The Met Ring on PBS, plus Wagner docs on YouTube

Just in case you haven’t heard/seen/read enough about the Met’s new Ring cycle, those with American TV can take the whole thing in again on PBS this week. The fun starts with the documentary Wagner’s Dream [of the Planks of Doom] on Monday, September 9, and then actually starts with Rheingold on Tuesday. Do not adjust your television: it actually looks like that. James Levine and Fabio Luisi split conducting duties.

I wrote far too much about this thing when I saw it live, relive the magic here.

(A critic recently told me that he hopes he will never have to write another word about this cycle ever again. I have to agree.)

If you’d like to see something more stimulating, consider the classic Boulez/Chéreau Ring, if you haven’t seen it. You might also consider Harry Kupfer and Daniel Barenboim’s excellent production, Kasper Holten’s intelligent Copenhagen Ring, or the spotty but frequently brilliant Stuttgart Ring, split between four directors (Peter Konwitschny’s Götterdämmerung in particular is unmissable). Unfortunately, last time I checked none of them were on Netflix. Try your local library, or if you’ve got the money some of these aren’t as expensive as you might think.

On your local YouTubes you can watch two fascinating documentaries on the Ring cycle that have nothing to do with Lepage. The below video contains both: the first concerns the Chéreau Ring, the second, Sing Faster, shows the staging of the Ring at the San Francisco Opera. Both are super awesome and feature excellent vintage hairdos.

Sorry about the lack of blogging. There hasn’t been much going on in New York, and I’ve been so busy with work I haven’t been creative about finding other things to write about. See you soon.

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Götterdämmerung: Zu End’ ewiges Wissen, and other endings

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

To which I say this.

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.

PREVIOUSLY in order of appearance:
HD broadcast, Die Walküre
Siegfried prima
Götterdämmerung prima
Cycle 2 Das Rheingold 
Cycle 2 Die Walküre
A few more photos, all © Ken Howard/Met:


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Die Walküre: Stories twice told

I fear writing this much about the Met’s still-unfolding Ring cycle may be having a bad effect on my brain, but I went to Die Walküre on Saturday and here’s what happened. The production is still simple-minded, Bryn Terfel is still the best, Fabio Luisi is still Fabio Luisi, Jonas Kaufmann canceled, and I continue to learn what makes Wagner special by seeing what has been drained out of this production.

Wagner, Die Walküre. Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle 2, 4/28/2012. Production by Robert Lepage, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Katarina Dalayman (Brünnhilde), Frank van Aken (Siegmund), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Hans-Peter König (Hunding).

At MIT last week, Peter Gelb said that Robert Lepage intended to “tell the story that Wagner wrote” in his Ring. But what story is that? Lepage seemed to describe it as Icelandic myth, but the sources are actually much more diverse than that. Das Rheingold is largely Icelandic, but much of Die Walküre is based on the Völsungsaga, which is Nordic or Central European, and is a source for the Nibelungenlied, the Germanic source for Götterdämmerung. And that’s a vast simplification.

You might say that doesn’t matter: what matters is what Wagner put together. But this collage of myths, and the instability and “live-ness” of oral transmission is imprinted upon the Ring. Again and again, characters tell us, and themselves, and each other, stories–Loge and Wotan in Rheingold, Wotan in Walküre, and Siegfried in Götterdämmerung are a few of the most prominent examples. These long scenes are often considered dramatic dead zones, but they’re very very important. We learn important new information in each one, the listening characters make decisions, and the characters learn things themselves as they narrate (Wotan realizes why he has to let Siegmund die or Siegfried gradually regaining his memory, for example). The Ring’s story is not linear or even a grid but a shifting, perilous web (the Norns).

That’s why I found Lepage’s conception of the machine as a shifting ground of Iceland symbolically intriguing–but seemingly in a very different way than did Lepage himself. For Lepage, the myths are a return to childlike simplicity, “fantasy,” and picturesque images. Inserting film to illustrate a long and potentially dull narrative passage is a “mixture of media,” but the problem is that it flattens the act of narration itself The video doesn’t “echo” or “magnify” the performer as Lepage suggested, it transforms them from being a subjective, live presence to a neutral voiceover narrator illustrating a story given authority by its visualization.

