I first encountered Wagner's four-opera epic The Ring of the Nibelung in June 1990, when PBS broadcast the Met's then-new Otto Schenk production on four consecutive nights (as Wagner had originally intended.) It was a seismic event in my musical life, exploding my feeble notions of opera as a showcase for shrill divas singing sentimental claptrap, usually in Italian. (I was a teenager at the time.) On the contrary, the Ring turned out to be a wondrous fusion of music, drama, scenic art and poetry, the whole far greater than the sum of its parts. For the entire 16 hours, I was glued to the TV in my parents' basement.
Since then, I've managed to witness three Ring cycles in person at the Met. The most recent was in 2009: the swan song for the Otto Schenk production. I think most of us who were there were sad and leery to see it go: Schenk's direction and Günther Schneider-Siemsen´s mythical, apocalyptic set design were brilliant complements to Wagner's often-overwhelming score. But, Schenk's production was more than 20 years old, and for a conventionally-staged holdout in a world long dominated by abstract, modern productions, it was starting to show its age.
For the Met's new Ring, general manager Peter Gelb - who, btw, was the executive producer for that 1990 PBS broadcast - enlisted Canadian director Robert LePage, who's probably best known for his work with Cirque du Soleil. The choice wasn't quite as daring as some have made it out to be: LePage and his production company, Ex Machina, have produced operas before, such as the recent Canadian Opera Company production of Stravinsky's The Nightingale at BAM. But, he'd never done anything on a stage as artistically significant as the Met. And, certainly nothing approaching the size and scope of The Ring.
Gelb issued fair warning: while the staging would be faithful to Wagner's story and direction, it would be modern in appearance, using the latest advancements in theater technology. Enter, The Machine: a 45-ton row of 24 movable planks that stretches the full width of the Met stage. Designed by set designer Carl Fillion - a longtime LePage collaborator - The Machine is like a bent-out-of-shape xylophone, twisting and turning to form the various forests, mountains and rocky outcroppings that Wagner calls for in his stage directions.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it to Das Rheingold, the first of the Ring's operas (technically a Vorabend or "prologue.") But there was no way I was going to miss Die Walküre, which I saw at the Met last Thursday. The opera, which stretches for three acts and lasts some 5 1/2 hours (including two intermissions) tells the story of Siegmund and Sieglinde: long lost twin siblings who fall in love and succeed in wreaking all sorts of havoc among both gods and mortals. (You can read the full synopsis here.)
From what I could tell, The Machine performed flawlessly, though it did creak audibly while in motion. It's greatest feature is the speed at which it's able to change shape, controlled by a battery of computers in the rear of the house. That allowed for actual onstage action during Wagner's extended orchestral interludes, which were originally intended to accompany the massive set changes that take place between scenes. For all the complaints you may have read about it being "intrusive," The Machine is a remarkable invention, unlike anything I've ever seen on-or-off stage.
Also impressive were the video projections (designed by Boris Firquet) that gave the planks relevant texture and depth. They also helped to illluminate the the narrative itself: silhouetted animations depicted in real time Siegmund's story of the battle that killed his mother and separated him from his sister (Sieglinde), while putting him at odds with Sieglinde's husband, Hunding.
Unfortunately, The Machine has also been responsible for a series of mishaps which might make you wonder if LePage and Gelb are asking too much of these singers. On opening night, Deborah Voigt, who sings the lead role of Brünnhilde, slipped and fell while clambering over the planks at the opening of Act 2. Then, on Thursday, a singer slipped and fell hard while attempting to dismount her "horse" during the Ride of the Valkyries, retreating stunned and hurt to the wings. (She gamely returned a few minutes later, to loud and appreciative applause.) It's as if LePage and Gelb learned none of the lessons of Broadway's Spider Man fiasco.
Leading the way among the performers was Bryn Terfel as Wotan, king of the gods. Terfel brought a towering, ferocious energy to the role that was simply frightening. As much as I love James Morris - who owned the role of Wotan at the Met for 20 years - I have to admit: Terfel was better.
Anyone who even attempts the extraordinarily demanding role of Brünnhilde deserves nothing but praise, and Deborah Voigt delivered the goods with grace and a down-to-earth honesty that's rare for any role, much less this one. With a bit more confidence and power (which will no doubt come after she gets a few more performances under her belt,) she's got the potential to match some of the great Brünnhilde's of the past.
New to me was German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who sang the role of Siegmund. Young and virile, he represented a radical shift from the last Siegmund I saw: Placido Domingo, who then was in his waning days as an active tenor. Kaufmann sang Lohengrin at Wagner's own festival at Bayreuth just last summer, and seemed to bring the confidence gained from that experience with him.
Sieglinde was sung by the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, making her Met debut. Although she's sung Sieglinde at opera houses around the world (including Bayreuth), Westbroek perhaps made her biggest splash earlier this season, taking on the title role of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole at Covent Garden. Here, she seemed a bit sheepish; perhaps she's still getting used to the Met's 4,000-plus seat house.
For all the younger singers' prowess, it was the veterans who led the way. Mezzo Stephanie Blythe played Wotan's wife Fricka, her huge voice filling the hall while seated on a throne that looked like something out of Alice In Wonderland. And German bass Hans-Peter Konig literally boomed as Hunding.
There was, of course, one notable holdover from that 1990 PBS broadcast: Met Music Director James Levine, who's conducted every Ring cycle at the Met since 1988. (There have been other conductors of stand-alone performances of Die Walkure, including Lorin Maazel in 2008.) Flying in the face of the health issues which led to his dismissal from the Boston Symphony earlier this season, Jimmy seemed to be in top form, his outsized 'fro shaking in the dim light of the orchestra pit. He went for broke, and the astonishing Met Orchestra gave him everything they had, and then some. (He did not, however, take the stage for curtain calls.)
The final 20 minutes of Die Walküre are perhaps the most sublime stretch of music in all of opera. Brunnhilde pleads with Wotan not to leave her unprotected in her sentenced sleep, and he calls up a magic ring of fire to surround the rock on which he's banished her. LePage executes a remarkable coup to accompany Wagner's ravishing music, turning The Machine up on end while Brunnhilde (actually, a body double) hangs upside down, surrounded by images of flames. The effect was completely astonishing - not to mention terrifying given the earlier incident during the Ride of the Valkyries.
I can only imagine what LePage has up his sleeve for Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. And, I can only hope Jimmy will be in the pit (esp. given his most recent issues.)
There are three more performances of Die Walkure this season, including a live HD broadcast on May 14 which will likely be your only chance to see it, given the entire run has been sold out for months. More info here.
More pics here.