Why do we still want to see and hear the Ring? It’s not because of the dwarfs, the spells, the sword, or the gold. The Ring includes an unfair quantity of the greatest music ever written, and it’s expressing something a lot more profound and ambiguous than the novelty of seeing a dude in a bear suit. We want the Ring because in it we can hear love and rage and hope and evil amplified into the most glorious, mysterious sound. This is something Robert Lepage never seems to have grasped in his Met Ring Cycle.
To quote the First Norn, “ein wüstes Gesicht wirrt mir wüthend den Sinn.” Götterdämmerung is the weakest link of Lepage’s cycle. If there was redemption in this final performance of the Met’s Cycle 2, it was through the talent and hard work of the performers.
Wagner, Götterdämmerung. Met Opera Ring Cycle 2, 5/3/2012. Production by Robert Lepage, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Katarina Dalayman (Brünnhilde), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Iain Paterson (Gunther), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Gutrune), Hans-Peter König (Hagen), Karen Cargill (Waltraute), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich), Maria Radner (First Norn), Elizabeth Bishop (Second Norn), Heidi Melton (Third Norn).
If you take the Ring literally, it’s pretty silly. So much of it’s supernatural, the causality of some events can be muddled (the Ring ends up back in the Rhine, so why does the Götterdämmerung proceed apace anyway?), there are a few weird plot holes (dead Siegfried shooing Hagen away from the Ring), and all sorts of other ridiculousnesses. Of course you can “solve” these problems–but in the larger picture to take the Ring so literally is idiotic. It’s myth, and it functions on a symbolic level and speaks to us in terms more ambiguous and timeless than the specific events that are being portrayed.
Robert Lepage, for all his talk of “fantasy,” has given us the expected, the swords and breastplates that confine the story to a picturesque storybook. The Machine dwarfs the singers and imposes its overwhelmingly simplistic scene-setting upon every moment. The characters, the emotion, and music that carries them all seems like an afterthought, because we have mountains to look at here, dammit. The Machine does not open up possibilities but preclude them, it threatens to make bland and tame all it touches.
Lepage reaches new heights of vacuity in each act of this Götterdämmerung. First the Norns stand still as the Machine wiggles. Then Brünnhilde incomprehensibly enters from the opposite side of the stage as Siegfried and equally incomprehensibly wields Nothung. This leads to nonsensical character work in Act 1 (Hagen and Gunther and Gutrune are just one big happy family… wait, what?), and then Hagen delivers his entire monologue sitting still in a chair. I suppose he could be sitting still with menace. But really, he’s not.
That seems minor compared to the problems of Act 2. It begins with the Hagen-Alberich scene in which Hagen remains still behind a big shield that looks like a speaker’s podium. We had a last-minute replacement Alberich, Richard Paul Fink (not pictured), and I was sure he was just wandering onstage in his street clothes. It turns out he was in fact wearing the costume–minus, of course, Eric Owens’s hair (pictured above on the left) (which on Fink would have been a disaster far greater than Frank van Aken sporting Jonas Kaufmann’s hair last weekend was). It’s just not the most inspired costume design, suggesting Alberich has spent his spare time away from the world of the rest of the production, perhaps becoming a new music conductor.
Later, the conspiracy trio involves a pair of angled chairs (seen above) that look like a setup for William Berger to ask Jay Hunter Morris a few more questions about working in roller skate rental, and the act concludes with a small crowd of vassals waving teeny streamers and creating a traffic jam near the undersized stage left exit to the flurry of smash-bang triumphant-scary music (sorry, Wagnerian German inspires such collocations).
But the end of the opera remains the worst thing (skipping over the scene where the Rhinemaidens slide down the wall, climb back up it, and slide down again ad infinitum*). Siegfried’s pyre flickers meekly and slowly trundles upstage, Brünnhilde gets on Grane (props to Katarina Dalayman for managing this by herself with relative grace, an improvement over being lifted into place as seen earlier) and follows, and the machine rotates to enact a transformation to the Rhine. Hagen briefly runs after the Rhinemaidens, ending in a freeze-frame with his arm stretched back as if poised to grab them, but he doesn’t do so and they hold this for several seconds and then all slowly descend on an elevator. We get a lot of visible stagehands apparently helping the statues of the gods to gently crumble, as if centuries are passing seen through a time-lapse camera. An inglorious end to an infuriating project.
