Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Met Opera Review: Man (and Woman) win battle versus Machine in Met "Siegfried"

By David Salazar (For 11.1.2011 performance)

Three operas into the new Ring Cycle, it seems that Met manager Peter Gelb has some serious issues to think about. Could this Ring feasibly be in the Met's long term plans and more importantly, is it even safe to keep it in the long term plans? Everyone knows the story of opening night 2010: The $15 million machine (made up of 24 planks that weigh 90,000 pounds) that is designed to project fantastical images and create various shapes failed to create the climactic rainbow effect. Then in April, on the premiere of Die Walkure's new production (which I attended and reviewed), soprano Deborah Voigt fell off the planks before she sang a note. A few nights later, one of the Valkyries got off her plank a little too early and stumbled off the stage. Fortunately no one was hurt.

What happened with Siegfried? Well nothing of note last Thursday for its premiere. But sure enough, the machine's nasty nature manifested itself at the very end of the opera at my performance. As Siegfried walks off stage, there is a fire effect that eventually reconfigures into the top of the mountain where Siegfried and Brunhilde's fateful encounter takes place. The planks configured into the fire, but then something went wrong and a massive crashing sound boomed through the theater. The planks went still and tons of talking backstage ensued to the annoyance of the audience. Jay Hunter Morris, playing Siegfried appeared from the right side of the stage preparing to walk across the planks but quickly went back in when he realized it might not be a good idea. For the entire scene interlude the planks remained fixed. And then an odd event happened: Deborah Voigt, playing the supposedly sleeping Brunhilde, WALKED on stage and lay down. Hunter Morris followed. The remainder of the scene played out downstage with the fire effect continuing throughout. They tried to turn off the effect, but then left it on. SURPRISINGLY, having the fire effect made the final scene more engaging. After all this is a scene about passion and Brunhilde's decision to let go of her divinity to give into the passion. More importantly, the actors' played with their new surroundings extremely well. Hunter Morris stayed close to the fire, emphasizing his passion, while Voigt stayed away from the flames, matching her confused state. At the end, when they decide to give in, the two moved toward the flames for their final kiss. It was possibly the most honest scene in the entire cycle thus far and the symbolism seemed more Wagnerian than anything else presented to us thus far. BUT IT WAS ONLY AN ACCIDENT! (Maybe they should figure out a way for Brunhilde to come out on stage that is narratively feasible and keep this setup for the scene) What about the other stuff? The scenes that went accordingly to plan?

Never got a chance to see this, but I think the mistake was actually better. 
Sadly, this production continues to disappoint. I want to preface this by stating that it is by no means a bad production. By most standards, this Siegfried production is pretty decent (can't say the same for Rheingold or Die Walkure). However there are a number of factors that have made it difficult to temper my expectations:

A. The price tag: At a whopping $16 million you expect top of the line technology. If it is constantly malfunctioning, then it clearly is not prepared, which is a bit upsetting considering the time  (2 years) and money to put it together.

B. The Hype: Peter Gelb and Director Robert LePage made huge deals about this state of the art Ring and how it would introduce the greatest technology we can imagine. If you don't believe me, watch their videos on the topic:


There are incredible images of the configurations of the planks, none of which I have seen. There is great talk about 3D and projections that interact with the people. I hate to say this, but the interactive nature of the set really only gets a tiny glimpse at a few moments. The 3D? Only feels like they scratch the surface with it as well as the environments are not 3d rendered projections. The 3d effects are some leaves falling, a few birds flying around. Nothing special really.

C. Because I saw Valencia's Ring and how the video technology could create stirring and incredibly vibrant images that made me feel like I was in another dimension with Wagner's music and characters. I don't like to make comparisons, but when you are the Met opera, the greatest in the world, the expectations are paramount. And  when you have the opportunity to work with such great technology, you expect risks to be taken. Lepage played it so safe, that it almost felt like I was watching Otto Schenk's production (which I admire greatly) on video screens. Again, not a bad thing, but certainly not the full extent of the technology's capabilities.

