By Minnie Biggs
Regrettably, the Met Ring is all or too much about The Machine. Robert Lepage’s 45 tonne, 17 or is it 23 million dollar, twenty four panel ego trip. (There are eighteen names listed as staff for the Machine project!) (Just think what that money could do for the ailing finances of the Met Opera!) However, it must be said that there are people who like it. Quite a lot of people. And defend it. Not me.
It seemed to have little or nothing to do with Wagner or the operas or the messages therein. Great big lumbering structures, frequently wheezing and groaning as they move, perilous for the singers, the Rhine Maidens hang from easily spotted ropes, it was all about itself. Lepage. The lighting effects often looked like giant billboards in primary coloured neon lights. Ugly. Most notoriously was the Rainbow Bridge. No stretch of the imagination could visualise a bridge - something about brightly lit parallel lines? How did the poor singers climb that vertical structure? With difficulty.
The Valkyries rode their horses in a straight line across the top of the structure, stiff and unconvincing, sliding down to the ground, as on diving boards, where they placed cloths on the ground - to indicate horses or feeding or the dead warriors? Brunhilde’s mountain at one stage became an iceberg, and one that featured falling glaciers, in white and grey. Not the moment to consider climate change if indeed that was what they had in mind, Otherwise - a giant iceberg?
For the last two operas, he seemed to run out of steam, less Machine movement and slightly less aggressive neon lighting. The Gibichung hall had an effective table, rising and falling from below. Similar to Erda’s elevator, where in the second cycle, there was a long pause before someone shouted out something, and she began to sing. The fire at the end was splashy and bright and unconvincing for me and featured yet another vertiginous vertical climb.
The very best news is about the singers. Every one of them was excellent. Unusual in a Ring, there are often one or two who are less satisfying, for their acting or voice. These were the very finest I have heard. And seen. Michael Volle was a superb believable human Wotan in perfect voice, Christine Georke, a magnificent Brunhilde, Andreas Schager a strong musical Siegfried, (in the third cycle Stefan Vinke.) Our Stuart Skelton never better as Siegmund, beautiful Eva Maria Westbroeck as Sieglinde, Jamie Barton a convincing Fricka, deep strong Eric Owens as Hagen. Alberich was Tomasz Konieczny, Loge who had a lighter voice or do I always notice this? was Norbert Ernst. Gutrune was Edith Haller and Gunther Evgeny Nikitin. All superb.
Philippe Jordan conducted. The famous Met Opera orchestra, brought to its excellence through James Levine who had the advantage of hiring and working with his musicians over the years, honing them to that excellence with his famous ear. Since his departure many players have moved on and there has been no continuous leader. So perhaps it is not surprising that Jordan’s gang was not up to earlier standards. I seldom heard the seamless beauty of old. The horns, those important horns, were too often too alive, bright, brash and far too often given to actual mistakes. Ouch. He took a fast tempo, having written in the program about young conductors taking the slow too slow, the fast too fast, and how he has learned to not succumb to that, except he does, moves altogether too quickly throughout. Seldom observing Wagner’s ritardandos. I never felt the remembered sublimity of the Met orchestra sound. However, on a bright note - my friend who was following with a score said he had never heard the Siegfried hammer scene so correctly performed, every note as RW wrote it, in the correct time. Let’s hear it for Andreas Schager! * (see below) Stefan Vinke did not do it as well in the last performance.
What was special about this Ring for me was seeing, or rather listening to it, twice. Seldom has there been such an opportunity. For the last cycle I ordered score seats ($12) with the express intention of just listening, as those seats have no view of the stage. But somehow they did not come through, so, on tenterhooks, in the last minutes, I bought standing rooms places ($49).
For Rheingold, I was at the top of the top of the family circle and found a spot on the floor with a light below the wall against which people lean and look. With my specs and my libretto, I listened and heard as I never had before. Quite comfortable with my legs crossed underneath me, the sound was superb, orchestra and voices slightly more mellow, rounded. For the subsequent operas I ‘scored’ a score desk seat. My friend who had his seat honestly found there were usually a couple of empty ones. So I moved in. Thankfully ushers do not check tickets once you are in the hall, unless you need help. Again, just listening and following the libretto at least part of the time, I heard the operas anew. One little example, in Siegfried I penciled a note about hearing a waltz tune or rhythm in Mime’s singing, Brand new to me.
At the performance of Siegfried the woman behind me had a different score than that of my friend; his was a big book with the parts of all the instruments. I asked her about it - it was for piano and voice, with the libretto in tiny letters in German and English- and she offered it to me for the third act. “I’ve been here the whole time; I can have a nap!” Thank you, what a blessing! Also a challenge, a long time since I have used a score, intense concentration. What a thrill it was, just being with those pages of even just the piano score. And an extra gift: she had penciled in the leitmotifs!
Such an enriching and widely opening experience it was, to dive deeper and absorb more of the many layers of Wagner’s music and stories. People love to talk about how many Rings they have attended but for me it is about how much more I learn and understand and appreciate that genius which is Richard Wagner.
* In a recent biography of Mathilde Wesendonck, it is mentioned that in one of the houses Wagner lived in while in Zurich, he was surrounded by piano playing, a practicing flute, and a blacksmith shop. He had to endure all that noise all the time while trying to compose. The persistent hammering of the blacksmith may well have inspired his own hammering, bringing hammering to a new musical high.
June 2019 Wagner Quarterly, Issue 153