I think this is one reason why the staging feels so spiritually empty. No one has their own story to tell, nor the imperative to speak it. They are just pawns in the service of a mechanical Machine that will very insistently help them relay their material in a homogenous way–here the most egregious incidents being a film during Siegmund’s biography and a giant eye with shifting images helping us get through Wotan’s Act 2 monologue. Lepage’s Ring seeks to be mythic while operating on terms antithetical to myth.

I’m sorry if my review hooks are getting abstract (abstraction being, in Gelb’s mind, a mortal sin), but it’s becoming pretty difficult to come up with new stuff to say about this thing, and since I now have seen the whole cycle I can consider the big picture a bit.

But I guess we should talk about this Walküre. I have to say that this was the first time the prelude reminded me of this. OK, that was a gratuitous comparison but I think there is some truth to it. The orchestra sounded much refreshed after a messy Makropulos the previous night (probably a different crew). Somewhat to my surprise I liked Luisi’s flowing, lyrical approach to the farewell and Magic Fire, which had a welcome luminosity. But along with the quiet first act came an intelligently-paced but lightweight Todesverkündigung.

Lepage doesn’t have too many ideas of how to use the Machine here–it is essentially a glorified projection screen, though it does flip Brünnhilde (a double who was unconvincing even from the Family Circle) upside down onto her mountain at the end. The rest I think I’ve already covered in my previous piece on this staging, when I saw the HD broadcast.

Out of the disappointment of a Jonas Kaufmann cancellation as Siegmund, the Met pulled off a publicity coup by hiring Frank van Aken as a replacement. Van Aken, you see, is soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek (singing Sieglinde)’s husband. He is perfectly qualified, but evidently had very little rehearsal time and had never sung at the Met before. He showed some signs of being a fine artist with good phrasing and diction and a sensitive characterization (and good rapport with his wife), but it soon became apparent that his voice wasn’t backing him up and he was up against more than he could handle. Luisi kept the orchestra down, but he was still difficult to hear, and sounded congested and wobbly when audible, and a few entrances were early. The Todesverkündigung contained a number of near cracks, one, with tragic irony, on “Helden.”

His death fall–I don’t blame him for this, but I have to describe it because it was kind of hilarious–missed the spotlight by a good four feet and he managed to kick his way stage left before croaking. Good instincts, though I missed that heartbreaking father-son recognition moment that was my favorite bit of the HD last season. The only other major blooper was Wotan’s spear, which made a beeline for the pit at one point but stopped rolling just short. While I’m at this I would also like to suggest to Sieglinde that clutching a large fragment of Nothung around the edges of the blade is not the most convincing thing ever.

I remain a great fan of Bryn Terfel’s Wotan. He can sometimes turn blustery–more Bayreuth Bark than bel canto–but he really sings it when required, and has such dramatic concentration and intensity, and such clarity with the words that the narrative sections are unusually transfixing. He seemed quite on the energetic side of things at this performance, and as far as I’m concerned walked off with the show.

Katarina Dalayman replaced Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde in this cycle (no photos were available, these show Voigt). She is not quite commanding onstage, and her high notes are screechy and unreliable. But I found much to appreciate in her performance. Her middle voice is substantial and attractive, and while her German diction isn’t the best she still conveys the meaning of the text. And she has a clear dramatic conception of the role, and filled in the pause button moments of the staging with engaging acting. Brünnhilde’s entrance in the Todesverkündigung (yes I will mention this scene a few more times, it’s my favorite) is one of the worst flubs of the cycle: to incredibly ominous and dramatic music, she walks up some escape stairs stage right. But once she arrived, Dalayman made much of Brünnhilde’s conflicted feelings, eventually composing herself into valkyrie mode. She also really listened to Wotan in the monologues.

Eva-Maria Westbroek is a wonderful Sieglinde, with a sincere, natural and passionate stage presence. She can really fill the theater with her voice, which has a beautiful glow to it (though the highest notes can spread). Hans-Peter König luckily has a role in most of these operas, and his imposing bass is perfect for Hunding, though his rather avuncular presence is not. Stephanie Blythe was again a very loud and not very specific Fricka.

