Der Ring des Nibelungen

James Levine/Fabio Luisi
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Date/Location
9 October 2010 (R), 14 Mai 2011 (W)
5 November 2011 (S), 11 February 2012 (G)
Metropolitan Opera House New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre

Siegfried

Götterdämmerung
Gallery
Musicweb-International.com (I)

In 2009 the Metropolitan Opera gave its final performances of Otto Schenk’s 1987 production of Wagner’s Ring cycle. To call Schenk’s Ring a classic would be to undersell it. It’s one of the Met’s most popular productions and probably exemplifies a whole approach to the staging of opera that was the Met’s signature for many decades but which has now gone. Specifically, Schenk’s Ring was a literal visualisation of Wagner’s mythical conception, complete with watery Rhinemaidens, slimy Nibelungs, a rainbow bridge and an immolation scene after which you actually see Valhalla in flames. Many conservative Wagnerians saw it as an antidote to the revisionist stagings you’d find on the other side of the Atlantic – “Eurotrash”, they’d call it – and you can see it for yourself on the DVDs released by Deutsche Grammophon, for all that the picture now looks rather grainy and distant.

However, Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, made the decision to replace it, partly because the sets were falling to pieces, but also because Gelb wanted to rejuvenate the Met’s whole approach to productions, and The Ring couldn’t be immune from that. The fact that he chose Canadian director Robert Lepage as the new mastermind, however, shows that he didn’t want to divorce himself too much from tradition. Lepage is known for putting on vast stage-filling spectacles, including two shows with Cirque du Soleil, so in many ways he was the perfect choice for a new Ring.

Lepage’s conception for the Met Ring is certainly ambitious. The set consists of twenty-four huge planks that run along a spine and can be rotated to form any number of shapes, so can be twisted to make the settings for each act. They also serve as a canvas onto which is projected a huge range of images to set each scene. That means that the staging doesn’t have anything like the physicality of Schenk’s old production, but it’s almost as literal in its impact, more so in some places. The Rhinemaidens swim up and down in the Rhine, for example, blowing bubbles and shifting pebbles as they do so. Mime’s hut sits next to a flowing stream which provides the water for the forging song, and Gunther washes his blood-stained hands in the Rhine after Siegfried’s murder, turning the whole river red.

It’s putting it mildly to say that Lepage’s concept was not universally loved. Martin Berhneimer of the New York Financial Times christened it “Lepage aux folles”, and in the making-of film that accompanies this set you see interviews with several conservative New York Wagnerians who give you lots of reasons why they can’t stand it. I rather liked it, however. Lepage hasn’t produced a distracting concept: instead he has tried to make Wagner’s vision come true on stage, if not physically then certainly in spirit. He repeatedly says in the extra films that he was trying to achieve what Wagner could not manage in 1876, and I mostly liked the way he went about it. This Ring is still mythological, and it’s still a fantasy; and I thought it a rather good one. One thing is for sure: it’s a definite advantage watching it on an HD Blu-ray, because the lighting and video designs come to life beautifully, perhaps even crisper than they would have done for the audience in the auditorium.

Highlights include the Rhinemaidens, giving the most effective swimming and singing that I’ve seen, and dragon is very convincing, both in Rheingold and Siegfried. I loved the way the set creates a forest during the prelude to Act 1 of Walküre, when we see Siegmund flitting in and out of the trees as he flees from Hunding’s kinsmen, and I enjoyed touches of detail such as the flicker of flames that permanently surrounds Loge, not to mention that dark underbelly of the forest in Siegfried.

There are problems, however. For one thing, Lepage feels an unquenchable need to fill in back-stories. During the Ring’s many narrations, for example, we see a lot of the action being described: for example Siegmund’s youth appears in projections in Act 1 of Walküre, as does Wotan’s background during the narration of that opera’s second act. They’re handsome but unnecessary, and you sense that Lepage doesn’t quite trust the music to carry the drama on its own.

He can produce spectacle, but he often struggles to direct individuals. Some scenes are crushingly dull, especially dialogues – Wotan and Fricka’s in Rheingold, for example – and he hasn’t a clue what to do during the Waltraute scene of Götterdämmerung. Literally nothing happens when Siegfried steals the ring from Brünnhilde later in that act, and the immolation scene is a bit of an anti-climax; but, then, when is it not? Alberich’s chasing of the Rhinemaidens is irredeemably naff, and the murder of Fasolt is just silly. Lepage also gives us the wiggiest opera production I can remember, with singers forced to wear hairpieces that must have increased their above-the-neck body mass by about 50%!

