Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Met Opera Review: LePage beheads the Gods and Wagner's Magnus Opus

By David Salazar (For the January 31st, 2012 Performance)

The staging of any Ring cycle at any opera house is a pretty huge deal, and Gotterdammerung probably carries the greatest anticipation AND expectation. For many audiences, the art form of opera is synonymous with visual grandiosity and splendor, hyper drama with larger than life characters, and music that enables its audience to connect with both of these normally unfamiliar ideas. And of the all the operas in the repertoire, perhaps none other provides all of these factors multiplied many times over than Gotterdammerung. After all, few operas portray a voyage down the great Rhine River. And believe it or not, few operas have anywhere near the death count that Gotterdammerung has. And how many other operas end with the destruction of the world and its subsequent rebirth? Yes, for the uninitiated, Wagner's Gotterdammerung might be the textbook opera and then some. And for many veterans, Gotterdammerung is the height of European Romanticism and all operatic tradition.

After 3 letdowns with the first three installments of Wagner's tetralogy, Robert LePage had to put together one hell of an effort to redeem himself and his well-documented machine of 90,00 pounds and $14 million. He had steadily improved from one production to the next, but the improvements were tiny baby steps that always left one hoping for more from this state-of-the-art behemoth. In order for his Ring to be anywhere near the success that he and Met General Manager Peter Gelb anticipated, he would have to take one giant leap forward with his Gotterdammerung production.

But after finishing up the cycle, I was left wondering if I had missed something. Was this really all that this expensive piece of technology was capable of? A bunch of repetitive projections, none of which really exhibit technological advance that is leaps and bounds ahead of more traditional theatrical tricks? Where were the flashy images that would make us feel truly immersed in the environment created by these expensive, heavy, and even dangerous planks? Were a bunch of zebra stripes between scene changes because lack of imagination the most abstract LePage could come up with? Not to mention the different combinations of imagines portraying wood. Or all that running water time and again. Where were the plethora of shapes that these planks would form as previewed by the original Ring trailer? Was a spinning wheel really all it could come up with?

The biggest letdown perhaps was that all of the advances made in the previous installments, however small, were completely forgotten, ignored, thrown by the wayside, in favor of what ultimately felt like a lazy, anti-climatic construction.  Take LePage's assertion early on that the environments would interact with the actors as if they were in fact the true environment. Remember Donner's storm conjuring in Rheingold? Or Siegfried rustling with the 3D leaves in a realistic way? Or dare I go so far back and remind everyone of the impressive underwater sequence in LePage's Damnation of Faust Production? Where was it in Gotterdammerung? Why didn't the digital water react to humans walking on it? Why didn't this same digital water react to a bunch of Rheinmaidens jumping and sliding in it? Granted the blood infecting the river was an inspired moment worthy of Wagner, but it was the only thing in the way of true creativity to be found.

Even some of LePage's rare moments of dramatic truth were absent. Remember Siegmund's death scene in the hands of his father? Or Wotan looking on at his beloved daughter one last time. It seemed that Lepage's direction was exclusively for and in favor of the planks this time around. The chorus runs out  and waits around for a bit and watches Hagen blow his horn before asking "What blew that horn?" Did they just miss the guy right in front of him? Why did this happen? Because LePage needed to give his planks enough time to get their positions together and so decided to sacrifice the credibility of the story and intelligence of the chorus. The Norn's spinning wheel (machine) breaks the thread of life four of five times and the Norn's had NO reaction to it whatsoever. Or how about the "water" slide? How many times is he going to have those Rhinemaidens climb up the planks only to slide down two seconds later. The first 3 times was okay, but by the twentieth time I was wondering if one of those Rhinemaidens would slide down the wrong way and get hurt. And by the way, every character entrance was preceded and punctuated by a plank rising up and doing a full 360 spin. It was pretty clear where the dramatic importance lay.

And then there was the end. Is it really possible for the ending of Wagner's Magnus Opus, the largest work of art in Western Culture to be anti-climatic? LePage sure thinks so. Wagner's most incredible musical conglomeration was completely overpowered and washed out by ruinous, poorly devised staging. To be honest, I feel like LePage got sick and tired of working on Gotterdammerung and phoned it in. Brunhilde finishes singing and jumps on the toy horse  which slowly and intermittently wheeled along to the "fire." Such energetic music accompanied by a horse that felt more like a turtle in its movement? Get rid of the horse if its going to detract from the drama; don't impose it on the audience.  Then the planks become covered in fire (a fire less convincing than in preceding installments might I add). The planks rotate and create a big blue wall and the Rhine Maidens are found in a small clustered space downstage. We get the "Zuruck vom Ring" sequence complete with Hagen miming swimming in a borderline cartoonish display. They run off stage left and then the planks rotate to do the most atrocious thing witnessed on the Met stage. Not even Gelb's apologetic letter found in the Met program can excuse this travesty. The planks descend to reveal... 5 Statues of the Gods that look like poorly finished clay sculptures. But that's not so bad considering the fact that we've already seen 3 of these finely crafted representations in Act 2. No the act of the opera's title (the destruction of the Gods) is portrayed by having the heads roll off the statues one by one in absurdly cliche manner. People seated around me grounded and chuckled. Was this supposed to be funny? To add insult to injury, we can see stage crew people running onto the stage clothed in work attire picking up the statues decapitated heads and running off stage as quickly as possible so as to not be perceived. LePage probably forgot to run up to family circle to make sure this wasn't visible from up top. Oops.

