Since 2010 I’ve been reading nothing but horror being heaped upon the Met’s new Ring. It’s been like a cross between a cruise ship size buffet spread of internet snarking and a slasher film recast with music critics. I was actually feeling sympathy for Robert Lepage and Peter Gelb.
I cut my teeth on the Chéreau Ring when it was televised when I was high school, loved the last Met production because it is was über-traditional and saw Achim Freyer’s staging here in Los Angeles with everyone wearing clown makeup and reduced to Brechtian archetypes. I thought it was genius, baby
I knew I would love this new Met Ring too; after all, Cirque du Soleil put up their first tent here in my hometown of Santa Monica. I think their psychedelic mash-up of music and design and circus performers is as close as the general public will ever get to performance art. I followed the development of the “Machine” on the Met website. I couldn’t wait to see the whole thing but ended up actually having to finally see it on Blu-ray. Besides, what do all those spoiled, fancy people in New York know anyhow? On the difference between good and bad?
Apparently, quite a lot.
Now, Lepage isn’t the first person to take a look at Richard Wagner’s opus profundis and decide to throw a big machine at it. Josef Svoboda had his magic car garage lift at Covent Garden in the 70’s. Peter Hall put a huge layer of the globe on hydraulic pivots at Bayreuth in the 80’s to fairly amazing effect.
But the Machine presents its own set of problems because it’s never utilized in a uniform fashion. It has some magical moments, don’t get me wrong. The very first image in Rheingold with the undulating horizon representing the river, the descent into Nibelheim, the way it morphs into a thicket of trees in Walkure, even the Act I set up in Siegfried.
But, for all of those, there’s the Walkure rock/glacier which really isn’t as iconic as it endeavors to be. By the end of Siegfried, with its overlay of 3D technology, I was thinking that it would have been better just to light it up in solid colors and abstracts shapes. Then we get Götterdämmerung and the Norns and the Hall of the Gibichungs and we’re literally spiralling out of control. The other problem is that anytime someone has a spotlight trained on them the nearby background is just a dull gray reflective surface, for hours and hours and hours..
All of this computer animation wedded to the video game programs that track movement just result in the pebbles on the floor of the Rhine sliding, clouds stirring in the wake of striding Gods and leaves on the forest floor in Siegfreid leaping about like they’re enchanted when stepped on.
Then, to top it off, everything is lighting up like a pair of kids’ sneakers. The gold lights up. When Friea is captured the Gods start lighting up like Hasbro action figures to show their energy draining. There’s a prop Nothung for the finale of the forging scene that’s illuminated on one side. The ring is a cheap cereal box toy. Supers walked on with torches in Götterdämmerung and it was surprising to see real fire.
Duracell is making a fortune on this show. I hope they had the good sense to merchandise all this stuff in the Met Gift Shop next to a kiosk of AA batteries. “Mama, I want lighting up Fricka and Wotan, Pleeeeease!”
M. Lepage’s biggest problem is that in order to install the Machine he’s bisected the Met stage and left himself a blocking area equivalent to a large runway during fashion week. The singers love it, however, because the Machine serves as a vocal sounding board like no other.
Then, with all this mountainous technology at his disposal we get the most flaccid representation of Fafner the dragon ever. I’ve seen inflatable Halloween store displays that were scarier. They should have called in the Jim Henson people. Total and complete fail. And don’t even get me started on the Woodbird.
Conversely, for all its failures on a scenic level, this might be one of the best sung Rings we’ve heard in a very long time. Unhappily, all that lovely vocalism emerges from the vicinity of costumes by Francois St-Aubin that are so heinously derivative they nearly scupper the entire project. Take Eric Owens as Alberich, I can’t recall ever having heard someone with a truly beautiful voice sing this part. If only he weren’t wearing a Hefty Bag with a zipper. Stephanie Blythe is formidable even if she is enthroned for all of Walküre like a Disney Villainess. What are the Rheinmaidens made up as, I ask? What’s with all the fishnet? Wait, I think I just answered my own question.
Jonas Kaufmann gives an amazing performance as Siegmund. He’s a tower of strength throughout Act I up to his very last line which defeats almost every tenor I’ve heard. He never puts a foot wrong for the whole performance. But, St-Aubin has this low-riding sash around his waist that makes it appear as if he has a potbelly. You have to work to make Kaufmann look bad. As his sister Eva-Maria Westbroek certainly isn’t going to erase the plush memories I have of some other Sieglindes but she’s well matched and brings the big line when it’s called for. By the way, they’re related by a wig. Like, they’re both wearing the same style in the same color. With some Walsungs it can be hard to tell but not this pair.
