Great Performances at the Met: The Ring Cycle

If you were, as I was, deeply disappointed by the Los Angeles version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, this next week, beginning on 10 September 2012, is the time to begin your own Ring festival. Dress up, plan a great meal ahead (perhaps some hearty German food) and set aside some major time to watch five videos: one about the making of Robert Lepage’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and four of the actual operas.

Wagner’s Dream

As an introduction, PBS will broadcast the documentary, “Wagner’s Dream” on September 10, 2012.  Usually, I’d say skip the preface. Don’t you usually do this when reading a good book? If you really like the book or perhaps at the end , you might read the preface. But in this case, I believe you’ll want to understand what was behind Lepage’s staging. While the set itself seems remarkably simple, sometimes simple is hard. In this case, it was an incredible feat of engineering and technological teamwork. After watching the full cycle, I went back and watched the documentary.

The documentary also stopped me from thinking of Andy Serkis’ Gollum saying “my precious”  and “We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.”  Or even of the “The Big Bang Theory” episode about the ring. But “Lord of the Ring” fans, don’t let me stop you from dressing up and watching this tale about the original ring.

Great Performances at the Met: “Wagner’s Dream” will broadcast on September 10, 2012. Check local listings.

 Wagner’s Dream

A documentary by Susan Froemke
Air date: September 10, 2012
The stakes could not be higher as visionary director Robert Lepage, some of the world’s greatest operatic artists, and the Metropolitan Opera tackle Wagner’s Ring cycle. An intimate look at the enormous theatrical and musical challenges of staging opera’s most monumental work, the film chronicles the quest to fulfill Wagner’s dream of a perfect Ring.

Great Performances at the Met: “Das Rheingold” will air on PBS on 10 September 2012. The original performances was recorded on 9 October, 2010, but held back for broadcast until the full cycle had been filmed. Check local listings.

Das Rheingold

“Das Rheingold” (The Rhine Gold)  was one of the most highly anticipated openings in the Met’s history and required years of planning. All the whispers and rumors about technology had Wagner buffs worried. Conductor James Levine, who had been the Met’s conductor for the last 40 years, had not conducted anywhere for half a year due to his back surgery.  The taping took place during the October 9, 2010 performance and will air for the first time on PBS on September 11, 2012. Check local listings.

If you’ve watched the documentary, you understand that all four operas will have only one set which is affectionately or infamously called the “machine,” which is a 45-ton mechanism with 24 planks on a crossbar that can rise and fall together and individually. Think of an over-sized child’s toy.

The blue horizon and the subtle undulating of the horizon line opens the opera. The Rhinemaidens appear (Lisette Oropesa, Jenifer Johnson and Tamara Mumford) dangling from cables as they swim on a place where they can rest. The “machine” becomes a platform on which the Rhinemaidens rest as well as a screen for a movie of stones that move and tumble.

The Rhinemaidens are mermaids and like all mermaids they tease men and lead them to their destruction. The man this time is the dwarf Alberich played with power and authority by bass-baritone Eric Owens with a majestic main of dreadlocks. The Rhinemaidens mock Alberich when he attempts to woo them. Really, you’d woo three sisters at once at the same time in the same place? You don’t think that means trouble?

Alberich is not a good-looking guy either and Owens makes him disgustingly lustful. Lust and greed aren’t so far apart. When he learns from the Rhinemaidens that the golden glow is the magical Rhine gold that their father has charged them to protect. Whoever takes the gold can make a magic ring and rule the world, but he must renounce love. That’s pretty much the meaning of love and lust but we’re in a pre-Christian world where the seven deadly sins haven’t been codified. Alberich steals the gold and leaves the Rhinemaidens screaming melodically. Wagner doesn’t show us the father and we’re not sure who he is, but he doesn’t figure in this opera at all so let’s move on to the gods.