And the costumes, which I have long found dreadful during the entire cycle were no better here, featuring some of the worst concoctions thus far. Zebra stripes for the Norns come to mind. The horrific armor and horns for Waltraude. And then there's that Tarnhelm, which looks like a bunch of stockings. Why didn't they just have a metal helmet? It was very difficult to take Siegfried seriously with stockings covering his face as he steals the ring from Brunhilde.

But what it all comes down to is story telling. Gelb fiercely defends this production (understandably) as being true to Wagner's source material. But Wagner was a poetic genius, whose works ooze symbols. Regardless of Wagner's original intentions, the modern world demands those limits to be stretched. A Wagnerian audience wants to be awed, but also treated like an intelligent one as well. LePage certainly doesn't care for the latter, though he certainly thinks he's succeeding in the former.   There isn't much here in the way of interpretation. What does the Ring mean to LePage? The production indicates that it was some nice pages from a coloring book and that the machine was his crayons. What of the profound themes permeating the Ring? You wouldn't think Wagner was a profound philosophical genius by just watching the production onstage.

As has become a common theme this season (thankfully), the singers provided the ultimate cure. After watching this performance, I really want to know who can honestly question Deborah Voigt's vocal capabilities? Her voice exuded confidence throughout the Act 1 duet which includes ever escalating phrases between Siegfried and Brunhilde that can easily turn into a contest of wills (this time around it wasn't and everything ended well for both parties). Her charm and exuberance turned into a viper-like quality as she swore on Hagen's spear. Her vocal precision and accentuation of some jagged rhythms only added to this anger. Her final immolation scene at the end of the opera exhibited no fatigue that would be expected after 3 plus hours of singing. Voigt sang with a beautiful pianissimo as she lamented Siegfried's betrayal. Her upper range which constantly comes under brutal criticism was sublime; ringing valiantly over Wagner's dense orchestra without ever displaying any sign of strain. Her final phrases before running into the pyre were filled with frenzied excitement that gave the moment a celebratory feel.

Stephen Gould was the ideal Siegfried; a potent, agile, and durable voice with a ringing upper range devoid of strain. He complemented Voigt beautifully in their lone duet. His vocal prowess became most evident at the end of Act 1 when Siegfried appears as "Gunther" (with stockings on his head). Wagner writes in the lower depths of the tenor's voice so as to have him sound like a baritone (Gunther's voice type). The real magic is for the Tenor to take advantage of the vocal writing and sound like a different characer. Many tenors force their voices to sound dark, which makes the effect sound false. Not the case here. As soon as Gould opened his mouth, I thought it was another singer. In fact, I wondered if LePage had let Baritone Iain Paterson sing this part instead of Gould. The color was surely darkened, but it sounded fresh and refined. Adding to this, Gould made calculated mechanical movements throughout the scene, a far cry from his excited manner as Siegfried in other scenes. His mechanical movements made him a true threat and one anticipated that this man could unleash his strength at any moment. In his death scene, Gould sang with a smooth legato and punctuated his performance with an extremely soft final phrase that was sublimely ethereal.

Hans Peter Konig was another standout on the night with his booming voice. In his first few scenes, he played the role rather safely with smooth phrasing, but nothing indicating the monster within. However, as he sang his monologue "Hier sitz'ich zur Wacht" (Here I sit on watch) he slowly exhibited more of the harsh tonal colors of his exemplary Hagen. One of my favorite all-time Hagens is Matti Salminen's and his ability to add "ugly" tones to his masterful and rich sound, giving us a portrait of a flawed yet dignified monster. Konig is not far off from this portrayal in the least, giving Hagen a redemptive quality as his father Alberich tries to persuade him to be corrupt. Konig's Hagen did not seem all that receptive to his father's request, instead sounding confused, hurt by his inequities.

Speaking of that Alberich, Eric Owens continues to awe with his flawless portrayal. In only 10 minutes of stage time, Owens reminds us why Alberich is such a depraved individual. Everytime he uttered the words "Mein Sohn," he did so with a soft almost sweetened sound giving the phrase a flattering but manipulative quality. There was snarl and repressed anger in his voice as he incited Hagen to obtain the Ring. And most brutal of all was the resonant and haunting cry of "Sei treu" (Keep Faith) which punctuated his exit. Was he speaking to his son or was this his own attempt to convince himself to keep faith? Owens leaves us wondering, but the effect is mesmerizing.

It was rather unfortunate that Iain Paterson and Wendy Bryn Harmer's respective Gunther and Gutrune were reduced to pouting for the entire of the opera, but it's hard to complain when it is done with such pleasing vocal display. The three Norns (Maria Radner, Elizabeth Bishop, Heidi Melton) and the three Rhine Maidens (Erin Morley, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Tamara Mumford) were equally impressive.