The other surprise highlight of the performance was a fantastic bunch of Valkyries, without a single wobble among them, giving the clearest rendition of the Ride that I’ve heard live. I suspect several of them could be great Brünnhildes. The staging of them sliding down the planks of the Machine, however, verges on the embarrassing. As does, to be honest, this entire cycle in a house that aspires to be a home for art.

I’m coming to terms with the fact that should Kaufmann show up for the final performance I’m going to be seeing this again. As for the rest of Cycle 2, I’m skipping Siegfried (almost the same cast as when I saw it in the fall), but I’ll be at Götterdämmerung on Thursday.

PREVIOUSLY in order of appearance:
HD broadcast, Die Walküre
Siegfried prima
Götterdämmerung prima
Cycle 2 Das Rheingold 

All photos © Ken Howard/Met.

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Das Rheingold at the Met: Verflucht sei dieser Ring

It was the best of Lepage, it was the worst of Lepage. Last night’s Das Rheingold, opening the Met’s second Ring cycle, featured a good deal of impressive singing, intermittently exciting conducting, and a production that is the least consistent and yet in some ways also most impressive of his Ring.

Wagner, Das Rheingold. Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle 2, 4/26/12. Production by Robert Lepage, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Eric Owens (Alberich), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Adam Klein (Loge), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt), Hans-Peter König (Fafner), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Patricia Bardon (Erda).

Das Rheingold largely consists of lengthy spans of chatty exposition broken up by major set pieces. Dramatic action and character development are sparser than in the rest of the Ring. Robert Lepage’s theatrical language in this cycle mostly rests on the power of striking, static images, so perhaps it is the installment most suited to him. In addition, this was the first of the operas to be staged, and one gets the feeling that the Machine was built with many of these moments in mind. The big tricks in Rheingold--the descent to Nibelheim, the Rainbow Bridge, the giant snake, the arrival of the giants–feature much more creative use of the set than any of the glorified projection screen of later installments. Some of the effects seem like a lot of effort for relatively little payoff, such as the giant hammock Freia is dumped into to be covered with gold. But I can understand why the Met has been constantly promoting the cycle with the image of the machine forming a descending staircase down to Nibelheim, because it’s the most exciting image of the cycle so far.

But Lepage has real trouble getting in and out of these effects. He starts with the Rhinemaidens up vertically against the wall of the set, swimming like mermaids. So far so good, but to get this he has confined them to mermaid tails, and for the rest of the performance they struggle to move around the set at the speed the music seems to demand, their arms or rather legs literally tied. Elsewhere the work is clumsy: when the Tarnhelm reacquired its laundry basket mid-scene, my first thought was, oh, the toad is going to go in there. And so it did. It’s lazy stagecraft. And the staging of the talkier parts is hopelessly static. In extended solo passages, a spotlight tends to warm up and the other characters are cast into darkness, never listening or reacting (we don’t see Alberich as the Rhinemaidens salute the gold, nor do we see Wotan while Loge goes on). This performance was seemingly free of technical glitches, though the groans and wheezes of the Machine still disturbed throughout.

Lepage has had the nerve to blame the audience for his cycle’s lack of success–apparently we care too much about the music. But he should be reading the score so we don’t have to, and there’s little evidence he has. When the words stop and the orchestra begins to prattle for a bit, as often happens in Wagner, the staging seems to hit a pause button, and no one does anything until they start singing words again. Why not look at a score, then, you aren’t going to be missing anything.

Singing-wise this was an impressive evening. My favorite thing about these performances so far has been Bryn Terfel’s Wotan. He has both the vocal weight and the dramatic understanding to tell the story with his voice alone–which is what he needs to do because the visuals aren’t helping any. (His costume, along with those of all the other gods and to be honest everybody, is heinous plastic-looking armor and 1980’s hair band coiffure. This production recalls the Parton rule: it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.)

Just to note, subtleties may have escaped me because I was standing in the Family Circle.

Stephanie Blythe made mighty sounds as Fricka, but I wish she did more with the words. Eric Owens’s Alberich was somewhere in between Terfel and Blythe in terms of textual specificity, and his powerful bass-baritone makes one of the biggest impressions as Alberich. Hyphen-Ated Namig duo Hans-Peter König and Franz-Josef Selig as Fafner and Fasolt were also monumental, this performance more or less belonged to those on the lower sector of the vocal ranges. Cover Adam Klein went on as Loge (the originally-scheduled and really great Stefan Margita was ill). I’m not sure if Klein’s thick tenor is ideally suited to this role, and he lacked an element of humor, but it was an accurate, confident, and consistent performance.

