By Matthew Gurewitsch
NEW YORK – The “new” Ring des Nibelungen at the Met is, alas, a fixture now. The rollout began with Das Rheingold in the fall of 2010. By 2012, the four segments of Wagner’s mythopoeia were in readiness for presentation as a cycle, an instant replay following a year later. The production, by Robert Lepage, found few if any champions but many merciless detractors. After an absence of six seasons, it’s back.
Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, has been suggesting of late that the Lepage Ring was ahead of its time. As a rule, such claims have to do with ideas. This time, the issue is technology, specifically the show’s notorious 90,000-pound omnipresent centerpiece, universally known as The Machine. As you will have heard before, it consists of 24 identical “planks” mounted side by side on a horizontal axis that moves up and down, not from left to right. In point of fact, those so-called planks are not planks at all but slabs in the form of a shallow isosceles triangle.
Like pediments on a Greek temple, they are flat on one side and bent on the other, and their sculptural potential is just about boundless. In many configurations, they make for very treacherous terrain. (Just ask Deborah Voigt, Lepage’s original Brünnhilde, who went skidding off the edge before her first “Hojotoho!”) But what people most complained of was that in motion, the planks clanked and scraped and had a way of breaking down. Bugs that bedeviled the computer graphics projected across The Machine’s surfaces caused headaches, too.
For the current revival, the heavy metal and electronics have been tuned up, no doubt at some premium over the original, a dwarf’s ransom of $16 million. Even so, problems remain. On April 29, the third Rheingold of the season and the first in a compact weeklong cycle (the one I attended), Erda got trapped in the elevator, missing her cue by 40 or so interminable seconds of dead air.
It might have mattered but did not that in the mastermind’s absence, the stage direction has devolved to other hands. The lieutenants J. Knighten Smit and a troika of associates — Gina Lapinskis on Die Walküre, Stephen Pickover on Siegfried, Paula Williams on Götterdämmerung — have neither tightened the screws nor taken visible liberties. In short, the Lepage Ring is what it is — and also what it used to be: story-telling out of Classics Illustrated shoehorned into a box from Marvel Comics. It has a look but no sense of place, no point of view.
That said, in the vast index of operatic malpractice, there are deadlier things than want of a “concept.” As Gelb reminds us in his little program-book apologia, “Ultimately, a Ring cycle is only as good as its cast, conductor, and the orchestra that performs it.” Amen.
On paper, the Met has assembled forces as good as any on the circuit today. Andreas Schager, the frisky Siegfried of the hour, took the house by storm with his buoyant confidence and vibrant tone: a most auspicious company debut. (Schager’s alternate for the rest of the run was Stefan Vinke, at present arguably his strongest challenger.) Riding high after local triumphs as Strauss’ Elektra and the Dyer’s Wife, Christine Goerke scored once more with her house debut as Brünnhilde, a role to which she has already staked her claim in Houston, Toronto, and Edinburgh. Theatrically, Goerke’s sincerity and unspoiled vitality won points with the audience, even if the gravitas of Wotan’s and Erda’s child was left mostly to the imagination. And much of the time, she was good to listen to, her sleek, silvery upper register clearing the footlights with ease. But raucous patches in her middle range and vague intonation at the very top raised quite a few red flags.
Having made his long-awaited role debut as the Wanderer the week before, Michael Volle instantly proceeded to his first full cycle as the master of Valhalla. Anyone who looks closely at the Ring sees the disconnect between the nobility of Wotan’s music and his many lawless deeds. But how do we square the circle? For the most part, Volle’s supercharged diction, insolent body language, and huge, often gritty sound mesh with the fashionable view — reductive and ultimately defective as it is — of Wotan as some gangland godfather. But from the end of his farewell to Brünnhilde, Volle began teasing out moments of quieter, gentler expression, with occasional gestures in the direction of a true legato.