Here's a look at Valencia's opening to Act 3:

The imagery in this production is vastly superior to that of Walkure and Rheingold, where it seemed like LePage was still guessing at the machine's abilities. He has corrected many of his past failures, but in doing so, has also created new problems. Take Act 1 for example, set in Mime's cave. In Act 1 of Die Walkure, the stage was poorly used as there was a ton of empty unused space and the actors looked lost. Here, LePage, decided to go to the other extreme. The cave is so small it is almost claustrophobic and difficult to watch after a few moments. If the actors looked overwhelmed by the space in Walkure, they look crammed in this scene. More important  (and back to the safety issue), Hunter Morris had to enter through the back of the stage a few times and from the looks of it, the plank or passageway was perilous as he walked very cautiously up the ramp onto the set. Not a sight that inspires confidence. There is also a bear (looked like a teddy bear) that was so brief it made me wonder if it was even necessary. This is the set we see the interacting leaves and a lake that shows some reflections for a few brief minutes. There is an interesting sunset, but nothing else to marvel at really.

Dragon or Snake?
Act 2 gives us the vista of a gorgeously rendered forest. But it pretty much remains the same for the entirety of the act, opening up slightly to reveal a dragon before going back to it's original shape. I wonder why there was no use of the planks here to have Siegfried traverse through the forest and give us new spectacles and show us a new world. The flat image is nice, but hardly immersive. Now about that dragon. Or is it a snake? All I need to say is that when it opened it's mouth to sing, quite a few audience members laughed. Hardly the SCARY DANGEROUS beast that everyone (aside from Siegfried of course) seems so afraid of. I do think there was a moment of inspiration when the river turns red after the slaughter of the Snake/Dragon. And the little bird, while a cheap 3D effect, was still an appropriate visual for the scene.

Act 3 was where I started to see more of what I expected from this production for last 3 operas. The opening has 3D crows and Wotan does some magic (FINALLY!), but that aside, it seems like too little too late and it is the only real glimpse of truly effective use of the machine's interactive nature. After that is a decent looking scene with Erda before the gaffe occurred.

On one final note, Lepage should get credit for using the Act 1 prelude to give us his take on Siegfried's birth and upbringing. It could have been further developed, but his presentation of the events certainly contradicts another character's presentation and makes for some interesting dramatic dynamics.

I'd like to make a quick mention of the costumes: They are horrific. Particularly Erda's, who looks like Lady Gaga with a sparkly dress. Poor taste here. Wotan's is pretty mundane (same for Fafner, Mime, and Alberich). Siegfried's is about what you'd expect and Brunhilde's works as well, but there seemed to be little thought put into the costumes here. LePage seemed to go with the stereotypical Wagner look.

Erda's look: Goddess of the Earth or Lady Gaga?
Enough rambling about the production though. How was the singing? The title role is easily one of the most daunting tasks for any Wagnerian heldentenor. It is a test in stamina and endurance that few are brave enough to tackle (hence why of the 4 operas, Siegfried remains the rarest to be performed outside of a cycle). Most Wagner tenors sound exhausted from the start of this role, an incessant wobble dominating their voices. Not the case of Hunter Morris whose voice sounds youthful, fresh, and energetic. He tackled the forging songs with ease and flexibility. He sang through Wagner's thick orchestra with confidence and strength. He sounded like an impetuous young man. And he certainly plays Siegfried to perfection. Hunter Morris plays around with Mime, rustles in the "3D" leaves, and fools around with the Dragon/Snake during their encounter as a fearless child would. At the end of Act 2, he runs off stage to follow the bird, but then runs back on to retrieve the sword and horn he almost left behind. But Hunter Morris' performance wasn't all fun and games. Siegfried is after all a hero, but one who lacks an identity that he yearns for. This is where Hunter Morris' best moments came from. Wagner often talked about how he hoped for his operas to be sung with belcanto style singing, and these were perfect example of that (sans the coloratura of course). Hunter Morris does not have a huge voice, but it is nonetheless a beautiful one, and one that draws the audience in and makes him/her listen as he weaves lyrical phrases with incomparable ease and delicacy.

