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Saturday July 14, 2012

LENOX -- If you know opera, you know Wagner's "Ring" Cycle. You might also know that it's based on a medieval Icelandic saga, the "Edda." But have you ever read the "Edda" or -- better yet -- heard it performed as it might have been performed by bards and troubadours in an ancient castle?

Tanglewood turned back the clock Thursday night with a performance of "The Rheingold Curse," described as "a Germanic Saga of Greed and Revenge" from the "Edda." Benjamin Bagby and four members of his Paris-based medieval music ensemble Sequentia sang, played and enacted the 85-minute reconstruction in the un-castle-like setting of Ozawa Hall.

Is this how bards and troubadours would actually have presented the gory tale of stolen gold before nobles, knights and their ladies relaxing after a day of slaying dragons and enemies in battle?

Bagby claims only to have made a close approximation from the original poems. The original music was probably never written down and in any case has been lost to history. In its place, Bagby invented a kind of singsong vocal style -- sometimes sounding like medieval chant, sometimes like Beijing Opera -- based on researches into pockets of old folk music in Europe.

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"The Rheingold Curse" is a fascinating exercise. But unlike Bagby's one-man presentation of the old English epic "Beowulf" two years ago, the curse saga has a kind of distancing effect on the listener.


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Beowulf, though a fearsome warrior, came across as a sympathetic human. All these greedy, bloodthirsty back-stabbers and keening widows seem to exist on a purely mythic level, neither godlike nor human.

It was left to Wagner to turn the story into a gripping drama of gods and humans. But then, Wagner didn't work directly from the "Edda." He used an intermediate text, the "Nibelungenlied" -- itself 800 years old -- as his primary source.

The points of similarity and difference between "Edda" and Wagner were one of the intriguing aspects of the performance. The stories roughly parallel each other, but perhaps most strikingly, there is no doomed god Wotan in the "Edda," though Odinn is evoked many times. (Did Wagner think of himself as Wotan?)

The principal female character is not Brynhild (Brünnhilde in Wagner), but Gudrun (Gutrune). Gudrun, who mourns Sigurd (Siegfried) along with Brynhild, avenges her treacherous brothers for his slaying by putting them to death.

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Bagby has gone beyond the saga to enclose it in "Edda" tales of the creation, destruction and rebirth of the world. Some of this is hinted at in Wagner's destruction of Valhalla, but here it is so explicit that any reader of the Bible will recognize that the same creation story from pre-Christian Iceland.

Musically, the presentation alternated between narration, passages sung by Brynhild and Gudrun, and instrumental interludes on flutes, harps and a fiddle. The narration was delivered in Icelandic, with English subtitles, in a sonorous, highly inflected baritone by Bagby, who accompanied himself on a six-stringed harp.

"Listen!" the voice of Brynhild commands at the start. "Do you want to hear more?" Gudrun asks at the conclusion, after bodies have been heaped high on the funeral pyre.

Yes. Perhaps the world can be created anew, and better.