The Rhinemaidens were fine, particularly Tamara Mumford’s Flosshilde, and Wendy Bryn Harmer did her usual duty as Freia. Like her previous turns as Gutrune, and as Emma in Khovanshchina, it mostly requires crying “Help! Help!” on bright Fs and Gs, and that she can do. When she’s ready to leave the Help Help Fach she’ll be a good Sieglinde someday. I’m not sure if Erda is quite right for Patricia Bardon, whose tangy mezzo (didn’t sound contralto-ish, at least) was a little lightweight.

Fabio Luisi’s conducting, I don’t know. Like the staging, sometimes he would get things cooking, the Wotan-Alberich stuff at the beginning of Scene 4 in particular was great. But for me he’s short on perspective and depth. I never felt like some things are closer while others are further away, nor that the music is a kaleidoscope whose images shift suddenly as it is turned. Luisi is sleek, elegant, and very linear. And ultimately kind of boring and lacking in personality. The orchestra played cleanly (only a few minor bobbles in the Vorspiel), and the brass had a welcome edge, though the strings seemed hesitant to do anything too enthusiastic.

In this production you can see glimmers of what Lepage’s Ring was promised to be: a spectacular literalist staging on an elaborate unit set. But outside a few spectacles the storytelling is so lazily and badly executed that it fails to make us care what those images portray. Does Lepage even care?

Cycle 2’s Die Walküre is on Saturday.
Photos © Ken Howard/Met.

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The Met’s Götterdämmerung: This is how the world ends

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?

Götterdämmerung continues in February and will be presented with full cycles in April.

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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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Lepage’s Siegfried and baby thievery

Not Lepage (Parsifal in Bayreuth)

Later I’ll have much more on last night’s premiere of Siegfried from the Met. But I wanted to deal with one point independently, because if I explained it fully in my real review it would hijack the whole post.

In Robert Lepage’s new production, we see Mime find the infant Siegfried during the Prelude. He sneaks up on the dying Sieglinde, grabs her baby, and runs off. (Please correct me if I missed something here, I was in the Family Circle and it was dimly lit. But that’s what I saw. It was quick.) This directly contradicts his later accounts of Siegfried’s birth, where he says Sieglinde also gave him the pieces of Nothung the sword and told him to name the baby Siegfried (and also presumably the identity of Siegmund, which Mime does not tell Siegfried). OK, Mime is plausibly an unreliable narrator and found those things out in other ways. But Lepage never does anything else to show or explore the implications that Mime is lying when he is talking to Siegfried about his birth, it’s left hanging.

But much more severe is the implication that Mime is not an accidental adoptive father but rather a baby snatcher. The character of Mime is already a locus of several topoi of antisemitism: greediness, a whining voice, a hunched walk. The idea of Jews stealing (Christian) babies is part of blood libel (a short history of the term is here), the accusation that Jews will use their blood in some ritual, historically one of the nastiest myths of anti-Semites. I may be hyper-aware of this particular idea because it was self-consciously presented by Stefan Herheim in his Bayreuth production of Parsifal. Kundry, dressed as a nurse, steals the baby Parsifal from his mother Herzeleide (see photo above).
I am honestly rather shocked that Lepage did this. There is no Get Out of Jail Free card when it comes to antisemitism and Wagner, you absolutely have to be aware of the issues and either avoid presenting racist stereotypes at all or clearly foreground them (as Herheim does above). (Following three sentences added later to clarify:) Lepage’s lack of dramturgical context makes the moment interpretively messy, but more grievously he replicates the dog whistle way that these topoi work. It seems like a random insertion if you aren’t familiar with the ideology, but if you know anything about the history of antisemitism you will make the association right away (Mime = Jew = bad). And I don’t think that this is an association that needs reviving.

I’m sure that this is cluelessness or naivité from a director who shows that he doesn’t know much about Wagner, but that no one else pointed it out is distressing.

Updated to add: my regular Siegfried piece is here.

More on the rest later today. Thanks to the Zwölftöner for his lecture on Mime and antisemitism when we saw Siegfried in Vienna last April.

