Pountney’s Siegfried continues tropes and themes from earlier installments while also, occasionally and more boldly than before, cleverly punctuating the story with his own narrative decisions. In my review of Die Walküre, I wrote:
In a similar vein to Das Rheingold, Pountney’s conceit here is less of a Regietheater-esque reinterpretation than one of a theatrical telling of the “original” story—or at least largely staying out of the way in order for you to come to your own interpretive conclusions. The twist, though, is that, as an audience member, you’re not watching and listening to a story so much as you are watching a story being told (likely decades ago). The stagehands-as-characters—moving sets, operating spotlights, etc.—is critical to this. Also welcome is the fact that the production is self-aware enough to not take itself too seriously.
While this largely applies to Siegfried, Pountney asserts himself narratively a bit more than before, and for the better—first, via the production’s visual language, and second, through the stage direction.
In stark contrast to the overall more muted tones of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, the curtain opens for Siegfried to reveal a bright white stage and neon colors aplenty—greens, reds, yellows—with childlike writing and drawings on the wall and floor (visible to those in the balconies). Also visible is a crib (or cage?). Alas, we are in Siegfried’s room. Mime’s workstation, which is more practical and less playful, is also visible, but, as with most any child, the little one has the run of the place: toys everywhere, their room or designated play area spilling out into the rest of the abode. And when Siegfried finally appears, the infantilization is complete. Our nascent hero wears a baggy striped t-shirt, baggy cargo shorts, and sneakers. Instead of leaning into the young and strapping, but naive and simple, warrior, Pountney and the rest of the production team lean into Siegfried’s youth and naive confidence.
Adding to the caricature of an infantilized Siegfried is Mime, the Nibelung dwarf who raised him after the death of his parents Wälsung parents. Here, he’s wearing a dirty, tattered dress and, when we initially see him, work gloves that closely resemble rubber (dish-)washing gloves. He appears to the audience as both mother (visually) and father (vocally) to Siegfried, toiling away both forging swords and cleaning the kitchen. And while I could take umbrage as an at-home father of a toddler, I understood the visual caricature the team was going for—seeing Mime and Siegfried go back and forth in the messy play area was almost cartoonish.
The production team includes original set designers Robert Innes Hopkins and the late Johan Engels (who also designed Lyric’s Parsifal in 2013), costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour. It’s worth mentioning this team not only in relation to its work on Chicago’s new Ring cycle, but also because this is a team that’s worked together for years. Throughout the evening, I was regularly reminded of the same team’s (sans Hopkins, before Engels’s death) production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Bregenzer Festspiele in 2013-14, which I saw both years while teaching in Bregenz. Pountney et al. took that approach of heavily emphasizing the fairy tale elements and perfected it for Siegfried. (Complete with growing grass and a dragon in Act Two! I felt like I was sitting on the Bodensee shore, only watching a better production and performance.)
For quick reference, here’s an image of Siegfried confronting Fafner in Act Two of Siegfried:
And here’s an image of the same team’s set for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the 2013-14 Bregenzer Festspiele:
Other light-hearted visual cues abound throughout the first two acts and a little of the third. A prime example, pun intended, is the reforging of Nothung, Siegfried’s sword. Instead of using Mime’s workstation, the little tike receives packages (delivered by stagehands-as-couriers) from “Rhein Logistik,” complete with the familiar logo of a black background, white font, and that familiar orange arrow. Fafner is also given cartoonish treatment that is rather effective. (It’s certainly better than trying to seriously portray an onstage battle with a dragon.) Once again, he’s operated by the visible stagehands.
In the program’s Director’s Note, Pountney emphasizes Siegfried’s place as the Ring‘s “Scherzo,” and that “it is the story of a child.” The end result is an entertaining romp for two acts that is capped off by an emotionally anguished third.
Act Three, by contrast, is much more visually subdued. Although Erda’s emergence and dress are a sight to behold, the red/white/dark motif is reminiscent of the final act of Die Walküre, and of course both acts end in the same place: Brünnhilde’s rock. Also, Siegfried’s appearance is made to seem that much more out of place when his youthful outfit is juxtaposed against the austere background and Brünnhilde’s formal, minimal attire. She’s clearly more mature, both emotionally and in age.
