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Operavore

Much Ado About Nothung

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“I cannot mend Nothung!” laments Mime in the first scene of Siegfried. Unfortunately, with three-fourths of the Met’s Wagnerian saga now presented to the public, one begins to wonder if anyone can mend Robert Lepage’s occasionally striking, but mostly disappointing Ring.

We’re already seeing a set that is beset with creaks, groans and the occasional ear-splitting squeak or deafening bam, overstepping the bounds of Wagner’s score and taking the audience out of the total gesamtkunstwerk immersion. It leads one to wonder if the planks are meant to do what we’re seeing them do and worry that at any moment a false move could finally teach Siegfried fear. (A side note: Whether Robert Lepage, as many have insinuated, hates opera is debatable; however, his animosity towards bladders is made clear when the first two-and-a-half acts of a five-and-a-half hour opera are full of constantly running water.)

In some respects, the Ring has had its strong moments, showing what some sophisticated technology can bring to a production. However, the striking visuals of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre cede here to screensavers circa Windows 95, making the production look dated even on opening night. And when the sets got interesting, the costumes intervened: Erda’s Eddic landscape at the top of Act III was a thing of chilly, crystalline beauty, though the goddess’s disco-ball-meets-Hefty-bag dress and the way it caught the light made it hard to stare.

Meanwhile, the abstractness offered by the Machine, Lepage’s 45-ton set comprised of 24 planks, was overpowered by the overly literal. The dragon that Siegfried slays is a vaguely phallic castaway from the Jurassic Park prop room. Siegfried fights through the ring of fire like a live-action World 8 from Super Mario Brothers 3. And while normally the most we see of the Act II Woodbird, Siegfried’s guiding voice to Brünnhilde’s rock, is a sublime interaction between woodwinds and offstage soprano, here we have an actual yellow bird fluttering around the Machine, a representation of Lepage’s much-ballyhooed 3D projections. Impressive though the technology may be, it was largely inconsequential.

This was not the case with Lepage’s last Ex Machina production for the Met: his La Damnation de Faust was prone to the same occasional technical glitches (including a shaking ladder that renders the heavenly chorus of the final scene obsolete while most audiences fear for the safety of the mezzo-soprano) yet it brought much to Berlioz’s dramatic legend. Here, however, Lepage is like Alberich, the operatic cycle’s titular Niebelung: He has crafted a work that comes with a great amount of power and responsibility (Reinforced stages! Cirque du Soleil acrobatics! Injured singers!) and has quickly lost control of it.

Fortunately, the power of this Ring has landed in the hands of conductor Fabio Luisi, who replaced an injured James Levine earlier this season for the music director’s fall conducting duties at the Met. Luisi’s handle on the daunting score was firm and allowed the leitmotifs and themes to bloom with more grace than any of Lepage’s projections. The orchestra had particularly strong moments with principal clarinetist Anthony McGill’s deliciously foreboding accompaniment to Mime in Act I and Erik Ralske’s pastoral and powerful horn solo in Act II.

Bryn Terfel was at his most powerful as the Wanderer, creating a progression from his brash and bellowing Wotan of Das Rheingold into an old and conflicted man with a distinguished tone and regal bearing, in spite of a costume that left him a preposterous ringer for Gandalf the Grey (hey, Comic Con was just in town). The true gold, however, lay in the voice of Eric Owens, returning to the role of Alberich and asserting the booming presence and well-tempered technique of one of this century’s great bass-baritones.

Equally voluptuous in terms of vocal artistry (okay, the dress helped, too) was Deborah Voigt, returning to her role debut as Brünnhilde for a brief but ravishing final scene. Much was made of the stentorian soprano’s ability to handle this role—or, indeed, if she would ultimately sing it at all. Like Terfel’s Wotan, Voigt’s Brünnhilde is a vocal journey from tomboyish naïveté in Die Walküre to sexual awakening in Siegfried, replete with a ravishing and beaming awakening with a velvety top and steely undercurrent. The occasional vocal trembles that followed were appropriate to a woman waking up after a decades-long sleep to find the life she knew was gone and her greatest fear, belonging to a man, was staring her in the face. The little touches in her acting—flirtatiously tossing her feldspar-red hair and realizing, to her horror, that her armor was missing—added to a delicious account.

There’s a lot of leeway that comes with making a last-minute replacement, especially in a production like Lepage’s Ring, which requires no small amount of preparation. Causing a stir last week was the ninth-inning announcement that the part of Siegfried would be sung by tenor Jay Hunter Morris, replacing an ill Gary Lehman. Wagner is not easy on his tenors, a fact epitomized in this title role, but Morris—who recently made his role debut in San Francisco’s cycle this summer—gave a serviceable performance that could turn, with more rehearsal time and acclimatization to this production, striking.

There were clarion moments to be sure, but Morris’s tenor lacked that innate fearlessness that characterizes Wagner’s hero. It came off more as an angsty Gen-X defiance, not helped by some of the Ken-doll postulating and muddied, unfocused stage business: Before setting off to Brünnhilde’s rock, Morris stops, retrieves the ring and helmet, and then, as if he’s cleaning house, inspects once again the canteen of tea Mime had prepared for him, smells it distastefully, pauses unsure and then casually tosses it to the side. Siegfried! There’s a hot chick on a rock waiting for you! This is not the time to contemplate Starbucks!

Perhaps Wagner's cruelest trick is having Siegfried sing an impassioned duet with Brünnhilde. While she only starts to sing in this final scene, the belegured tenor has carried an entire show and yet is still expected to sound fresh and ardent. Morris paired well with Voigt, but did show some signs of fatigue after the arduous road to Valhalla. 

For some, it was a heroic evening, for others it was a long 330 minutes. The full value of Lepage’s Ring has yet to be determined—Götterdämmerung opens on January 27—but it’s rapidly decreasing in worth.