Monday, June 20, 2011


Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Reviewed by James Karas

Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Metropolitan Opera is quickly becoming legendary. It is a high tech affair by an extraordinarily talented director from who a great deal was expected. The Met has invested huge amounts of money and was expecting superlatives over and above “most expensive.”

The superlatives for the cost were unanimous but were mingled with some unflattering adjectives when it came to the production. But the excitement generated by the name of the director, the fact of the new production alone and some high tech glitches have guaranteed plenty of publicity. Das Rheingold opened the Live in HD season last October and Die Walkure was shown in movie theatres around the world on May 14 with a repeat showing on June 18, 2011. I am reviewing the latter showing.

The production stars Director Robert Lepage and Conductor James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Opinions about Lepage’s work will inevitably vary but no one can argue about the monumental music making of Levine and the Orchestra. Wagner treated his operas as integrated orchestral and vocal works and no number of outstanding singers can do Wagner justice without a great orchestra. Levine delivers.

As one would expect, the Met has assembled a stellar cast of singers to deliver the goods on its investment in the new Ring. Soprano Deborah Voigt leads the cast as a superb Brunnhilde, Wotan’s favourite daughter. Voigt has an amazing dramatic voice and her debut in the role is triumphal. One advantage of seeing the production on the big screen is that you can see the defiance in Brunnhilde’s eyes when Wotan orders her to kill Siegmund.

Die Walkure opens with a recognition scene and an extended love duet where Siegmund (Jonas Kaufmann) and Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) discover that they are siblings and fall in love – yes, incestuous love. But when you are listening to Kaufmann’s powerful tenor voice and the Westbroek’s marvelous soprano voice, the details of their parentage seem insignificant. Sieglinde’s husband Hunding (Hans-Peter König) is a well-fed man who should be a little more threatening than he appears in this production.

Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel has morphed nicely from Mozartian to Wagnerian. His eye-patched Wotan displays both power and tenderness (vocally and emotionally) in a fine performance. He has to put up with the nagging Fricka but he does not hide under the table as Wotan did in another production.

The supersized nag of a wife is sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. Water is supposed to be (I think) the only universal solvent. When you see this Fricka, you will agree that nagging should be considered another such agent. Fricka is a law-and-order bitch who drives Wotan crazy and there may be a study out there that the dammerung of the götter came about from nagging.

And speaking of encounters that can drive you to distraction let us say a few damning words about the moronic direction for the HD broadcast by Gary Halvorson. His ambition seems to be to make sure that we barely get a glimpse of the effect that people at Lincoln Center enjoy. He keeps shifting camera views and angles, going in for close-ups and successfully wrecking the whole production for movie theatre viewers.

In the opening scene, Siegmund and Sieglinde are supposed to be in Hunding’s hut in the forest. There is an indication of a tree trunk in the center and some planks in front of them. I think I glimpsed planks above them suggesting a shack but Halvosron stuck to close-ups and you never got much sense of where these people are. Much of the time we see them singing with a dark background

Act III of Die Walkure opens with the famous Ride of the Valkyries, brisk music accompanied by the girlish shouts of Hoyoyho! and Heiaha. They are riding airborne horses and carrying dead bodies. Even the Met which never shies away from putting horses and donkeys on stage does not attempt to reproduce the Valkyrie cavalry.

Lepage’s production has a large number of planks (they look like deck boards to me) that can be moved in every way imaginable. In this scene, the Valkyries are “riding” a plank each which bops up and down giving the impression of riding a horse. It is a very effective scene, if only we could see it.

If that were the only scene he wrecked, it would hardly be worth a mention. He wrecks most of the opera for viewers around the world.

The best way to watch the production may be with your eyes closed where you get orchestral and vocal splendor. Open your eyes occasionally to glimpse at what is happening, but do not let the travesty on the screen wreck your evening.

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