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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Backdraft: The Musical

Solving the "Magic Fire" in Die Walküre
The Magic Fire scene from Die Walküre.
Drawing by Arthur Rackham,
© Dover Books/The Estate of Arthur Rackham.

One of the reasons for the enduring popularity of Die Walküre is the Magic Fire scene which ends the opera. The warrior maiden Brunnhilde is sentenced to punishment by her father Wotan. She is laid to sleep atop a rocky height, and surrounded with fire, a barrier which can only be crossed by the hero Siegfried.

The fire effect for this scene is not just a one-time thing. It's an integral plot point later in the Ring, appearing in Act III of Siegfried  and playing a key role in Act I of Götterdämmerung.

In other words, getting this right is crucial to a successful Ring, since the scene "sets the table" for the second part of the cycle. It's also a major headache for directors, who face the same challenge: How do you set the stage on fire, in a crowded theater and not burn the two biggest stars of the opera?

Here at the blog, it is safe to assume that for the Met's new Ring Cycle, Robert Lepage has come up with an ingenious, athletic solution that in some way involves the "Machine", the $16 million piece of computer-controlled stage equipment that serves as a unit set for all four operas.

Early efforts to create safe, realistic onstage flames either resulted in smoke (a good way of clearing an auditorium), or the crackle of burning alcohol, which interfered with Wagner's musical textures. So a good magic fire effect has to be visible, but ideally, inaudible. And igniting onstage fuel five minutes before dropping the curtain on the opera presents its own problems.

So here's how four productions of The Ring have tried to solve the Magic Fire scene:


Colored lights and smoke: Bayreuth, 1976. 
Donald McIntyre as Wotan. © 1982 Universal Classics


Smoke, colored lights, and little blowers with plastic "flames." 
This is the previous Met production. 
James Morris as Wotan. © 1989 Deutsche Grammophon


Nifty lasers, and Brunnhilde sleeping in a "burglar alarm cube." Bayreuth 1988.
 John Tomlinson as Wotan. © 1994 Teldec/Warner Brothers Classics

With
Dancers, torches, a boom lift and digital projections: Valencia, 2008.
Juha Uusitalo as Wotan. © 2009 Unitel Classics
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.