Götterdämmerung Prima

Wagner - Götterdämmerung
Metropolitan Opera
January 27, 2012 (premiere)

Robert Lepage's final installment of the Ring Cycle premiered last night, and at the end of the evening he was met with a smattering of boos, and also some hearty applause. If it was possible to both applaud and boo at the same time, I would have. There were some absolutely wonderful improvements made in this production, and at the same time some horrifyingly bad misfires. How can someone so good be so bad? Or, on the flip side of the coin, how can someone so bad also be so good?

Let's start with the good news. The musical values were very high last night. First of all, a HUGE hand of applause must go out to the real stars of the evening, conductor Fabio Luisi and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Luisi is a very different kind of conductor than Levine -- for one, he's much faster. A Levine performance would have lasted past midnight -- Luisi was done by 11:45. But he also made the orchestra sound lighter, more accommodating for those with smaller voices, and instead of going for the big lush wall of sound, he brought out details to Wagner's score that I'd never heard or noticed. For instance, whenever Hagen has an evil thought, the woodwinds trill happily, as if echoing his delightfully diabolical mind. I had never noticed Hagen's happy/evil trill motif until last night. Most of all, Luisi never allowed the evening to become a dirge. He kept things moving, in a dramatic, taut and exciting reading of the score all night. Even Siegfried's Death interlude never lost momentum.

A second huge hand of applause -- Hans Peter Koenig as Hagen. He was in previous operas the Fafner and Hunding, but as Hagen he really just took over the stage, took over the storyline, and overwhelmed the performance. His bass voice is huge and booming, his authority absolute, as when he called his vassals, but he could also be quietly menacing. During his Act One monologue he quietly sat in his chair, Michael Corleone-style, and contemplated all his evil plans. Often my mind starts to wander when Wagner's characters sing these long, overly explanatory monologues, but not last night. Koenig was spellbinding. He also made Hagen strangely the most sympathetic character of the opera. Hagen may not be a "nice guy," or a Wagnerian hero, but he's intelligent, and he has a set of values that are admirable. He's avenging his family's honor. Koenig was the star of last night's vocalists.

Siegfried, poor thing, he just isn't very bright

Gott Siegfried is not as simpatico to Jay Hunter Morris's voice, which really isn't a heldentenor voice.
It's light, bright, and metallic, and occasionally he had trouble projecting over the chorus and orchestra. In Act One Siegfried has to pretend to be a baritone. Most heldentenors already have a baritonal timbre to their voice, but JHM is a real tenor and you could feel his vocal discomfort. He also ran out of gas vocally in Act Three, and the sour edge, always there in his voice, became more prominent. But again, he made this often very unlikable and stupid "superhero" (Siegfried's intelligence is below that of 99% of college-age girls in America, who know better than to accept drinks from strangers) sympathetic. For most of this opera Siegfried is acting under a love potion, and behaves horribly. JHM emphasized the character's confusion, his youth, his inexperience, his genuine infatuation with Gutrune, even his drugged up stupor. This is a major-league portrayal. 

Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde also surpassed my expectations of her. At the end of the evening she pumped her arms in triumph, like "I did it," and the audience roared back, as if to say, "Yes, you did." And I must say that yes, she really pulled it together. The problems are still there -- the somewhat colorless tone, the hollow and worn lower register, the wide vibrato on sustained notes. But the upper register mostly sounded like "old Debbie" -- bright, beautiful, and gleaming, and what's more, she was able to sustain the quality of her singing for most of the evening. Act One was not that great, but Act Two and Act Three were quite good. Her Immolation Scene had very few wayward notes, and many moments of beauty. Dramatically she was excellent, much better than in Die Walkuere. I loved her scene with Waltraute. She highlighted the transition from happy to see her sister, and hopeful for a reconciliation with Wotan, to proud, disgusted, and defensive. 

