It doesn’t matter how big they are. Whether we’re speaking of fame or stature, every singer in the current Metropolitan Opera productions (both Das Rheingold and Die Walküre) directed by Robert Lepage & his Ex Machina group shares the stage with a bigger star.
Bryn Terfel may be six foot four, but he is dwarfed by The Machine: the burly forty-five ton behemoth of a thousand shapes and configurations. The Machine can impersonate mountains, trees, or any shape in a landscape. The Machine can be a troop of flying horses, ridden by Valkyries. The Machine can be a projection surface for slides, flickering fire, avalanches, or shadow puppetry.
And The Machine can be temperamental as a Prima Donna, it seems. Saturday’s High Definition broadcast was delayed for about 40 minutes. From what we were told on air technicians were being careful and so had to be certain that the device would perform as required. Given the recent high-profile scandal centering on stunts and safety surrounding the production of Spiderman: Take Back the Dark such cautions are perhaps a good idea. A falling singer quickly inspires gossip and scandal, although i do believe there’s a genuine concern at the Met for the safety of the performers.
Please don’t mistake me for some sort of purist, defending the good old days of opera against the onslaught of modern technology & design. In fact I am thrilled with Lepage’s work, and not via the partisan loyalty of a Canadian supporting a Canadian artist. I was merely calling attention to a detail that’s inescapable to those of us who sat through that 40 minute delay.
Before I write my review, I want to also call attention to the inescapable fact that I wasn’t there. The operas being presented for High Definition broadcast are now receiving a larger audience in worldwide theatre presentations than in person. I do not know how the comparison works in terms of revenue given that I only paid a tiny sum at my Cineplex, whereas tickets at the Met are considerably more, meaning that one body in person is likely equivalent to several cinema bodies. But even so, we’d have to assume that the process of opera is being changed by these theatrical showings.
The ideal style of presentation in a big huge venue such as the Met Opera House is different than what we’d want to see and hear in a camera close-up. Whereas big gestures and big loud voices are a requirement in the big theatre, those would become a liability on the small screen. I can’t help but think someone has been thinking of this, considering the subtlety of some of the portrayals seen in the Ring so far. Both Richard Croft and Bryn Terfel, who sang with great subtlety in Das Rheingold, received boos from their opening night audience, portrayals that were pure magic in the cinematic version. I felt I had to make that substantial digression because this review concerns the theatre broadcast, and not the version seen in the opera house.
At this point roughly half-way through I am happy to express my admiration without reservation. Of the Ring cycles presented since the premiere in 1876, the trend in the first half-century was predominantly conservative representational design; a great many since have gone off on conceptual tangents, turning the Ring into a treatise or an abstract template of some sort. Lepage’s Ring is neither, and I am not sure that there’s an easy label ready for us to apply to what they—Lepage and his collaborative team Ex Machina—have been doing. I’d like to simply notice the things that work, and give myself permission to enjoy it. I had a good time at the theatre today, even with the delay.
In the first scene I am sure I wasn’t the only one delighted by the action unfolding as Siegmund escaped his pursuit. The Machine impersonated a forest admirably. Once Siegmund came through the wall into Hunding’s dwelling—a flexible presentational space—The Machine seemed to disappear. So many details seemed right. For example, if you were in a house with a tree growing through your ceiling, and someone had then stuck a sword into that tree—possibly a normal state of affairs for hobbits or Volsungs, but certainly nothing with which I have any real experience—it seems totally reasonable that after awhile you would get over the oddness of having that sword sticking out of the tree. Eventually you’d start hanging clothes on it, as Hunding and his wife had been doing. And because the normal courtship procedure for Hunding and his clan was forcible abduction, it stands to reason that if his wife were to contradict him in front of a stranger that he’d have a tantrum and throw dishes around the table, terrorizing his wife (like the wife-beating scum he probably was).
Lepage’s treatment of Hunding reminds me a bit of his treatment of Fasolt (from the previous opera). In both cases, I believe we see something a bit different than usual. Fasolt is the one in love with Freia, the goddess for whom the giants build Valhalla as part of the bargain at the centre of the plot of Rheingold. Lepage offered us something a bit unexpected, namely a bit of eye contact between Freia and Fasolt suggesting that in fact the relationship might have been at least a little bit mutual. Similarly, Hunding seems genuinely interested in Siegmund’s story-telling, at least until he gets to the part close to home, involving the recent deaths of relatives. Both of these are problematic precisely because they’re subtler than the usual two-dimensional portrayals we tend to get.