The one-eyed Wotan is portrayed by the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. In a breastplate with long brown shoulder length hair, his one-eyedness is given the Veronica Lake treatment–hair veiling one eye. On Lake it looked sultry, on Terfel’s Wotan it looks rough in a bull looking up from under his shag of hair sort of way. Fricka and Wotan have a new castle, but the mortgage was Fricka’s sister Freia. Wotan had the giants Fasolt and Fafner (Franz-Josef Selig and Hans-Peter König) build the castle in exchange for his wife Fricka’s (mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe) sister,  Freia (Wendy Bryn Harmer), the goddess of youth, beauty and feminine love. Doesn’t that make Wotan sound like a pimp?

Fricka is concerned and the sturdy mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe matches Terfel’s brutish tones with seductive and sensuous pleas. Selling your sister-in-law doesn’t usually lead to martial bliss. Freia is not happy with this either, but Wotan has sent Loge to find something more valuable than Freia. Here again, love and lust come into the picture. Instead of love and a ring, this is love or the ring. Fafner wants the magic gold.

Life in dwarfland is dark misery. Alberich as enslaved all the dwarves including his brother Mime using the power of the ring he has made. Forced by Alberich, Mime has created the Tarnhelm, a magic helmet which changes the wearer into a shapeshifter who can transport himself anywhere (does this sound like a superhero or what?). In this Ring Cycle, the helmet is more like a mesh scarf or veil–something of a disappointment I admit.

Loge (tenor Richard Croft is crafty but not slimy and evil like Loki in “The Avengers”) will fool Alberich and Freia will be saved, but when you bait and switch to buy your house, can the future be bright? The dark dwarf world is below the “machine” while Valhalla is above. Used as a backdrop, the “machine” is a dark black shadow against which we see the glow of the gold as the enslaved dwarves work.

In the end, when the gods enter Valhalla walking straight up and there is indeed a rainbow. We see the gods as if directly overhead and they walk up the middle of the “machine.” This required body doubles for the gods, using acrobats who begin lying down on their backs below our sightline and then walking straight up a wall.

Terfel brings out the brute in his Wotan. He’s commanding rather than majestic. Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia is understandably upset and Harmer shows her emotional hysteria. How would you feel if you were offers to two loathsome brothers. Note that the gods were clothes that glimmer while the giants have furry that are like mountain men’s interpretation of Seattle grunge. Think chic couture crowd versus hillbillies–none as charming as Buddy Ebsen’s Jed Clampett either.

Loge knows that this kind of wheeling dealing will lead to the end of the gods, but first there must be love.

 Das Rheingold

Performance date: October 9, 2010
Air date: September 11, 2012 (Check local listings.)
Two unparalleled artists join forces to create a groundbreaking new 
Ring for the Met: Maestro James Levine and director Robert Lepage.  Recorded last season but held for broadcast in 2012, the cycle launches with Das Rheingold, the prologue to Wagner’s epic drama.  “The Ring is not just a story or a series of operas, it’s a cosmos,” says Lepage, who brings cutting-edge technology and his own visionary imagination to the world’s greatest theatrical journey.  Bryn Terfel stars as Wotan, with Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia, and Patricia Bardon as Erda.

 Die Walküre

“Die Walkure” introduces us the Brunhilde who will bring the end to the gods through her love for a man who has not yet been born. This performance was originally filmed on 14 May 2011, but will air on PBS “Great Performances at the Met: Die Walkure” on 12 September 2012. Check local listings.

It’s a dark and stormy night so the creaking and groaning of the machine, might have fit right in. Director Robert Lepage makes sure we see and hear the threatening weather. A stranger, Siegmund ( tenor Jonas Kaufmann) seeks shelter in the unhappy home of Hunding. Hunding is out, but his unhappy wife Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek)  is there and offers Siegmund shelter. He would go because he claims he’s cursed by misfortune, but she entreats him to stay. What harm can he bring to a “house where ill luck lives.”

Things can get worse. Hunding (bass Hans-Peter König) returns and Siegmund tells his tale of woe. Siegmund and his father returned home one day only to find his mother dead and his twin sister gone. His father and he searched for her. When he found a girl being forced into marriage, he fought with her relatives, but the bride was killed and his weapons broken.

Hunding was one of the men pursuing Siegmund and tells Siegmund that he will grant him the customary hospitality, but in the morning, they will battle.

