Review by Diana, Snorrlax, FengShui
Libretto: Epic Poem by Richard Wagner
Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, New York City
Conductor: James Levine
Director: Robert LePage
Production Manager: Bernard Gilbert
Sets: Carl Fillion
Lighting: Étienne Boucher
Costumes: François St-Aubin
Video Images: boris Firquet
Cast: Wotan: Bryn Terfel; Fricka: Stephanie Blythe; Brunhilde: Debra Voigt; Sigmund: Jonas Kaufmann; Seiglinde: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Hunding: Hans Peter König
Rating: Super Star Destroyer intimidates and pleases!
Beloved stories tend to need to be told repeatedly, but there is the danger that the retelling might fall into what is popularly called "eurotrash" or "regietheatre" in opera, this means hyper modernist productions for the sake of change, or those where the composer's will has been subsumed for the director's will. These are sometimes homeruns, it's true ... but more often than not, many people will be unhappy, especially the picky ones who love their stories told the way they know them to be told. Nothing new, please! (Nothing like living the stereotype of the paying opera audience, right? Bah.)
For many decades, opera has been a dying art form, and something radical and interesting had to be done to save it from itself. This doesn't mean the story had to be pulled apart like stale monkeybread, and stuck together in unseemly ways. It's really refreshing when a new way to present the story is discovered, and it turns out that the new way sheds more light and interest onto an old story, and reaches people it couldn't reach before. Would you fall in love with the story again? What about the first time? Both audience members need to be considered, not just those who know the story so well that it's calcified in their brains.
Robert LePage, for all his technical wizardry for productions with the Cirque du Soleil, and La Damnation de Faust a few years ago, is actually a passionate and skillful story-teller. He believes some stories are so rich that showing them differently will make the story fresh, without changing it. He respects opera and the composer's intent, and in truth, his video gimickry never distracts from the tale. He can awe you and amaze you with his cleverness and newness; but you quickly get used to the gizmos, they just become the landscape onto which the story is projected, and you don't notice it at all. Just the story comes through, loudly and clearly.
So, he's the right person to direct the new Der Ring des Nibelungen for the Metropolitan Opera (which is no longer referred to that way it's just "The Ring," or "The Ring Cycle," now). General Manager Peter Gelb has been under fire for revising old productions into new, often controversial, stagings and fresh ideas. He points out that when he took over management of the opera house, a survey showed that the average age of the audience was 65; he dug to find a similar survey from five years before, and was dismayed to find the average age of theatre goers then was 60. "In other words, our audience was dying;" and there was no influx of new audience blood!
The Ring was the poster-child for many of us as the easily parodied ridiculousness of opera fat singers of many screech-worthy timbres, with horned helmets, big armored boobs, spears used like canes to support them like a Dark Ages RenFaire! There was a lot of hollering, and nothing was over till the fat lady sung. In fact, it was very much like we see in the silliness of Goth-a-be culture now, and we avoided it for most our lives. It also seemed boring, and everything seemed the same, as if there were inviolatable rules; in art, that's never a great thing. In entertainment, it gets dull; and dull is the kiss of death.
Like it or not, Gelb knew he needed to modernize the telling of opera stories but he is very clear that does not mean changing the stories. Still, people doubt and whine; Gelb has his job and the reputation of a premier opera house on the line. The whiners have their memories and stubbornness to gnaw on ... and it doesn't say much for humanity in general, but stubborn rememberances are important to most people. To his great credit, every new production we've seen at the Met has been intelligent and faithful to the story, more so than many traditional looking productions.
And new things incite a lot of publicity; there is no such thing as bad publicity, after all. One of us noticed that Wagner operas are "stand-and-screechers" the singer stands in one place and projects out toward the audience. The music is often difficult, and back in the day, singers were frankly too fat to do much more than waddle on and off stage. It was as if LePage decided that the singers do not have to move much while singing the epic leitmotifs and melodies, and so ... let's move the stage! It's expensive and totally outside of most opera-goers' experience.
