The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

Metropolitan Opera: “Götterdämmerung” Live in HD

Posted by therebelprince on March 14, 2012

The Rhinemaidens in the Met's Ring Cycle.

Today, I’m tackling something a little different. Richard Wagner‘s Der Ring Des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is opera’s Mt. Everest. Based on the same legends that inspired Lord of the Rings, Wagner’s 15-hour epic – over four nights – pits the Gods and their vassals against humans, dwarves, and dragons, in a battle for the ring’s power. Robert Lepage‘s new production at the Met has inspired much debate. Thanks to the Met’s wonderful Live in HD program (about which, more below), I was lucky enough to see the production, and I thought I’d review the rollicking climactic opera, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods).

Before I do, I can’t recommend enough the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD program. Each year, the Met broadcast roughly a dozen of their operas – including several new productions – in cinemas around the United States and, increasingly, the world. I believe many American cinemas have designated dates for performances; some others – like my local, Melbourne’s Cinema Nova – will screen them several times over the course of two weeks. These are all filmed specifically for this program, and always part of the current season at the Met. If you don’t live near New York or La Scala, it’s a cost-effective way of seeing great opera – from Wagner and Verdi to Glass and Gounod – performed by world-class singers in a stunning venue. Even if you do live near a major opera company, this is still a great way of experiencing new productions, aided by the intimacy of the screen. Each presentation is introduced by a Met singer, as we’re privy to backstage interviews and production information during each intermission. (Yes, there are intermissions, so you get to enjoy the full experience of frantically rushing to the bathroom and getting a drink in time!) Nothing beats the thrill of live opera but until I can afford monthly flights to New York, I’m not going to complain about these high-definition presentations from the Met.

If you’re new to, or largely unfamiliar with, opera, don’t let that daunt you. Perhaps ask a friend (or me!) which upcoming opera will be accessible, and go along. The music, the performances, the towering sets: it’s all worth at least one visit. The repertoire encompasses a vast range of musical and performance styles, so no two visits are the same, and you may just find yourself transformed into a lifelong opera buff! For the record, the two remaining productions of the 2011/12 season should both a treat: Russian diva Anna Netrebko stars in Massenet’s Manon, and then the Met revives that timeless Verdi classic, La Traviata. (For the 2012/13 schedule, click here.)

On to Götterdämmerung, in which our hero Siegfried is duped by two bratty humans into forgetting about his true love, Brunnhilde, and the lovely ladies who swim in the Rhine wait anxiously for their gold. (Well, sort of anxiously… well, actually, quite nonchalantly. More below.)

What spurred me on to write this piece was a couple of overwhelmingly negative reviews, such as this one. I didn’t necessarily expect raves (Wagner fans are an odd lot), but I appreciated the more even-minded ambivalence of the New York Times, and the Classical Review. I should admit my own bias and imperfections as a reviewer: I’m twenty-four years old, and have never seen the Ring performed outside of DVD and the cinema. My opera knowledge is more than minimal, but I don’t profess to be an expert. Still, the sense of passion, power, and grandeur that I felt during the broadcasts of this cycle (particularly Siegfried and Die Walküre) must stand for something.

Met conductor Fabio Luisi

The first complaint is that the focus was too much on storytelling; in essence, that by focusing on the plot, the director forgot to interpret the plot. I can somewhat understand this comment – Lepage’s production is certainly a straightforward epic adventure first, and anything else second – but I have trouble seeing this as a complaint. Perhaps the Met’s Ring is too literal to be the greatest Ring ever, but history can point to examples of cycles so interpretative that they’re even further away from perfection. Isn’t the sheer joy of being a Wagnerian to appreciate the differences between interpretations, and to savour the variety of minds involved in such projects, rather than demanding each new production conforms to our own expectations? We all self-direct when listening to operas we love, but it seems fair to complain only if the intention doesn’t work, not just because the intention isn’t what we’d like it to be in the first place. Wagner’s legacy (and Bayreuth) have ensured that the Ring won’t be fading away any time soon. Me, I just feel privileged that the Ring – written more than a century ago – is gaining such a high profile again, and happy to savour each new production as it comes.