Every Ring-lover can decide for themselves whether these are things they can live with. I certainly could, and for me the advantages outweighed the problems. That’s also true for the musical performances, though the biggest problem here is also the main one: Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde. This is the first time Voigt had sung the role, and she said that the thing she was most nervous about was the comparisons she would be subjected to. She was right to be worried, because, while she fits the bill in lots of ways, she can’t hold a candle to the great Brünnhildes of the past, on CD or DVD. She hits all the notes, which is greatly to her credit, but she never sounds comfortable, and it always feels like hard work. The voice is fundamentally small, and rather brittle. There is never any sense of refulgence or of being on top of the note, and she just isn’t commanding, with breath control often snatched or breaking up the line. However, as I mention above, she at least hits all the notes, and that’s not something you can say of every Brünnhilde.

Gelb originally hoped to cast Gary Lehman in the role of Siegfried, but due to ill health Lehman had to pull out just four days before the first night of Siegfried. Into this hellish situation stepped the Texan understudy, Jay Hunter Morris, and he acquits himself very well. There is rawness in Siegfried, to be sure, but that’s hardly a surprise when he was parachuted in at such short notice. The miracle is that he was able to do it at all and, indeed, the naivety that he brings to the role reinforces Siegfried’s character very successfully. He is more comfortable in Götterdämmerung, not least because he was able to rehearse it properly, and he is a convincing stage presence as well as singer. I doubt he’ll go down as one of the all-time great Siegfrieds, but to be able to even attempt it in such circumstances should win him a place in the Met Valhalla for good.

Elsewhere the cast is stronger and, in places, rather wonderful. Bryn Terfel’s Wotan is one to set down and keep, not least because he now seems to have given up singing it on stage after only a couple of cycles. He brings bel canto phrasing and beautiful style to the role, and is one of the most convincing I’ve heard (or seen). He sounds young and impulsive in Rheingold, but then matures through the tragedy of Walküre, singing a wonderful farewell at the end of that opera, before putting in a world-weary but still undefeated Wanderer in Siegfried. Stephanie Blythe is also a commanding Fricka, big in voice and in stage presence, and she is memorable in all of her scenes.

Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek are at their finest as the Wälsung twins. In fact, theirs are probably the standout performances of the whole set, not least because they overcome the production’s limitations and create humane performances that are profoundly moving. The moment in Act 1 of Walküre where their eyes first meet is magical, and the love scene surges to a tremendous climax, as does the heartbreaking second act.

Eric Owens is an exhilarating Alberich, baleful and dark if ultimately sympathetic through his suffering. Gerhard Siegel’s Mime is bright and compelling, sung with marvellous clarity, and Franz-Josef Selig is a commanding Fasolt. Hans-Peter König is the only singer who appears in all four operas (as the villain every time) and he is wonderful, climaxing in a fantastically black Hagen. Iain Paterson is a great Gunther, full of lyricism and beauty, though he can manage only one facial expression the final act of Götterdämmerung, and Wendy Bryn Harmer is beautifully lyrical as both Freia and Gutrune. Mojca Erdmann is a delightful Woodbird, and Waltraud Meier brings her acres of experience to produce an all but perfect Waltraute.

James Levine was scheduled to conduct the whole cycle, but ill health forced him to pull out of the second half, to be replaced by Fabio Luisi, the Met’s Principal Conductor. That creates an unfortunate inconsistency, but it’s not insurmountable. The most remarkable thing is how youthful and urgent Levine’s conducting still sounds. His Rheingold is excitingly dramatic, and there is sensational bite to the preludes of all three acts of Walküre. He also shows an unfailing ability to judge the great span of Wagner’s paragraphs in a way I found very convincing. Luisi’s approach is more brittle and less homogenous, with less flow-through and a more episodic approach, but then he is less experienced with the score, so you can forgive a lot. For both of them the Met Orchestra is on sensational form, and they are captured in fantastic HD sound, which is brilliantly mastered through the surround sound options, giving just enough presence to the rear speakers.

The camera work is mostly very good, though anyone who has watched the Met’s cinema relays will recognise the signature horizontal whizz moves. They will also recognise the short extra films, which consist of backstage interview that are seldom instructive but nearly always fun.