Speaking of Waltraute, she was played by the ageless Waltraud Meier, and the scene's success was as much hers and Voigt's. It's not a long role, but Meier was, as usual, spellbinding. What an actress! You couldn't take your eyes off her. And her voice maybe aged a bit in tone but still rich and large. The rest of the supporting cast was really fine. Eric Owens had a short but effective scene with his son, and I really, really hope he does not get cast in the "character" roles forever because of his appearance, because he deserves so much more. His voice has a real nobility, and he again made me feel Alberich's rage and pain. Iain Paterson as Gunther and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Gutrune were both superb vocally and dramatically, although Paterson's voice is on the slender side for Wagner. The Norns, the Rheinmaidens, the chorus, they were all deserve a huge hand of applause. And ... I've run out of superlatives so I'll just stop here.

And now the production. The first huge improvement for Lepage was he gave up all the fancy entrances and stunts with body doubles. The body doubles always felt artificial and a case of diminishing returns. The worst case of this was at the end of Die Walkuere, when both real-Brunnhilde and real-Wotan had to make a quick exit while fake-Brunnhilde (who looked nothing like Deborah Voigt) was tied upside down for the final tableau. A distraction at the opera's emotional peak. In Götterdämerung, every entrance and exit was natural, normal, and thus had an effect of humanizing the machine. For the first time, singers looked comfortable on it. The Machine was also quieter - more grease?

A second thing Lepage improved was he finally figured out how to use the Machine, if that makes sense -- that the movable planks should be used to indicate changes of scenery, and to set most of the actual action on the apron planks. In previous productions, he had recessed much of the action to an area behind and below the apron, so that many of the singers were cut off at the knees, and looked and sounded remote and tiny. Jonas Kaufmann said in an Opera News interview that he finally insisted on leaving the "set" to sing on the apron just because he wanted to be closer to the audience. Lepage for Götterdämerung has made a stage platform behind the apron, but on the same level, so there's no more cutting off at the knees, and also singers aren't stuck in such a tiny area, but can easily move back and forth from the apron to the platform. This allowed for much more fluid blocking, smoother transitions, and encouraged more natural interactions between the performers.

Direction/blocking/person-regie in this opera was generally, a vast improvement over the previous operas. Even the chorus scenes were well-directed. Interactions between the characters were believable and natural. The best blocking occurred in the second act. Gunther dragging Brunnhilde onstage, Brunnhilde's rage at Siegfried, Siegfried's bewilderment, Hagen, Brunnhilde and Gunther in the Vengeance trio, all this was well-directed, and, more importantly, easy to follow for someone not familiar with the complicated plot details. Siegfried's death was also well-staged. Hagen and his cronies gradually surround the still-unsuspecting hero, and the scene becomes more and more menacing, until the final knife in the back. The dying Siegfried attempts once more to be a superhero and strike back at Hagen before expiring.

Norns scene
Lepage also has something I think many directors lack -- he's a genuine aesthete. He is able to produce images onstage that really are beautiful and/or striking. The first is the Norns scene -- the three Norns are holding onto a heavy web of ropes that are tied to the upper planks of the machine. As they sing, the planks start to rotate and the web of ropes gets cut to nothing. Very cool. Siegfried on the top of the machine, moving on a raft, with the planks undulating to simulate waves of water, was a very beautiful way to reproduce a rather awkward, hard-to-stage scene (the superhero traveling along the Rhine). Gibich Hall is a striking set of gold columns, which symbolizes the kind of excessive luxury of Casa Hagen. I could go on and on, but the point is, aesthetic vision is something a director either has or doesn't have. Kenji Mizoguchi and Albert Hitchcock had it. Lepage also has it.