Separate from the set design and costumes, Pountney’s direction for Wotan gives the aging god a more malicious bent, particularly in Act Two. As an example, when Siegfried is able to understand the forest bird’s song after tasting the slain dragon’s blood, it’s not simply a conversation between our hero and his woodland acquaintance. Instead, Valhalla partially descends from the top of the stage, and we see Wotan working the forest bird’s voice (sung beautifully by Diana Newman) like a hand puppet while Siegfried interacts with the bird below. This, along with other appearances in the second act, make more explicit Wotan’s scheming and behind-the-scenes machinations, particularly when Siegfried is viewed as a standalone work instead of in conjunction with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, both of which feature Wotan more prominently.
The musical performances were strong across the board. Burkhard Fritz‘s Siegfried was energetic and youthful, but also quite moving when in dialogue with Christine Goerke‘s Brünnhilde in Act Three. Goerke was soaring and passionate, and offered a nice complement to Brunnhilde’s much younger soon-to-be lover. For me, it was one of the standout performances of the evening. Mattias Klink portrayed a frustrated and tired yet scheming Mime while maintaining a full and resonant sound. Vocally, Act Three is hard to beat. Not only does it end with Brünnhilde and Siegfried, but it begins with Wotan/The Wanderer and Erda, and here Eric Owens and Ronnita Miller really upped the production’s already strong musical game, eventually giving way to Goerke and Fritz to bring it home. Although Owens now feels very comfortable and powerful as Wotan, Miller’s anguished Erda nearly stole that first scene. And though their parts are small by comparison, Samuel Youn continued to entertain as Alberich, Patrick Guetti‘s Fafner was formidable and rich, and Diana Newman’s forest bird was playful and elegant, offering a nice respite from the male-heavy first two acts. Enveloping it all, of course, was the Lyric Opera orchestra, led by Sir Andrew Davis.
It’s now been a decade since saxophonist LeRoi Moore‘s passing. Thinking of that this past weekend has pushed me to finally jot down some thoughts on the band as a whole, and how 2018 has seen DMB fully realize what, in my opinion, it has been inching toward for well over a decade. While LeRoi’s passing didn’t kick-start this evolution, it arguably accelerated it to a degree. And, given that it was such a (tragic) milestone in the band’s history, it’s natural that it played at least some sort of factor, even if not as large as one as may initially seem.
Equally noteworthy, at a minimum, in the band’s evolution was the 2008 tour itself, which of course coincided with Moore’s accident and subsequent death and Jeff Coffin‘s joining the band partway through as a replacement. Even before Moore’s accident, the 2008 tour included:
– Tim Reynolds’s return as a touring member and, though unknown at the time, a full-time member in his own right. (In years past he was an “unofficial sixth member,” along with Peter Griesar from the early 90s and Butch Taylor in the late 90s through 2007.)
– Butch Taylor’s sudden departure on the tour’s eve.
– An explosion of cover songs in rotation in the set list (e.g., “Money,” “Money, That’s What I Want,” “Sledgehammer,” “Burning Down the House,” etc.).
– Some Devil songs regularly joining the setlist rotation.
(- Jeff Coffin eventually joining the band partway through the tour after Moore’s accident.)
I won’t re-hash old posts here, but a brief word on each of those points. I’ve written about this before, but Tim Reynolds’s guitar stylings while playing with the full band ’91-’98 are vastly different from ’08-present. (This is entirely separate from his playing with Dave on their acoustic tours, which continued throughout this whole time period, including the early ’00s.) In that first decade, even though he played electric guitar with a mostly acoustic ensemble, his playing fit within the band’s overall sound—part of the texture, often felt instead of heard. Upon his return, however, he cranked up the volume and gave the band a much more explicitly “rock” sound, and his presence couldn’t be mistaken.
Tim’s approach strongly complemented the new cover songs that debuted in 2008, both in style and arrangement: “Money” (Pink Floyd), “Sledgehammer” (Peter Gabriel), “Burning Down the House” (Talking Heads), “Hey Hey My My” (Neil Young), “Money, That’s What I Want” (Berry Gordy & Janie Bradford), “Bitch” (Rolling Stones), and “Thank You” (Sly & The Family Stone; formerly covered by Dave Matthews & Friends but not by DMB). Also noteworthy is that most of these cover songs lack a non-guitar solo (like the original), save “Money.” I write “style and arrangement” because these covers, unlike their most well-known previous covers performed with varying regularity (“All Along the Watchtower,” “The Maker,” “Long Black Veil,” “Angel From Montgomery”), were pretty straightforward. 2008’s then-new covers were less about being new versions of existing songs than they were with creating a fun vibe to add to the party-like atmosphere. Those that remain in 2018—e.g., “Sledgehammer” and “Burning Down the House”—haven’t much changed in arrangement over the last decade.
