Why I will not see the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of The Ring cycle

Because it sounds like the Met’s new production of La Traviata that I saw in January—dominated by a pretentious, distracting staging concept. In La Traviata, the entire stage was turned into a smooth, abstract, semi-circular shell, with a white bench encircling this space, and a gigantic clock above the bench on the right. The clock—nudge, nudge—represented the idea that Violetta is running out of time, her death is approaching. Which seemed mildly interesting, if jejune, for about ten minutes. But when the clock, along with the empty white shell and the bench, remained there through all three acts, you realized that this minimalist concept had replaced any sense of the meaning of the work as a whole, and that you were being pounded on the head with an idea that was as pretentious as it was void of dramatic and human substance. (Also, Violetta exhibited not a single sign of illness in the new production. Her fatal sickness was metaphysical, was a concept, fitting with the abstract, featureless stage design.)

In the new Ring production, 24 movable planks are used in every scene, in a wide variety of inventive ways, to form the physical environment in which the action occurs. No Valhalla, no earth, no river, no mountains and caves—just 24 planks organized and re-organized into different arrangements. When I read a review of the new production of Das Rheingold, the first opera in the cycle, a few months ago, the plank idea sounded, perhaps, mildly interesting. However, I learn from the Times’ review of Die Walküre this week that the planks are going to be used in all four operas. The thought is unbearable. It is a massive victory of empty conceptualism over art, and, really, over any human communication.

Even the Times’s reviewer is rejecting the plank idea. Yet the Times loved La Traviata.

April 23, 2011
Brünnhilde’s Trials Beyond Wagner’s Dreams

Two scenes in the Metropolitan Opera’s highly anticipated new production of Wagner’s “Walküre,” which opened on Friday night, showcased what is both captivating and exasperating about Robert Lepage’s production, the second installment in his staging of the complete “Ring” cycle.

During the opening storm scene, the 24 movable planks of the imposing set by Carl Fillion that dominates the production (which the cast and crew call the machine) rose upright (with, as always, some audible creaking) to become a wall for video images of gusting, snow-flecked winds. Then the images and beams morphed into a forest of ominous gray trees through which you could see young Siegmund (the tenor Jonas Kaufmann), exhausted and injured, fleeing an avenging band of sword-wielding clansman as they searched for him with lanterns. It was an arresting realization of action depicted in the opera only in fitful orchestral music.

But a problematic staging touch came at the opening of Act II. Here the planks jutted out to evoke the “wild rocky place” that Wagner calls for. Wotan, the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, came bounding onto the beams, now horizontal, which were alive with images of rocky terrain. Then his rambunctious daughter Brünnhilde, the soprano Deborah Voigt, appeared. As Ms. Voigt started to climb the planks that evoke the hillside, she lost her footing and slid to the floor.

Fortunately Mr. Lepage and the cast had correctly decided to play this scene for its humor. Brünnhilde, a warrior maiden who wants nothing to do with marital ties, has come to tease her father and alert him that his bossy wife, Fricka, is fast approaching. So Ms. Voigt rescued the moment by laughing at herself. She stayed put on the row of flat, fixed beams at the front of the stage and tossed off Brünnhilde’s “Hojotoho” cries.

The problem here was not just that in this crucial dramatic moment, with Ms. Voigt about to sing the first line of her first Brünnhilde, Mr. Lepage saddled her with a precarious stage maneuver. The problem was that for the rest of the scene, whenever Wotan or Brünnhilde walked atop the set, the beams wobbled and creaked. At times Mr. Terfel, a big, strong man, had to extend his arms to balance himself. No imagery is worth having to endure the sounds of creaking gears and looks of nervousness on the faces of singers.