Colloquially termed "the Machine" (perhaps for LePage's company Ex Machina), the set is a moving thing 24 articulated slabs move and spin, and with the help of electric-eye-enhanced video projections, they become a snowstorm ... a dark and ominous winder forest ... a rooftop and house ... craggy outcrops ... a team of flying horses (or one huge flying horse) ... a mountain range with well-timed avalanches ... a burning tomb ... Many in the sold-out performances came just to see "the Machine," which on opening night of this production had some hiccups and glitches. It weighs 45 tons and caused part of the under-floor supports to be re-shored in the areas where it would be stored between shows. Opening night also caused one of the singers to tumble off of it, and others to walk on it gingerly. But on the nights we saw it, the Machine behaved VERY well, and was an integral and fascinating part of the production almost a living player itself.
The Machine allowed for quick set changes and musical interludes that could be graphically depicted, so that we didn't just see a curtain as the orchestra played. This is important in that this production's running time is four and a half hours, and intermissions are, by union policy, a minimum of half an hour long. In Bayreuth, a town near Munich where Wagner's operas are given during a festival, the intermissions are over an hour long, so that the audience can go have dinner between acts, or visit with friends, have snacks, etc. Of course, the long opera starts earlier, but that makes for a long day of entertainment! For a long production like this, two intermissions are required by the musicians union and the sheer need for rest by the singer / actors and the need for restrooms for the audience, which adds an hour to the total. In recognition of the long time trapped in the upper west side of New York City, the opera starts at 6:30PM, an hour and a half sooner than usual (we got out at 11:45PM).
Despite its length and girth, the story of the old gods dealing with the of their world resonates for many for the gorgeous music, but also for the story it tells. Richard Wagner wrote the epic poem first as the story of the death of Siegfried ... and then he realized he needed to explain who this boy was ... and where he came from ... and the significance of the gold ring he wore ... and the identity of his wife ... and soon, he had four operas which go by the general title, "The Ring of the Nibelung," of which Walküre is the second.
In the course of the night, Sieglinde tells Woeful of a sword left by a stranger on the day she was forced into her loveless marriage (marriages were often accomplished by abduction in the days people were scarce, and women were the property of their menfolk), who had thrust it into a tree which made up the central support of the house. She felt that the person who could pull the sword from its living scabard would be her savior ... and she figures out Woeful is none other than her twin brother, Siegmund. Alas, by then, the two had fallen passionately in love ... but they are so overjoyed to find each other, and to have someone who understands them so fully, that they enter into a marriage and leave Hunding's house together, having successfully withdrawn the sword from the tree.
A lot of people are deterred and even disgusted by this story. Is it really necessary to the tale? It turns out that it is in the overall plot ... but as for the rest of the synopsis:
Fricka, wife of Wotan and the goddess of marriage, goes to her husband to complain about the violation of sacred marriage vow by these twins who commit incest as well as adultery. It is revealed that Wotan fathered these children by a mortal woman, in hopes of creating a son who is not bound by the laws by which even the gods are constricted. Thus, this hero could win back the Rheingold and avoid the destruction of the world. Fricka is a better logician than Wotan and points out that anything he creates is merely his slave, doing his will. And jealous of the lovers and children her husband takes in preference to his wife, she demands he give up these twins the Walsungs and allow Sieglinde's husband Hunding to win the upcoming battle.
Wotan had also sired the Valkyries, his amazon warrior daughters whom he sends to bring the souls of heros killed in battle to the fortress of Valhalla, in order to protect it. His favorite child is Brunhilde, to whom he issues orders that reflect his deepest desires. He is forced to order her to let Hunding kill Siegmund; Brunhilde sees the obvious pain this order stirs in her father, and willfully disobeys his external words and opts to protect Siegmund in his fight. Wotan finds out, shatters the sword he left in the tree for his son, allows Hunding to be victorious ... then kills Hunding himself.
Enraged at Brunhilde's disobedience, he pursues and punishes her by making her mortal and leaving her sleeping on a rock, prey to any man who finds her. Distressed at possibly being forced to be the wife of a coward, she begs her father for protections that would terrify any man with any fear in his heart. For the love he feels for his favorite and now disgraced child, he agrees both knowing that the man who will win her will be none other thanthe child of Siegmund and Sieglinde (yes, her nephew!)