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Die Walküre from the Met: Die Maschine ohne Ghost

I went to the Live from HD broadcast of Die Walküre on Saturday! For writing about this I recruited the help of NYC correspondent “Pélleas,” who saw it live. We chatted for a little while on Sunday. Or, a lot while. The Machine! James Levine, actually conducting! Valkyries falling on their asses! All right ahead!

Zerbinetta: Just to be really clear, I went to the broadcast on May 14 in Vienna in the romantic surroundings of the Donauzentrum shopping mall and you saw it live at the opera house in New York on…
Pélleas: April 28th. So, how did it come across in the film version? I saw the Rheingold movie broadcast and I must say that the whole effect of the planks worked much better in person.
Zerbinetta: Yeah, I hope so. (I didn’t see Rheingold at all.) Because it was really weak on the broadcast. It was all shot in closeup so you could only see the whole machine occasionally (when it did shit) and the rest of the time it basically looked like a really expensive projection screen.
Pélleas: The planks basically are an expensive projection screen, but during the couple of set piece moments that they have they can be very spectacular. I found their transformation from a snowy wasteland to a forrest of trees in the beginning very cool. And the bit with Brünnhilde being left on the mountain in her ring of fire was also really cool. That is, when you weren’t worried for the safety of the stunt double given the injury that happened because of The Machine earlier in the night (more about that later).

Zerbinetta: OH you were at THAT one. Anyway, I was very disappointed in the design work. It looked strangely unfinished, like there was the machine and nothing else. Projections always look bad close up but it seemed like they forgot to add any kind of texture or life to any of the stage pictures. Hunding’s table looked like it came from Ikea. Too many smooth flat surfaces. It was just all SO DAMN LITERAL and unimaginative. And not just the design.
Pélleas: Yep. I totally agree with you there. The only time they tried to give some sort of originality to anything it came off as really tacky. And there was basically no original psychological insight into any of the characters or the staging.
Zerbinetta: It was also very very static. Like the Ring I saw in Vienna in April didn’t have much insight either but at least everything kept moving pretty well.
Pélleas: About the accident, though. One of the valkyries took a hard landing sliding off of her horse. I didn’t see it, so I’m not sure how she landed, but I heard it. She either caught her leg in the stage at the end, or landed really hard on her butt. She exited the stage immediately, returned a couple of minutes later (to applause), and sang her part. But she didn’t appear at the curtain call. (Ed. note: she was OK.)
Zerbinetta: I thought the end really lost the emotional thread when Brünnhilde left the stage to be replaced by a double. You need that farewell ritual to be about the character.
Pélleas: A lot of people complained about that, but I didn’t really mind it. I was still emotionally invested in the scene, because the music was simply so beautiful, and the stunt double did a good job of imitating the way her body was slouched into Wotan.
Zerbinetta: The problem with the ending in the HD was they didn’t want to show the double close up to show that it was a double so the entire opera is in closeups and then HELLO wide angle!
Pélleas: Well, it’d be hard to get the majesty of the entire set if you did closeups. And that is the one moment where the set as a whole really shines.
Zerbinetta: The switch was disconcertingly abrupt. Didn’t go with the music. Especially when Levine’s magic fire was burning soooo slowly. So about the conducting. ????
Pélleas: Everyone was of course totally enthused that Levine was alive enough to conduct. I was generally extremely pleased with his conducting.
Zerbinetta: I liked bits of it but overall it felt kind of too slack, especially the really slow Act 2. Act 3 was majestic, though. Orchestra sounded good, though I suspect I am spoiled by Vienna. How was the balance between singers and orchestra?
Pélleas: It was generally very good. I didn’t have any trouble hearing any of the singers, and vocally it seemed to be a much better evening than the opening night performance that got reviewed. Westbroek was able to sing through the entire evening, and she was marvelous. Her final notes simply soared above the orchestra with such great volume and power, for such a long time. A.— and I looked to each other with grins on our faces. I think it was the vocal highlight of the evening.

