> North America
NEW YORK CITY
The Metropolitan Opera
The hall of the Gibichungs, with Paterson, Voigt, König, Morris and Harmer
© Beth Bergman 2012
Voigt and Meier, Brünnhilde and Waltraute at the Met
© Beatriz Schiller 2012
The physical scale of Robert Lepage's Götterdämmerung may have been immense, but its ambitions seemed puny. As seen at its January 27 premiere, the final production in the Met's new Ring cycle was less an interpretation of the opera than a desultory series of tactics for dealing with its daunting challenges.
As it has throughout the cycle, Carl Fillion's mammoth set dominated the action. For this installment, the upper row of twenty-four planks was in frequent movement — whirling madly during the Norns' scene, rising perpendicular to create the walls of the Gibichungs' abode, forming a diagonal slide to illustrate the Rhine. The bottom row, meanwhile, remained mostly stationary for the evening, serving as the stage floor. The disjuncture between the two halves of the stage was so extreme that it often seemed like two different performances were happening at once — a dizzying spectacle in back; a soggy and conventional staging in front, with the performers seemingly left to their own devices.
The Norns' rope was a series of threads hanging from the planks; these created an arresting image, but when the three singers were required to thread them together, their choreography was clumsy and tentative, as if Lepage hadn't yet addressed the problem of how the human beings onstage were expected to interact with his nifty invention. Elsewhere, quasi-naturalistic fidgeting undercut the opera's mythic force. The singers' gestural language often seemed makeshift and ordinary: from their onstage behavior, one could seldom glean that the fate of the gods lay in their hands. The limitations of the staging were never more apparent, though, than when the chorus entered. The stage pictures in these massed scenes were diffuse and chaotic: one rarely knew where to look — where the focusof the moment was meant to lie.
There were, of course, effective moments. The stances of Eric Owens and Hans-Peter König in the Alberich–Hagenscene conveyed the spell under which the dwarf held his son. Waltraud Meier, delivering Waltraute's monologue, offered an object lesson in how to use stillness to create dramatic tension. But still, in the preceding passage she had been forced to react to her sister's greeting like an exasperated sidekick in a sitcom.
The haphazard staging had the effect of obscuring the piece itself; it was hard to figure out from the visual evidence what kind of opera this was. The performance was never boring — a testament to the overall quality of the musical presentation. But it had no cumulative power. The acts could have been switched around with little effect on the experience. Götterdämmerung is the longest opera in the standard repertory; its closing moments should feel like the end of a significant voyage. Here, the destruction of the Gibichungs' hall elicited one of Lepage's cheesiest effects: the heads popped off a row of plaster statues of the gods, as if they were decoys in a shooting gallery. But no coup de théâtre by this point could have produced the necessary catharsis; the work's dramatic momentum had stilled hours earlier.
If only Lepage could have brought the same dedication to his assignment as the singers and musicians did to theirs. Fabio Luisi drew luminous sounds from the pit. The great orchestra played like a chamber ensemble writ large, for all of its mass never once swamping the singers. Occasionally, in Luisi's emphasis on transparency and fluidity, one missed a measure of sheer Wagnerian weight. But this was nonetheless music-making of a high order.
Three of the principals matched their conductor in their mastery of their assignments. The very timbre of König's bass told us how Hagen could hold such sway over his vassals and stepsiblings: it had the power and presence of the cow horn he used for his summons. Meier gave Waltraute's monologue the concentrated intensity of a lied. And Owens's brief appearance served as a reminder of why his Alberich has been the breakaway sensation of this Ring. It isn't just the warmth of his tone and the crispness of his diction that make this a great portrayal; it's the way he uses his abundant gifts to disappear inside the character.
Jay Hunter Morris, so impressive in the title role of Siegfried earlier in the season, had a less happy outing this time around. In the first two acts, his sound was often guttural and unfocused. His voice acquired the necessary glints of light in time for Siegfried's final monologue, but even then, he was not consistently able to sustain a lyric line. Morris is an appealing performer, honorably undertaking the most daunting of assignments; one hopes that he was simply off-form on this occasion.
Götterdämmerung requires more stamina and power from a Brünnhilde than her other two Ring assignments. Deborah Voigt's current vocal estate allowed her to get through the role but didn't provide the resources to burrow into it. Her phrasing lacked expansiveness. She could pump out sound above the staff, especially in Act II's cries of indignation, but the lower part of her voice was dull and unresponsive, and the immolation scene was curiously small-scaled.
Iain Paterson was an effective presence as Gunther, aptly conveying the character's weakness and self-loathing; one only wished his handsome sound had a touch more visceral impact. As his sister, Wendy Bryn Harmer had almost the opposite problem: her big, bright soprano was a shade too penetrating to convey Gutrune's wilting manner. The three Rhinemaidens (Erin Morley, Jennifer Johnson Cano and Tamara Mumford) sang together as if with a single fresh voice. Heidi Melton, a hochdramatischer soprano in the making, was a standout Third Norn.
A final note: as in earlier Ring installments, the massive set clanged as it shifted, drowning out some quieter orchestral moments. Moreover, from where I sat in the orchestra level, I could hear a whoosh of white noise, coming from the ad hoclighting boxes installed along the parterre ring and competing with the sounds emerging from the front of the theater. The production team's willingness to allow these aural distractions can only be seen as a misapprehension of the operatic medium itself.