If nothing else, I thought, Robert Lepage will know how to make things blow up real good. But the end of his Götterdämmerung last night just sort of fizzled out. Some flames and water were projected onto the now familiar planks, some wee statues crumbled. It was–complete with the misplaced hope that this had been a technical failure in lieu of a more spectacular effect, which it was not–an inglorious but apt ending to a project that always promised something more interesting than it delivered. Musically, things were much better, but the Ring reduced to literalism is a Ring enfeebled.
Wagner, Götterdämmerung. Metropolitan Opera, 1/27/2012. New production premiere directed by Robert Lepage, sets by Carl Fillion, costumes by François St-Aubin, lights by Etiene Boucher, video by Lionel Arnould. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Hans-Peter König (Hagen), Iain Paterson (Gunther), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Gutrune), Waltraud Meier (Waltraute), Eric Owens (Alberich)
From a design and mechanical perspective this is the strongest installment of the cycle (disclaimer: I have not yet seen Rheingold). The machine clanked a bit but not as much as in Siegfried, and the dreaded trench in the middle of the stage has finally been banished. The projections were less distractingly mobile and fussy. Lepage even seemed to be trying to make the singers move around more, particularly in Act 2. But the two central problems of the cycle remain: he tells the story through the set rather than through the characters, and his work is illustrative rather than interpretive. It was probably too late to do anything about those.
There weren’t any dumb shows or shadow plays to illustrate backstory in this installment, but the focus didn’t always shift to the storyteller. The Norns wove some giant ropes in the shape of a tree, aided by the Machine, and when they broke the Machine wiggled but the Norns themselves didn’t react physically at all, merely screaming “Es riß!” The only person who managed to overpower this narration problem was the indomitable Waltraud Meier as Waltraute, who was transfixing from her first moment to her last. You could see that she could see what she was narrating, and what she thought of it at each second. But I think that came from the previously well-established truth that Waltraud Meier is the Best, not from Lepage.
The production’s Personenregie failings were felt most acutely in the drama-prone House of Gibich, here represented by a projected wood backdrop and a big table. I should note that I was sitting in the Family Circle so some detail may have escaped me, but this was a very placid and bland bunch. Conventionally, Hagen is the evilest of evil, described by the chorus as “grimmer Hagen,” here he was a complete blank (and Gutrune, weirdly, seemed to really like him). I always have trouble caring about the Gibichungs, here where their affairs were so boring it was nearly impossible. They are not alone: Brünnhilde is severely underdirected in her wedding scene, seeming more mildly upset than traumatically outraged. Just because the direction is less static doesn’t mean it actually conveys dramatic meaning, unfortunately.
But the production is still filled with missteps small and large. One could just make a list. The projections make the geography of the fire mountain quite confusing. Why does Brünnhilde enter the Prologue with Nothung, and alone? (That’s Brünnhilde from Walküre, not Brünnhilde in Love.) Why does the action never seem to respond to the music? Why must so many entrances be made slowly and unceremoniously from the sides–the speed I assume is due to some stairs just offstage–which just isn’t dramatic. Waltraute needs to storm on, not stroll.
But the biggest problem is the Immolation. Here’s what happens. A funeral pyre of logs is built upstage. Brünnhilde lights it up and at the very end mounts her mechanical Grane (who reportedly closely resembles the horse of War Horse) and is rolled slowly towards it. The Machine rotates so we don’t see her burn, and the wall of planks is covered with projections of flames. These slowly give way to water so Hagen and the Rhinemaidens do the Zurück vom Ring bit.
Three Five very little statues of the gods, previously seen in the Hall of Gibich (these statues are mentioned in the libretto, I think) appear at the top of the Machine and crumble, an effect that would be put to shame by a provincial production of Samson et Dalila. (From the Family Circle, some stage crew people were visible at this point.) We are left with just the water for the final exchange between the Valhalla and Redemption Leitmotives. It’s a massively anticlimactic staging of the least anticlimactic ending in music. It’s impossible to live up to that music (see: Peter Konwitschny’s ending in his Stuttgart production). But how could you put in so little effort?
Of course the music tells the story, but the staging deflates it and reduces something symbolic to something childishly literal. Still, the musical performance had much to recommend it. Fabio Luisi is an excellent palate cleanser after years and years of Levine. Where the latter can be ponderous and thick, Luisi is lean and dramatically attentive. But I am beginning to think he’s more a rebound relationship than someone I want to marry, Wagner-wise. He gets truly wonderful and sometimes downright luminous playing from the orchestra, the balance is generally good, but I miss the raw excitement, intensity, and weight of other conductors. I actually wanted to hear the orchestra more, for them to be unleashed.
(I am, practically speaking, probably wishing for Christian Thielemann.)
Even the Funeral March was oddly restrained.
Deborah Voigt was in better voice than she had been for any of the previous installments, particularly in the Prologue. Her high notes can be lush, and her middle was more consistently supported this time around. Her German is incomprehensible, and she shows no attention to the text or much musical variety, but in terms of pure voice this was a great improvement. If only she had gotten some better direction in Act 2. Jay Hunter Morris is a very likeable Siegfried, and has a healthier and sweeter tone than many of his breed. His voice is rather small, and towards the end of Acts 2 and 3 showed considerable strain, but what Siegfrieds don’t? In these roles I think both Katarina Dalayman and Stephen Gould of later casts will be worth hearing.
Vocally, the star of the show was Hans-Peter König’s Hagen, whose enormous if not especially dark tone was by far the loudest thing going (rivaled only by Eric Owens’s Alberich, in a memorable duet). If only he had managed to create a character. Wendy Bryn Harmer was a good Gutrune with excellent high notes and the bright tone you usually associate with this role. Waltraud Meier was, as already mentioned, a force of nature as Waltraute, to an extent that you don’t care about her slightly drying voice. Iain Paterson was fine as Gunther, though the production doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. In the smaller roles, Heidi Melton was a marvelous Third Norn and certainly has a big career ahead of her, and Elizabeth Bishop and Maria Radner were excellent as the Second and First ones as well. The Rhinemaidens, however, sounded screechy and often failed to blend, possibly due to a strenuous staging of continuously climbing up and sliding an inclined Machine. The chorus sounded fantastic.
But for better or for worse, every opera performance is the sum of all its parts, a Gesamtkunstwerk of whatever ends up happening. And on that front Lepage badly disappoints, giving us little more than a literal, often clumsy and boring visualization of the story that speaks so simplistically that it tames the drama to literal representation. Music is evocative, and the Ring is magical because it suggests things larger and more powerful than itself, things larger and deeper than our ordinary lives. Lepage’s staging makes us ask, is this all there is?