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.