In performance: "Rheingold Curse"
Precursor of the "Ring": Bagby, Sequentia bring Icelandic saga to life
by Joan Reinthaler
Heroes and heroines, magic, greed and revenge are the stuff of the myths of Northern Europe handed down through the ages, first through storytelling and song and only later through the written word. They became almost part of the genetic make-up of Wagner and Tolkien, who recast them in the garb of 19th- and 20th-century sensibilities. What Benjamin Bagby and his remarkable early-music group, Sequentia, have sought to do with their “The Rheingold Curse” is to place one set of myths, in this case the Icelandic Eddic accounts of the curse of the gold ring, back in its own 8th-century culture and to bring the audience along with them.
The music alone, as offered on the CD that’s been out for several years, is interesting for its somber and repetitive vocal intensity that occasionally erupts into weirdness and for the sounds, mostly delicate but sometimes wild and strident, of its few instruments. But the live performance they brought to the Library of Congress on Thursday was spellbinding.
(read more after the jump)
On a stage that remained in near darkness throughout (and with a large screen behind the performers that displayed translations of the ancient Icelandic texts), the five musicians assumed various roles and moved ritualistically to tell their stories. Bagby narrated, sometimes in song and sometimes in recitation but always sonorously and with supreme dignity. He took on all the male roles, Loki and Fafnir, Sigurd and Gunnar and the rest of the giants, dwarfs, scoundrels and heroes that populate this tale of revenge, and accompanied himself on a 6-string lyre.
Agnethe Christensen and Lena Susanne Norin as Brynhild and Gudrun sang with a straight vibratoless chest-tone power that conveyed astonishing subtleties of emotion, and Elizabeth Gaver’s fiddle and Norbert Rodenkirchen’s flute (made from a swan’s bone) were ideal partners.
The music for this endeavor is Bagby’s best guess about what those early storytellers sang. It is a guess informed by years of scholarship and, with the power of the legends and of the performances, it went a long way toward transporting a 21st-century audience back, if briefly, to the dark fears of the 8th century.
— Joan Reinthaler
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