And then there was Waltraud Meier. In her brief scene Meier lets us know all there is to know about Waltraute. As she recounted the tale of Wotan she sang with soft and mysterious mezzavoce that drew one in. It wasn't singing precisely, it was vocal acting. She was in complete control. Then suddenly, slight dread entered into her voice as she spoke of Wotan's fate  and then a caressing quality as she spoke of Wotan thinking about Brunhilde. Through her, we could feel Wotan's love for Brunhilde. As she instructed Brunhilde to destroy the ring, a sharp accent on the word "Ring" enabled us to feel the animosity toward the loathed item. Then a layer of urgency as she narrates how she decided to run off and look for Brunhilde. At this point, her intensity increased and one prepared for her to final let loose that gorgeous potent sound of hers. And that she did. This release was cathartic in its effect. But it did not end there. When Brunhilde imposes herself with the phrase "Wie Kannst du's fassen, fuhllose Maid!" (Why can't you understand, you unfeeling woman?) it felt as if Brunhilde was attacking Waltraud's inability to feel passion and love. Meier seemed struck by this reply and as the scene progressed, she seemed to lose more and more control of the scene until she was kicked out. Meier easily stole the show in this brief scene, making for one of the most breathtaking moments of this entire cycle.

Fabio Luisi had a successful evening from the podium despite some seeming indisposition from the brass section (which had an unfavorable night). Fortunately, Luisi, unlike other conductors that indulge in Wagner's brass heavy orchestration maintained some restraint on the brass section and enabled the orchestral sound to maintain balance throughout. He was extremely considerate of his singers even when the music was at its most potent. I never found the orchestra overpowering the singer in the least, a feat for any conductor of Wagner. Wagner's music is through-written, but there are often incredible moments of silence that are also essential to his drama. Luisi gave these silences as much expressive depth as he gave the most cacophonous moments. Take the moment when Brunhilde discovers that Siegfried has betrayed her. An extended pause created a great deal of tension as one anticipated not only Brunhilde's, but the music's next move. The solemn entrance of the Bass Clarinet moments later felt as if it had materializes from this silence. The three chords before the funeral march's chordal explosion were pronounced with increasing intensity, but were each flank by tense silence. The opera's final phrase, following a grand pause after the epic destruction of Valhalla made this glorious final phrase all the more significant. Given how poorly the production had distracted from the preceding music, this pause aided in reasserting the music one final time in all its glory.

Despite the vocal prowess, the big story for this run is undoubtedly the failure of "the Machine." Billed as revolutionary, it ultimately proved to be nothing more than an experiment. But the question will always remain: what were they experimenting with? Certainly not visual effects as those were few and far between. And if that was the case, then there wasn't enough experimenting to my eyes. It certainly was not an experiment in theatrical minimalism. Despite the absence of furniture and elaborate sets, I highly doubt one could dub a $14 million dollar machine as minimal and certainly not a cheap way to produce theater (which is what most minimalist sets aim to do in many producers' minds). What exactly were Gelb and LePage aiming at? How is this supposed to change the future of opera? The results speak for themselves. And unfortunately, they don't say much. 


  1. I wish people would stop complaining about "the machine." Step back and think for a moment about the progression of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Met. The last production by Otto Schenk was ultra traditional and was great. Thankfully, Peter Gelb chose to go with Robert LePage instead of giving us a euro-trash ultra modern production (e.g. the gods as lawyers carrying briefcases). The Valencia Ring started the movement into a techo ring and the LePage production is an extension of technology.

    Productions of the Ring have always changed and evolved throughout their respective runs and I expect that Mr. LePage and company will be involved in continuing to modify and "improve" the production. Things that have worked and things that have not worked so well will inevitably be changed, if possible. Instead of all the nit-picking about the machine we should be in awe of the creative ingenuity and genius that it took to bring such a production into fruition.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed and have marveled at the first 3 operas of the ring and eagerly look forward to Gotterdammerung which will be broadcast into theaters on 2/11/12.

    1. Hood, I assume that you didn’t see this horrible production, didn’t have tolerate the noises planks and the nonsense of distract movements. This is the only reason justify your comment.
      Trust me $14 millions is too much to see a direction for planks movements. You
      Neil Schneider

    2. I agree with Hood. This was my first ring opera, and also my first visit to the Met. I have to say that I really enjoyed the effects provided by the machine. I really wanted to see the ring in a traditional setting, and I think the machine provided that sense.

    3. Marko and Hood, you guys are off your rockers. This production is lousy to say the least. Watch it in a theater to get a real sense of the productions' worth. Nothing is worthwhile when it distracts from the singers' performacnes

    4. What's with the cat fight? I didn't think much of the production to be honest. A bit of a letdown considering the hype it received and considering how much better (and I MEAN MUCH MUCH MUCH BETTER), the enchanted island was at doing the same things, but 30x better than this 14 million dollar machine. There were some neat things though: like the forest in Siegfried and the Ride of the Walkures which I thought was fun. The fire at the end of Walkure was cool and the end of Rheingold was good too. BUt that aside, it didn't do as much as I'd expected. The machine was creaky and noisy and really surprisingly unflexible. Good review. Your reviews are awesome!