16 May 2011

The Emperor’s New Machine?

Popular Mechanics? Voigt and Westbroek (upper level, center) and the Valkyries meet The Machine.

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle has arrived only at the halfway mark, with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre this season. (Siegfried and Götterdämmerung are to follow next season.) Of these, I’ve seen only one part, Walküre, on May 16 at a repeat of the HD simulcast. This can’t possibly give me a complete grasp of Robert Lepage’s staging, best known for its unit set, nicknamed “The Machine”, and moreover, it’s to be presumed that Lepage hasn’t exhausted his Machine’s possibilities and that he’s saved some tricks to dazzle the crowds in the next two operas. In short, with so much left unseen, it would be premature to pass judgment now.

But where’s the fun in that? After all, isn’t opera fandom like a 007 license to be judgmental? So, oyez, oyez, all rise, and let the judging begin.

I confess at the outset that I am not won over by The Machine. It’s very big, which I’m sure is impressive in and of itself, but it’s also ugly as hell, and the computer-animated images Lepage projects onto it are hardly dazzling. (I kept thinking: Really? This is the best you could do?) In Walküre’s longer, talky scenes (of which there are several), there wasn’t much to engage the viewer: really, the cumbersome nature of The Machine may mean it’s less flexible than more conventional stagecraft, and the perverse result is that the staging is more than usually static.

The Machine’s greatest liability, however, is its unreliability. We haven’t gotten to the level of Spider-Man, if only because (knock wood) there have been fewer human casualties, but the lesser mishaps of Lepage’s Ring keep the opera gossips humming already: the Walküre simulcast was delayed half an hour simply because The Machine wasn’t functioning correctly.

Static Monologue: They went on like this for quite a while.

Producing a Wagner opera is already a colossal gamble — as Met audiences in recent seasons can testify, having sat through productions that seem to be cast with a revolving door: singers drop out mid-run and mid-opera. It’s anybody’s guess why the Met wanted to spend so much money on a device that increases the gamble.

Lepage’s previous production, Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, was considerably simpler, yet even it malfunctioned on opening night: somehow, not a single critic mentioned the fact in print. Are we supposed not to notice (or to look away politely) when his grandiose technological schemes don’t live up to the hype, or when his ambitions don’t live up to the technology?

That said, the acting in Walküre was excellent: relationships were clear, characterizations detailed, gestures meaningful. Either Lepage helped to elicit these performances, or at the very least he got out of the way of his talented cast — which in itself would be praiseworthy. So we’re not being confronted with an Emperor’s New Clothes, or anyway, not quite. But I wonder how much of that subtle acting was visible from the back of the Sybil Harrington Auditorium, and, for those who couldn’t see the details, the mammoth twirlings of The Machine proved adequate compensation.

The cast proved immensely appealing. While Bryn Terfel’s voice doesn’t have a certain darkness I associate with Wotan, he brought liquid tone and emotional intensity to the role, and I really understood the god’s several conflicts. Deborah Voigt, as Brünnhilde, the apple of her father’s eye, responded beautifully to Terfel, and while I miss the girlish sweetness that used to define her singing, even at top volume, she’s still a thrilling musician. She looked as if she was having tremendous fun up there, too, and that made her performance all the more exciting.

Jonas Kaufmann* and Eva-Maria Westbroek were a pleasingly sexy, lyric Siegmund and Sieglinde, and Hans-Peter König sang gorgeously while projecting a brutish Hunding, barely controlling his suspicions and rage. Stephanie Blythe made Fricka’s relatively brief scene a mini-master class in psychologically illuminating singing.

Family Ties: Voigt and Terfel

Seeing the rerun of the simulcast meant I was spared the long wait for the show to start. Plácido Domingo co-hosted with Joyce DiDonato, and he was charming, of course, because what else would he be? Joyce managed to break loose a bit in her backstage interviews — her rapport with Stephanie Blythe proved especially fun — and I hope the folks at the Met were paying attention. When you’ve got artists who are this relaxed and appealing on camera, why not let them be themselves? They’re wonderful ambassadors for opera, which is just what we need them to be.

At the curtain call, James Levine took his bows from the pit. His participation had become yet another unknown variable in this season’s Wagner equations, and his health forced him to cancel most of his performances this spring. I’m not a Levine worshiper, and I don’t know the man at all, yet I found it profoundly moving to hear him now, despite the odds, at the helm of a score he loves so well. So few opera companies have the resources to produce any kind of Ring, but over the years Levine has given New York dozens of these operas, and he’s given them his all. Even those of us who aren’t Wagnerites must feel grateful to him.

All of which makes me ambivalent about being judgmental.** We’re lucky that the Met is one of the rare companies on earth with the means to produce any Wagner opera, to say nothing of the entire Ring. Are we wrong — am I wrong — to hold the Met to a high standard, to yearn for the company’s productions to be even better than this one?

Well, maybe next time.

Maestro Levine, back in the day

*NOTE: Kaufmann is one of the handsomer tenors today, or ever — so why did costume designer François St-Aubin make him look so dumpy? It’s not as if any future Siegmunds are going to be better-looking, so logically it follows that St-Aubin’s aim should have been to design something extra-flattering, in which mere mortals might look at least somewhat heroic.

** Just this once.

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