I guess that, of recent filmed Rings I’ve seen, this one bears most similarity to the one from Valencia that I so enjoyed, what with its reliance on video projections and non-corporeal staging elements. I think that, on balance, I prefer this New York one, though. Despite its problems I found the concept compelling and the execution broadly convincing, and the musical side is more consistently satisfying. Kupfer and Chereau do two very different jobs at Bayreuth, of course, and the Copenhagen Ring goes in an equally valid but entirely different direction. However, if you want a broadly traditional, mythical Ring then this is definitely worth exploring, even if the hard core will never lost their allegiance to Schenk.

Simon Thompson

Musicweb-International.com (II)

I have never been to the Met but feel I am reasonably familiar with their style, thanks to the splendid series of live transmissions which I go to at the cinema down the road from where I live. So I know I can expect singers of international standing, good orchestral playing and conducting, and sumptuous sets. The production will usually be in a traditional style. By traditional, I mean that the director has aimed to evoke the time, place and action intended by the composer and librettist – the same person in Wagner’s case – as opposed to Regietheater. Directors who practise this feel free to discard the original setting to impose their own concept. Wagnerian examples include setting Das Rheingold in a petrol station in the American mid-West (Frank Castorf, Bayreuth 2013), including a crashed aeroplane in Mime’s forge (Keith Warner, Covent Garden 2005), and, worst of all, in fact unforgiveable, changing the ending of Der fliegende Holländer so that Senta is left discarded on the shore (Tim Albery, Covent Garden 2015). Personally, I have had quite enough of Regietheater and no longer attend performances where I know it will be employed.

I was a little apprehensive when I received this Ring, as it preserves a relatively recent production by Robert Lepage, replacing a naturalistic one by Otto Schenk which had held sway since 1987. I had seen some of that and liked it. However, this is a basically traditional production, and the only concept is to use a single, very adaptable set. This is a set of what look like very large planks, ranged in a set which can be pivoted individually or collectively as well as raised or lowered. This may sound like nothing much, but they are surprisingly versatile and the production has been very imaginatively lit by Etienne Boucher. The set can become a convincing hut for Hunding, complete with tree with sword in it, Brünnhilde’s mountaintop, Mime’s forge with on-site running water, Fafner’s lair and the hall of the Gibichungs. The fire effects are very good and the water ones even better. All necessary props are included, with particularly good drinking horns, a mysterious glittering tarnhelm and a splendid hat for Wotan as Wanderer. Fricka has her chariot drawn by rams, Wotan his ravens and Brünnhilde her horse. The Rhinemaiden scenes are most convincing and the Valkyrie gathering the best I have seen. There are a few failures: Fafner as dragon is a bit tame, and neither the rainbow bridge nor Valhalla in flames come off, the last being particularly surprising and disappointing, as I would have thought it could easily be done with the lighting effects we had already seen and we are left at the end of the great work with a bare stage. The all-important ring looks as if it came from a Christmas cracker and the sword Nothung as if it was made of plastic and bought in a toy shop. There is only one tiresome gimmick: after Fafner the dragon has been killed, he is made to re-emerge in his original form as a giant. This is directly contrary to Wagner’s text and stage directions; I know that Siegfried takes the tarnhelm off him but the point is that, unlike Alberich, he cannot change back to his proper form.

Although some Ring productions have cast changes, I believe that all previous ones have had a single conductor throughout. This Ring was intended to have James Levine, the veteran conductor of the Met, in charge. However, illness forced him to withdraw after Die Walküre, and his successor, Fabio Luisi, took over for the final two operas. Levine has vast experience with the Ring and this shows: he is freer and more expansive than Luisi. Luisi is perfectly competent but, I imagine, has had much less experience with these scores; there is something slightly brittle about his work, particularly in Siegfried, where the third forging song is noticeably too fast and some of the tempi seem rather rigid. However, I do not want to overstate this.

The cast is, as you would expect from the Met, very strong. Bryn Terfel gives us his tough and scheming Wotan, slightly insecure and occasionally not in the best of voice in Das Rheingold, but steadily improving as the character matures, and very impressive as the Wanderer in Siegfried. Some people do not care for Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde, which, surprisingly, was the first time she had sung the role. She has great stage presence and dominates every scene she is in, and her ringing and tireless soprano reminded me of Nilsson. Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried was also making his debut in role. He was the third choice after two others had had to withdraw. He had previously been known mainly for new American operas, but he had studied Siegfried and I was very impressed by him. For a start he looks the part: proud and confident, you can feel this really is the boy who does not know fear. His voice is bright and clear and he seems tireless: even in the final duet with Brünnhilde at the end of his title opera he was fresh.

