Siegfried at the Met: Old swords in new forges

 The third installment of Robert Lepage’s new Ring cycle planted itself on the Met stage last night. This was the first of the three that I have seen live (I saw Walküre in a movie theater), and I am a little confused as to how so many computer screensavers projected onto a spinning picket fence help tell the story. And Lepage doesn’t really seem to have any idea of how to stage Wagner’s music as opposed to the words. But musical values were very good. That’s life at the Met.

Wagner, Siegfried. Metropolitan Opera, 10/27/2011. New production premiere directed by Robert Lepage with sets by Carl Fillion, costumes by François St-Aubin, lighting by Etienne Boucher, video by Pedro Pires. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Bryn Terfel (Wanderer), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Eric Owens (Alberich), Hans-Peter König (Fafner), Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Mojca Erdmann (Forest Bird), Patricia Bardon (Erda).

As you probably have read elsewhere, the entire cycle works on a unit set known as the Machine. A narrow raked apron downstage is backed by a trench, where much of the action happens with really wonky sight lines. Above the trench hover a line of gigantic slats that spin on a horizontal axis into various configurations. The apron and slats are smooth light gray metal and serve as a surface for various video projections, the trench is black. Supposedly some of the video projections used 3-D technology this time around, but from my seat in the Family Circle and lack of previous shows to compare to I didn’t notice anything. The design has a central dissonance. The costumes, projected images (trees, a mountain landscape, a waterfall) and set pieces placed in the trench area are all raggedly naturalistic, with rough surfaces and earth tones. It’s a look similar to the old Otto Schenk production that this one replaces. But the Schenk was at least uniform: the set covered the whole stage and was similarly craggy. Here, the Machine and its surroundings are all smooth and clean futurism, cool black and gray and sharp edges. It’s a weird melange that for lack of any unifying idea makes everything look unfinished and oddly antiseptic. There’s no aura.

The undercooked visuals are symptomatic of the project’s larger lack of a plan. The Machine can’t move at many speeds, and the projections are often busily flitting away with waterfalls and fire and such, and both seem oblivious to the motion of the music–as does Lepage’s work with singers, as when Siegfried bounded onstage to Mime’s motive at the beginning of Act 2. Overall, there is no real suggestion of what the Ring could possibly be about, just a bunch of grunge band types standing still and singing. (According to this story in Opera News, the non-static parts of Act 1 of Walküre came only thanks to direct intervention by Jonas Kaufmann and James Levine. I don’t even know what to say to that.)

We see some intervening time pass during the prelude, including a rather unpleasant implication for Mime that I’ve already considered. Mime’s workshop in Act 1 is placed in the Machine’s trench, and it’s mighty cramped down there, with little blocking to speak of (and Lepage’s penchant for realism doesn’t extend to giving Siegfried tongs to hold his sword–which still produces steam when thrust into a projected pool of water–apparently heroes can handle very hot objects). Act 2 finds the Machine doing a forest act, and, yes, the bird is a projection. Fafner is a snake-like dragon who is not very mobile. Act 3 was plagued with groans from the Machine during some very delicate music, as well as some crashes and yelling from backstage. We switch from the Nature Images screensaver to the vague outer-spacey one my MacBook calls Flurry. Erda emerges as a cool mirrored fin de siècle type dress, which kind of doesn’t go with anything except the Machine, and Wotan inexplicably gets a giant yoga mat with runes on it. The final scene I found the most effective from a staging perspective, as the machine works best when it turns a bit less realistic, showing fire on the sides and mountain in the middle.

Fabio Luisi’s conducting (deputizing for again-injured Levine) owed more to the aesthetic of the Machine than the costumes. Luisi is great at bringing clarity and order to these monster scores, fishing out out details and keeping everything totally together while remaining very singer-friendly. But in this performance I found his work too brisk and controlled and efficient at first, and not exciting enough. (His tempos are significantly faster than Levine’s.) The orchestra’s sound was impeccable, but lacked weight and intensity. Luckily they seemed to gain momentum over the course of the evening. The Forest Murmurs were lovely, and the horn solos excellent.

