Der Ring des Nibelung
The Metropolitan Opera commenced free streaming of some of their productions in March as New York closed down due to Covid-19. I found out about this via a post on Twitter by @Operachaser. Another reason I love twitter – handy to be linked on social media to like-minded people.
And so it was that we spent the better part of our second week in lockdown – from the 25th to the 28th of of March watching the 2010 performance of the famous Robert Lepage production of the whole Ring Cycle. One opera per night. Not something we’d do in normal times; so a plus for lockdown.
I’m sure I’ve seen a documentary about the making of this cycle – or at least the Siegfried part of it. A very expensive, specially designed stage, that the singers called the beast, made it very controversial. This is a giant mechanical structure of angled parallel aluminium beams which can move independently of each other. It dominates the stage and for the most part looked very awkward for the singers to manoeuvre around. At times interfered with the story telling – especially during the ascent to Valhalla and Brunnhilde’s placement on her rock. It worked as a background for the Rhinemaidens and for the Valkyries during their dramatic horse -riding scene although you worried the singers might come to grief on the moving beams.
Overall it seemed to me to be a very traditional staging. Most of the costuming was fine with some notable exceptions – no eye-patch for Wotan initially and later a ridiculous cowboy hat (why do designers do this!), and Alberich’s first outfit. Otherwise it was unexceptionable without being striking . The best were Erda and Fricka on her ram chariot – nicely done when often they’re not. I’m not discerning enough to judge the singing but it was all fine by me. Although one of the reasons I am not keen on televised operas are the close-ups of singers mid-performance when the intense delivery can lead to some unfortunate facial expressions. This was the case often with Bryn Terfel. I also hate seeing their faces covered with sweat – another result of intense effort and probably heat, that you don’t see during a theatre performance.
My biggest disappointment with this production which carried through the first three operas was in Wotan’s characterisation. Anger was the predominant feature making him a bit one dimensional rather than the complex fellow that he is. over exuberant expressions of rage overshadowed his grandeur majesty early on which you need to see fully so that his demise is all the more shattering. As with lots of productions he was given too many extraneous actions that interfered as well. For example displaying a large canvas outlining his treaties during his beautiful farewell to Brunnhilde. No need – they’re inscribed on his spear! The poignancy of some of his later moments; especially his final acceptance of the downfall of the gods was somewhat lost in the shouting. A pity.
I really like Das Rheingold, which many people – including Wagner – feel is the slightest of the four operas in the cycle. There are few set pieces – although Loge’s aria about women’s love is beautiful. Wotan is front and centre which is why I like it. I thought Bryn Terfel in the role sang well although some critics thought his voice is too light for the part. He looked okay in his breast plate armour although instead of an eye-patch he had a greasy lock of hair covering one eye. One reviewer said he looked more like Meatloaf than Wotan and it’s hard to disagree.
Loge who gets to do a lot in this opera is dressed a bit like Buffalo Bill with an in-built rocket that made him levitate at particular moments which was a bit distracting. But spot-lighting him in red during his big moments was effective. I really liked the depiction of Erda who I’ve seen depicted as a half naked earth-mother figure, a bag lady and (worst) in a wheel-chair. In this she was svelte and mysterious – satisfyingly dramatic as she emerged from the depths. Here she is below with Wotan (with lank hair instead of eye-patch).
Stephanie Blythe was great as Fricka, looking regal and not to be messed with. But at the same time her vulnerability vis a vis Wotan was also nicely revealed. The Rhinemaidens also looked and sounded great even though they were dangling from body harnesses! The machine, bathed in blue, was a terrific backdrop to their swimming through the Rhine. The giants were okay except for their misshapen arms which looked as though they’d overdone the weights at gym. Alberich had an awful costume cavorting around the Rhine – it looked like a brown plastic onesie. Details like these distract from the story-telling.
Die Walkure is the most accessible and therefore probably the easiest of the four operas in terms of staging and in this production it was, as expected , great. The cumbersome plank stage was barely used during this opera. Jonas Kaufmann is so gorgeous. He was a terrific Siegmund; looking and sounding terrific. There was no messing about with Wagner’s directions -there was a tree in Hunding’s hut and there was a sword in the tree. Here is Jonas pulling out the sword.
Eva-Maria Westbroek was Sieglinde and was also terrific. We’ve seen her in this role in a concert performance with the MSO. She was great then and I thought really good in this. The costuming was perfect. They also performed mostly in front of the machine and so were not in fear of falling. The only issue was that sometimes it was a bit dark and they were walking in a pit so you only saw them from the knees up which was a bit strange. There was great chemistry between these two, not adequately captured here. We’ve seen them together in a concert performance of Andrea Chénier here in Melbourne last year. Their acting was great as well.
