Devon, PA

And the Main Line’s most dazzling socialite, Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, whose father had built the Ardrossan Estate, was the inspiration for Hepburn’s unforgettable character, Tracy Lord. 

Here is a clip from one of the funniest scenes in the film.  Jimmy Stewart’s character arrives drunk at the home of Cary Grant’s character (Hepburn’s ex-husband) following an all-night party the night before the wedding in which Hepburn is supposed to marry a fellow by the name of Kittredge the following morning. 

A great deal of the witty and clever dialogue was ad-libbed by two actors who are clearly having the time of their lives filming this scene, and the viewer is only too happy to go along for the ride. 


If you have never seen this film, do not pass "GO," do not collect $100, just get thee to a Netflix RIGHT NOW, get your hands on a DVD of The Philadelphia Story and prepare to have the time of your life with three of Hollywood’s most beloved icons, along with a brilliant cast of supporting characters. 

You are invited to the Main Line’s most exclusive social event of the season…………the wedding of Tracy Samantha Lord to……hmmm, let’s see now, which of the three men will she end up marrying?  I guess you’ll just have to show up at the wedding and find out.