Despite a magnificent voice, the husky Hans Peter König as Fafner/Hunding/Hagen looks too much like Snuggles the Fabric Softener Bear to inspire any real dread. Which leads me to yet another question: what is it with all the bad guys in this production having dreadlocks? Are we racial profiling in Valhalla now?
Gerhard Siegel is a magnificent Mime and he gets a creepy staged prologue in Siegfried that I thought was one of the great original ideas in this production.
I actually felt sorry for Waltraud Meier (Waltraute) having to walk out on the Met stage in her Walküre get up like the Folies Bergère is doing a Wagner number. She doesn’t deserve that and she’s wasted on a production this slight..
Iain Patterson, who’s definitely brewing a Wotan, plays Gunther like Paul Henreid’s evil twin and makes it work while poor Wendy Bryn Harmer does triple duty as Freia/Ortlinde/ Gutrune and, in spite of a lovely voice, gets the absolute worst costume of the entire cycle in Gotterdammerung. This getup, which looks like a losing entry in the Zsa Zsa Gabor Queen of Outer Space evening gown competition, proves once and for all that, 1980s music videos notwithstanding, you can’t accessorize a lace bodysuit with a steel breastplate.
Jay Hunter Morris could be our great white hope (literally) as Siegfried. His tenor has a good cutting edge and he has the stamina. He’s certainly sincere even if he comes off a tad shallow but, that works in his favor considering the character he’s playing. I’d love to see him, and all of these singers, in a production with some strong direction. The fact that he’s garbed like a refugee from a Def Leppard concert circa 1982 doesn’t help matters.
Bryn Terfel’s Wotan in the Rheingold and Walküre are known entities but his Wanderer in Siegfried was his first and I find it his strongest performance of the three. It’s a great pleasure to hear his voice in this role even if he is dressed up like Merlin in a bus and truck Camelot. Certainly more baritone than basso, his essentially lyric instrument is still beautifully produced more than twenty years into his career, a major upgrade from the Bayreuth bark we get from the average Wotan.
I can’t say his characterization leaves an indelible impression on the role, but he manages a fatherly mien, plays mystical in Siegfried and avoids overt imperiousness. He also manages some absolutely stunning piano singing. If only someone could get him to stop projecting out of one side of his mouth.
Which brings us to our Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt. Strangely, Gotterdammerung finds her in the best shape vocally and she delivers her surest performance there. I don’t know if it’s experience in the role or she was having a good night, or maybe the tessitura just sits better for her. The Immolation is credibly well sung. The voice was never really plangent on the bottom and that hasn’t changed.
Walküre is the weakest because her support just doesn’t seem constant and the lunges above the staff are more obvious. Her German sounds a little too precious to my ear and dramatically she doesn’t come close to developing the nobility that I wanted. Especially during the last act of Walküre where, if you turn off the subtitles, she looks like Dad is denying her prom tickets. Points though for singing the final moments from Grane’s back. Our Debbie is game.
Conducting duties are split evenly between James Levine and Fabio Luisi and although such baton-passing is less than ideal, they do compliment each other. Levine seems to have mellowed his forged from granite emphatic style for a slightly more transparent reading in the first two operas and Luisi follows suit. All the big set pieces are given their due although I find Luisi less compelling at times, especially in the longueurs of Siegfried. The Met Orchestra certainly knows what it’s doing.
Picture and sound on the Blu-ray are sharp. The sound is especially vivid and all the voices are extremely well balanced with the orchestra. I turned off the monitor a few times and it almost sounded like a studio recording. Gary Halvorson is the video director and there are a number of times where he really should have pulled all the way back and let the wide shot speak with the music.
At some of the big climaxes he’s stuck in a two shot or closer and it inhibits the theatrical effect. The beginning of “Winterstürme” and “Siegfried’s Funeral March” are two egregious examples of this. Also, there are moments when he zooms in for a closeup that reveals projections are bleeding onto the singers faces and it just make you think something’s seriously wrong with your television.
Each opera is fitted onto a single disc with no perceptible layer change which might be the greatest technical achievement mentioned here. You also get the documentary Wagner’s Dream as a bonus when you buy the whole set so you’ll be clear about who to blame when you’re through with the cycle.
We all know there are far more psychologically compelling versions out there but far fewer that attempt a traditional perspective on this work. It’s up to personal taste as far as the staging goes but musically these performances are very, very strong.
Photo: Ken Howard