What moved me about this “Walküre” and made the five-hour-plus evening seem to whisk by was the exciting, wondrously natural playing that James Levine drew from the great Met orchestra and the involving singing of the impressive cast. Mr. Levine has had a rough time recuperating from back surgery. His conducting on Friday, if not as commanding as his work in Berg’s “Wozzeck” this month, was inspired and beautiful. Certain passages were perhaps not as together as in Levine “Die Walküre” performances past. But this one had fresh urgency and sweep. Taking bows onstage at the end, with the supporting arms of Mr. Terfel and Ms. Voigt, he looked frail. Still, he did superb work and was greeted with a huge ovation.

Among the cast Ms. Voigt had the most at stake. A decade ago, when she owned the role of Sieglinde at the Met, she seemed destined to be a major Brünnhilde. Her voice has lost some warmth and richness in recent years. But the bright colorings and even the sometimes hard-edged sound of her voice today suits Brünnhilde’s music. I have seldom heard the role sung with such rhythmic accuracy and verbal clarity. From the start, with those go-for-broke cries of “Hojotoho,” she sang every note honestly. She invested energy, feeling and character in every phrase.

There were certainly some vocally patchy passages. Now that she is past this first performance, she may better realize her conception of the character, who evolves from a feisty tomboy to a baffled goddess deeply moved by Siegmund’s love for Sieglinde. All in all, this was a compelling and creditable Brünnhilde.

More than in the production of “Das Rheingold” that opened the season, Mr. Terfel’s stated intentions with Wotan came through here. He may not have the noble, sonorous voice of Wotans in the Hans Hotter lineage. But his muscular singing crackled with intensity, incisive diction and gravelly power. During Wotan’s long narrative in Act II, in which he explains the whole sorry story of his life to Brünnhilde, many singers emphasize the despair of this broken god. Mr. Terfel ranted and raged as he relived the events.

The audience fell in love with the new Met Siegmund, Mr. Kaufmann, who proved his Wagnerian prowess last summer as Lohengrin at Bayreuth. Handsome and brooding, he captured all the valor and torment of this uprooted demigod. His dark, textured and virile voice has ideal Germanic colorings for the music. He is a true tenor, and the role may sit a little low for him. He could not wait, it seemed, to sing the big high A in Siegmund’s last phrase of Act I, which he held onto thrillingly. He had a great night.

Not so, unfortunately, the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, in her Met debut, as Sieglinde. Fresh from her triumph in the title role of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera “Anna Nicole” at Covent Garden, Ms. Westbroek was eager to introduce herself to Met audiences in a Wagner role for which her big, gleaming voice is well suited. In Act I she looked lovely and sounded good if a little steely. Before Act II Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, announced from the stage that even though Ms. Westbroek was ill, she would sing anyway. But once the act got going, she decided not to appear, and Margaret Jane Wray, an experienced and dusky-voiced Wagnerian, sang that act and the next.

As Fricka, the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was in typically astonishing voice. This aggrieved goddess has just one crucial scene in the opera, a marital confrontation with Wotan in which she demands that Siegmund, having violated the covenants of marriage and engaged in incestuous love, must be allowed to die in his battle with Hunding (the stentorian bass Hans-Peter K├Ânig). Mr. Lepage has Fricka play almost the entire scene sitting on an exotic throne that is rolled out a little shakily. But Ms. Blythe is such a compelling presence and formidable singer that she did not seem confined. Stephanie Blythe rules.

The stage effects in this production are sometimes amazing, sometimes clunky and intrusive. (And what was the persistent white-noise whirring that seemed to be coming from the ventilation fans in the boxes that house the video projection equipment?)

The long Act I encounter in which Siegmund arrives as a stranger at Hunding’s dwelling was played behind the extended apron of the set, back in a sunken portion of the stage. Why place this most intimate action so far back, where the voices were sometimes swallowed up? For most of the act the legs of the three singers were cut off from view—from the knees down. Left alone at night, Mr. Kaufmann’s Siegmund briefly leaped atop the extended apron, and here, suddenly, was the character in full, and much closer to us; Mr. Kaufmann looked liberated and sounded terrific.

