Lepage’s Siegfried

Director Robert Lepage (Canadian Press photo)

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
Siegfried vs Fafner the dragon

Siegfried vs Fafner

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.

Eric Owens

Eric Owens, hair-raising in his brief appearances as Alberich

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.

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2 Responses to Lepage’s Siegfried

  1. I was in the house today and Mr Morris’s voice carries clearly, without ever being covered by the orchestra and without ever being pushed. He created a likable Siegfried. All the lower-voiced men did well, but while this Ring has made me admire Terfel much more than I ever did previously (he always came across to me as a big boy with a big voice that needed work) I did find the lightness and brightness of his tone a bit strange in this lowest Wotan of the lot. That said, I thought he did it all splendidly today. Herr Siegel, in other circumstances a Tannhauser and Siegfried himself, came over strongly in the house.

    I thought the ladies were less effective. Ms Erdmann’s voice carried well but is monochromatic. Ms Bardon’s low notes were inaudible in the house. Based on today’s performance, I don’t see how Deborah Voigt can make it through Gotterdammerung, particularly Act 2. It was as late as Brunnhilde’s line about seeing Grane grazing among the trees that she finally got the voice under control and managed a smooth tone. All the top notes were lunges and the final one came out as a dry, toneless yelp. I should mention that I have always loved Ms Voigt — I was in the house here in Boston for her breakthrough performances as Ariadne — but I fear that the voice is in very real trouble.

    A very major part of the success of today’s performance was Fabio Luisi’s conducting. His lighter, clearer approach to the textures in the score than we are used to at the MET from James Levine guaranteed that the singers could always be heard without slighting the delights of the orchestration. Of the three parts of The Ring seen so far, I would agree that the projections for Siegfried are the most beautiful and technically impressive so far. The birds were delightful indeed; Fafner, on the other hand, was a cipher. Stuck in one place and without claws, he was one of the lamest dragons I have ever encountered (Seattle and Chicago have genuinely scary beasts). There was some noise from the set but nothing like the cacophony that accompanied getting Fricka’s throne unit on and off in Die Walkure. As for the stage direction, it could be the old Schenk production dropped into high tech scenery; nothing of any particular interest happened and, in fact, Mr Schenk made much more of a show out of the forging of the sword than Monsieur Lepage whose work is prosaic at best and lacking in any profile at its worst.

  2. barczablog says:

    Thanks for calibrating it all by your remarks from in the house. I try to stay away from negativity, and so –having nothing nice to say– left out two of the three women; the third is simply too important to omit. Voigt’s again making me wonder about the mythology of weightloss. I am thinking more about the subjective experience for the person losing weight, where they may question their own abilities afterwards. Perhaps she needs to re-think a few things…?

    And when I said that neither bird nor dragon let me down, i am not very demanding, having seen so many dumb-ass approaches in this, one of my two favourite acts of the entire cycle (the other being the last act of all). Both dragon & bird elicit laughter because of comic lines in the libretto, no matter how they’re staged. If one can encompass both the comic and the serious i am pleased. Lepage gave me more (as in, made me laugh) with the bad reed playing than I’ve seen in that portion of the scene, and didn’t throw away the brief elegiac passages before the bodies are moved offstage. In the house it may play differently, again raising the question of who it’s meant for. When we think of the Serlian stage –with its special perspective meant for the prince and only the prince– maybe Lepage is now privileging camera views above those of paying customers in the house.

    THANK YOU for the comments about Luisi! Torontonians have been trained to watch fast performances both in our baroque performances (where historically informed performance is always faster), and from the late great Richard Bradshaw, whose Wagner was the fastest i ever heard. He said –at a little colloquium i attended– that orchestral players are all seeking their 15 minutes of fame, enlarging their little solo passages like ham actors; he felt it was his job to keep that impulse in check. I was very happy with Luisi, and while i don’t want to diss Levine, i like some of his interpretations better than others (LOVE his Mahler).

    There’s nothing deeply conceptual at work in Lepage’s production, at least not that I am able to discern. I was fascinated by that scroll attached to the spear, as if the treaties were perhaps what gave the spear it’s strength, and without them attached, the spear was just a little stick ready to be splintered. That one little segment aside, everything else in this production could just as easily have come from a production of TOSCA, which is to say, from an opera normally done without any philosophical overlay. Does that make it prosaic? Perhaps. I am still eager to see it because so far nobody has yet managed to stage these operas at the most literal and pedestrian level. I know that’s not very ambitious.

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