And there are other examples of human relationships that Lepage explores in unexpected ways. The brief appearance by the goddess Fricka in Act II of Die Walküre is a key moment in the plot of the opera. Wotan and Brünnhilde had been happy about the plot developments we’d seen in the first act, namely the flight of Siegmund and Sieglinde away from her husband Hunding; Fricka, goddess of the hearth & home, is outraged and comes to Wotan demanding that Hunding’s rights be upheld. Even worse in her eyes is the fact that Siegmund & Sieglinde are twins. Most times Fricka is a rhetorical powerhouse, which is to say, that it’s assumed that any love that might have existed between Wotan and Fricka is long dead.
But that’s not what Lepage gave us. Bryn Terfel’s Wotan and Stephanie Blythe’s Fricka are more than mere rhetorical antagonists. At times Blythe is tearful, and hurt; and this current gambit is an error because she pushes him away thereby. She seems genuinely surprised by how her demands have upset him, and not at all triumphant. Yes she’s won; but she is now slamming the door on the relationship, and realizes it belatedly.
In the scene that follows, we encounter a new scenic device. Wotan is a one-eyed god because he sacrificed an eye as part of the bargain whereby he obtains his power. During Wotan’s introspective monologue, a gigantic eye appears. At times it’s used as a surface for the projection of shadow images, at other times simply a focal point (excuse the pun) for this powerful scene.
Speaking of which, the Valkyries were perhaps the biggest eye-opener for me. I have never liked the set piece that opens Act III (the celebrated Ride of the you know who) partly because it always felt like a hunk of filler in the opera, bringing the plot to a dead stop in an act where precious little happens otherwise. Lepage again shows us something very different. The Machine portrays flying horses, albeit in a somewhat abstracted form closer to a teeter-totter than anything genuinely equine. Even so, I would say this is easily the closest I’ve come to seeing the Valkyries do their job of riding & collecting the dead (we also saw that in a somewhat grisly decomposed form). I never expected to like it so much.
But the Valkyries really come into their own after the arrival of Brünnhilde and Sieglinde, again riding an abstract flying beast. One subtle thing that impressed me was that although Voigt is nowhere near as young as the women playing her sister Valkyries, we still believed the relationship, partly because of the horseplay we’d seen in Act II between father & daughter, partly because of the way Voigt moved. Given the close-up camerawork, that’s no mean feat. I have seen so many other productions where a combination of diva body-language, size and age, or simply bad staging conspire to make Brünnhilde seem different from her sisters.
What follows is a scene working in a way I have never seen before, a display of genuine passion and tears that serve as a perfect counter-balance to Wotan’s anger. Instead of a sudden abrupt tonal change with Sieglinde’s mournful lines, there was a logical through-line I’d never seen before.
And I found the last scene between Brünnhilde and Wotan especially effective. I say that even though I was not fond of Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde; all the more reason to be fascinated at the magic in the final scene. The third star onstage with Terfel & Voigt –The Machine—was not a scene-stealer, just a subtle contributor to the magic that left me wiping my eyes afterwards.
Terfel played the scene as if he is torn throughout, and at one moment seems to be on the verge of hugging –and possibly forgiving—Brünnhilde: but stops himself. Playing it this way –not a stern bogeyman who goes all mushy at the end, but rather, someone who is conflicted, has all along loved her, just as he loved Siegmund—makes his final compromise seem inevitable.
I haven’t spoken of the excellent performers, which I think are covered in all the many reviews you can find online. I was amazed at their subtlety in close-up, where many performances are confounded. I found Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund & Bryn Terfel were especially believable.
When they offer the encore presentation of the high-def broadcast I wonder whether it will include the 40 minute delay intact? In Toronto the encore is scheduled for June 18th. Live? The Met season is over, but after the 2011-2012 season, the Met will be presenting three complete Ring Cycles. If you’re interested you might consider buying tickets now; but so far at least, tickets are only available to Met subscribers or contributors. Hmmmm….