Much Ado About Nothung

'Siegfried' at the Met Fights with a Dull Sword

Friday, October 28, 2011 - 01:21 AM

“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.

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Comments [13]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

One always should encourage major endeavors to motivate to take on demanding tasks. The Met Opera's undertaking with regard to the RING is commendable. In today's performance, Saturday April 28th, the singers improved as they continued in their respective roles. What was/is most NOT in evidence is the singular beauty of timbre as well as the power that we associate with Wagnerian singers at their best. Most improvement was in the singing of today's Siegmund Frank van Aken replacing the indisposed Jonas Kaufmann. The orchestra under maestro Fabio Luisi was glowing and thew melos of each scene developed with the sense of inevitability. Stephanie Blythe is a treasure vocally with the fullness and amplitude of her magnificent voice, but also her convincing enunciating of the text with the urgency of Fricka's pronouncements. My background of studying the Wagner heldentenor roles with the Met Opera's Wagnerian legends Friedrich Schorr, Margarete Matzenauer, Alexander Kipnis, Karin Branzell, and Nartial Singher and in the cases of Schorr Singher and Kipnis viewing them at the Met in performances reinforces my absolute confidence that Wagner performance will eventually also find new Melchiors and Flagstads to properly represent the majesty, the epic and the consuming passion for delineating the panoramic emotions, actions and aspirations that both WAGNER and SHAKESPEARE penned so immortally Now that we are hearing the third act with its most thrilling and familiar "chestnuts" we can rightfully assess the vision of Wagner in his appropriate sequencing, both leitmotive-wise and musically so that everything holds so well together. Each melodic representation of a thing, a person, or an idea had a definitive melodic synonym, known as leitmotives, the building blocs, the cornerstones of Wagner's linked chain. As an opera composer myself, "Shakespeare" and 'The Politcal Shakespeare," I can appreciate the stream of consciousness that enthused WAGNER so passionately over each of his music dramas. Each of Wagner's operas has its own harmonic texture and "feel." Bryn Terfel has in this act nuanced his text ''reading" and consequently his tonal flow is not choppy but well controlled and the forward thrust of his vocal delivery is well measured and controlled. Wotan's Abschied (Farewell) perhaps, as much as any music tone poem like pictures a fiery scene in the orchestrra and pr4ovides theaters with a pictorial splendor of flames and mountain top and jutting rocks ands the Wotan as beautiful and declamatory music as to be in the operatic literature. The opwra is ending now. It is 4:18 PM.

Apr. 28 2012 11:19 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Rucharde Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

One always should encourage major endeavors to motivate to take on demanding tasks. The Met Opera's undertaking with regard to the RING is commendable. In today's performance, Saturday April 28th, the singers improved as they continued in their respective roles. What was/is most NOT in evidence is the singular beauty of timbre as well as the power that we associate with Wagnerian singers at their best. Most improvement was in the singing of today's Siegmund Frank van Aken replacing the indisposed Jonas Kaufmann. The orchestra under maestro Fabio Luisi was glowing and thew melos of each scene developed with the sense of inevitability. Stephanie Blythe is a treasure vocally with the fullness and amplitude of her magnificent voice, but also her convincing enunciating of the text with the urgency of Fricka's pronouncements. My background of studying the Wagner heldentenor roles with the Met Opera's Wagnerian legends Friedrich Schorr, Margarete Matzenauer, Alexander Kipnis, Karin Branzell, and Nartial Singher and in the cases of Schorr Singher and Kipnis viewing them at the Met in performances reinforces my absolute confidence that Wagner performance will eventually also find new Melchiors and Flagstads to properly represent the majesty, the epic and the consuming passion for delineating the panoramic emotions, actions and aspirations that both WAGNER and SHAKESPEARE penned so immortally Now that we are hearing the third act with its most thrilling and familiar "chestnuts" we can rightfully assess the vision of Wagner in his appropriate sequencing, both leitmotive-wise and musically so that everything holds so well together. Each melodic representation of a thing, a person, or an idea had a definitive melodic synonym, known as leitmotives, the building blocs, the cornerstones of Wagner's linked chain. As an opera composer myself, "Shakespeare" and 'The Politcal Shakespeare," I can appreciate the stream of consciousness that enthused WAGNER so passionately over each of his music dramas. Each of Wagner's operas has its own harmonic texture and "feel." Bryn Terfel has in this act nuanced his text ''reading" and consequently his tonal flow is not choppy but well controlled and the forward thrust of his vocal delivery is well measured and controlled. Wotan's Abschied (Farewell) perhaps, as much as any music tone poem like pictures a fiery scene in the orchestrra and pr4ovides theaters with a pictorial splendor of flames and mountain top and jutting rocks ands the Wotan as beautiful and declamatory music as to be in the operatic literature. The opwra is ending now. It is 4:18 PM.