Zerbinetta: I thought Westbroek sounded glorious, she has this shining and effortless tone that is just amazing and visceral. But she looked nervous and hesitant. Anna Nicole wasn’t a good use of her vocal talents, but it did show she can be a much better actress than she was as Sieglinde here. My biggest surprise was Terfel, I think. I’ve always thought of him as a bit of a fun ham, but this was really subtle and powerful and beautiful. Also his German and use of the text were just gorgeous. Usually I think Wotan is a big bore and I didn’t this time.
Pélleas: He was really great. He kept me emotionally engaged during his Act 2 monologue, which is one of my favorite parts of the opera, but one that is really easy to make boring. And the absolute disdain that he packed into his command to Hunding to die was chilling.
Zerbinetta: Yeah, but the staging of the fight was pathetic. Lots of people standing around.
Pélleas: Believe it or not, it actually came off as exciting live. But that’s because so much else was boring…. And let’s be honest, none of the singers were really required to act in this production. The emotional engagement they produced through their acting was really in spite of the production, not because of it.
Zerbinetta: I think the idea is that there’s a spectacular background for the singers to do their thing in front of, but really, you need more directorial interpretation get the Ring to hold together and get the singers to act together instead of independently. I think it’s lifted out of Chéreau but I loved when Siegmund recognized Wotan and then died in his arms at the very end of Act 2. Probably the only theatrical moment between two characters I thought was really emotionally genuine and touching.

Pélleas: If only we could bring in Freyer to explain the emotional/mythological resonances of these characters BETWEEN each other! A good example is Fricka’s scene with Wotan. She does a great job of projecting wounded power while asserting that her pride will never be completely killed (and Blythe was amazing as always) and Terfel did a great job of expressing his descent into madness and grief at that moment – seeing all of his plans unravel because of his own hubris and his need to obey his wife’s command. Both acted convincingly enough in that scene, but they were pretty much doing it independently of each other.
Zerbinetta: The lack of detailed direction really showed in the closeups. Everyone spent a lot more time looking towards Levine that they did at each other. Also, that awkward dinner scene in Act 1 with everyone sitting around the table giving each other side-eye including very avuncular Hunding and you couldn’t see them below the knees? Looked like a TV show to me. This TV show is super-dramatic, it puts the opera back in soap opera, and it is called “One Tree Sword.” Ratings, um, gold! Even against Eurovision. (I am still sad I missed Eurovision.)
Pélleas: Yeah, hated that staging. A.— tried to say that it made it more emotional when they declared their love for each other and they came out so you could see them below the knees, but I don’t buy it. At least Kaufmann seemed to not always be looking at Levine. And he was the one person to be constantly moving about, as if he actually was young and spry. And the hottness factor and great voice doesn’t hurt.
Zerbinetta: You are obviously aware that Jonas Kaufmann is the Bestest is one of the guiding principles of this blog. I liked him a lot, the Wälses weren’t actually that great but the lyrical parts were, dramatic but also subtle. And the Todesverkündigung was so beautiful. From him. Not so much from Voigt.
Pélleas: I found Voigt’s voice beautiful enough (and Jonas’s absolutely heartbreaking and thrilling). But it didn’t help that the WORST STAGING EVER happened during the annunciation of death.
Zerbinetta: It made me want to run home and watch shirtless Peter Hofmann and Gwyneth Jones on YouTube in the Chéreau. The horns at the beginning of that scene always give me chills. It is in fact my favorite scene in all of Wagner.
Pélleas: You can’t have a moment of such gravity be announced with Brunhilde simply WALKING onto the stage looking exactly as she had before. Even the drab and literal Schenk staging had her wear a cool warrior’s mask to give that scene some amount of gravitas.
Zerbinetta: I agree! Also, why didn’t Sieglinde wake up at some point considering how Siegmund was shaking her? This is a production that leads you towards silly literalism, because its terms are so literal. And yet its look is so unfinished plus the giant traditional costumes that if I were seeing it in Germany I would suspect some weak-ass Verfremdung was going on. But about Voigt: she was miles better than the Brünnhilde I saw in Vienna in April and I liked her sassiness, but I didn’t like her tonal color much, often sour below the top notes. And after the OK hojotoho her German was pretty bad and she didn’t put across the meaning of the text like Terfel and Kaufmann did (Blythe was also interpretively bland, I thought, but THAT SOUND). And there were a few moments wherein she grinned inappropriately when I thought she really needed a director to get her to put together the emotional beats more clearly.

