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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Opera Review: The Machine of the Nibelungs

We break down (poor choice of words) the Lepage Ring.
by Paul Pelkonen
The new Ring cost millions. Hope rich Uncle Pennybags™ likes opera.
Card from Monopoly™ © 1936 Parker Brothers Games.
So now that Götterdämmerung has been broadcast in the movie theaters, it's time to take a look at all four parts of the Metropolitan Opera's multimillion dollar production of Wagner's Ring.

Canadian director Robert Lepage came to Wagner's operas with what seemed to be a deliberately naïve view: to use high technology and digital projections to recreate a fairly literal version of the Germanic myths that inspired the composer. The costumes were directly drawn from old productions of the Ring, right down to the little metal helmets worn by the Valkyries and Wotan's undersized partisan-shaped spear.

To be sure, this cycle developed over the year and a half it took to premiere, with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung showing advances in technology that solved some of the serious problems existent in the earlier opera. But the biggest problem with this cycle is Mr. Lepage's decision to minimize the acting surface of the Met stage, giving his singers almost nowhere to go except the narrow grey board-walk of planks that stood on the lip of the stage underneath the Machine, or a trench underneath that hid the singers' legs from the view of the audience and made it harder for them to sing.



The downward spiral: Stunt doubles make the Journey to Nibelheim in Scene III of Das Rheingold.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.
Let's talk about singers. Bryn Terfel showed familiarity and steady improvement as Wotan, as the cycle went on and the role got lower. Although he sounded harsh in the most lyric pages of Das Rheingold, he managed a hissing, low sound when Wotan was up to no good. The Welshman was especially fine in Siegfried as the Wanderer. However, the best bass-baritone onstage was Eric Owens as Alberich, a compelling dramatic presence and a rich, dark sound that had you firmly on Team Nibelung from the get-go.

Deborah Voigt has made a valiant effort at Brunnhilde. There's no question that she understands the character, the role and its pitfalls. She had a strong Walküre, a rough night in Siegfried and seemed to find focus in Götterdämmerung in the opera's second half. Jay Hunter Morris (a last-minute replacement) remains a Siegfried-lite, capable of embodying the role of Wagner's muscle-headed hero and singing with (mostly) pleasing tone. But his voice is small, and the singer skated over the most difficult moments in the score.
Deborah Voigt rides the Machine in Act III of Die Walküre.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
Far better: Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund. This tenor's Wagner debut at the Met was a big deal, and deservedly so. Physically, he matches the part, but even better is that ringing, silvery sound when he launched into "Winterstürme." It's too bad that the ham-handed direction confined him to a trench onstage for most of the first act. Hopefully that decision will be corrected by the April premiere of Die Walküre in the complete cycle, where the part will be sung by Stuart Skelton. Eva-Maria Westbroek was a strong, lyric Sieglinde.

There are some other fine singers in the smaller roles. Wendy Bryn Harmer displayed flying Wagnerian colors as Gutrune (Götterdämmerung). Gerhard Siegel's Mime. Hans-Peter König's Fafner, Hunding and best of all, Hagen made a case for treating Wagner's villains as a mini-cycle--a feat also managed by basses Matti Salminen and Erik Halfvarson in the past. The mezzos of the operas: Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and Waltraud Meier as Waltraute were also compelling, making one wish both characters had more to do.

Jay Hunter Morris battles a balloon in Act II of Siegfried.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
This cycle will probably be known as the "Machine Ring" for the next century. The device in question (which has led to journalists breaking out their thesaurii for the words "gizmo", "contraption" and "cantankerous clattering collection of cogs and camshafts" (thank you, Dr. Smith) is the central visual focus of the show and its biggest liability. Twenty-four molded planks in battle-ship gray spun and reconfigured into mountains, rivers and walls of blazing fire is an elegant solution, but one prone to stage noises, malfunctions, and worst of all, potential industrial accidents.

The Machine has been the subject of much comment (and much satire) on this blog in the last year. The best thing that can be said for it is that when it does work (usually as a ginormous movie screen for those digital, screen-saver like projections) it looks pretty cool. (The worst thing is that those plank-ends do look like cannons, aimed squarely at the bloggers sitting in the Family Circle.) I will admit that there is a small thrill in seeing those planks MOVE like a living thing to Wagner's music, coming alive and seeming to dance (albeit clumsily) to the score like a huge Frankenstein puppet.
Act II of Götterdämmerung with Deborah Voigt downstage.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
Puppetry too is a fascination of Mr. Lepage's. So why was the puppet dragon in Das Rheingold actually scarier (and more effective) than the cheap-looking (inflatable?) Fafner in Act II of Siegfried?  It looked like a leftover stage prop from a Dio concert, or possibly Spinal Tap.

Full reviews of each opera are available on Superconductor.
Das Rheingold: "Machine Messiah": Oct 5, 2010.
Die Walküre: "Machines (Back to Humans)": April 23, 2011.
Siegfried: "A Man, A Machine and a Big Snake": Oct. 28, 2011.
Götterdämmerung: "The Last Plank"Jan. 28, 2012.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.