Met's Götterdämmerung: Raging Against the Machine

Wagner Finale Avoids the Burning Ring of Fire

Saturday, January 28, 2012 - 12:01 PM

Before we talk about the end of the world, let’s talk about the end of the Ring.

After four installments that premiered over 17 months, the solvency of Robert Lepage’s radical (depending on who you ask) new staging seems as dubious as Hagen’s moral standing. The 45-ton set's creaks and thuds, more noticeable now than in September 2010’s Das Rheingold, echo a theory postulated by this reviewer in the months leading up to this cycle’s premiere: If Otto Schenk’s Ring for the Met was a storybook set, Lepage’s is a YouTube.

Unfortunately, while we keep returning to our familiar, beloved storybooks over the course of our lives, YouTube videos have a flash-in-the-pan shelf life. And, while Götterdämmerung does show the most inventive use of Lepage’s so-called Machine so far, this Ring has nonetheless begun to turn, as the opening-night performance on Friday demonstrated.

One of the biggest problems has been the buzz surrounding this production. The word-of-mouth and all-press-is-good-press theorems are a boon to many Met departments, but they rumplestiltskin into a boy-who-cried-wolf phenomenon for the final artistic product. Instead of marveling at the set's oscillating centerpiece -- a series of 24 planks that pivot individually along a lateral crossbar -- we cringe at the possibility that one of those planks could detach or send a Norn (like the powerhouse Heidi Melton) into the Grand Tier.

Act II of Götterdämmerung

Impressive are moments like Siegfried’s raft journey and the transition from Brünnhilde’s cave to the hall of the Gibichungs, moments tempered with abstract beauty and hints of literalism that dominated Siegfried. However, when it comes to the final blaze of glory—an immolation scene that destroys Valhalla and earth—the result is a damp squib. In Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk ideal, we would see the interior of Valhalla and the gods swallowed up by the flames. Here, a quintet of statues fashioned after Wotan, Fricke and other characters from Das Rheingold snap, crackle and pop under a heat that seemed on par with an overactive radiator.

All of this would be forgivable were the singers in the Ring cast making up for the bloodless Machine with some vibrant acting. Lepage has bemoaned the fact that, while his casts are eagerly received at curtain calls, “the guy who worked on that comes out and suddenly you're just the guy who has this big set that makes noise.” In the same interview with the Seattle Times, he said of audiences, “Do these people know that some of that good singing and good acting they just saw came from hours and hours of introducing somebody to the part, or to confronting contradictory ideas with people who had been doing it for a long time?”

Okay, Lepage, let’s play on your terms.

Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried, Wendy Bryn Harmer as Gutrune, Iain Paterson as Gunther and Hans-Peter König as Hagen

It’s perhaps more fair to attribute the superb singing—the cycle’s best—on the Met stage last night to conductor Fabio Luisi. Beginning with the Vorspiel, he spun nebulous clouds out of Wagner’s foreboding music and made a long, exposition-heavy first act a bearable step on the way to the luscious meat of Acts II and III. The lines are limned from the craggy imperiousness of Levine’s Ring accounts, which will win Luisi both fans and detractors, but to my ears there was plenty of Wagnerian ravishing to go around—especially when the male chorus stormed into Act II with the force of a battering ram.

Much pressure is placed on Deborah Voigt and Jay Hunter Morris as the eponymous lovers from Die Walküre and Siegfried, respectively. In terms of character development, Morris (who sounds much more at ease with the role here than he did as a last-minute replacement for October’s Siegfried) was the biggest letdown. His continued Ken Doll posturing and posing made the fearless character seem as heroic as the high school quarterback. Certainly Morris has prom king good looks and a look of eternal reassurance, but did Lepage seem to think that the product of sibling inbreeding would have to subsequently be bland and brainless?

More interesting was Voigt’s Brünnhilde. It’s a triumph for the soprano, whose ability to take on the role in Walküre and see it through to the end was questioned by many. It’s been a striking, frankly beautiful transformation and on vocal terms she let loose here, occasionally sacrificing a pure top for emotional catharsis. No matter, as we needed something more interesting from her than slumped shoulders and a downcast head in her Act II return to the Gibichungs and an Immolation Scene more deferential than determined. Blame Lepage. (By the way, Debbie, you should seriously consider going firebrand redhead in real life.)