Of course, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect at work here. Did the band’s approach to covers at all influence Tim’s approach to DMB’s catalogue—the prominent lead guitar needed for Pink Floyd then being mapped to Dave Matthews Band? Hard to say, but I’ve always wondered. After all, it’d be a little jarring to hear the DMB of 2007 or 2000 and then, midway through the set, be blasted by “Sledgehammer.” Even though Dave began selectively playing electric guitar live in 2001, “Eh Hee” or “So Right” didn’t provide the same wailing lead guitar as Pink Floyd’s “Money.”
Of course, it could be that Dave took the reins a little more aggressively and decided that that’s the sound he wanted…
In the past, it’s been noted here and there that the band—or at least select band members—had been pushing Dave to take up some more directional leadership within the group. Around the Lillywhite Sessions fallout and Everyday sessions, I got the impression in interviews that the band was going through the motions and rudderless (before Everyday), and that going into the studio for Everyday with Dave having already written much of the music with producer Glenn Ballard and providing charts to the band put some fresh wind under the band’s wings. And again, before LeRoi’s death, supposedly LeRoi told Dave in a moment of candor that he (Matthews) needed to lead the band and take charge.
Then there was the sudden departure of Butch Taylor for “personal reasons” right before the 2008 tour’s kickoff. It was never made publicly clear why he backed out, but speculation ran wild on message boards.* I felt like I was in the minority much of the time, but I was and remain a big fan of Butch Taylor’s playing, both with and without DMB. Even though I was gaining Tim Reynolds in 2008, it hurt to lose Butch Taylor. Perhaps Tim’s playing was a way to account for both electric guitar and a lost keyboardist? Who knows.
[*I try to avoid message boards—on DMB and anything else—completely, but this was one of 4 times I dove in to that toxic fever swamp as a reader-only for DMB material. The other three were this year: Boyd’s departure, Boyd’s #MeToo moment, and the 2018 tour kickoff. Every time I left exhausted and needing a shower. Woof. No more.]
[A digression, just to state this for the record: one of my first selfish thoughts upon learning of the possibility of both Tim Reynolds and Butch Taylor touring with DMB in 2008 (before Taylor’s departure) was the genesis and rapid blossoming of my wanting to see what would, for me, be the ultimate cover song that DMB could rip through: Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding.” Piano-driven rock with a strong lead guitar line, and the horns could provide some solid wall-of-sound harmonies throughout. My hopeless wishing was renewed this summer with the addition of Buddy Strong, but I’m certainly not holding my breath. (While I’m at it, EJ’s “My Father’s Gun” and “Burn Down the Mission” too, and both would be great with The Lovely Ladies…)]
With a few sporadic and rare exceptions, much of Dave Matthews’s solo album Some Devil wasn’t performed with the full band until 2008. And it didn’t take long for those solo songs to find a natural home in the DMB rotation, particularly “So Damn Lucky” and “Gravedigger.” The former quickly transformed early in the tour—the iterations I saw in Chicago (6/6), Detroit (6/9), and Buffalo (6/17) kept getting respectively longer, inching toward the large live jam it became by mid-summer.
Finally, of course, Jeff Coffin joined the band (becoming a full-time, permanent replacement), filling in for LeRoi Moore. I attended Jeff’s fourth show of that run (Rothbury 7/5/08), and it was wild seeing him up there with the music stand for the horn lines and then ripping during the solos. The latter part is notable in the respect that, before his accident, LeRoi Moore seemed to be playing fewer and/or shorter solos at the beginning of the tour, either splitting those duties even more with trumpeter Rashawn Ross or handing some over to Tim Reynolds. (I was particularly struck by his lack of solo on “#41” on 6/17, but those backing horn lines under Tim’s solo scratched me where I itched.) I knew there was talk throughout the band’s history of Roi’s wanting to eventually develop a full horn section. It took ~15 years to add a second horn, and the workload gradually evened out over the subsequent years, with Rashawn regularly guesting in the latter half of 2005, becoming a full-time touring member in 2006. Perhaps with Tim’s returning to the fold, Roi considered it an opportunity to build up the horn section as an entity? It’s another thought I’ve returned to many times over the years.