Pélleas: A lot of the more intimate moments could have been much more emotional if thought had been given to him. I think Lepage recognized this and tried to do something interesting during the long monologues (Sigmund’s in Act I and Wotan’s in Act II), but his solution was to do more of his techno wizardry. For the record I disliked the shadow fight in Act I because it was so damn literal and liked the Eye of Color in Act II simply because it was less literal. Except when it mentioned the Ring and an image that was probably licensed from New Line popped up. As if we didn’t already know that Lord of the Rings and Wagner are the same thing.
Zerbinetta: But you had A.— with you, she could probably read the Elvish on the Ring (she is going to kill me if she reads this).
Pélleas: haha
Zerbinetta: Bechtolf did the shadow thing in much less elaborate fashion in Vienna’s Ring, in some of the same places even, and I thought the same thing. Doesn’t add anything, and distracts from the fact that the act of narration itself and the viewpoint of the narrator is a loaded concept in Wagner. Siegmund and Wotan’s stories aren’t neutral exposition. Neither director seemed to appreciate this (though there was the eye, implying some kind of viewpoint, oh damn, I’m just going to go back to Herheim while I still can), but Lepage has so many bells and whistles that it is less obvious that he has nothing to say and an equally simplistic view of the piece. My concern is that this staging has no soul. The Machine lacks a Ghost (yes I thought of that line partway through the show last night).
Pélleas: The only emotional investment is what each individual singer brings to the table. Which can sometimes be sufficient for individual scenes, but doesn’t lead to a sense of continuity across the opera(s). To be clear though, I left the opera house extremely happy and excited, as did A.—. Because the singing was almost uniformly excellent (or above par) the orchestra exciting, and the staging had some really exciting moments that can overshadow the drabness. But it’s like a contact high, when you think about it afterwards you realize there wasn’t really much there. Whereas with Freyer I was thinking for days or weeks afterwards and kept having fun doing so. I’m jealous of you for seeing the whole Freyer Ring btw. In case you didn’t already know that 😉
Zerbinetta: Freyer yes! As for Lepage I kind of had a similar reaction but more moderate (I guess because I didn’t get the big effects very well). The singing really was very good and the performers involving by sheer force of will. But all flash and little depth. More broadly, I guess that’s what bothers me most about the Met’s current artistic direction. It’s so anti-intellectual. I mean not everything has to be hard but they seem so unwilling to challenge audiences at all. (I’m saying this from the happy position of publicly funded Europe.)
Pélleas: I don’t think we’re going to be getting any Regie anytime soon unfortunately
Zerbinetta: Tchnerniakov is on Met Futures for Prince Igor! That’s hard-core Regie right there. Decker’s Traviata seemed to go well and that’s legit Regie. So I have some hope but mostly for imported productions.
Pélleas: But there’s also the option of genuinely beautiful. The Met’s staging of Tristan for example isn’t particularly difficult, but the austere set and props has a beautiful aesthetic that Lepage lacks, precisely because it doesn’t try to be literal.
Zerbinetta: There definitely is a place for genuinely beautiful austere productions. I just wish we could have a place for all sorts of productions that could co-exist happily like a little operatic We Are the World.
Pélleas: Just looking at Met Futures right now. They’re having LePage direct The Tempest??? mrrr
Zerbinetta: Apparently? I’m not a big Adès fan so I don’t really care too much to be honest. I’m mostly worried about the prominence of Bartlett Sher. I can’t stand Bartlett Sher
Pélleas: I LOVE Thomas Adès
Zerbinetta: I should listen to more Adès. I’ll try. Anna Nicole actually got me into Turnage. But I have to go and eat something before the Sellars show tonight. Is there anything we must say about Walküre that we have not said?
Pélleas: I don’t believe so. Enjoy Sellars & co!
Zerbinetta: Have a great afternoon over there.
Pélleas: I shall. talk to you soon!
Zerbinetta: ciao! (as they say, improbably, in German.)
Pélleas: wtf? silly Germans.

It occurred to me later that we left out an important factor: how will this staging age? In 10 years will the Met still be stuck with a Ring that looks like how Space Invaders looks to us now, only not so cutely retro? In my opinion, storytelling ages better than gadgets, but we’ll see.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met Opera.

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