Apr. 28 2012 11:14 PM
RodolfoL from New York

I really don't understand what is the big deal with this Lapage's machine. Production subduing Wagner music, the singing, the acting? Oh, come on! Disturbing? Probably it is not as Hollywoodian as the previous one (many thanks for that!). The transitions are great. Maybe I am totally wrong, but I always found the former production too overimpossing and distracting in all its "realism" (exception made of Gotterdammerung, that is better in the former production).

By the way, someone could tell which of both productions is more traditional?

I was at the performance yesterday; great, great, great!!!!! Unfortunately it is true what other commentators say about the great Deborah Voigt (certainly not her role).

Production can hurt many operas, not Wagner's and certainly not Lapage's production.
Cheers

Apr. 22 2012 12:26 PM
ph

I saw the Live HD performance and Morris was fantastic as Siegfried in acting and in singing. However, there were three things that bothered me: (1) when Siegfried fights Fafner, shouldn't Fafner be growling? Like in Bohm's recording? Because as is, it just looks like it was sitting around waiting for Siegfried to stab it; (2) the setting where Siegfried awakens Brunnhilde. It was an extremely boring gray which contradicts Brunnhilde's very first three phrases in which she hails the sun, the light, and the day. (3) Voigt truly acts wonderfully but her singing was supremely lacking. Brunnhilde is suppose to shine in an opera dominated by male voices. Instead Voigt has a dark timbre dominated by a gigantic vibrato that was in stark contrast to Morris' bright clear singing. Nearly every phrase seemed like a struggle; I sat there wondering if she could sing the next note. And the most supreme struggles were the high notes including the last high C which turned into a short squeak.

Nov. 11 2011 07:57 PM
Konstantin Brumm from NYC

Some excellent observations by Michael

Nov. 03 2011 06:50 PM
Srska from NYC

Very penitrating comments by Olivia, as usually.

Nov. 03 2011 06:42 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Mr. Meltzer, Do not know if the new site builds character. It only makes me snarkier than I already am. Glad you are well.
Best wishes,
Concetta Nardone

Oct. 30 2011 10:38 AM
David from Flushing

I too have reached a time of life when I have started to call performances of great length "bladder busters." At least operas have intermissions unlike one of the Lord of the Rings films that ended with a dam break.

When I was growing up, there was always conflict between my father and mother when it came time to paint the living room. My father always wanted to repaint in the present color even though he had opposed this hue originally.

I suppose the same can happen with opera productions. We do acquire an attachment at times to the previous sets.

The last time the Met used an all purpose set for the Ring, we had to stare at an unchanging dimly lit gray ramp. I recall that there were accidents and falls with this as well.
Der Maschine at least has the ability to appear in various colors and forms.

Those who were fortunate enough to view the opening of the Bolshoi were treated to some wonderful examples of stagecraft. A tableau of 19th C . Moscow in the vicinity of the theater was greated with continous applause. I suspect audiences do enjoy the illusions of reality to abstract sets.

Oct. 29 2011 07:20 PM
Walter Fekula from New York City

No wonder the reveiwer cannot hold a job for very long. Her smart-ass review leaves much to be desired and adds little. The 330 minutes of Sigfried flew by and the set was much improved after the first two parts of the Ring. The great Met. Opera orchestra was at its best. Jay Hunter Morris did a very credible Sigfried considering how little time he had becoming accustomed to this complicated production. The rest of the cast was uniformly excellent. I thought the dragon was cute and hated to see him go.The forest bird to my eyes was real. Critics like Ms. Giovetti, with their dime-store opinions really are unnecessary.

Oct. 29 2011 05:34 PM
Michael Meltzer

Ms. Nardone:
I'm reserving judgment. Most of the time, I do enjoy doing puzzles. I'm not sure yet about jumping through hoops.
It's possible that negotiating the WQXR website builds character.

Oct. 29 2011 04:05 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Glad to read Mr. Meltzer's comments. Wonder if he was having trouble with the new web site as I have been.

Oct. 29 2011 02:23 PM
Michael Meltzer

Pardon the typos, new glasses needed.

Oct. 29 2011 11:16 AM
Michael Meltzer

Congratulations to WQXR for shanging the home page lead-in to this review. Before, it appeared to be an editorial position by WQXR. Now, it correctly is shown as the personal take of its author.
The well-informed and provocative Ms. Giovetti is certainly entitled to her opinion and her folowing deserves to hear it. That is exactly how it should be presented.
Too often, reviews appear here that seem to be the opinion of the station, which is beyond the purview of what should be your mission as an airwaves presenter. It is also a destructive course in the broader scheme of the classical music community: a major not-for-profit like WQXR should never be telling the public not to spend their money at the box office of a sister organization like the Met Opera. If musical organizations do not encourage and support each other, how do they expect outsiders like Congress or the foundations to perceive them?

Oct. 29 2011 11:08 AM

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