Along with Jeff’s solos, though, there’s another aspect that caught my eye. With now three virtuosic soloists (Jeff Coffin, Tim Reynolds, Rashawn Ross) hungry to play and make music with one another, what was violinist Boyd Tinsley to do? Continue with the same old tired and out-of-tune pentatonic scales and lukewarm enthusiasm save his one or two nightly solos? Again, it was around this time that my friend turned to me at the Gorge and remarked, “Where’s Boyd?” Even in 2007, though he was already a musical liability, there was still room sonically for Boyd’s melodies, countermelodies, and solos. In 2008, there was significantly less, with even less each subsequent year.
That was 2008. En route to 2018…
Beyond “new” members, the other original members kept on making music and advancing. Bassist Stefan Lessard particularly comes to mind, having pursued some Berklee College of Music coursework some years back. (I believe he was inspired by Rashawn Ross, an alumnus.) I remember thinking of the Rashawn/Berklee inspiration at night three of The Gorge in 2011 when Stefan opted to play the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite I for unaccompanied cello as the intro to “All Along the Watchtower,” with Jeff and Rashawn watching with particularly rapt attention. That, and Stefan’s penchant for effects and hardware seems to have grown since Tim’s re-joining in ’08.
I’ve documented much of my thoughts many of the band’s developments elsewhere (here and here and here). In short, Tim gradually became a gargantuan sonic presence, Boyd became obviously irrelevant, the horn section evolved and became often a single entity, and the new songs reflected all of these changes. The band that originally went from local Charlottesville phenomenon to commercial juggernaut—the mostly acoustic band with no lead guitar and a sax and fiddle—became a full-on rock band with horns, especially from 2008 to this year. Enter Come Tomorrow, which completed the process.
I won’t write a full review of the album here, but it’s worth at least a surface-level discussion. In short, my thoughts after the first listen were:
– I liked it overall, despite “The Girl Is You.”
– As an album, it’s a bit of an odd entity.
– In context, the transformation was now complete.
I do like the album, and I’ve listened to it a lot this summer. But, to me, even more than Away From the World, Come Tomorrow is almost more of a Dave Matthews solo record than a DMB album. Almost. The identifiable horns are still there, and it helps that it includes some existing songs—including 2006’s “Idea Of You” and “Can’t Stop” and 2015’s “Virginia In The Rain,” “Black and Blue Bird,” “Again and Again” (formerly “Boblaw”—my personal favorite of the album), and “Be Yourself” (now “bkdkdkdd”). Boyd plays on only one track, “Idea Of You,” and it’s likely that his part was recorded years ago. And there’s only one horn solo on the whole album, a few seconds of Coffin’s soprano saxophone on “Black and Blue Bird”—track 10, deep into the album.
I consider it an “odd entity” because not only are some of the songs older, but the album was recorded over a ~12-year+ period and utilized four separate producers (Mark Batson, Rob Cavallo, John Alagia, and Rob Evans). The album’s not as cohesive a unit as others in my opinion, as it goes in many different directions, and the lack of a single producer keeps it from feeling completely unified, at least sonically. That said, it still mostly works, and it’s a rocking good time.
All that said, I like the album (save “The Girl Is You,” which is okay live—it’s the first studio recording I’ve yet to warm to in some respect), and to me it fits in the overall canon. Hell, even LeRoi Moore makes a couple of appearances, having participated in the early sessions for “Can’t Stop” and “Idea of You.” But it’s definitely a statement that this is a band unapologetically plowing ahead with its current iteration, be it DMB 3.0 or 4.0 depending on whom you ask. Whereas 2012’s Away From the World had a veneer of going back to the square one after 2009’s sonic memorial Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King—having Steve Lillywhite produce, including horn and violin solos (Boyd gets the album’s first solo break!), etc.—to me, it still sounded like more of a Dave Matthews solo record than a DMB album. In fact, I could make the case that Come Tomorrow is as big of a statement about the band’s sound, if not bigger, than Everyday was in 2001. (In brief, just because Dave played electric, the sax and violin still carried the melodic weight, among other aspects. It sounded new, but the structure remained the same. Here, however, the structure is explicitly changed.)