 It is genuinely frustrating, then, to have that many miscalculations and misfires and a general feeling of "Well, that didn't work" last night. The costumes and props are an unmitigated disaster, evoking nothing, flattering no one, and repeatedly undercutting the drama with their plastic toy look. I thought nothing would ever beat the toy skeletons the Valkyries tied up in Die Walkuere, until I saw the Tarnhelm last night. The Tarnhelm is this tiny, gold gauze, not even the size of a Vegas-style wedding veil, that barely covers Jay Hunter Morris's face. His kidnapping of Brunnhilde was unintentionally funny as Brunnhilde quaked in fear at a guy in such a ridiculous get-up. Surely they could have devised a cape, or something less literal and more symbolic, and the same plot device could have worked? Grane has to be seen to be believed -- basically it's a metal toy horse that bobs its head up and down when a stagehand pulls some strings. It became unintentionally funny when both Siegfried and Brunnhilde sang the praises of this uber-horse, and the "horse" was onstage, bobbing its head in a way that must have made Jim Henson turn over in his grave. (Seriously, the entire production team could have learned something from watching The Muppets or Sesame Street.) This is one of the things I don't understand about the production -- Lepage can suggest scene changes and images in a rather abstract way using the projections and changes in plank position. But actual props? It's like he visited Toys R' Us.

Grane the bobblehead

Act Three is a mess after Siegfried's death. The funeral pyre is a tiny, wooden campfire box, and Grane was brought onstage, bobbing its head till the bitter end. Brunnhilde climbed on top of Grane, was pulled maybe two feet closer to the campfire, and of course the planks move to fire projections. The ruin of Valhalla was symbolized by these statues of the gods (Wotan, Fricka, Donner) that were seen earlier in Hagen's house rising above the planks, and then there's an explosion and the statues' heads are blown off. And then ... nothing. The planks moved back to their original position, they waved up and down a little bit, there were no projections, no final tableau. People even wondered if there was a mechanical error, since for the last three minutes of orchestral playing, people were just staring at the machine in blank "first position." Also, it seemed as if there was supposed to be something more -- there was some smoke, and a blue background. It wasn't until after the show that I remembered that it was the same scene at the start of Rheingold. I suppose the point was that this was a Ring Cycle, and we're back to Rheingold, but the whole third act was just very prosaic, unimaginative, anti-climactic, as if the director ran out of ideas and was in a hurry for it to be all over.

But I remember feeling the same way about every Lepage production. In Das Rheingold I was bowled over by the simple beauty of having three Rheinmaidens perched atop a sea of blue, and then dismayed when one body-double god after another slid down the planks like an amusement park slide. In Die Walkuere the planks made a stunning image of a snowy forest, but then most of Act One was set in a tiny area below and behind the apron and a tense, dramatically riveting scene was made remote and ineffective. And let's not forget the toy body-bags during the Ride of the Valkyries and the distracting eye during Wotan's monologue. Siegfried had so many beautiful scenes, especially the forest scene, but again, much of the action in Act One was recessed to a tiny back-and-below-stage area so critical moments were hard to see and hear. Really, the final question about Lepage's Ring: how can something so good also be so bad?


  1. Great review, Ivy! Reading about body doubles made me remember that Siegfried on the raft with Grane was not Jay Hunter Morris - that man was a body double (He was much thinner than Jay). Wise of JHM to stay off the machine - running up that incline was enough work. I also liked the way he tried to pick up his sword one last time but couldn't - very well done.

  2. Thanks Blue! It was so nice to finally meet you. I'll be back next week to see Dalayman and Gould. Will you be there?

    1. Hi PoisonIvy-- excellent review, as always!!

      I assume you're referring to the Friday Feb 3rd performance?

      I will be there too and am looking forward to it.

      Hope I get a chance to say hello to you.

  3. I will be there on Feb 3rd also. It's part of my subscription - but when I bought it, Levine was conducting, and Lehman was the scheduled Siegfried!

  4. great. bluecabochon and poisonIvy, which section will you be in ? I am in Family Circle. I hope we can get the chance to say hello, perhaps in the intermission.

  5. Thanks for the thorough and thoughtful review! You encapsulate the frustrations of Lepage's production very well, I think... alas. I'm looking forward to the chance to see the entire Ring in the spring, but I can hardly hope that bold ideas will have been infused into it in the meantime.


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