Waltraud Meier as Waltraute

The supporting cast knitted together as a solid ensemble and, in tandem with Voigt and Morris, saved Götterdämmerung from going over the edge. You live to hear singers like Waltraud Meier and Eric Owens in the momentary yet monumental roles of Waltraute and Alberich and their singing provided two of the evening’s biggest highlights. Equally mesmerizing were Iain Paterson as a conflicted and commanding Gunther and Wendy Bryn Harmer as the clueless yet charismatic Gutrune. Tying it together was Hans-Peter König as evil mastermind and Niebelung progeny Hagen. How much of this all came from Lepage and how much can be credited to simply a sterling cast, however, is debatable.

As Siegfried tells Gunther in the first act, “Sturdy limbs are all I have and only now while I am young.” The final caveat is what signals the genuine flaw of Lepage’s Ring. In the course of roughly 15 hours, there are sturdy visual moments that perhaps accumulate to one-third of that time. In the meantime, there’s not much about the Machine that’s still young.


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Comments [11]

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

www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com, where one may download, free, at RECORDED SELECTIONS, 37 complete selections," live, " from my four solo concerts in the Main Hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, of Carnegie Hall.

Jan. 21 2013 11:31 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, LaKE Hiawatha, N from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

My memories of studying voice with the Wagnerian Met Opera legrends Friedrich Schorr, Alexander Kipnis, Karin Branzell, and Margarete Matzenauer and hearing the first three's Met performances on recordings and in the Met audience at performances of Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr and Kirsten Flagstad, I simply cannot be enthused about any of the singers on today's broadcast. THE ORCHESTRA AND CHORUS UNDER THE MASTERFUL CONDUCTING OF FABIO LUISI WAS THE SMASH HIT OF THE PERFORMANCE !!! I am a Wagnerian heldentenor and opera composer ("Shaksepeare" & "The Political Shakespeare"). I am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute in Boonton, NJ where I teach all the Wagner and Shakespeare roles. My website www.Wagneropera.com has a section, "Recorded Selections," at which one may download my live performances, free, of 37 out of the 100 selections that I sang in 4 three hour long solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. My most recent Carnegie Hall concerts were ALL-WAGNER solo concerts including premieres in a major concert hall of Wagner's songs composed before his Rienzi days. Their reviews are on my website.

Feb. 11 2012 07:13 PM

As for the "machine" - a gimmick. The orchestra has been more in tune in the past. I caught a few clunkers. Maybe they are just tired.

Feb. 04 2012 02:23 AM

Debbie had a very good voice until the Covent Garden incident. I must sadly agree she is tight on top & even leaving out the 1st consonant of a high note (anything above G) to get to the A,B or C which are not full and vibrant the way they used to be. So sad for a very nice lady.

Feb. 04 2012 02:20 AM

Jeez...if Voigt is one of your "favorite Wagnerian interpreters" you seriously need to expand your horizons.

Feb. 02 2012 11:04 AM
James from New York

I just saw "Gotterdammerung" tonight at The Met, after seeing the three previous productions. Thankfully, this one did not have an obvious malfunction resulting in an injury or laugheter. That said, the production was weak, the tenor overparted; the stars were Deborah Voight (but some rough notes), Waltrud Meier and Eric Owens. Sad to say the horns were woefully out of tune; more rehearsal, men? I feel that I have had just passed an exam which I NEVER want to take again.

Feb. 01 2012 02:27 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau County

Read today's review in the NY Post. Ouch.

Jan. 30 2012 01:36 PM

@Cathryn, "Ms. Voigt has been one of my favorite Wagnerian interpreters " ... yes her acting is supreme. But this is an opera, not a movie; therefore singing counts! I expect gleaming high notes.

Jan. 29 2012 03:02 PM

Thanks, Kip. Who could forget the Tosca that opened the 2009-10 season? Correction appended.

Jan. 29 2012 11:13 AM

Very nice review, but a small correction - while it might seem that this Ring has dragged on for 30 months, Rheingold premiered in Sept. 2010, not 2009. It's been 17 months only.

Jan. 29 2012 11:03 AM
Cathryn D'Arcy

Thank you, Ms. Giovetti, for your stellar review of the Met's final installment of the Ring. I just wish that the NYT critic saw and heard the same performance that you did. Ms. Voigt has been one of my favorite Wagnerian interpreters and, yes, I agree with you, Ms. Voigt should consider becoming a redhead! LOL Thanks again.

Jan. 29 2012 08:20 AM

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