[Song selection aside, the album’s personnel dwarfs Before These Crowded Streets and covers a wide berth: both Butch Taylor and Buddy Strong on keys, the Lovely Ladies (Tawatha Agee, Candice Anderson, Sharon Bryant-Gallwey), and a panoply of auxiliary musicians including some notable names, including the one and only Luis Conte on percussion.]
With Come Tomorrow, however, it’s as if Dave made the decision to stand proud and say “this is who we are now, and we’re happy with it.” And, as far as I can tell, the band agrees and is equally enthusiastic. In fact, the best way I can really describe it is that I see 2018’s DMB as meaning Dave Matthews’s Band instead of (the) Dave Matthews Band. While still a group effort, I get the impression that Dave is more comfortable providing some sort of direction than in the past. Something I’ve noticed in interviews this summer is that he regularly refers to “my band.” While not the first time he’s said it, I didn’t notice that as much in the past. (Perhaps he said it often and it didn’t catch my attention.) And that’s not to say it’s meant at all negatively. Not at all. But it’s different from “our band” or “the band.”
This may seem like a recipe for a real mixed bag on stage: one near-founding member gone, Dave taking control, and the addition of a new touring member (and what I assume to be full-time member) in keyboardist Buddy Strong. But after seeing three shows on this summer’s tour and listening to others in addition to it, I can safely say two things about Dave Matthews Band in 2018:
– This is the BEST the band has sounded live in AT LEAST a decade, if not more.
– It’s obvious that the band members are having a lot of fun playing together this year.
As an ensemble, the band sounds great. Not once during any of the shows I attended did I remotely miss Boyd’s playing or any of his musical parts. Beyond that, Buddy Strong fits nicely into the band—always felt, even if not explicitly heard. And Tim Reynolds has dialed back the sonic onslaught. He still shreds when required, but when he’s playing rhythm guitar it’s in the background, which wasn’t always the case in recent years. It’s a nice mix of ’90s Tim and early ’10s Tim.
As a quick example regarding much of what’s mentioned above, take DMB’s cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” one version from 2008 and another from this summer (where I was dancing in the audience).
2008’s “Sledgehammer” with overpowering electric guitar and a superfluous Tinsley at Mile High Music Festival:
2018’s “Sledgehammer” at SPAC:
What’s more, the band members are having fun. I’ve heard Dave say as much onstage and in interviews more times this summer than I have in probably the last decade combined. Not that they’ve been dourly going through the motions in years past. But between cutting loose the dead weight (Boyd Tinsley), bringing in some fresh blood with Buddy Strong, and the focus and clarity involved with incorporating the new album’s songs and arrangements into the rotation, it’s a recipe for success that has worked swimmingly this year.
The onstage enthusiasm around Strong is palpable and reminiscent of that around Jeff Coffin’s joining (despite the tragic consequences that caused it), and also that of Rashawn Ross.
As with any change, there are members of the fan community griping about Strong’s addition, Tinsley’s departure, the band’s sound, etc. I have copious thoughts on those complaints, but it’s not worth wasting the time on it here. Suffice it to say that there’s only one direction to go: forward. Miles Davis wasn’t playing “Autumn Leaves” and “Four” in the seventies and eighties; John Coltrane eventually stopped playing “Blue Train”; and Radiohead likely won’t be playing Pablo Honey front-to-back anytime soon. Artists will grow and evolve, for the better or worse. I’m pleased with where things are headed musically with DMB in 2018 and beyond. While Come Tomorrow won’t knock Crash off its pedestal anytime soon, what it signals is certainly reassuring to this longtime fan.
It took many years, but I’m finally taking the plunge into the technological end of my music-making. Aside from my microphone and associated accessories, I’ve been removed from—if not accidentally averse—to wires and whatnot. I’m always with someone who’s more adept at working the effects, sounds, and PA. A near-luddite, it seems, I just plug in, blow, and move my fingers. Sure, I’ve done a lot of recording (mostly scratch demo work) at home, but it’s a far cry from anything covered in my music technology coursework from years past.
The times are changing, indeed.
After months, if not years, of musing about working with recording and effects on my own, I finally took the plunge a couple months back and got Ableton Live. My learning curve has been steep, a bit frustrating, but overall quite fun. It’s also been a lot of new information to take in. Latency, new hardware, etc. For a while, I felt like I was doing more reading and researching than tinkering and experimenting. It’s been quite the humbling remedial independent study in music technology, but nonetheless enjoyable.