Gifted with similar dramatic instincts, wielding leaner but otherwise very comparable vocal equipment, Tomasz Konieczny delivered an Alberich of tortured complexity. But at the end of the day, the resemblance between Konieczny’s love-starved thief of the gold and Volle’s manipulative, philandering thief of the ring (“Licht-Alberich”!) remained too close for comfort, and it was Volle who was missing the mark. Why on earth the Wanderer crawled on his belly before Erda and then proceeded to pick up and fold a dingy length of fabric that might have been a prayer rug was one of the cycle’s least rewarding, more perplexing riddles.
Stuart Skelton and Eva-Maria Westbroek invested the Wälsung twins with thrilling ardor. A glint of gold amid the gloom would not have come amiss in Skelton’s powerful Siegmund, it is true, and Westbroek’s energies flagged at the finish. But in the first act, her Sieglinde was tremendous, driving Siegmund’s narrative with questions flung out in frank defiance of Günther Groissböck’s grim Hunding. If in Das Rheingold Groissböck’s Fasolt stood out for his mournful pathos, his curt, jet-black phrases here in Die Walküre landed like thrusts of a dagger.
As Fafner, Dmitry Belosselskiy made a fine match for Groissböck’s fellow giant but outdid himself in Siegfried. His dragon-puppet avatar that second time out might have been pulled from the sock drawer of Paul Bunyan, but the voice from the megaphone yawned and rumbled like an approaching tornado. Eric Owens, who was the original Alberich for Lepage and is Lyric Opera of Chicago’s reigning Wotan/Wanderer, stepped out this time as a Hagen hampered by mismatched registers and a fractured sense of line.
Norbert Ernst, a Loge in demand on top European stages, presented his credentials without leaving much impression, unlike the globe-trotting Mime of Gerhard Siegel, familiar at the Met since 2004, still deploying his stentorian tenor with diabolical nuance. In her first Wagner assignment at the house, Jamie Barton endowed Fricka’s song with imperious vocal glamour, but overplayed the loving wife bit with her cloying caresses.
Tethered to the Machine, blowing Little Mermaid bubbles through the magic of computer graphics (Rheingold), or chasing up and down the planks in black lace like so many Merry Widows (Götterdämmerung), the hard-working Rhine Maidens Amanda Woodbury (Woglinde), Samantha Hankey (Wellgunde), and Tamara Mumford (Flosshilde) sang brightly without achieving a consistent blend. The second-tier gods were in the capable hands of Adam Diegel (Froh), Michael Todd Simpson (Donner), and Wendy Bryn Harmer, a thrilling Freia.
Karen Cargill dispensed with glowing ease the dignity that is Erda’s stock-in-trade. The Valkyries were a high-strung bunch, out of control in their noisy shenanigans. Erin Morley sang a jubilant Forest Bird, aquiver with excitement. New faces in Götterdämmerung as yet unmentioned included three redoubtable Norns (Ronnita Miller, Elizabeth Bishop, and Wendy Bryn Harmer), two indifferent Gibichungs (Evgeny Nikitin’s Gunther, Edith Haller’s Gutrune), and one overwrought Valkyrie, the Waltraute of Michaela Schuster.
The hero of the cycle was Philippe Jordan, music director of the Paris Opera and music director designate of the Vienna State Opera, returning to the Met for the first time since a repertory revival of Le Nozze di Figaro twelve seasons ago that came off with the glow and sparkle of a festival premiere. In the meantime, Jordan has blossomed into a Wagnerian of rare distinction. He builds the Ring in epic spans, maintaining an unbroken flow through the whole of Das Rheingold and each of the three-times-three mammoth acts that follow. His tempi are moderate, never stretched to the breaking point, never whipped to a froth. His dynamics are unforced.
Listed this way, Jordan’s well-tempered approach may sound ho-hum. Yet the opposite is true. Under his baton, the orchestra sweeps all before it, singing with Olympian detachment, yet leaving great space for the free imagination of the singers as well as the emotional responses of the listener. Rather than italicize leitmotifs, Jordan invites the ear to discover them, weaving through deep transparent textures layered one over another like glazes. I have never heard a Ring more philosophical or more organic.
After nearly three decades as an international cultural commentator working from New York, Matthew Gurewitsch relocated to Maui to begin a new chapter. For an archive of his work past and present, please visit beyondcriticism.com.