The production suffered an even later replacement in Jay Hunter Morris’s Siegfried, who only joined the production last week. He sang a lyrical Siegfried unusually, amazingly beautifully, with strong and pleasant tone and consistent musicality, not really running out of steam until the final scene. Thanks to Luisi’s sensitive conducting, he was rarely drowned out (except for his entrance), but unfortunately the voice is ultimately too small to have enough presence and heft to really score in the heroic moments of the role. The first half of the Forging Song (the melting portion) was taken at an
unusually slow tempo, and he did not have the necessary exuberance. This was perhaps a necessary trade-off for his sensitivity elsewhere, and in all not a bad compromise. He’s a very energetic stage presence, though his characterization was unsurprisingly generalized (and I was watching this from the very distant Family Circle, remember).

Bryn Terfel’s Wanderer was less resonant and plummy than his Wotan in Walküre, sometimes sounding shouty, but his command of the text and music was tremendous and moving, despite being burdened with the costume from hell. Gerhard Siegel was a more sweetly sung Mime than most, lacking the hard nasal edge that you usually hear in this role. It sounded much nicer than usual, but in a production that didn’t give the role a clear profile ended up a little bland. Eric Owens was a cavernous marvel as Alberich, though he and Terfel sounded awfully similar in their short scene. Hans-Peter König was also very loud and deep as Fafner. Patricia Bardon sang with feeling as Erda, but the role seems a strain for her. Mojca Erdmann sang the Woodbird with a very wide vibrato and mushy German.

Deborah Voigt went in and out as Brünnhilde, getting off to a strong start with “Heil dir, Sonne!” Unfortunately after that her voice sounded extremely uneven, with wobbles in the lower and shrieks in the extreme upper areas. A few notes around the top of the staff are still very strong, and she’s loud, but this was not good. I am a little worried about her Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde.

But as for the whole cycle, well, I don’t think there’s much hope at this point. I must say that I’m really looking forward to Andreas Kriegenburg and Kent Nagano’s cycle in Munich, though, which I will hopefully be seeing next summer.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met Opera.

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  1. Interestingly, Jay Hunter Morris was also brought in as a last-minute Siegfried replacement at the SF Opera Ring this last summer. Without a doubt he does sing beautifully, but throughout there seemed to be a fundamental satisfaction level that he was never able to reach. At SF his entrance at the premiere was also drowned out, and the Forging Song was slow and kind of really quiet. I'll try to catch it if there's a movie theatre encore, but I'll be OK if I miss it.

  2. Jay Hunter Morris was the most un German Siegfried I've ever seen and heard. I don't think there has been enough time to do some serious pronunciation coaching. It didn't sound German at all. His acting is sitcomish.
    Debby Voight has the same pronunciation problems, which in her case is even more unacceptable.
    Mime was just fantastic!!

  3. To my opinion Stephen Gould is the ultimate "Siegfried" – I attended the performance at the Vienna State Opera yesterday and he was just amazing. The singing can not be topped and his acting was also perfect. Gould will sing Siegfried (and Götterdämmerung) in one of the Ring Cicles at the MET -strongest recommendation!

  4. I usually like Lepage, but this whole cycle has left me wondering what on earth he was thinking (or drinking, for that matter). I've only seen the first two, and I have no real inclination to see the rest. As for the Machine, something that requires the stage to be specially fortified because of its weight is not good stagecraft. It's reminiscent of the time when the original MGM Grand was opening, and they commissioned John Decuir (who art directed, among other things, the film version of CAMELOT) to design a stage show celebrating MGM's film history. One of the numbers was supposed to be an homage to the Olympic swimmer turned actress (whose name I'm sorry I've forgotten). Decuir designed this mammoth tank, weighing several tons when filled with water. It rolled out onto the stage, crashed through, blew out the hotel's entire elevator system, and threw back the hotel's opening by six months.

    The Machine strikes me as yet another manifestation of that unfortunate lack of what's theatre and what's not.

  5. I wonder if opera is entering a new era with the proliferation of video/live HD broadcasts reaching millions. For decades there has been an understanding that screen and stage might favor different actors and different styles, and opera might be forced to the same distinctions. When I saw the Ring live (80's in SF) I detested the opera Siegfried and said I would skip Siegfried in all future cycles. A thuggish, often brutal, unthinking hero is just too much to take for 4+ hours and it struck me that the singing I've heard on disk or video is just as one-dimensional. JHM managed to change my mind about the opera with his nuanced portrayal of a confused boy who was trying to find himself and his place in the world. His singing in the radio and HD broadcasts was beautiful, and so insightful that it made me love this opera for the very first time. I've never heard him live. I love opera in the opera house, but more and more I now do video. Why not acknowledge that different voices and skill sets are going to shine when the medium is different? This could bring many more fans to opera, and that is desperately needed these days.