Met’s Traditional Götterdämmerung Boasts a Strong Cast

United StatesUnited States  Met Live in HD 2011/12, Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, conducted by Fabio Luisi. Produced by Robert Lepage, directed for TV by Gary Halvorson and broadcast to the Renoir Cinema, London, 11.2.2012. (JPr)

With this Götterdämmerung the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Ring reaches its conclusion. It was clearly the most ‘cinematically’ effective part of the cycle. Whether it would have been so good in the theatre it is difficult to say, but certainly the audience seen giving a standing ovation to all concerned at the end suggests it might have. If you forget about Carl Fillion’s basic set – now used here as little more than a video wall – it is perhaps one of the most literal-minded (yes, traditional) ‘stagings’ there might ever have been of Götterdämmerung since its première in 1876. Whether this represents the true vision that Robert Lepage had for his Ring or is something driven by necessity – the sheer difficulty of ‘controlling’ the creaky 24 planks of the installation for instance – perhaps will never be revealed. Nevertheless all that 45-ton set has been doing since it was rather hyperactive in Das Rheingold, is to move occasionally and allow video projections of forest dwellings, rocky passes, mountains tops, waterfalls. Some of this imagery is old-fashioned in its own right, with hints of Caspar David Friedrich and Arthur Rackham, but it is increasingly one of the highlights of this Ring Cycle.

Götterdämmerung Jay Hunter Morris, Deborah Voigt photo credit: Metropolitan Opera

In Götterdämmerung debutant Video Image Artist, Lionel Arnould, follows on from what we have previously seen before, and while the natural world is depicted as realistically as ever the world of the humans, the Gibichungs, has a much more stylised look to it – IKEA came to mind. The hall of this prosperous clan on the banks of the Rhine is outlined by the upright planks on which is projected the rings from the trunk of a tree. This is the home for the upwardly mobile Gunther, and his mild-mannered sister Gutrune. When their manipulative half-brother Hagen (the son of Alberich) summons the vassals (the incredible sounding men of the Met chorus) they do so on a two-storied structure that reveals statues in the background of Wotan, Fricka and Donner … and these are stage pictures over-familiar from other recent productions of the Ring. Not only this but François St-Aubin’s costumes had the men in traditional hunting gear with swords, spears and bows and arrows. Later on they get to carry about the deer they have killed: to ‘literal-minded’ could be added the word, unoriginal.

There are also some curiosities that provoke suppressed laughter especially when Siegfried is supposedly propelling his raft, along with Brünnhilde’s horse, Grane, down the Rhine. Not only do Lepage and Fillion give us an armoured outline of ‘Mr Ed’ but make the raft seesaw. All I could think of was ‘rocking horse’!

Then you see moments so magical that it makes me think what might have been possible if it had all been conceived even more carefully – firstly at the start of Act III, the Rhinemaidens (Erin Morley, Jennifer Johnson Cano and Tamara Mumford, an excellent trio) scamper up and slide down a now tilted platform showing cascading water, they do it with such marvellous practised ease and security that they must have Velcro on the soles of their shoes. Then Gunther has his Pontius Pilate moment and washes the slain Siegfried’s blood from his hands and that water is shown getting redder and redder.

It is possible from reading the above you might have got the impression I didn’t enjoy the performance but that would be wrong. It is very difficult to judge a musical performance brought to your ears through microphone, sound desks and speakers but this was as good as you are likely to hear – and never has a six-hour evening (including two intervals) flown by so swiftly. Fabio Luisi who has taken over the conducting of the Ring from James Levine, who continues to suffer ill-health, seems to be a revelation in this music and draws a performance – from his uncommonly good orchestra – that does exactly what he wants, and that is to ‘take away a heavy German tradition’ and get back to what – in his opinion – Wagner wanted: ‘a lot of beautiful sounds’. The Prologue dragged somewhat, as it often does, but otherwise this was a fleet-footed, nuanced and passionate account of a difficult score.

The opera was cast with an all-round strength that makes some of those involved in the Covent Garden Rings this autumn seem more than just second choices. Though this does not apply to Iain Paterson (Fasolt for the Royal Opera) who a was vocally adroit Gunther, he seemed less self-absorbed and vain than some and just came over as ambitious, weak-willed and easily-led. The Live in HD host Patricia Racette called her ‘the legendary Waltraud Meier’ and she sang Brünnhilde’s sister-Valkyrie Waltraute, who wants to get the ring as a last chance to save the gods. This was an engrossing scene but I cannot help feeling Maestro Luisi let his tempi drift somewhat to accommodate this famous Wagnerian singer. Hans-Peter König’s Hagen was a one-dimensional black-hearted villain with a brooding, cavernous, bass voice. The redoubtable Eric Owens returned as Alberich and there was a compelling confrontation between father and son as he urges Hagen to reclaim the magic ring. Wendy Bryn Harmer brought a bright and earnest soprano voice to the love-deluded Gutrune.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde were both Americans. The last time Britain was able to claim these roles for itself was when Alberto Remedios and Rita Hunter were in their prime. Jay Hunter Morris – who had taken over the title role in Siegfried at short notice last October – said in his backstage interview how good it was to be able to rehearse this time. He was again impressive here and physically he is Siegfried. Vocally his equally athletic and virile tenor has a freshness and lyricism unusual in the current crop of heldentenors. Despite having professed never to have sat through a complete Ring Cycle, as well as, the Texan drawl of his speaking voice and his seemingly laidback manner, suggesting otherwise, it is very clear he has done his homework on this role. I believe he understands the meaning of the words he is singing and that surprisingly is not always the case with singers, yet when it happens – as here  – it can bring the role truly to life. I especially loved other touches to his performance such as when he stumbles across the playful Rhinemaidens in Act III, and waves a flirtatious hello, like a college-kid saying, ‘Hi there!’

Deborah Voigt seemed to deserve the acclamation given to her at the end of the performance for her Brünnhilde. I believe there have been some vocal issues in the intervening years following her weight-loss surgery in 2004, but I have only these Met broadcasts to comment on and in each of her three appearances (Die Walküre, Siegfried and now, Götterdämmerung) she seems to have got better and better. This bodes well for the forthcoming complete Ring Cycles at the Met. It is difficult to judge the breadth and volume of her soprano sound but it did seem to have laser-bright top notes that appeared to ride the orchestral sound and there was a suitable warmth and intensity to her lower range, even if it was perhaps not fully supported at all times. However, she brings a womanliness (if it is PC to use this word) to Brünnhilde that few other singers of this generation can and there appeared a genuine chemistry between her and her ‘toy boy’ Siegfried (in reality Jay Hunter Morris is not that young himself) that was clear for all to see. She also acts very convincingly and in the pivotal scene when Brünnhilde is bitter and angry because she thinks Siegfried has betrayed her, her indigence was self-evident in her manner and her voice.

In the closing scene Voigt was able to portray her character’s vulnerability and self-sacrifice during a vocal tour de force, however, the over-attentiveness to Wagner’s instructions returns – Siegfried had already lifted his right hand on cue to ward off anyone other than Brünnhilde from getting the ring, and then having recovered it – as she is supposed to – she mounts Grane, her mechanical horse, and rides it – here it was more of a waddle – into the developing conflagration.

Jim Pritchard

Check out your local cinema listings as the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD 2011-12 season continues as follows:

25 Feb: Verdi’s Ernani

7 April: Massenet’s Manon

14 April: Verdi’s La traviata