During the “Ride of the Valkyries” Mr. Lepage had fun. The eight sisters straddled individual beams as if riding horses, holding reins and staying in place as the planks rose and fell to evoke the galloping steeds.

Still I do not understand Mr. Lepage’s devotion to using body doubles. In the final scene, some of the most sublime music ever written, Wotan places Brünnhilde in a sleeping state and leaves her atop a mountain surrounded with fire. But here Mr. Terfel led Ms. Voigt, in a trance, off the stage. The machine went into action, and soon we saw a body double as Brünnhilde hanging upside down on raked planks with images of rocky cliffs and spewing fire. We had, in effect, an aerial view of the mountain top.

But having bonded with Ms. Voigt’s Brünnhilde, I wanted to see the living, singing goddess meet her fate, with a much simpler staging. Mr. Lepage cannot help showing off his 45-ton toy, even when it means sending his Brünnhilde to the wings at what should be her most transcendent moment.

- end of initial entry -

Carol Iannone writes:

Gosh, how can they sustain four huge operas with an empty staging concept? La Traviata was just one relatively minor work compared to The Ring.

LA replies:

Exactly. I liked the staging concept of La Traviata during the first act, but when they used the exact same same stage design in the second act, and then the third, I got totally sick of it. Yet they’re going to use these damn planks through all approximately twelve acts of the four operas of The Ring.

Carol Iannone replies:

I wonder if they’re just putting one over on us, pretending it’s high concept when it’s just about saving money!

Thomas Bertonneau writes:
Subject: The Planks of the Nibelung

Euro-trash opera directors, such as the Plankmeister currently in charge of The Ring at the Met, are like liberal politicians: people keep voting for them (i.e., buying tickets in order to be insulted) and so they stay in power. I wanted to begin my “Modern Drama” course this semester with Tristan und Isolde and, after reviewing a number of performances available on DVD, settled finally on a mid-1980s Met production under Barenboim, with set direction by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. The worst version was Zubin Mehta’s from Munich, which sets the story on a contemporary cruise-liner. In another performance there was a grotesque, fat-bellied Tristan with an unbuttoned shirt and various other Regie-Oper indulgences having nothing to do with Wagner’s theatrical esthetic. I discovered, by the way, that, given a chance (I asked them to read Bryan Magee’s Aspects of Wagner), college students take to Tristan rather well.

Michael S. writes:

Carol Iannone writes:

I wonder if they’re just putting one over on us, pretending it’s high concept when it’s just about saving money!

Saving money? That doesn’t appear to be the case.

The Times reports:

The set—essentially a vast platform made up of 24 rotating planks mounted on a crossbar that can rise and fall—is the biggest and most complicated piece of machinery ever used at the house. And it is the foundation of all four operas in this “Ring,” created by the Canadian director Robert Lepage. The Met, without giving a precise figure, has indicated that the cost for all four operas is around $16 million, on the high end for new productions. [Emphasis added.]

LA replies:

Yes. It’s like Hollywood repeatedly producing heavy-handed propagandistic left-wing movies that fail at the box office. As Michael Medved pointed out once, they’re not producing propagandistic left-wing movies for the money. They’re doing it because they believe in it.

Nowadays, no one, on the left or right, gives the other side credit for actually believing what they believe.

Carol Iannone writes:

I have to believe that they saved money on that pathetic La Traviata set.

LA replies:


Gintas writes:

Sounds like the spirit of Blinky Palermo is alive and well:

My sister and I just went to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (modern art) in Washington, D.C., and there is an entire level dedicated to a Blinky Palermo exhibit. We both learned that I have a flair for interpreting such “art” spontaneously and convincingly.

The key is that this kind of art isn’t telling us anything about life, but about art, and is for other artists. It’s to help artists deconstruct art and generate bits and pieces incomprehensible to anyone not on the inside.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 28, 2011 08:50 AM | Send

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