There are many details left out here, and the story is complex even when stripped down to basics. There are lots of children it seems Wotan's idea of saving the world is to have as much extramarital sex as possible, and Fricka's emotions are justified but rigid. There is the required story about the Rheingold. Much of this opera is a string of long soliloquies and expositions. Unlike the operas that came before, there are no recititives between arias; Wagner was writing a total story and breaking with strong traditions of his day. Wotan's lament to Brunhilde about the state of the world and his part in it takes nearly an hour! Sigmund and Sieglunde falling in love takes nearly two hours.
The singers and the music are so beautiful and well paced that you really do not notice the passage of time. After watching the changing stage in astonishment, it becomes simply the fabric of the story, and you become hungry for more information as the tale unfurls. The suffering of Wotan's mortal Walsungs is poignant and the idea that they are "sister and wife" and "brother and husband" is not as repulsive as it would be in other stories; like Wotan, you're tempted to let their new happiness be your reward for bending the rules. (In this staging, the sex between them is implied and confirmed later, instead of being shown on stage whew!) But that is the point the world is falling apart, and though Wotan is the ruler, he has little control over how events will take shape. He declares that he is now waiting for "the end," craving the end to his responsibilities and his own suffering.
Wagner wrote and pioneered what are now called leitmotifs, or theme music, for each character and some situations. Star Wars fans will find this idea familiar, and the music is used to let the listener understand the subtext of the situation. For instance, Wotan's theme is played when Siegmund sees the sword hilt in the tree for the first time; the audience then knows it was Wotan who left it there, and thus they know who the father of Siegmund is, even if Siegmund doesn't know any of this himself. When Brunhilde's resting place is surrounded with fire, it's the same music used to describe Lodge the fire god in Rheingold. Knowing this adds richness to the story, but it's really not necessary to be an avid student of music, or even of Wagner, to appreciate it.
The Metropolitan orchestra is large, but to accommodate the demands of a Wagner Ring opera, thre ar even more instruments, and it's more tightly packed in the orchestra pit! There were four harps; though we never really heard the harps as featured instruments, we don't doubt they are important somewhere. We just don't know enough, and haven't seen the production enough. We did see it twice in one week, and plan to see it again in HD when the opera is broadcast live to theaters around the country and Canada.
People criticized the Machine for it's creaks and thuds as it changed configuration, but it really was not noisier than, say, the set changes for any other opera with manually driven scene and set changes. We saw People are just being churlish, sometimes.
The house was packed and there was rousing applause for the singers' performances, as well as astonished gasps and applause for the start of the third act, showing the Valkyrie sisters riding their horses the heads of which were the planks of the Machine, itself! It was clever and truly delightful; and coming after the death of Sigmund, it was uplifting and wonderful to hear "Hojoto - HO!". Wagner used the hails and laughter of Wotan's daughters to punctuate the dizzying emotions and noise of battle. The eight singers did so with exhuberence, with perfect timing and charming tomboyishness, as they rode, dismounted by sliding down the Machine, and collected the bones of the heros for disposal.
As Brunhilde, Debra Voigt was surprisingly charming and convincing as the most-beloved teenaged daughter of a doting father. In real life, she is quite dowdy and a little imposing, but in her comely battle armor and curly red wig, she was impish and youthful. Through her performance, you can remember your own exhilarating youth, and the turmoil of new, fresh emotions, along with the confusion and desire to do the right thing stuck as you are between wanting Dad's love, and your need to be your own person.
Bryn Terfel is an opera superstar, and we frankly bought these tickets last year because he was going to sing Wotan for the first time at the Met. We have since learned that he is not considered the Wagnerian standard a stentorian bass-baritone. He was better, because he is an actor who in the words of one reviewer doesn't just absorb himself into the character, but hungrily consumes the character. Thus, every move and sound he makes feels like its spontaneously and truly Wotan. The quality of his voice is gritty and eminently masculine and powerful which makes his confession of imprisonment and helplessness ever more poignant. He's not a smooth, suave mofo, and his Wotan is stupendous for it, whether beaten in a quarrel with his wife, or lamenting the death of his only son, or being forced to punish and abandon his favorite daughter when, in fact, she demonstrated that she was free to do what he, himself, desperately desired to do. The final scene where he is forced to leave his daughter asleep on the mountain, protected by magic fire, was the conveyance of every man's agony in watching his daughter go to another man, and out of his life.