Sieglinde drugs her husband and tells Siegmund that she was forced into marrying Hunding, but during the wedding a strange old man appeared and put a sword into the trunk of a tree that is in the middle of the room. No one has been able to remove the sword.

Siegmund removes the sword which he names “Nothung” and although the two realize they are brother and sister, they declare their love for each other. Kaufman’s brooding Siegmund brightens with hope and Kaufman and Westbroek look like they could be sister and brother as well as a good-looking couple together. Westbroek aptly suggests a woman who has poignantly survived a brutish marriage and is tentatively grasping at hope.

Siegmund and Sieglinde  may know who their mother is, but not their father. Wotan, disguised as their supposed father, bedded their mother. Wotan (bass-baritone Bryn Terfel), watching over the events, asks his Valkyrie daughter Brunnhilde (Deborah Voigt) to protect Siegmund against Hunding.

However, Fricka (mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe ) appears sitting on a throne and as the guardian of wedlock, demands that Siegmund and Sieglinde be punished for adultery and incest. The subtext here is that Wotan should also be punished for his adultery and that doesn’t just mean the sins of the father Wotan visiting Siegmund and Sieglinde. Bryn Terfel’s Wotan blusters but seems to feel annoyance rather than guilt over his own transgressions.  After Fricka leaves, Wotan bitterly commands Brunnhilde to give Hunding victory.

Siegmund and Sieglinde are on the run when Brunhilde approaches Siegmund. The Valkyries  are warrior maidens who are supposed to gather the souls of fallen heroes. The heroes will form an army against Alberich, but should Alberich have the ring, he will defeat Valhalla’s army. Brunhilde, the offspring of Wotan with the earth goddess Erda, is moved by Siegmund’s love for Sieglinde and promises him victory.

When Siegmund does meet with Hunding, he almost wins, but an angry Wotan appears and breaks Nothung. Hunding kills the weaponless Siegmund. Brunhilde gathers up the pieces of Nothung and flees with Sieglinde instead of Siegmund.

When she meets with the other Valkyries, during the “Ride of the Valkyries,” (each woman warrior is riding an individual see-sawing planks of the “machine,” ) the others are astounded that Brunnhilde has a living woman. Wotan catches up with his disobedient daughter, but Brunnhilde delays him as Sieglinde escape. Sieglinde is pregnant with Siegmund’s child who will be Siegfried.

Wotan must punish Brunnhilde’s disobedience although she was, as she reminds him, acting on his true wishes. Wotan takes away Brunnhilde’s immortality and puts her into a deep sleep. Loge surround her by a ring of fire and only a truly brave man, one who knows no fear, can enter and awaken her.

Using a body double, director Robert Lepage puts Brunnhilde on planks in the middle of the “machine” that are perpendicular to the stage, giving us an aerial view of Brunhilde from directly above and surrounds her by yellow, red and orange lights.

Although filmed from a May 14, 2011 performance, September 12, 2012 is its premiere on TV. Check local listings.

Die Walküre
Performance date: May 14, 2011
Air date: September 12, 2012
A stellar cast comes together for this second installment of
 Robert Lepage’s new production of the Ring cycle, conducted by James Levine Bryn Terfel is Wotan, lord of the Gods, and Deborah Voigt adds the part of Brünnhilde to her extensive Wagnerian repertoire at the Met.  Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek star as the twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and Stephanie Blythe is Fricka.

Broadcast Siegfried hdl 412

Siegfried

The Met’s production of “Siegfried” survived the withdrawal of both the conductor James Levine and the original tenor signed up for the titular role, Gary Lehman due to illness. The Met’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi (no not THAT Fabio) and Paris, Texas tenor Jay Hunter Morris were brought into this production as replacements. The performance seen here is from November 5, 2011, but will first air on PBS on September 13, 2012. Check local listings. 

In less than a week, Morris learned all the blocking for this production which is staged on Carl Fillion’s incredible 24-plank machine. That kind of fearlessness certainly also colored his portrayal of the young, somewhat dense demigod Siegfried. Siegfried doesn’t know who his parents are, but was raised by the calculating dwarf Mime (tenor Gerhard Siegel).