Beyond this, I take issue with the assumption that possessing meaning is a binary state: that either your work is weighed down with an all-encompassing set of symbols, or you’re simply spinning a soap opera. First, this seems to me the argument of staid academics who don’t want to admit that they’re watching a piece in which dragon-slayers, sexy winged-horse-riding maidens, and evil dwarves sing about magic jewellery for fifteen hours. Second, it ignores the fact that even without pretentious European directors, many of Götterdämmerung‘s themes emerge in Wagner’s libretto and that unceasingly interesting score. We can – and should – amplify those, of course, to risk growing repetitious and slavishly “faithful”, but the work lends itself to questions from the audience, some of which they shouldn’t need to be hand-held through. And third (perhaps most importantly), reducing the characters and plot to some kind of horrid Brechtian world – where each element is only important because of how it can be tied into a single argument – does a great disservice to the complex psychological motivations at play. Hagen: a man raised with a singular purpose, forced to shun genuine relationships in favour of betrayal, haunted by a loveless father. Gutrune realising that her own desire for love blinded her to the falseness of what she obtained. Brunnhilde, most of all: a being fallen from immense power and glory to humanity, brought to her knees by human emotion, seemingly spurned, and unable to see a future without her hero. I don’t want to go against my own advice: if you want to produce a Ring cycle in which subtext is king, go ahead! I’ll enjoy it! But to demand that Wagner’s story be “about” something (no doubt while you snigger about the needlessly complex soap opera plots of Donizetti) should be beneath true opera lovers. The Ring is a gift like none we shall ever receive again, and the plot – whether we like it or not – is a part of that.

There were of course problems with the production: the set – a hulking complex of planks, able to shape into a variety of different sets, and overlaid with gorgeous video imagery – was cumbersome in Das Rheingold, and veered wildly from brilliant to intrusive in Walküre. But by the time of Siegfried – now my favourite of the four after its superlative broadcast last year – the “machine”, as it’s become known, served its purpose as both function and atmosphere. The beauty of the wood-bird, the luscious green under Siegfried’s feet (with leaves scattering out of his way as he walked), and – this time around – the shore of the Rhine, were marvelous, a feat I doubt I’ll ever forget. (Of course, you have to just hold your breath when it comes to fear for the actors’ safety, particularly those Rhinemaidens, sliding up and down the set while singing!)

The Norns in the prologue of "Gotterdammerung"

So… Götterdämmerung. Conductor Fabio Luisi extracted a nuanced, textured rendition of Wagner’s stirring score from the Met orchestra, one that never felt rushed and only very rarely felt underpaced. (The first act of this opera is, if we’re going to be honest, one of the slowest, most exposition-heavy sequences of the 15-hour epic. It didn’t feel so here.) Whether he was capturing the broad blasts of Siegfried’s funeral march, or the softer chamber pieces of those Norns, Luisi wrangled a performance from the Met that won’t soon be topped. As Siegfried, Jay Hunter Morris proved to be one of a kind. Morris stepped into the role of Siegfried in his title opera at the last minute, giving an overwhelming performance. That performance wasn’t quite equalled this time, though admittedly the character’s music is grander in Siegfried, and his arc there – going from boy to man by way of a dwarf, a dragon, a God, and a woman – is more the stuff of grand opera than the slightly ratty poisoning plot here. There were moments early in Act II when Morris seemed to be fading, but he delivered – for the most part – a powerhouse portrayal, and his physical characteristics ensured that he lived up to the demands of Wagner’s hero. Most vitally, Morris rarely looked as if he was “Acting” with a capital A. Most Siegfrieds – overweight milquetoasts, more than likely – have to camp things up considerably to present the youthful, innocent character who starts the journey. Whether it was natural or a performance, Morris just exuded boyish innocence, and the sense of a child trapped in a warrior’s body. He was still able to bring pathos when necessary (his opening duet with Brunnhilde was a highlight, as was his exquisite rendition of Siegfried’s death scene), but it was the forging scene and other youthful moments that captured me. (The gulf between the wide-eyed warrior and his humbly-spoken, Southern tenor caught several women in the audience off-guard, at least the night I attended. When host Patricia Racette – not quite as self-assured as the lovely Renee Fleming, but doing her best – first approached Morris, his first lines were obscured beneath the gasps and titters of several of the old biddies near me.)

The cast was filled with strong performances, in fact. Hans-Peter König as Hagen has earned much of the praise, with a booming, clear bass that seemed to shake the foundations of the Gibichung hall. From Hagen’s haunting conversation with Alberich (a fleeting but monstrously good Eric Owens), to his powerful rallying cry to Gunther’s troops: König’s energy rarely waned, and it was a high-octane performance boosted by his stirring voice. He felt suitably conspiratorial and unctuous throughout. I greatly enjoyed Wendy Bryn Harmer as Gutrune. I suspected I would like Bryn Harmer from her first appearance, when she managed to smile with all the radiance of a born ruler, yet take a drink with the ambivalence of a Dynasty villainess. Not only did she look gorgeous in varying shades of blue, but Bryn Harmer had a crystal clear voice that overcame the fact that Gutrune is one of the less-textured characters in the cycle.

