Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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This Ring Doesn't Shine for me Anymore

May 04, 2012

Katarina Dalayman lights it up at the end of Götterdämmerung Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012
It’s been done in so many places by so many people that even the New York Times has had to dig a little to find someone on staff who’ll say much good about it at this point. It feel like shooting fish in a barrel. But reality is hard to escape, and I admit after seeing the entire cycle over the last ten days at The Metropolitan Opera with Götterdämmerung wrapping things up last night, that this week has felt pretty hollow and dispiriting as far as opera goes. It’s difficult even to be snarky or witty about the production given how uninspiring this whole show is, defying even the possibility of camp. Lepage offers no insight into the events of Wagner’s lengthy work. He doesn’t even rehash somebody else's. It makes Francesca Zambello’s recent production in San Francisco feel like it came straight out of Berlin with all of its “ideas” and “thought.” Instead, Lepage treats his audiences to days of characters just entering and exiting from the wings directly onto the front skirt of the stage where they stand for hours and sing. Meanwhile opera's noisiest and most expensive backdrop clacks and hisses along during the scene changes before coming to rest in yet another high tech pose it will hold until politely invited to move again. Occasionally the tedium is broken up by the distant shouts of stagehands (as it was Thursday briefly) trying to keep the whole contraption on course, like deckmates on some latter-day Titanic.

The wreck here is only artistic, though. Götterdämmerung is perhaps the worst staging of the four operas in the cycle. The special effects are rarely special and almost always cliché from the crumbling statues of the gods in the finale to the blood washed from Gunther’s hands after Siegfried’s murder which soon stains all of the video-projected Rhine. The biggest and most dramatic moments in the score are largely ignored and instead accompanied by lengthy exits and entrances of various characters as if nobody knew what to do with all that pesky music. Characters pace back and forth on the stage as if waiting for the orchestra to get to their entrance. Sadly, some of this may have rubbed off on conductor Fabio Luisi who gave a polished but oddly unengaged interpretation of the score for most all of the performances. It was the kind of Ring where nobody is pushing anyone towards anything, which may well be the worst kind. Even the drab, quasi-mythological costumes seemed mostly to work to stay out of the way of something bigger that never arrived.

Most of the vocal performances over the four days were not so instantly forgettable. Cancellations for illness abounded as I noted previously, and on Thursday, Eric Owens too, was announced sick and unable to perform Alberich for his brief scene in Act II. Richard Paul Fink, who will sing the role throughout the final cycle this year, covered the part and seemed like a breath of fresh air wandering in wearing a contemporary dark suit. There were heroes. Jay Hunter Morris continued to use his good will and lovely voice to great effect right through the end. Hans-Peter König who had done lots of duty in this show as Fafner, Hunding, and finally Hagen was easily the most assured and beautiful singing of the Ring’s final installment. Even Katarina Dalayman, who sang Brünnhilde, powered down for the cycle’s final opera and was steely and powerful without so much outright shouting as in Siegfried. Owens has becomes a first rate opera star out of these performances as Alberich as he should be. Bryn Terfel seemed best when Wotan became more sentimental and nostalgic as the cycle went on. His performances in Act II of Die Walküre and all of Siegfried were touchingly, beautifully sung. But his characterization of Wotan isn't comprehensively as great given that the god's more stentorian moments come off as blasé.

What the future hold’s for this turkey of a production is anybody’s guess. It certainly will live on next season and for some after that I imagine. It will certainly live on in video and everyone around the world will get another chance to see the entire previously screened four operas as part of the The Met Opera's Live in HD series over the course of the next two weeks. Don't believe all the Chicken Little harping you may have read about the drawbacks of the movie theater presentations. Having seen both versions, the theater presentations are notably preferable not only for their cost, but also because the most stupefyingly dull excesses of Lepage's non-production are improved upon by video editing and the qualities of a multi-camera video production. Any loss in image quality from seeing it live is a small price to pay to liven things up.

It’s been popular to take this Ring’s artistic failure as some sort of bigger indication of the company’s leadership under Peter Gelb, but I’m less inclined towards this sort of overly dramatic interpolation. Everyone is allowed their failures, even the Met under Gelb and I would still argue there have been plenty of success under his tenure so far as well. But I would wager that selling tickets for next year’s planned cycles at the Met aren’t going to go as easily as they did this year, much less compared to how they’ve gone in the past. Much was made over the availability of individual tickets for individual operas during these cycles, a situation not typical of seasons past, and I can tell you that from where I sat in the heart of center orchestra, a zone you’d suspect would have been pretty popular the first time around, the changing faces from night to night far outnumbered those who sat through all four operas. There weren’t tons of empty seats, but certainly lots of people had made relatively last minute plans for the shows I would guess. With less starry casts and cycles that continue to be spread out over 8 to 10 days, I know I for one don’t have a lot of incentive to sit through this one again any time soon. There is one cycle left that starts Saturday night, and there are tickets still available for all the shows, or you can see for yourself what's going on in a local theater starting next week.



I must agree on having seen the Ring on HD versus just having seen it live that it is in many ways preferable in HD. Through the use of multiple cameras and video editing all four operas are much more visually interesting in a video format than in person. I was stunned at how flat and unimagingative the set actually looked in person, as well as how unimaginatively the singers were often directed. The big moments such as the "Magic Fire" music of "Die Walkure" and the Immolation scene were simply passe. The orchestra under Luisi was more often servicable than inspired. There was no pretending this was vintage Levine. I thought vocal honors went to Owens, who should have been the Wotan, Blythe, Koening, and Westbroek. I had the misfortune to hear the matinee of DW where Von Aken sang the Siegmund, as I was looking forward to the pairing of Westbroek and Kaufmann. Dalaymann was often a very good Brunnhilde, who had a tendancy to lunge at her high notes. She was certainly preferrable in vocal terms to Voigt in her current vocal estate, however. Why can't they engage Nina Stemme next year? I am simply not a fan of Terfel. He lacks the noblity and stature both physically and vocally for Wotan. All in all the trip to NYC for the Ring was rather ho hum. I did not dare see the car crash "Traviata" with Dessay, but I saw a terrific "Makropolus Case" with Matilla.
I saw a cycle and I kind of liked it. Opera is pretty new to me though so I don't have any perspective on other performances.

My favorites this year are :

La Traviatta
The Makropolous Case

Didn't much care for The Enchanted Island.

Manon I didn't love the opera itself but I very much liked the star.

I don't know many performers but my favorites were:

The male lead in The Elixer of Love (whose name I don't remember)

The guy with the white hair that played the father in La Traviatta

The star in Manon who looks hot in that dress. And likes to ham it up.

Natalie Dessay in La Traviatta

The star of Makropolus Case

That opera had a good story, was funny, well acted and sung. Not sure why they never do it. Maybe 15-20 times total in Met history, as I recall. Maybe because it's Czech ?

Oh yeh, Koshechina, a Russian one, I thought was very good (but very grim).

I also observed that anytime it's a new production I always hear people bitching that it isn't as good as the old set. So The Met will not please everyone. They probably have to balance the line between older, wealthy patrons who prefer to see the same thing for the Nth time and the fact that they can't keep doing the same sh$t forever.

Except for La Boheme, which like everyone else, I did enjoy and I remember it is well over 1000 times they've done it. So La Boheme can be the constant. As to the rest, feel free to try something new as far as I'm concerned. Though I thought Faust wasn't very good and that set was definitely trying something new.
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