The world we find Siegfried in is more sensuous and there’s plenty of slithery things in the woods where he lives with his faux father. The 3D technology here gives a cinematic quality to the opera, projected at various angles on to the great “machine.”  There is also, of course, beauty in the forest–the trees and and greenery and birds. But beauty is not where Mime lives.

Mime needs Siegfried to get that gold ring and treasures from Fafner who is now a great serpent. But Fafner can only be defeated by someone who knows no fear. Mime needs to make a great sword for Siegfried to use, but Siegfried breaks every sword Mime has made. Mime complains about Siegfried’s ingratitude in an attempt to give the boy a guilt trip, but this only works to make Siegfried realize why he returns to this dwarf whom he despises: He wants to learn about his parents.

Mime tells Siegfried how he took in a woman who died giving childbirth, bringing nothing else with her but the fragments the sword Nothung.  Siegfried demands that Mime reforge that sword and leaves.

Did your mother tell you to beware of strangers. Mime’s apparently didn’t. When Wotan in the guise of a wanderer comes to Mime’s forge, Mime asks him three riddles that if he doesn’t answer, Mime will have the wanderer’s head. After answering the riddles, the wanderer asks riddles of his own, but Mime can’t answer them. Wotan gives Mime the answers: that the sword that can kill Fafner is Nothung and it can only be forged by one who knows no fear. We know that’s not Mime, but instead of taking his head, Wotan warns that the person who makes that sword will also take Mime’s head. Here bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as Wotan doesn’t seems motivated by the love for his grandson Siegfried. He’s a man decisively acting to insure Alberich won’t enter Valhalla.

With that Mime endeavors to teach Siegfried fear AND makes a plan to kill him. By attempting to change his fate, Mime actually sets the path to his death. Siegfried will eventually learn fear, but he will also learn about love when he meets Brunnhilde.

The New York Times critic declared the Fafner serpent “too cute,” but he didn’t get to see the tap-dancing alligator with top hat of the Los Angeles production. The Met’s serpent is a puppet with scales, glassy eyes and fangs.

Director Robert Lepage seems to have some new and wonderful surprise planned for each opera and here it’s the serpent and the 3D imagery. Etienne Boucher’s lighting design is a character in itself in Lepage’s production from the glow of the sun to the different aspects of the forest (video image artist is Pedro Pires). The performance seen here is from November 5, 2011, but will first air on PBS on September 13, 2012. Check local listings. 

Siegfried
Performance date: November 5, 2011
Air date: September 13, 2012
In part three of
 The Ring, Wagner’s cosmic vision focuses on his hero’s early conquests, while Robert Lepage’s revolutionary stage machine transforms itself from bewitched forest to mountaintop love nest.  Jay Hunter Morris sings the title role and Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde is his prize.  Bryn Terfel is the Wanderer.

Götterdämmerung

If you loved the matchup between  Jay Hunter Morris’ Siegfried and Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde, you’ll want to see how their doomed love affair plays out and ultimately brings the end of the time of the gods. This taping is from the performance date February 11, 2012 and will first be aired on September 14, 2012. Check local listings. 

The previous installment “Siegfried” had troubled history of last-minute replacements of both the conductor and the title character due to illness, but Morris and Voigt have a wonderful, playful chemistry. Voight doesn’t hit all her notes with as much clarity and authority as one would want, but beautifully expresses the joyous favorite daughter meeting with her father Wotan in “Die Walkure,” and the goddess touched and curious about human love but willfully rebelling against her father’s orders as opposed to his true heartfelt wishes.  In “Siegfried,” she becomes a mortal woman and falls in love with the innocent Siegfried. In “Gotterdammerung” she transforms from a tender lover to a firebrand when she has been betrayed by the bewitched Siegfried.

Yet when you really think about it, they are both innocents. Brunnhilde doesn’t know what’s it’s like to be a mortal and certainly not a woman in the brutal world where it seems women are regularly forced into marriage. Our hero Siegfried cares neither for the gold nor the ring. He gives it to his beloved Brunnhilde and with love comes fear.

