I watched the latest instalment of Robert Lepage’s Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in a high definition broadcast.
The celebrated machine that is the star of the production continues to amuse and delight. In the latest episode we see a greater reliance on projections and animation, making me wonder whether the complete Ring presentation next year may feature more of these images, elaborating upon what was seen in the first two operas. The production gives us Wagner’s opera virtually intact. That may seem unremarkable until one remembers how challenging it is to stage some of the effects called for in the score:
- A dragon slain in battle by Siegfried
- A talking bird
- A mountain surrounded by impenetrable fire: that can be penetrated by one who does not know the meaning of fear
And so we actually see something to suggest all of these effects, whether we’re speaking of the key elements of the story or minutiae. Siegfried makes his first entrance accompanied by a bear that he uses to harass his guardian, Mime. Not only do we get a bird, but this time —as specified in the score–we see the bird chased away by the ravens that serve as the Wanderer’s entourage.
But this is not cinematic realism, notwithstanding the filmic element in some of the elements being projected. We are confronted with an obvious hybrid of the living actors and a patently artificial surface that the viewer must construct in their mind into some sort of combination-reality. Parts of the set are clearly visible as projection surfaces, simultaneously aiding the illusion while offering a classic Brechtian gestus reminding us that we’re looking at a projection of a forest or a river or a magic fire.
I am reminded of Lepage’s last production with the Canadian Opera Company, namely The Nightingale and Other Stories, featuring shadow puppetry. When Siegfried dips his newly fashioned sword into the fake stream to cool it down, and later grabs some fake stream to refresh himself, it’s a wonderful tromp-l’oeil moment, playing both with our sense of perspective and our awareness of the artificiality of the moment.
For last year’s Die Walküre I felt at times that I was watching a performance for a studio audience (albeit without an “applause” sign), especially given the intimate camera work and ultra-soft vocalism. For today’s performance I think we’ve now gone a step further, as we watched an opera that seemed like a virtual performance. Some parts work better than others. The forest bird is a wonderful effect that moved me; the final scene on the mountain-top, however, didn’t work quite so well for me –at least in the High Definition broadcast—due to the confusing perspective (maybe it looks better in the house?). Perhaps this will be resolved in time.
During the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Siegfried we were treated to the drama of the last moment substitution of an understudy, namely Jay Hunter Morris in the title role. It’s a very exciting scenario, even if the rags-to-riches story they tell is perhaps an exaggeration the way they played it on the broadcast. A quick look at Morris’s website indicates that he’s been singing heldentenor roles for at least a few years. His next year looks phenomenally busy, not just with the sequel upcoming at the Met, namely Götterdämmerung to be broadcast in February, but also a Tristan next summer. I wish Morris well, particularly given the worldwide shortage of tenor talent.
While it’s difficult to assess the success of the voices in the house –a huge space seating over 3,500– arguably the production targets the viewers of the broadcast, rather than those in attendance. Gerhard Siegel as Mime impressed me most of the main personages, both for his flamboyant dramatics and his wonderful vocal characterization. Bryn Terfel’s Wanderer put me in mind of his Rheingold Wotan, particularly in the scene when Eric Owens appeared on stage; for that brief period Owens blew Terfel’s lighter voice away, although in fairness the part is very brief. For those few moments Owens is terrifyingly powerful. Terfel’s delicate and lyrical sound, coupled with his fascinating looks were compelling and always seemed well conceived and thoughtful.
Neither dragon nor bird let me down. The illusion of the forging scene was satisfactory and was wonderfully sung by Morris and Siegel. Only one aspect of the production disappointed me, and unfortunately serves as a dark omen for Gotterdammerung, the last installment to come in early 2012. Deborah Voigt sang the role of Brunnhilde adequately, but simply did not suggest the depths of compassion and insight of this pivotal role. I simply can’t picture her singing the Immolation Scene, although i desperately want her to succeed. In fairness she’s new to this role and likely will grow in the role.
I will try to keep an open mind.