What a pity that it is over—this spectacular production of Wagner’s 4-part opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which ended with a particularly triumphant Goetterdaemmerung.
Offered live-in-HD in more than 1,600 movie houses in 54 countries, this 6-hour production caused tremendous excitement not only because of the now famed innovative “Machine,” but because of the marvelously successful cast and the phenomenal rendition by the Met’s orchestra.
We lucky audience members (especially if we are “Wagnerites”) were able to savor the first two operas of the Ring in last year’s live-in-HD series. This served to whet our appetites for the culmination of the cycle this season. (In the spring two complete sets of the Ring will be performed at the Met.)
The 45-ton, hi-tech “Machine,” which earlier had its ups and downs, (no pun intended,) did not have its moveable planks misbehaving this time. It really paid off in advancing Goetterdaemmerung’s complicated plot and enhancing the impact of the drama via clever projections.
Wagner, the innovator of opera as an all-encompassing word-music-action-spectacle that he termed “Music Drama,” would undoubtedly have approved of, or at least have been very intrigued by this production by Director Robert Lepage.
When have we ever seen the river Rhein turn red when Gunther washes the blood off his hands after Siegfried’s murder? When have we been exposed to seeing the raft that carries the “hero” and Bruennhilde’s horse “Grane,” during the magnificent orchestral “Rhine Journey?” Heretofore, that musical interlude had to be played with the curtain down to permit the scene-change taking place behind it.
Wagner (1813-1883) initially envisioned all of this as a single opera Siegfried’s Death, but his conception evolved into a full-fledged version of the Teutonic saga that would span 26 years before its completion.
Oddly enough he finished the libretti first, writing them in reverse order. And after having composed Das Rheingold, Die Walkuere and two acts of Siegfried, he abandoned the work for the next twelve years, to enrich the world with Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger.
Luckily he returned to the monumental work, which in its 15-hour span, is universally acclaimed as an artistically unique, super achievement in Western culture.
The current production succeeds in perpetuating the acclaim. The conductor Fabio Luisi, who has taken the place of the ailing James Levine, drew a remarkable sound from the orchestra, the chorus and the talented cast. Several members of the audience told me they were moved to tears, simply overwhelmed.
Chicago’s Deborah Voigt, the spirited, now totally human “Bruennhilde,” gave a marvelously acted performance as the heroine cheated because of the saga’s (to me always) infuriating magic potions.
She thrilled us by elegantly vaulting onto the mechanical horse as she “rode off” onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre after a striking rendition of the Immolation Scene “aria.” By the way, the stylized horse is truly astonishing, almost believable.
The Texan tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who made his remarkable Met debut as a hurried “Siegfried” replacement in October, acquitted himself again as a very musically dependable “hero,” who surely looks the part!
Bass-baritone Iain Paterson, who comes from Scotland, was vocally and dramatically successful as the weak-livered “Gunther.” The role of his sister, the pretty “Gutrune” who weds the innocent but drugged-up “Siegfried,” was prettily sung by California soprano Wendy Bryn Hanrmer.
Germany’s powerhouse bass, Hans-Peter Koenig, gave a fabulously cynical reading/singing as the villain Hagen.
One of the very best performances was given by the ever-dependable Eric Owens, who hails from Philadelphia. This bass-baritone is gifted with a mellifluous voice that stands out no matter what role he attempts. Here he is cast as the apparition of “Alberich,” the cheated dwarf who started all the gold-seeking trouble in the first place.
A real bonus for us all was the casting of Germany’s Waltraud Meier as “Waltraute,” “Bruennhilde’s” still-winged sister, who tries to persuade her to give up the cursed ring to save the otherwise doomed gods.
Impressive vocally and physically were the three Norns and the delightfully costumed, equally well-voiced “Rhinemaidens,” splashing about in the almost believable Rhein. Everyone seemed typecast so we could accept the drama and let it wash over our senses.
My one severe criticism concerns the decidedly un-spectacular destruction of Valhalla and the demise of the gods, here portrayed by statues falling apart. This in the face of earlier having placed supposedly “real” statues in niches of Gunther and Gutrune’s castle to underscore its elegance.
Older Met productions handled the cataclysm and the return of the Ring to the Rhein far more effectively.
The intermissions this time were hosted by the soprano Patricia Racette. For once I found them intrusive, taking some of the glory out of the musical and emotional experience by letting us in on mundane technicalities.
It is a bit like the British royal family losing some of its divine-right mystery by permitting the TV cameras into the palace!
The quandary about separating Wagner’s enormous achievement from the monstrous human being he was, comes to the fore whenever his music is performed. The fact that he was the great favorite of Hitler, whose regime used the works to promote its villainous schemes, has forever poisoned our enjoyment. It takes effort to overcome that.
As Diana Glazer expressed it in Wunderkind or Monster: “Richard Wagner raises the philosophical, ethical question whether genius makes badness permissible in man…one thing is sure. Richard Wagner was a complex man whose music and whose ethics will amaze and intrigue audiences for years to come.”
Here are some remarks made by Westchestrites ardent enough to brave the threatening snow (that finally never arrived) on the day of this performance:
Bernice Millman of Scarsdale was hooked on the Ring by the splendid Patrice Chereau’s production telecast in 1980. She has since seen many of the cycles all over the world, including at Bayreuth. She professed enjoying this one immensely. “Everything was wonderful; the Hagen and Alberich performances ‘phenomenal.’ It has been such a pleasure watching Voigt evolve over the years.”
Jaqueline Schwab of Rye Brook termed it a “glorious production” with outstanding singers all around. She thought Goetterdaemmerung the best of the cycle. But she voiced disappointment in the staging of the end. “You could not visualize the truly meaningful destruction. It reminded me of the frequently aired TV commercial in which a movie director yells ‘more, more’ when the explosion of a ship does not appear spectacular enough.” She said her husband Jay felt the same. (Hah! See my remarks above!)
Noemi Robbinson of Yonkers thought this one of the best performances of Goetterdaemmerung the Met has done. “It may not be fair, to make the judgment that every singer looking the part made it especially wonderful. But that’s the way it is!”
Harold and Ellen Diamond of Hastings were “delighted with the production and the outstanding singers. And it is so marvelous that the projections now enable instantaneous scene changes. That concept should be expanded for other operas,” Mr. Diamond suggested. He thought the “Machine” still needs perfecting in that “it still looks like machinery with its nuts and bolts showing.”