It may have been promoted as the Wagner Event of the Century (and I can’t blame the Met for doing this, they have to sell their tickets), but it’s best treated as a revival of a 20-year old production to which each singer brings their own strengths and weaknesses. When I managed to forget the hulking mass of the Machine and concentrate on the performers, I enjoyed it the most. This means to give up hopes of a unified dramatic conception, but there has never been one here. Forget Lepage, take and leave each individual performance for what it offers. (This is not a Gesamtkunstwerk.)
Katarina Dalayman was a noble Brünnhilde of considerable dramatic stature and power. Her voice remains shrill and uncontrolled at the top, but her presence and vivid way with the music had grown considerably since Walküre. Her raw emotion was the only thing worth watching in the big betrothal scene, and her Immolation had a generosity and large-scale expression that almost made the silliness around her recede. I wish I could understand her German better, but I feel like she knows what she’s saying even if her diction isn’t that great.
Jay Hunter Morris had a more successful evening than at the premiere. He got off to a scratchy start in the Prologue, but warmed up to his customary bright and clean singing (though skipping the C). He never has the power to really fill the house, but paced himself extremely well and was still sounding fresh through the torturous death scene. He has a likeable, friendly presence, and Siegfried is hardly a complex character, but I could use more acting-wise in the final scene. (If one can ever ask for that without being very nasty. It’s a hard thing to sing, to say the least.) I hope he can next work on this interpretation somewhere in Europe where he’ll be singing in a smaller house and get some good direction.
Karen Cargill had big shoes to fill replacing Waltraud Meier as Waltraute, but if she isn’t Meier’s rival in textual insight (who is?) her giant chocolately voice was a considerable pleasure. Iain Paterson is an interesting Gunther, aware and frustrated but resigned to his status as a beta male, and a fine singer of this rather thankless role. Hans-Peter König’s Hagen is an enigma: astonishingly well sung with an enormous, black bass, but so utterly lacking in menace that he might as well be Baron Ochs. In the remaining roles, Wendy Bryn Harmer kept up her duties in the Help! Help! fach, Heidi Melton’s Third Norn is the great Wagner soprano of the future, and the Rhinemaidens were less shrill and more evenly balanced than before. The chorus was excellent.
I’ve run out of words to describe Fabio Luisi’s conducting. It’s competent, fluent, perfectly sufficient and at most points falls a bit short of being profound. The brass didn’t have the best night, but I’ve heard far worse.
The Ring is so special, even a mediocre Götterdämmerung has the power to leave you sort of a mess at the end, but still I can’t picture myself going to see this production again in a hurry. It’s too distancing, too boring, too ugly. With a major stroke of casting genius–Christian Thielemann or Nina Stemme come to mind–we’d talk, but when it comes to next year’s line-up I don’t think I’ll be alone in giving it a miss.
I went back to see the first thing I wrote about this Ring. It was this:
I am a Robert Lepage skeptic. He seems more interested in creating
images than narrative, and more taken with gadgets than characters. And
a Ring Cycle without an overarching sense of narrative would be
dire. This will be an important moment for the Met, and let’s hope that
it turns out well. As if that weren’t enough, add a complicated set, a
very fragile conductor, and a dangerous number of unreliable and/or
role-debuting singers and you have… enormous potential for backstage
I’m putting the Wagner back on the shelf for now but not for long. I’ll be returning to the Ring in July for the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Cycle B.
*Also in this stretch: Gunther washes Siegfried’s blood in the Rhine, turning a large part of the Machine red. This reminded me of the end of Herheim’s Bayreuth Parsifal in reverse, but I really doubt Lepage has seen it.