I thought the big dialogue scene between Wotan and Fricka – which can be really hard to pull off – was really well done in this production. Maybe it’s because I’ve now seen a few versions and have also read a lot about it. But I think the staging and acting really kept you involved in the argument. Here are Stephanie Blythe, a very regal Fricka, and Bryn Terfel (looking better than in Das Rheingold – the eye-patch is back). You could really follow why she wins the argument that assures Hunding of victory over Siegmund.
Deborah Voigt as Brunhilde was terrific. One reviewer commented that since she had lost weight her voice was not as good. Sopranos can’t win. If they are big – and she was very big – they are criticised for their appearance. If they are thin they are criticised for their voice! Damned every which way. I thought she looked and sounded terrific throughout as did this reviewer which I’m including for the pictures ; but note he’s reviewing a different performance.
I do agree with a review that lamented the mis-step in this production’s staging of Wotan’s farewell and the placing of Brunhilde on her rock – one of the most beautiful moments in the whole cycle and potentially the most dramatic. This was made difficult because of the enormous backdrop of beams, but the whole idea was fraught. Instead of being kissed and placed on the rock Brunnhilde was carried from the stage by Wotan, and the next thing we saw was this.
I discovered later that the figure is a body double for Deborah Voigt hanging upside down on one of the planks that made up the set. Looks okay from this angle, but I wonder what you saw in the theatre. It diluted the power of what is one of the most emotional scenes in the whole cycle.
That was a lowlight. A highlight was Siegfried. This is one of the most difficult roles for a singer, and the most problematic opera to stage. A Texan, Jay Hunter Morris, came in at the last moment to play it in this production. He looks and sounds as you would expect of a Texan – laidback and undeterred by the difficulty in playing the boy who becomes a hero. The streaming included a number of interviews with him and with his co-stars. We saw him coming off the set and bunking down for a rest between scenes. He was very engaging and I googled to see what he’s done since to find the answer is not that much. And not many more Siegfrieds which is a shame; it seems he didn’t live up to his early promise. He was very good in this production. Especially terrific as the young naif, ignorant of who he is and mean and nasty to the dwarf who has raised him. This is difficult to pull off without looking like a brash bully but he managed it. Mime was also good – so evil, you didn’t care the boy was horrible to him. As Siegfried develops I thought the characterisation became weaker. The encounter with the dragon was underwhelming – probably the hardest bit of the cycle to stage. Here the dragon stayed mostly in his cave. The forest murmers, another lovely part of the cycle, was overshadowed by the video backdrop of the forest and the wood-bird. Again, the singer was given too much to do – cradling the image of the bird in his hands. Not necessary – and distracting from the music. I thought he was terrific in his encounter with Wotan and with Brunnhilde. Here’s a basically glowing review from the New York time. A very dashing Siegfried.
The fourth opera was terrific and I was so engrossed I didn’t take any pictures. All of the characters were nicely drawn. A traditional telling – Gunther and Gutrune were plausibly weak-willed. Hagen suitably sinister. The wonderful night watch scene where Alberich urges Hagen on in his pursuit of revenge was okay without being memorable. Siegfried was suitably gung ho when he first encounters this den of thieves. I used to be very resistant to the use of potions to drive plot-lines but this has been largely overcome by reading about Wagner’s operas. Potions don’t come from out of the blue – they are devices for characters’ sub-conscious desires to come into play. So when Siegfried takes the cup from Gutrune he is really wanting to explore more of the world, and more characters, including women in the world. It was all nicely done.
The scene where Brunnhilde, Gunther and Hagen vow that Siegfied must die was also well done – surprisingly plausible. Brunnhilde was clearly humiliated but not overly so – which is a common mistake. The chorus was also terrific. The murder was unbearable as it should be with Siegfried’s memory gradually returning. The funeral march was slow and stately and all that followed very satisfyingly rendered. Having Brunhilde mount a mechanical Graine was a step too far but all in all it was exhilarating. Over the four operas the striking thing was the clarity of the story telling; which maybe comes with the traditional setting.
We missed seeing the Met streaming of its 2013 production of Parsifal, starring the wonderful Jonas Kaufman – you only had 24 hours to catch each of these productions and we missed this one. But our neighbour Bob came to the rescue, loaning us a DVD of the very same production. It’s so interesting when you see a number of different versions of Wagner operas. I suppose this applies to all of them but with Wagner there are so many possible interpretations.