My goal is twofold: to have a more sophisticated and listenable home recording setup, and to eventually perform with live effects. The latter has a ways to go, but the former is coming along nicely. The rabbit hole is endless, and I’ll of course set my limits, otherwise I’ll accomplish nothing while in search of more and better everything. But as of now, I’m glad to have gone down this road. As with improvising and now with tech, it’s refreshing to completely start at zero and see what happens…
Boyd Tinsley is stepping back from Dave Matthews Band. The violinist, backing vocalist, and near-founding member and his fiddle are part of the band’s trademark image and (original) sound.
Not much is known, as it was announced by Tinsley himself in a short and somewhat cryptic series of tweets Friday night:
Oddly, as of the time of this posting (midday Saturday, the day after) there’s been no announcement from DMB as a whole or management.*
I certainly have my own ideas, and my own reactions. Selfishly, I’m pleased. Very much so. A quick survey of social media confirms my feeling that I’m in the smallest of minorities among the die-hard fanbase. As I wrote here, Tinsley has been fulfilling an increasingly diminished role onstage—and even on record—for well over a decade. As I wrote in 2014:
Throughout this whole process and for reasons unknown to me (though I do have my theories), violinist Boyd Tinsley has fulfilled an increasingly diminished onstage role. While at The Gorge in 2009 or 2010, a friend even turned to me and asked, “Where’s Boyd?” He used to be a prominent and fiery soloist, but now he gets maybe two solos per show, and what solos he gets have occasionally been shortened (e.g., the end of “Seek Up” on this summer’s tour). On top of that, he’s often buried in the mix. I see him up there, but I rarely hear him during full-band moments. Musically and technically, though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my eyes. He’s easily become the band’s weak link over the last decade, as he’s obviously rested on his laurels. Personally, given how he’s played the last several years, I’m not lonely for his playing. And that’s truly a shame, because he has been known to rip it in the past…
In the years since, this has become even more apparent. Aside from one or two minutes-long solos over the course of a three-hour show, Tinsley largely stands off to the side or plays superfluous parts that can rarely be heard in the mix. And that’s not a bad thing, as he’s sounded bad for years. Out of tune and just generally “off.” Even with the vocals. For example, he couldn’t be bothered to nail his few words of rhyme—his only “lead” vocal part of the evening—on “I Did It” during this rendition at The Gorge in 2010:
Woof. I was in the audience and was embarrassed for him. I saw him try again a few days later in Houston. (If I remember correctly, a roadie scrambled out and taped the lyrics to his monitor beforehand.) While he recovered overall, Dave helped him with a cue at the beginning and he still barely finished in time:
Out of sentimental nostalgia, I do find it genuinely sad. One founding member died in 2008, and now another leaves in 2018. It’s certainly not the same unit I fell in love with in ’96. That said, the current band is certainly not the same ensemble musically or aesthetically as it was in 2008 or 1998 or 1994. I’ve gone through that elsewhere and don’t have the time to rehash those reasons now.
In short, though, this is just the next step in the natural evolution of this band. What began as an acoustic-based rock band with saxophone and fiddle and no lead guitar has become an electrified rock band with a defined horn section and occasional auxiliary fiddle. If continuing along that course, it was only a matter of time until the violin was completely jettisoned. With Away From the World being more of a Dave Matthews record than a Dave Matthews Band record, and new songs since having little functional need for a melodic violin lead, this isn’t out of left field.
One of my immediate reactions was that I didn’t purchase enough tickets for this summer. I’m already going to Buffalo, Toronto, and two nights of Saratoga. Now I feel like I should hit Cleveland too. Perhaps I’m being too bullish, but with the band’s weak link gone, I’m confident that the group will sound the best it has in years.
I wonder how this aligns with the impending album that’s due out this year. Is Boyd on it? If so, how much? Apparently he was greatly diminished in the 2018 calendar that was sent out to some weeks back. (I didn’t opt for one, but read about it today.)
The announcement itself and manner in which it was done is shocking, but the departure isn’t. Again, I don’t know the specific reason for Tinsley leaving in early 2018. I thought it’d eventually happen, but was clueless as to how or when. Tinsley’s announcement implied needing a break for health and family reasons, and just needing a break. Of course, if that’s the case, why did he spend all of 2017 touring with and promoting his other band Crystal Garden while DMB took the year off? One thought I had was that Tinsley has been swept up in the #MeToo fiasco. (Pure speculation on my part…I’m not basing that on anything or making an accusation.) Or maybe he was outright fired by the band as a whole. That certainly wouldn’t be unjustified if so. (I’ve often thought during a show, How does everyone else on stage feel about Boyd getting paid the same for doing so little?.)