I was less invested in the Norns. Vocally, the performances were great, but it was the chilling design of the prologue that stayed with me, not the performances. World-weary is one thing; just plain weary is another entirely! Iain Paterson did the opposite for me as Gunther. He gave a strong portrayal as the weak-willed mandarin, but I felt as if Paterson’s voice rarely rose to the power of those around him. Perhaps, though, this was merely the character, as I found Paterson very strong during the electrifying sequence in which Gunther and Siegfried swear their blood oath.

Thankfully, weak links were few and far between: as the Rhinemaidens, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Erin Morley, and Tamara Mumford (who enthralled me with her nuanced Mark Smeaton in last year’s Anna Bolena) were giddy, gorgeous, and well-sung, inhabiting the set as if it really was their playground. The trio had a natural chemistry, which called to mind Anna Russell‘s famous line: “The Rhinemaidens: kind of an aquatic Andrews sisters”. I did have a slight problem with their scene, although whether that was the fault of libretto or director, I cannot say. The lovely ladies seemed too nonchalant, didn’t they? I’m not sure whether they want the Ring out of a sense of decency, or if they’re secretly just as power-hungry, but there was never a sense that the Rhinemaidens needed the Ring. They frolicked on the rocks and flirted with Siegfried, but their triumphant moment at opera’s end seemed more about taunting Hagen, and less about relieving the mourning they felt at the end of Rheingold.

Waltraud Meier as the Valkyrie, Waltraute.

Celebrated German soprano Waltraud Meier was used to full effect in her sole scene as Brunnhilde’s sister, Waltraute. Meier’s honeyed soprano and passionate acting managed to wring every drop of pathos from Waltraute’s description of Wotan’s sad fate, and the duel between the sisters had a much greater spark than I’ve heard or seen before. Kudos must also go to the staggeringly wonderful men’s chorus of the Met, performing with clarity and maximum power during Hagen’s call to arms. It was surely one of the strongest moments of the night.

Lastly, there was the lovely Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde. I don’t claim to be objective in this regard, since I’d follow Ms. Voigt into a burning pyre myself. It’s fair to say her voice is not quite the lilting bird of prey it once was, and – at least captured in HD close-up – Ms. Voigt sometimes seemed as if her full attention was on navigating the vocal demands of the part, leaving little time for acting the shades of her character. Ms. Voigt is still new to Brunnhilde – and I’m sure everyone who has ever sung the role would say that you never stop learning things about playing this role – but the divide between singer and actress was particularly noticeable during the Act II finale, as she plotted Siegfried’s demise, and during Brunnhilde’s curse to Wotan on discovering her lover’s fate (although she did eventually find her feet during the latter scene). Where Voigt excelled were the moments of sheer ecstasy. Her hymn to the sun in Siegfried (already my favourite musical moment in the Ring) was simply sublime, and the opening duet of Götterdämmerung matched that power. Six hours later, Voigt delivered the Immolation sequence with ferocity and a terrifying warmth. I can accept the allegations of struggles Ms. Voigt had with her lower register, or the mere fact that her voice is not quite the mellifluous beast that sang the role of Ariadne twenty years ago. For me, at least, those are minor concerns. Voigt – aided, no doubt, by François St-Aubin‘s elegant, shapely costuming – scaled the heights of the role and somehow managed to very rarely look silly (quite a feat for the opera character most likely to appear as a parody in a Warner Brothers cartoon!). With fiery red curls and that slinky gown, Voigt will surely grow into the character further over this year’s set of cycles.

Less defensible was Grane, Brunnhilde’s rather stupidly loyal steed. The beast worked well during its earlier appearances, but was perhaps too slow in the final sequence, looking like exactly what it was: a piece of metal being pulled along. Complaining about the horse too much, admittedly, is nonsensical. Like the ever-so-questionable dragon from Siegfried, actual operagoers were unlikely to see as many of the flaws as those of us watching in HD, and – no matter how amazing the Met’s cinema program is – they shouldn’t be pandering to movie audiences by investing in CGI or some such! Anyhow, if you seriously walked away from this epic production and your first thought was, “the horse wasn’t realistic”, well… perhaps it’s time you considered a new interest.