Of the other parts the obvious front runner is Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, making another debut in role. He is completely inside it: noble, heroic and doomed. His voice is also quite different in quality from that of Hunter Morris, so the two characters are as strongly contrasted as they should be. Eric Owens as Alberich seemed almost too nice a man to be singing a villain, but he rises to the height of the curse and oozes malevolence in his later appearances. Hans-Peter König plays no fewer than three villains: Fafner in Das Rheingold and Siegfried, Hunding in Die Walküre and Hagen in Götterdämmerung. Fafner does not give him much scope, and he is suitably dour as Hunding, but he really excels as Hagen: powerful and sinister, effortlessly dominating the hapless Gibichungs and very nearly succeeding in getting the ring for himself.

The other parts are well taken but I want to praise in particular the excellent trio of Rhinemaidens – or rather quintet, since there are two cast changes between Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung. Not only the staging but also the singing of the Valkyries is admirable. The Norns are also strong, though their rope of destiny was unusually tangled. The Gibichung vassals make up a formidable force, suitably subservient to Hagen but not much impressed by Gunther.

Not only is the cast strong, but they work well together. The more intimate scenes, such as the first act of Die Walküre, the Wanderer scenes in Siegfried and the those in the Gibichung hall, have been most carefully prepared with interplay of the characters following Wagner’s directions, not slavishly, but entirely in the right spirit.

The orchestra know their Wagner and respond with a will. It seems invidious to single out individual members, because it depends on who gets prominent solos, but I was very impressed by the sizzling of the strings in the fiery passages, and by some of the wind soloists, such as the cor anglais, the bass clarinet and the bass trumpet. However, some of the special effects were disappointing: the anvils in the descent into Nibelheim and the reascent therefrom seemed few and tinny, and neither in Die Walküre nor Götterdämmerung did we get proper steerhorns for the summonses to battle. No one brought up, as I was, on the Solti audio recording, will be satisfied with inadequacies here, and I am amazed that the Met did not do better. Perhaps the production team were too preoccupied with getting the complicated set to work. Both the picture and the sound are excellent.

The supplementary DVD, Wagner’s Dream, is a documentary on the making of the production. Robert Lepage explains that they wanted to realize Wagner’s vision using the technical advances possible today. Preparations started in 2008, with Lepage making a model of the set with its pivoting planks. The final result, which they called the machine, was enormously elaborate and also heavy. The team had a lot of trouble with it. We also meet some of the cast. Deborah Voigt, in particular, made herself available and we hear a good deal about her preparation for her debut as Brünnhilde. The film does not avoid the glitches that arose, which include the rainbow bridge not working on the first night, Levine’s withdrawal, and the need to bring in Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried only a few days before opening. Given that mounting the Ring is the most ambitious thing an opera house can do, this documentary was well worth making.

Those familiar with the Met live cinema transmissions know that some of the intervals are taken up with interviews with some of the cast and production team. Here these are added on to the discs for each opera. They partly duplicate some of what is in Wagner’s Dream, but there are several others who do not appear in that and have some interesting things to say. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka reminds us that Wotan and Fricka in Das Rheingold are young and in love, whereas they are older and the relationship has soured in Die Walküre. Deborah Voigt considers her single scene in Siegfried more demanding than the much longer roles in her other two operas. Eric Owens as Alberich tells us he enjoys playing villains. Perhaps these do not add much but they are nice to have.

The five DVDs are presented in a handsome box. Each has a booklet in three languages. No libretto is supplied, but subtitles in five languages are available. These are quite good, but serious enthusiasts should have a proper libretto with translation, such as Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung: a Companion by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington. A new translation is forthcoming from John Dethridge. We could also do with a modern replacement for the introduction to the Ring which Deryck Cooke provided for the Solti recording. In default of that I recommend Roger Scruton’s The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, the best recent study of the Ring I have come across.

No production of the Ring can be perfect and I have mentioned some places where this one seems to me to fall short. But overall, it is a very satisfying production and I commend it to those who want a traditional Ring but with imaginative staging.

Stephen Barber | Jan 2018

Rating
(7/10)
User Rating
(3/5)
Media Type/Label
DG
DG
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Technical Specifications
1920×1080, 11.4 Mbit/s, 78.8 GByte, 5.1 ch (MPEG-4)
Remarks
A production by Robert Lepage