I used to be wary of Parsifal, thinking it too reminiscent of the Catholic Mass of my childhood – lovely music but! However deep reading has helped me see the error of this interpretation. It’s not a religious work, rather it’s a work about people who believe in religion. Moreover, like all of Wagner’s operas, it’s main story is about a person’s voyage of self discovery. And along the way he liberates the old enclosed order of knights into a new and better future.
Despite the presence of Mr Kaufmann as Parsifal I was not enamoured of this production. The early part is fine with the knights and grail ceremony. Peter Mattei as Amfortas was a bit inclined both at the start and in the last act to overdo the pain and suffering. Easy to do, but this version was singularly one dimensional – badly needed more nuance.
Overall there were too many distracting features. I find this an issue with so many productions. Designers have no faith in the music delivering the intended message – whereas with Wagner in particular, it is especially designed to do. And often the visual effects are in direct contradiction to the music.
Katarina Dalayman was a very good Kundry. I didn’t understand this role at all formerly and was inclined, as a feminist, to think it extraordinarily disparaging. B ut now, having read lots about it I appreciate its complexity much more. Condemned to live forever for having mocked Christ on his way to be crucified she is enslaved by Klingsor who is immune to her seductive power. Not so the knights of the grail, including Amfortas, who as one author says, is a bit of a whiner. Her dialogue with Parsifal is a great philosophical and psychological moment.
It was therefore disappointing that in this production it occurs on a bed set in the middle of a pool of water dyed red. They were both dressed in flowing garments and the red gradually seeped into their costumes until it looked as though they were both drenched in blood. A bit of symbolic over-reach and completely distracting from the great seduction scene. Here is where Parsifal discovers his humanity and there is poor Jonas wading around in blood. He was in every other respect as exceptional as ever. Great acting and singing.
Evgeny Nikitin as Klingsor was terrific; looked the part and played it with relish. Singers must love that role. I found the Flower Maidens completely at odds with how Wagner described them – steel maidens rather than dreamy, playful ones. René Pape as Gurnemunz was fine. I’ve subsequently found this review, which includes pictures and is much more positive about the production than me.
Returning this DVD, Bob loaned us another. This was the 1992 Staatskapelle Berlin production under its then new artistic director Daniel Barenboim with staging by the East German stage director Harry Kupfer. I found it much more engaging than the Met production.
Here’s the cover, showing the central plank that was the fulcrum around which the action took place. Simple but effective. And a suitably inspiring – they were ensuring it could be seen – grail cup.
It had a great Kundry in Waltraud Meier. She was spellbinding. In the seduction scene she was dressed in a manner that reminded me of the Fassbinder movie The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. Here’s a very poor photo from the DVD booklet.
It was a strange ultra-modern set that looked like something out of Star Wars. I know these sound like strange combinations but it all worked. Amfortas was Falk Struckman and he was great moving up and down a central plank showing a whole gamut of emotions.
Indeed all of the performers were terrific although we thought John Tomlinson was a bit young for Gurnemanz.
Our final opera was Lohengrin. This time we caught the Met streaming. I was really pleased to see this as I followed Peter Hoffman’s career and have one of his Wagner CDs. He was incredibly dashing but as I understand it he forced his voice too early in these Wagnerian roles and lost the ability to sing them. He also had a career as a popular performer. He died in 2010 and here is an obituary that sets out his remarkable career.
This was his last performance in the role of Lohengrin which he had made his own. I thought the whole opera was terrific; staging, sets, costumes, singers. All perfectly realised. It’s a 1986 production that was also aired on television. Here’s a review.
That review is pretty scathing but as I said, I liked everything about this production. Especially Peter Hoffman as Lohengrin. Here he is preparing to marry Elsa.
And here is Eva Martin as Elsa on her wedding day. We both separately came to the conclusion that she looked very like Judy Dench.
They made a very attractive couple, here in their bed chamber. He’s imploring her – Don’t ask my name Elsa, for god’s sake don’t ask my name.
I read a great analysis of the plot of this opera. Of course no person should be asked to do what Lohengrin asked of Elsa. It is completely unreasonable. The opera is really about his desire to escape from the constraints of his membership of the grail community.
I love this final image of Lohengrin, as he prepares to depart the human realm. All his hopes for a quiet life dashed.
All of Wagner’s opera’s are about the journey to self enlightenment. About what it means to be human. That’s why they appeal to an existentialist like me!
So there we have it. Seven operas during lockdown. Our opera viewing taken to new heights. No wonder I don’t really feel that I’ve missed out.