Review: Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Met 2010-2011: Siegfried

The Metropolitan Opera’s third instalment of the new Ring Cycle by Robert Lepage was by and large a success.  The HD broadcast highlights the strengths of this production as well as exposing some of the weaker elements.

The singing in particular was very fine, a strong cast of Wagnerian singers hard to match anywhere today.

The last minute substitution of Jay Hunter Morris for an ailing Gary Lehmann has been well documented and a decision that ultimately worked very well.  He was impressive from his very first entrance.  While he is more lyric- than Heldentenor, he certainly has the vocal stamina and colour for the role and it was only in the final few demanding passages in the love duet that he showed signs of strain.  The Forest Murmurs were exquisite in their stillness contrasting nicely with the demands of the Forging Scene, which he sung with great conviction.  It was an impressive performance, enhanced by his good looks and likeable stage presence, I found him to be an engaging Siegfried.  Considering his lack of preparation for the production (having stepped in at the last minute) his contribution has to be admired.  I look forward to hearing his Gotterdammerung.

Bryn Terfel as Wotan in his disguise as the Wanderer proved that he is a worthy successor to the great Wotan’s of the past.  His vocal delivery was strong and rich, shading his voice in equal parts coarse and chilling, or smooth and svelte as the role demanded.  The world-weariness and sense of resignation by Wotan at this stage of the cycle, his last appearance in fact, was beautifully conveyed, highlighted by Terfel’s use of Wagner’s German.  He also looked the part of the Wanderer, clad in black leather, long grey wig and black contact lens to convey Wotan’s missing left eye.

One of the most indepth characterisations of the evening was the Mime of Gerhard Siegel.  His was an assured performance, very strong vocally and beautifully characterised.  The nervous ticks and twitches he imbued Mime with did much to convey the characters awkwardness, almost to the point of feeling sorry for how he is treated by the seemingly spoiled Siegfried in the first act.  This was the standout performance of Acts 1 and 2, a voice perfect for the role of Siegfried scaled down in heroics for the nasty dwarf.

As Mime’s equally unlikable and scheming brother Alberich, Eric Owens reprised his role from Das Rheingold.  He has a remarkable voice, one of the biggest I have heard, a gorgeous, rich bass absolutely perfect for Alberich, his confrontation with the Wanderer in Act 2 was gloriously sung.  

Hans-Peter Konig once again played Fafner, the giant who has disguised himself as a dragon in order to protect his stolen hoard.  Of course, most of the role is sung amplified from behind the machine, his voice unfortunately contrasting with the almost pantomime inspired treatment the dragon was given.  That having been said, his mighty bass provided the necessary weight and colour to the role and his death scene was very convincing.  

Another character that in this production sings from offstage is the Woodbird in Act 2.  In my opinion this is some of the most delicate music in the entire Ring and Mojca Erdmann was a rich, enticing Woodbird, her full-bodied tone avoiding the warbling shrillness sometimes associated with this role.

Patricia Bardon made an acceptably earthy Erda.  Silver haired and clad in shards of black glass she emerged from the depths with rich unforced tone, even across her entire range except perhaps for the lower lying passages.

The Siegfried Brunnhilde in only appears in the final act.  It must be a strange role to perform, after being offstage or silent all night, one must sing an extended love duet lasting around 40 minutes all the while pouring forth waves of rapturous sound that sits high for soprano.  Deborah Voigt makes a terrific Brunnhilde, rising to the challenges of the role with gusto.  While she definitely has the strength for the role, she seems to have lost a little of the gorgeous golden tone that made her voice so special, envinced in the final moments of the duet, where a reluctance to hold onto high notes appeared and her tone became forced.  As an actress she was convincing in her transformation from warrior-goddess to mortal lover, her greeting of the sun was ethereal, and the growing uncertainty as she comes to terms with her emerging humanity and feeling for Siegfried palpable, helped by an obvious chemistry between her and Jay Hunter Morris.

Siegfried can often be seen as long-winded and boring, mostly due to its length and the often plodding tempos that some conductors adopt for much of it.  It was a refreshing change to have Fabio Luisi in the pit replacing an ailing Maestro Levine, his tempos were on the lighter side than what I was expecting.  His phrasing was impeccable and there was always a sense of motion and direction in his conducting, not an easy feat with this opera, where things can sometimes sound like they are grinding to a halt under someone with less of an eye for detail.  It has been said that he conducted this opera like the scherzo third movement of a larger symphony, I tend to agree, his lighter moments contrasting nicely with the darker depths which often take precedence.

As this production of the Ring has progressed we have seen somewhat of a change in Robert Lepage’s use of Carl Fillion’s designs.  For example there is much more use of projection and animation in Die Walkure than Das Rheingold and again even more with Siegfried.  Particularly impressive were the ‘3D’ animations, designed by Pedro Pires, they transformed us immediately into a place crawling with insects, snakes, and vermin and set the scene very well.  Particularly successful I thought, was Act 2.  The forest looked beautiful and the Woodbird was a miracle of technology, a projection that fluttered around, interacting with Siegfried beautifully, truly inspired, as was the moment when Siegfried bursts through the flames to find the Valkyrie asleep on her rock.  Here the flames looked tremendous, my only criticism being that it was difficult to see Brunnhilde through the gloom once the machine had finished its scenic transformation, Siegfried too seeming to have troubles.

Costumes by Francois St-Aubin on the whole are a modern take on the traditional classics.  I do wish however that for future revivals they do something about the terrible giant costumes, they look like they wandered out of a badly illustrated Grimm’s Fairytale.  Apart from the fact that everything looked a little too clean, on the whole the costumes were almost generic Wagner but nicely done nontheless.

 There are some thrilling moments in this production, mostly to do with the visuals, as the direction seemed to be limited mainly to the set pieces and the singer left to fend for themselves the rest of the time.  There are admittedly long stretches of singing with little action, more so in Siegfried and Die Walkure (though in Walkure Lepage handled the display of narrative a lot better through projection rather than merely using projection for setting and mood as he does here) than the rest of the ‘Ring’ and Lepage’s insistence in using sunken areas of the stage for settings such as Mime’s dwelling restricts a lot of movement and lessens the dramatic impact when characters appear to be cut off at the knee, especially when that character is Wotan, King of the Gods.

And now to the much derided Fafner.  I must admit I was expecting a lot worse from the photos I saw online before I went to the broadcast.  In design I thought him way too much like a pantomime Dragon (“He’s behind you!”), way too shiny and smooth, too jerky in movement.  Maybe in future revivals this can be improved on, as with the poorly designed Tarnhelm, which looked like awful cheap lame ripped from the eighties.  I can’t help but think that this production contains the bare bones of what might have been a theatrical tour de force, if the details hadn’t been glossed over or ignored, almost like Lepage ran out of time or ideas or both.

These minor gripes aside there is much to admire about part three of this Der Ring des Nibelung.  A good indication as to how a production is perceived is the audience reaction at the end of the performance.  Even after sitting though approximately five hours of intense music drama, there were a good many in the audience I heard saying that they would quite happily see the whole thing again the next day and at how elated they felt at it’s conclusion.  It isn’t often one hears spontaneous applause in the cinema, this was one of those occasions, a wonderful conclusion to performance to remember.