What brings our hero down though is treachery and the greed of others.  Siegfried leaves Brunnhilde and that might have been his mistake. He takes her shield and her horse Grane (a wonderful piece of puppetry that when you first see it you can easily believe it’s a real horse).

In the Hall of the Gibichungs, the betrayal begins. Hagen (bass Hans-Peter König), the half-brother of the lord of the land, Gunther (bass-baritone Iain Paterson), advises Gunther to take Brunnhilde as his bride and then tells his half-sister Gutrune (Wendy Bryn Harmer ), that she should take Siegfried. That small detail about Siegfried and Brunnhilde is easily handled by erasing Siegfried’s memory with a magic potion he has given Gutrune. Under the spell of the potion, Siegfried still has Tarnhelm and uses it to disguise himself as Gunther and then “wins” Brunnhilde for Gunther, taking back the ring.

Hagen’s father is Alberich (bass-baritone Eric Owens). You remember him. He’s the one who stole the gold from the Rhinemaidens (Erin Morley, Jennifer Johnson Cano and Tamara Mumford) and made the ring, but he also cursed the ring when he lost it to the giants. Alberich pushes Hagen to bring him back the ring.  So there’s your motivation.

When the downcast Brunnhilde is forced to marry Gunther, she meets her brother-in-law, Siegfried and confronts him. To his memory, he does not know Brunnhilde and they have never been together as lovers. He denies all her claims, but Hagen knows the truth. Gunther, now a jealous husband and embarrassed lord, plots to murder Siegfried on a hunting trip. Hagen actually performs the dirty deed, but only after giving Siegfried the antidote for the original love potion. Siegfried remembers his love for Brunnhilde and dies.

Brunnhilde takes charge of Siegfried’s funeral, building a great pyre, she takes the ring and tells the Rhinemaidens to claim it after the fire has turned her and her beloved into ashes, thereby cleansing the ring of its curse. She rides into the fire and the Rhine floods the hall and Hagen, in a last attempt to claim the ring, is drowned. The flames touch Valhalla and consumes the gods and their abode.

König’s Hagen is a more two-faced bad guy than the Owens’ lusting Alberich.  His Hagen smiles and charms like a rental Santa Claus who just putting on a show for the customers. Harmer’s Gutrune isn’t so much an evil adventuress or scheming gold-digger as a star-struck young woman easily misled. Harmer has less gumption here as Gutrune than she did as the poor sold-for-a-castle Freia. Pretty, young things didn’t do well in those days–not Freia, not Seiglinde and not Gutrune. Paterson’s Gunther seems more interested in the wealth than the prize of having a former goddess as his wife.  He’s pleased for his sister, but coldly intellectual and calculating where Siegfried is joyful and honest.

Ultimately, this is about Brunnhilde and Voigt gives a blazing portrayal of a woman scorned, tragically unable to re-unite with the man who truly loved her and betrayed her unwittingly.

Carl Fillion’s 24-plank 45-tone machine is used effectively here mostly as the backdrop. It becomes the place where Siegfried and Brunnhilde cavort and flirt. Then it is the great wood-grained hall of Gunther and we see the approach of Siegfried from above on the horse Grane.  While reviews of the actual performance have complained about the creaks and groans of the machine, you don’t hear it in the Great Performances production. Perhaps this is closer to what French Canadian director Robert Lepage had in mind and technology has get to catch up.

This cinematic production of the Met’s Ring Cycle is worth purchasing. The Met Opera website offers the DVD set which includes the documentary, “Wagner’s Dream” for $135.  For now, you can watch it free on PBS (check local listings) on your TV or online.

Götterdämmerung
Performance date: February 11, 2012
Air date: September 14, 2012
With its cataclysmic climax, the Met’s new Ring cycle, directed by Robert Lepage, comes to its resolution.  Deborah Voigt stars as Brünnhilde and Jay Hunter Morris is Siegfried—the star-crossed lovers doomed by fate.

One comment

  1. Saw the complete cycle on PBS, and don’t know much about opera, but enjoyed it very much.
    Have read about noise problems of the machine, but did not notice any problems.
    Over-all, enjoyed it very much.

    Like

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