Wagner Notes

Paul Du Quenoy
July 2019

It’s back! For the second time the Metropolitan Opera has revived Robert Lepage’s much loathed production of Wagner’s epic tetralogy, which is famously dominated by a vast mechanical contraption (“the  machine”)  with  twenty-four moving planks. Alas, after nearly ten years in the Met’s repertoire, this massive effort, which cost tens of millions of dollars to create and millions more to accommodate on the Met stage, is unlikely ever to escape its alliterative condemnation by New Yorker critic Alex Ross as “witless and wasteful.” Rumors fueled by open-ended statements from the Met’s management suggest that the next time the company presents a full Ring Cycle, it may be in a new production. This may well underscore the sheer folly of the house’s decade-long infatuation with Lepage’s Ring, which the Met’s administration has assiduously declared “visionary” despite almost unanimous critical and popular comment to the contrary. Still more rumors, widely welcomed in many corners, hold that the sets of the beloved old Schenk production are still tucked away somewhere, like a sleeping Brünnhilde resting up to save our aesthetic sensibilities.

Bayrueth, after all, stages a new Ring every six or seven years regardless of how the previous production was received (poorly, the last four times). The Paris Opera just announced a new production to replace Günter Krämer’s dismal effort, which is roughly the same age as the Met’s. Many of the defects in Lepage’s production persist. The machine’s creaks are less intrusive than they were when the individual operas premiered, but they remain too audible to be excused. Mechanical problems are still in evidence. In Cycle II’s Das Rheingold,  the  music  stopped  for  nearly  a  minute when a stage elevator failed to deliver Erda on time for  her  dramatically vital  admonition  of  Wotan to give up the ring. Apart from a couple of showy transformations  ̶  the   descent   into Nibelheim and Brünnhilde’s fading  into  her  magic sleep come to mind  ̶  the  machine’s  best  uses  arrived  when  it was perfectly   stationery and delivered    reasonable  background scenery via projection. Act I of Die Walküre and most of Siegfried went   forward successfully for this reason, but only because this was when the machine moved the least. Stage direction   has also improved. Characters emerged in greater relief, and the human conflicts that drive the work were less cartoonish than I recall from the individual premieres.

Sometimes, however, the direction was simplified to address safety concerns, which had visibly marred the production in previous outings. Brünnhilde’s entrance in Act II of Walküre, which literally tripped up Deborah Voigt at the installment’s premiere in 2011, is now a much safer but far less dramatic walk along machine’s flat top. The changes in dramaturgy are welcome and generally improved the experience, but nothing can mask the production’s utter lack of any interpretive theme; even Schenk;\’s production, which was criticized for being too picturesque in its traditionalism, concluded with a slow fade out of the gods’ divine light as the mortals contemplated the beginning of their age. In Lepage’s production, Rhine overflows its banks, with its waters undulating at the surface like nothing had happened and nothing had mattered. Nearly ten years on, it remains what the Germans derisively call “ideelos”  ̶  “idea-less, ” or “free of ideas.”

The Cycle’s vocal event was the emergence of Christine Goerke as the leading Wagnerian dramatic soprano before the public today. This was her first Met Brünnhilde, and the first time she performed all three Brünnhilde roles in a composite cycle; her earlier performances in Canada and Houston unrolled incrementally over successive seasons without culminating in full cycle performances. Her Chicago Brünnhildes have also unfolded season-by-season, but will end with full cycle performances in the spring of 2020. Traditionally, we have judged Brünnhildes by their ability to reach the glorious high notes  ̶  the C’s, of course, but also the B’s and G’s that the right throat can cast gleamingly alongside Wotan’s vicissitudes and Siegfried’s raptures. Goerke floated these notes in fine form atop the superstructure of a superb technique, but her real uniqueness came in her exploration of the role’s earthy qualities. Brünnhilde, as she matures, must experience the darker and more complex side of human feelings and develop empathy for frailty both human and divine. In this her low notes, especially in Götterdämmerung, were extraordinarily paired with the exuberant upper register, which vaulted above the orchestra.

Photo: Alberich (Tomasz Konieczny enjoying the gold (briefly).
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Cycle II subscribers had the good fortune of hearing the German Heldentenor Andreas Schager’s Siegfried. After a long career in operetta, Schager has catapulted into leading Wagnerian roles in Europe over the past few years. With an utterly clarion tone and effortlessly expansive top voice, he has mastered Parsifal and Tristan. His Met Siegfried performances (which included his house debut in the matinee Cycle’s Göterdämmerung) proved a stunning success, arguably the best the house has heard since the days of Lauritz Melchior. Some observers objected to his puerile and insouciant stage antics, but that is who Siegfried really is and, for better or worse, the person Wagner wrote  that he wanted us all to become.

Michael Volle, now a Met stalwart in the Wagnerian repertoire, was a tower of vocal and dramatic force as Wotan. He brought a deeply human interpretation of the role that reminded one of James Morris’s best nights. His performance never faltered in either musical or dramatic power.

Most of the rest of the casting was equally luxurious. Stuart Skelton and Eva-Maria Westbroek delivered a gorgeously sung Act I of Die Walküre, though Skelton is not the most compelling actor in the operatic firmament. Gunther Groissböck matched them with a malevolent Hagen and also contributed a suitably menacing Fafner. Tomasz Konieczny’s Alberich resounded with stentorian force and the astute diction that this moving role greatly needs to be the focal point of evil ill will. Jamie Barton’s Fricka was lighter than Stephanie Blythe’s had been in the first installments, but still carried the day in another triumph for her promising career. It was a bit too odd to see Eric Owens cast as Alberich’s evil son Hagen. After enjoying a solid success as Alberich in earlier years and mixed reviews as Chicago’s Wotan, he seemed a bit too glib for the role of a master conspirator. At times he was a bit too charming, even to the point of get­ ting a few laughs with comic gestures that accompany his more deceptive moves. Hagen is written to be purely malevolent, his only pretense to humor expressed in a biting sarcasm. Owens’s portrayal here did not seem quite true.

The Met Orchestra has sounded better in Wagner, not the least in the horns, which squalled out of tune at some point in each of the four operas in Cycle II. Philippe Jordan approached the sprawling score with an economy of style that recalled Pierre Boulez’s fast but famously engrossing Bayreuth Parsifal performances, and he seems to have risen above the glacially slow and dramatically ponderous renderings he gave in Paris’s Ring a few years ago. Rheingold dragged a bit listlessly, but Jordan’s interpretations improved considerably over the subsequent evenings. Siegfried ranked among the best performances of the opera I have ever heard, while Götterdämmerung ended the Cycle in a truly spellbinding fashion.

© Wagner Notes, July 2019, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Paul Du Quenoy,

a private investor, holds a PhD in History from Georgetown University and is President and Publisher of Academica Press.