Anyway, murkiness abounds. I won’t go on and on with the speculations. I’m just here to say that if Tinsley is indeed gone, I—a die-hard fan with over two decades of investment into the band and its music—welcome it. (The tour won’t start for months. Perhaps he’ll come back into the fold beforehand.) The band will sound great. Well, the band already sounds great. But now the weak link is gone. No ho-hum few minutes of out-of-tune pentatonic scales. Just solid, steady jams all around.
I’m sure that this comes off as much more negative overall than it really is. I have many great memories of Tinsley’s playing, and solos and songs that I love to listen to over and over. In fact, Tinsley is one of the reasons that Listener Supported is my favorite live album—fine fiddle solos and melodies, and a solid rendition of “True Reflections.” But that was recorded in 1999, and he’s not been bringing much to the table for years. And if the band is to continue progressing, I don’t see how Tinsley’s involved without some serious time in the woodshed.
Bring on the tour. I’m ready.
*UPDATE: Of course, within a half hour of my posting this, the band releases an official statement. However, it does as much to raise questions as it does to answer them:
Last year’s Das Rheingold not only started this new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which will culminate in three full cycles in the spring of 2020, but it also symbolized a break from the past. Whereas 2005’s cycle featured marquee names in signature roles (most notably James Morris as Wotan, and also Jane Eaglen as Brünnhilde), this 2016-2020 production is visually rich and centered around two marquee names in newer roles, Eric Owens as Wotan in a role debut and Christine Goerke hitting her stride as Brünnhilde. (I saw her in Canadian Opera Company’s Götterdämmerung in February, in which she commanded the stage. Ain Anger, who portrayed Hunding in Die Walküre, gave a masterful performance as Hagen in that same Götterdämmerung.) This is also director David Pountney‘s first full cycle, and he is accompanied by the late Johan Engels—carried on by his successor Robert Innes Hopkins—and costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, lighting designer Fabrice Kebour, and choreographer Denni Sayers. The production has traded stark minimalism for captivating sets and costumes that fill up every inch of stage and bar of music—even during the vorspiels, some sort of action is occurring to propel the story forward.
Pountney, Engels et al. put together a visually compelling production. There is some continuity with Das Rheingold that I’ll now expect to see in some fashion in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, namely the aspect of making some of the stagehands characters themselves, thereby acknowledging that this is a theatrical work through and through. Also, whereas the gods in Das Rheingold dressed as eighteenth-century patricians, they now appear as nineteenth-century aristocracy in Die Walküre. Which makes sense, considering that we’re now at least a generation removed from the events of Das Rheingold. The contrast in color throughout, coupled with the attention to detail for both costumes and set design, makes for a vivid presentation. This is perhaps most apparent in the third act, with the red Valkyries against the set’s whites, blacks, and grays. (The hues, though bold in contrast, are themselves worn, suggesting that the Valkyries have been at this a while.) But other acts and scenes also made their marks: Hunding’s pale quarters giving way to the warm and sensually bright springtime of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love; Fricka’s red dress and Wotan’s white coat against Valhalla’s austere hall; Loge’s consuming fire. The contrast in color becomes more apparent in each successive act.
And the acting! Generally, even when the score, libretto, and set design work well together on the opera stage, what passes for “acting” often has a much lower bar. This production, however, has the right mix of personnel and direction. Movements were often organic. Perhaps a subtle facial tick from Goerke’s Brünnhilde or Tanja Ariane Baumgartner‘s Fricka (a role she continued from Das Rheingold) as opposed to grand gesture, or the passionate caressing between Elisabeth Strid‘s Sieglinde and Brandon Jovanovich‘s Siegmund instead of the more typical glacial embrace. The hypnotic, almost desperate love between the Wälsung twins was believable, which only amplified their high passions and low grief. As a viewer, I nearly felt as if I were witnessing private moments between them.
