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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/James Levine, Fabio Luisi
Production by Robert Lepage
Operas originally transmitted live in HD to cinemas
rec. live, 2010-12
Blu-ray Picture Format 16:9, 1080i High Definition; PCM Stereo & DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; Region Code 0
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Blu-ray 0734771 [5 discs: 18 hrs 31 mins]

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


Das Rheingold
Alberich – Eric Owens
Fricka – Stephanie Blythe
Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Freia – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Fasolt – Franz-Josef Selig
Fafner – Hans-Peter König
Froh – Adam Diegel
Donner – Dwayne Croft
Loge – Richard Croft
Mime – Gerhard Siegel
Erda – Patricia Bardon
James Levine (conductor)
Recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera, October 9th 2010
[163 + 12 mins]

Die Walküre
Siegmund – Jonas Kaufmann
Sieglinde – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Hunding – Hans-Peter König
Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Brünnhilde – Deborah Voigt
Fricka – Stephanie Blythe
James Levine (conductor)
Recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera, May 14th 2011
[243 + 22 mins]

Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris
Mime – Gerhard Siegel
Wanderer – Bryn Terfel
Alberich – Eric Owens
Fafner – Hans-Peter König
Woodbird – Mojca Erdmann
Brünnhilde – Deborah Voigt
Fabio Luisi (conductor)
Recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera, November 5th 2011
[242 + 28 mins]

Brünnhilde – Deborah Voigt
Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris
Gunther – Iain Paterson
Gutrune – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Hagen – Hans-Peter König
Waltraute – Waltraud Meier
Alberich – Eric Owens
Fabio Luisi (conductor)
Recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera, February 11th 2012
[272 + 15 mins]

Wagner’s Dream: The Making of the Metropolitan Opera’s new Der Ring des Nibelungen
[114 mins]



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