While there’s still a controversy about Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera because some people don’t like it, it seems to be a success.
I was at the Das Rheingold that opened the third cycle, after seeing the DieWalküre in the first cycle. I don’t believe the critical voices matter when the tickets are all sold to happy satisfied patrons. The discouraging words come from people who presumably would like to see a different approach; but there are other possible approaches, including the one taken by Lepage and his Ex Machina team.
I had already seen all the High Definition broadcasts (that is, two broadcasts of the first two operas, plus the last two without any encores). While I was happy with the production as it appears on a movie theatre screen, it’s totally different inside the theatre. I saw Walküre from the Family Cicle, while I was in the Orchestra for Rheingold.
The most common complaint I’ve heard against Lepage concerns Lepage’s machine, which sometimes makes noise, and often calls attention to itself. True. It’s big, and in fact at times it’s scary.
And why not? The machine is a big part of the show when you’re in the theatre. We’re watching the forces of nature enacted before us. I love the carnivalesque element: that the gods entry into Valhalla, or the descent to Nibelheim requires doubles on strings, that Loge (who is called “the lie“) walks backwards up the wall.
After having seen Götterdämmerung it’s interesting to note that the cycle ends the way it began. The machine executes undulating wave motion. While it may seem like a little thing, I wonder if any cycle has ever opened with exactly the same image as seen at the beginning? No, it’s not profound. But this Ring doesn’t present itself as being profound.
There are a few changes this time around.
- Richard Paul Fink took over as Alberich from Eric Owens, offering a more conventional portrayal (given that Owens has a voice that sometimes overpowers that of Bryn Terfel as Wotan), but as strong at the end as at the beginning.
Adam Klein sang a wonderful Loge, enlarging the physical aspect we’d already seen from Richard Croft in the earlier version of the opera last season. Not only did Klein walk backwards up the wall using wires, but turned it into a part of his characterization. At times he posed defiantly (sideways), at other times he struck a more ironic attitude. For me Loge is a bellwether of the production, which might explain why I loved this show so much. Klein made magic from his first appearance to his last: a revelation.
- Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt and Wendy Bryn Harmer had already created an off-beat relationship in their portrayals of Fasolt & Freia. You may recall that the deal between the gods and giants made Freia the payment for the building of Valhalla,a match that usually means the goddess resists the unattractive giant. Last year we already saw Harmer making eyes at Selig, at least showing some conflicted tremors in recognition that the giant genuinely loved her. This time they took it even further, Selig reluctantly releasing Harmer when her ransom is paid.
The pace from Fabio Luisi, who has replaced James Levine as conductor of the Metropolitan Orchestra, is a breath of fresh air. I prefer Luisi’s fast Wagner, which to my knowledge is more authentic than the slower pace taken by conductors such as Levine. Even so, for the first time I began to understand some of the complaints, given that the orchestra didn’t manage to play as loudly as I would have expected in several key passages, fluffing several times in the second scene.
Bottom line? While Lepage’s Ring is recognized for the obvious elements recognizable from his work in the circus-aerial realm, I haven’t seen proper credit for what he’s brought to the Ring’s human relationships. In Rheingold, this is most obvious in the chemistry between Fasolt & Freia, but also seen in the details of Stephanie Blythe’s portrayal of Fricka and her relationship to Bryn Terfel’s Wotan. It’s vivid without any concept overlaid. Perhaps this is disappointing to those who think Wagner should have those extra layers.
Finally, I must say how much I love the machine that is at the centre of this production. To me it’s a symbol, and a powerful one at that. The Ring Cycle is about change, about the succession of power, so to have a set that is as protean as the world itself, that changes into everything and anything makes terrific sense. Erda warns Wotan, saying “Alles was ist, endet. (Everything that is, ends)” The cyclical nature is right there in the set, which changes endlessly, looking exactly the same at the end as it will at the beginning.
I’d see it all again at Lincoln Centre in New York if I could possibly afford it. But there’s another option in the movie theatres. The cycle is back this week, including an introductory film, Wagner’s Dream on May 7th, followed by encores of the cycle operas:
- Das Rheingold May 9th
- Die Walküre May 12th in Canada (May 14th in USA)
- Siegfried May 17th in Canada (May 16th in USA)
- Götterdämmerung May 19th