Deborah Voigt has drawn criticism for unstable high notes. I couldn't hear any during this performance. Her voice is round, robust, and gorgeous all the same. There was also a great deal of polish in her timbre. This may not have been the daunting task of Die Walkure or the upcoming Gotterdammerung, but it is clear that Voigt treated it with the same degree of professionalism and importance. Her chemistry with Hunter Morris was incomparable. I made note of their excellent improvisation and acting during the scenes climax despite the technical malfunctions, but their singing together was inspiring in its unity.

Bryn Terfel returned as Wotan or the "Wanderer" in this opera. He does not have quite the emotional range as he did in Die Walkure, but he made the best of it otherwise. His Wanderer was menacing during the Act 1 confrontation with Mime. There was some snarl and charm in the Act 2 confrontation with his nemesis Alberich and some compassion in his Act 3 scene with Siegfried as he tempts the youth to confront him. His singing was potent and yet filled with subtly and nuance.

Gerhard Siegel was terrific as Mime, the Nibelung who has fathered Siegfried. Mime is at the brunt of all of Wagner's cruel jokes and Siegel played the comic relief to perfection, making it impossible not to laugh at his pointlessly cunning attempts. Siegel's voice had great agility and even some nice heft.

Eric Owens (as Alberich) IS Alberich. He has the dark edge to the voice. He has the strength and power throughout the range that he put on display at various points, making us feel the frustrated power of Alberich attempting to reassert itself. His role has little to do in the work, but it is clear for Owens that "there are no little roles (pardon the cliche)."

Hans Peter Konig was tremendous as Fafner, exerting his massive ringing voice at will. Mojca Erdmann brought beauty and warmth to the bird. I can't wait to hear her Zerlina in Don Giovanni next week. Patricia Bardon was also a successful Erda possessing an potent, earthy tone. It's a shame her costume did her no favors.

Conductor Derrick Inouye had an interesting night. He was so good for two acts that it was really a shame to see the stability and unity of the orchestra start to unravel in Act 3. There were late, uncoordinated entrances throughout the Act. The string accompaniment and bass melody of the Act 3 prelude were not together at the start. The orchestra was not following Voigt or Morris in the final moments of their Act 3 duet, seeming in a rush to end the performance. It may have been a question of stamina (this is Inouye's only performance of Siegfried in the run), but it was alarming to see the drop off after two extremely magical acts in which Wagner's vivid musical storytelling was so crisp and clear.

As I stated in my Walkure review, the singers really made this night magical. But there is nonetheless a feeling of disappointment. 3 operas in and I have yet to feel the magic of Wagner's world in LePage's production. With the machine's tentative nature, I am even more concerned with Gotterdammerung and its many transitions. Will the machine be able to make it through the first act and its various scene changes unscathed? Or will LePage play it safe yet again and make the final installment (which should be the most exciting), the safest and dullest yet? I get the feeling that after this year's cycle and the rumored cycles next year, Peter Gelb will be saying goodbye to this Ring. It is rather unfortunate, considering the potential that LePage showed in his impressive Damnation of Faust many seasons ago. For now, we must make the best out of the current ring and let the singers do the work. 3 operas in, they've been creating the success on their own.



  1. Are you joking? The production is gorgeous. What are all you critics whining so much about? At least we can understand what is going on on stage and don't any confusing concepts to worry about. That stuff distracts from Wagner. It doesn't help it. That Valencia produciton looked nice, but I couldn't understand what was going on. No need to convulute things. Keep it sinple. Now is this better than Schenk? No way, but its fun to wait for something cool to happen with the "Machine."

  2. I don't know if you were able to see the Live in HD performances like the rest of us humble opera lovers, but I did want to mention that in the movie theater, the 3D effects were DEFINITELY visible. Yes, the Machine was awkward and bland at times, but there were enough creative uses with it that it ultimately came through, for me. Tree roots moving, Wotan banishing water from the rocks, etc, looked very convincing. It's too bad that they did not in person.

    And I personally loved Erda's costume--it's unfair to compare it to Lady Gaga, whose costumes are extremely random and far more outlandish. Since Erda is Earth, I thought the rocky, silicate or obsidian was appropriate. Striking, but she wasn't a character who needed to be moving around a lot.

    Otherwise, I enjoyed your review, thanks for putting it up. It's good to read about performances other than the ones that will be on DVD.