From a visual side, much praise must be heaped at the altar of lighting designer Etienne Boucher and the master of the video, Lionel Arnould. His video designs for Lepage and Carl Fillion‘s “machine” are to be complimented, taking us from the forest to the wooden hall seamlessly. (I wasn’t sure, however, whether the sun constantly seen in the background was going to ultimately be Valhalla, burning in the distance, or whether it was just a sun.) I appreciate Lepage’s desire to make the machine less complicated this time around (was this in response to some criticism of its weightiness in Rheingold, or simply because the lives of humans are less epic than those of the Gods?). Yet, could it be said that Lepage erred too far on the side of caution, at least during the orchestral interludes? One of the reasons I love The Ring is that each opera has its own texture and choices, bolstered by Wagner’s trademark disregard for anything resembling practicality. Throw an octet of women in one opera, and a massive chorus of men in another! Then, don’t use them any other time! Brilliant, Richard. Götterdämmerung features some of the greatest of Wagner’s orchestral music, but it’s not just the sublime funeral march for Siegfried. Each of the interludes are beautiful, subtle pieces, and I can understand the desire of Lepage and Luisi that the music be the focus of the moment. However, I enjoyed the short, wordless moments on stage – like Gutrune wandering through the moonlit hall during the opening of Act III – and felt there could have been more of those. Instead, the orchestral pieces were often accompanied simply by gradual changes on the video: ambient, yes, but not necessarily making the most of the talent involved.

(Incidentally, I’m not going to launch into a spiel about the “machine” itself. Suffice it to say, I appreciated the thing. It wasn’t always perfect, and its critics will complain about performers being simply “pieces of the set” until the cows come home, but it was an ambitious, modern undertaking that provided its fair share of theatrical marvels.)

There were a few little niggles: for instance, while the Norns’ ropes weren’t actually cumbersome for the performers, the blocking made it look as if the ladies were struggling just a little too realistically. And I think that a few more seconds could be given over to Hagen’s demise. It’s a brief moment, yes, but also the fate of a major villain, and it felt glossed over here. The implication of Hagen’s death wasn’t at all clear, as he simply leapt at the Rhinemaidens, who quickly faded from view. Had I not known what was happening, I would’ve left the opera very confused on that score. There was plenty of time during the closing bars of the opera; why skim on essentials? On a cinematic level, Götterdämmerung was beautifully directed however the audio mixing didn’t seem as strong as in previous broadcasts. This could, of course, have been my cinema, but there wasn’t anything like the majestic sound of Siegfried, or the full-throttled stereo power that accompanied, say, Faust or Anna Bolena.

Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried, and Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde.

Finally, there is the fall of the Gods in the opera’s closing minutes. Lepage’s concept here was rather simple, with statues of the Gods crumbling at the rear of the set. As a teenager, I used to think it was a great shame we didn’t get to see Wotan and co in Götterdämmerung , given their pivotal roles in the earlier operas. Of course, now I understand the brilliance of the plotting: how we open almost entirely with the internecine battles of gods, and close instead with the pettier (but only slightly so) battles of humans. There will always be that youthful part of me wishing we’d seen more lurid images of Valhalla’s final moments. Yet, Waltraute’s monologue describes this beautifully, and seeing the Gods only as human manifestations in statue format seemed somewhat fitting for a world that has lost contact with their deities.

I know every critic has already mentioned this, but why the planks didn’t come apart during the climax is beyond me. If anything represented the cycle’s “world” (at least, on a meta-fictional level), it was that machine. Sure, I was pleased – if unsurprised – to end up back where we started, but I wanted “cataclysmic”, and instead had to settle for “stunningly beautiful, with a hint of apocalypse”. Perhaps such a collapse was just too technologically demanding, even for these wunderkinds?

So, my verdict? Ecstatic, but willing to push for more. I won’t get to see the Ring when it is presented in full later this year, but I’m sure that Lepage and his cast and crew will continue to explore the nuances and smooth the edges. Was it perfect? Of course not. There were occasional slips of voice or inspiration, at least one less-than-inspired casting decision (it wasn’t in Götterdämmerung  admittedly), and moments where ambition and experimentation were to be applauded even though the end result didn’t quite measure up.

Patti LuPone has said that the joy of singing Sondheim is that one can never get it entirely right. The joy of Wagner is far different from the joy we get watching or listening to Verdi, Gounod, Bellini… it’s one of singers, directors, musicians, crew, designers, and audience members all striving for perfection. Like the characters in the Ring, we can never achieve it, but each new cycle brings with it the joy of watching world-class talents attempting to scale the peaks of a masterwork, providing us with visual and aural surprises, the soaring power of moments from the Rhine to Valhalla, and adding further layers to the endless and debate and discussion of Wagner and his Ring. Next year, Bayreuth and Melbourne (yay!) are going to add their contributions to that already towering collection of productions. For now, it’s the Met, and a vibrant, modern update of one of the greatest works of art ever created by man. What more can we ask?

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One Response to “Metropolitan Opera: “Götterdämmerung” Live in HD”

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