Jonas Kaufmann was perfect as Siegmund; there is really no other way to describe his performance. He has a thick voice that is almost Russian, but he possesses a warmth and crazed passion, too. He's a true tenor with a big range, but no reediness or whininess in his notes and delivery. He's a wonderful actor, and he pulls us into his certainty about the woman who saves him. Kaufmann tends to play uber-emotional characters, like Don Jose in Carmen, or Mario Caravadossi in Tosca roles we saw him sing last year. His impetuous quality makes him intriguing to watch, as well as to hear, all night long. It's too bad his character only appears in two acts of the whole Ring Cycle, because listening to him sing and watching him bring Siegmund to life is a wonderful experience.
Eva-Maria Westbroek caught the worst break on opening night she was ill, and was forced to abandon the role at the end of the first act. Fortunately, she was healthy on the nights we saw her, and she had a full, warm voice that projected very well in the big opera house. Her body language reflected Kaufmann's as the twins fell in love and recognized each other as their long-lost sibling, but it was more intriguing to watch her convey her hope of deliverance from domestic slavery. She was abducted at a young age and sold into marriage to Hunding; when asked who she is by Siegmund, she nervously states, "this house and this woman belong to Hunding." When she goes mad with guilt for adding to Siegmund's crimes, she vacillated between telling him to abandon her and begging him to hold her. She's full of teenaged and pregnancy hormones, and is wholly believable. The way she performed emotions of love and triumph had many of remembering our own teen years! In addition, the costuming and make-up departments gave the twins many physical resemblances: their hair, the planes of their face so that Hunding's observation that they look alike "with the look of glittering serpents' eyes," the audience needed not imagination to see it, too.
The two surprising and really powerful voices of the evening were Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, and Hans Peter König as Hunding the two characters who must suffer adulterous spouses. Blythe conveyed her anger and her hurt and rage in her marital arguement with a man she considered her equal (unlike the other women in this tale), and we believed she emotionally wounded Terfel himself, playing Wotan. She was an angry woman who wanted to teach her husband a lesson, and how dare he debase her with his love for his mortal bastard! We feared her, in the audience, and were impressed with her voice and the strength of her performance. She appeared on a throne, representing the chariot drawn by rams, which glided over the top of the Machine. She was kind of like "the Penguin" nun in the Blues Brothers Movie ... hilarious but imposing and frightening.
As for König, he looked rather jovial and round ... like a Santa Clause, but when his voice boomed out, he was really really threatening, like a controlled thunder storm. He didn't deserve to be killed by Wotan, but we were relieved for Sieglinde's sake that he was!
Most of all, we were impressed by the Machine it was so integral to the seamless story-telling, and yet it was not overbearing or interfering. It danced and changed, filling the stage when there were only one or two people on it, singing to themselves. It was realistic enough so that we understood what we were looking at, but abstract enough that we believed it was a natural part of the storytelling. It became the page that turns as you read the tale printed on it. Other times, it became sculptural art itself, like when it depicted "Brunhilde's Rock" with its magical fire.
All in all, for all the kerfuffle, it turned out to be a very traditional telling of the story, more so than any number of space-age productions in other houses. We are lucky, indeed, that the Met has the budget and wherewithall to commission the "proper" way to tell this story in 2011-2012. Will it survive for twenty years? Who knows? It's been argued that Wagner would have loved using the best and newest of technology in service to his masterpiece; he wsa creating a new art form, and he honored what came behind him, building on it to create a new world. He would have been happy to abandon the steam-generator used in his day, which George Bernard Shaw complained made the theater smell like a laundry!
None of us had been Ring fans before, but we found ourselves planning to watch the full Ring Cycle next year, when Siegfried and Gotterdamerung will be presented. That's a lot of hours (16 total!) ... but we have to do it. After all, the music itself is ever-lovely and evocative, and LePage is doing a beautiful job telling the story. Conductor James Levine, in ill health now, managed to create gorgeous sound and sensitive storytelling through the music which, of course, is the point of this whole thing.
However ... we admit that when we got home, we found our old Loony Tunes videotape and watched, "What's Opera, Doc?" where Elmer J. Fudd sings (to the Valkyrie leitmotif), "Kill da wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill da rabbit ..."
Production images from www.nytimes.com and www.metopera.org
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