In a similar vein to Das Rheingold, Pountney’s conceit here is less of a Regietheater-esque reinterpretation than one of a theatrical telling of the “original” story—or at least largely staying out of the way in order for you to come to your own interpretive conclusions. The twist, though, is that, as an audience member, you’re not watching and listening to a story so much as you are watching a story being told (likely decades ago). The stagehands-as-characters—moving sets, operating spotlights, etc.—is critical to this. Also welcome is the fact that the production is self-aware enough to not take itself too seriously. When the spotlight instantly shone on Nothung in the ash tree for the first time, it’s as if the production team did it with their tongues firmly in cheek. And, though I won’t spoil it, Loge’s in-person appearance hours later had a similar effect without intruding on the drama too much. Dare I say that it’s a fun production of Die Walküre? All I know is that the audience laughed with the production far more than I had expected.
Pountney and other members of the team have made reference to Henrik Ibsen in discussions of any sort of approach or interpretive framework, citing “intimate relationships within a family” as well as the feminist leanings of A Doll’s House. Given that, I’d be remiss to not at least briefly address the viewing experience in November 2017. This tale of romantic, familial, and power politics rife with emotional and sometimes physical abuse is particularly resonant right now, given that every news cycle is now saturated with what hopefully becomes a necessary, though grievously belated, reckoning regarding sexual harassment and abuse as well as skewed gender dynamics in general.
After I left the theater I read Anthony Tommasini’s review in the New York Times, an overall positive assessment that otherwise chides Pountney for Hunding’s literally chaining Sieglinde to the ash tree running through his home, arguing that her captivity was more emotional than literal. (As a general rule, I try to avoid all reviews beforehand.) I disagree. It not only restricted her movements, making for an interesting staging device, but it made painfully obvious that Sieglinde isn’t just in a loveless marriage with Hunding, but rather she is his slave for all intents and purposes. (Nothing wrong with beating that point home with a sledgehammer.) In a way, this is similar to the Valkyries being scolded by their father Wotan in Act III. Within minutes, the Valkyries regress from triumphant warrior-goddesses with weapons and horses to disobedient schoolgirls being reprimanded while seated in comically small chairs, all while Wotan—seemingly all-powerful father and god, but ultimately just a man behind his own curtain—scolds them from Valhalla above. The visual infantilization was powerful. This context creates extra resonance for the most threatening and insulting remark over the course of the work: when Wotan tells his favorite daughter Brünnhilde that she will submit to a husband and honor his will. Goerke’s reaction was clear; she may as well be chained to a tree like her half-sister Sieglinde.
The vocal roster was superb and delivered powerful performances across the board. Owens’s Wotan was richer and more powerful than in last year’s Das Rheingold. And Goerke’s Brünnhilde was youthful and energetic, and a definite contrast to her portrayal in Canadian Opera Company’s Götterdämmerung—a Brünnhilde that is older, wiser, and vengeful. (And apparently Goerke was fighting a cold Tuesday night. She sure fooled us!) Both Jovanovich’s Siegmund and Strid’s Sieglinde were lyrical across the full emotional spectrum, and I followed them wherever they led. Anger’s Hunding was dark and oppressive to great effect, whereas Baumgartner’s Fricka was guarded and vulnerable. And then the Valkyries1…whew! There were a couple moments in which I couldn’t believe just how mightily big those warrior-singers could get.
Sir Andrew Davis led the Lyric Opera Orchestra through a rousing performance, and I was struck by just how well the voices and orchestra blended with one another. So many graceful transitions of melodic lines throughout. It was sometimes difficult to tell where an instrument would end and a voice would begin. Tuesday’s performance marked Davis’s 30th anniversary since he first stood at Lyric’s podium, and he marked the occasion with a strong, moving delivery.
A few performances remain through November 30th. Don’t wait until 2020 to see this production of Die Walküre for the first time.
1. Despite an illness and understudy being announced twice before the performance, I regret to write that I know neither which vocalist was ill nor her replacement. (Neither did the gentleman sitting next to me, as we immediately tried clarifying with another.) That said, the official casting includes: Whitney Morrison as Gerhilde, Alexandra LoBianco as Helmwige, Laura Wilde as Ortlinde (and Freia in this cycle’s Das Rheingold), Catherine Martin as Waltraute, Deborah Nansteel as Siegrune, Lindsay Ammann as Rossweisse (and Flosshilde in this cycle’s Das Rheingold), Zanda Švēde as Grimgerde, and Lauren Decker as Schwertleite.↩