Review: Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Met 2011-2012: Gotterdammerung

In Gotterdammerung, the final night of Wagner's epic music drama Der Ring des Nibelungen, events reach their inevitable, devastating conclusion.  Culminating in a sense of completion and renewal, the same can be said for the last installment of Robert Lepage's complete cycle for the Metropolitan Opera, screened recently around the world in HD broadcasts on the big screen.

The scale and depth of Lepage's vision has been much discussed, even derided, but in my mind his concept of this most powerful, tragic and ultimately human of the Ring operas was by and large a resounding success.

The opera opens with the three Norns, those weavers of the threads of destiny and the complexities of past, present and future.  In a spiritual sense it is impossible to have one without the other two, a theme that musically Wagner knows only too well and portrays beautifully here.  The forward motion of time and eternity are nicely wrought in this scene, but this to me was the weakest moment of Lepage's and indeed of conductor Fabio Luisi's concept for the work as a whole.  In what was a very literal enactment of events, complete with some rather unconvincing costumes by Francois St-Aubin (rope print fabric? What on earth?), singers Maria Radner, Elizabeth Bishop and Heidi Melton portrayed Maiden, Wife and Crone beautifully, their voices making a fabulous tapestry of harmony.  My criticism of this scene is twofold.  A lack of tension and pacing musically, the breaking of the thread didn't seem to reach a climax, as well as the feeling that Lepage didn't really know what to do with this scene dramatically.  With some seemingly pointless rearranging of the ropes suspended to look like branches of a tree (the World-Ash tree as mentioned by the Norns themselves perhaps, that very tree that they themselves described as being destroyed by Wotan) the scene seemed to go nowhere and the sense of impending finality went for nothing.

The transformation into the most joyous moment in the opera was very well handled with it's use of projections of forest and river, though I found the entrance of Siegfried and Brunnhilde from each side of the stage unconvincing.  This is the only scene of pure joy and happiness that the two lovers get to experience in the entire opera, and the chemistry between Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde and Jay Hunter Morris' Siegfried was hard to resist.  A reluctance to hold onto the final note by Voigt aside, this scene was beautifully handled, the eroticism of the moments preceding Siegfried's departure exquisite.

Siegfried's Journey Down the Rhine is one of the orchestral highlights of the entire Ring Cycle.  Lepage certainly did not disappoint.  Here we are introduced to Grane, Brunnhilde's faithful steed she gives as a parting gift to Siegfried.  I loved Grane, the concept of a sort of ghost horse, invisible except for it's armour, striking and very effective.  His interaction with Siegfried on the skiff was beautiful and intimate, giving the impression of a living being through it's natural movement, expressing perfectly the bond between man and tamed beast.

Leading seemlessly into the Hall of the Gibichung, the abode of the gormless Gunther and his timid sister Gutrune, Lepage's staging effortlessly transformed into the first view we have of Mankind as 'civilised'.  Scenically this was a simple, yet effective use of wood grain to portray, in simple terms, man's dominance over nature and his ability to subject it to his will.  Larger than life statues of Wotan, Fricka and Froh were placed in niches, reminding us that the Gods, while still present, were merely given lip service in this new age of man, a fact highlighted by Wagner himself when he describes the offerings due to each when it is time for the impending nuptials later in the work.

As Gunther, Iain Paterson gave a vocally impressive and convincing characterisation.  Effectively showing the character's growth from insipid half-brother to the overbearing brute that is Hagen, here played by the larger than life Hans-Peter Konig, to the leader of men who realises he has been cruelly manipulated by his evil sibling.

Wendy Bryn-Harmer, in her third character appearance in this cycle, was an alluring Gutrune, both vocally and physically.  I liked her portrayal immensely, the subtext here being that she was not necessarily an unwitting accomplice, as with her brother Gunther, in the plot to bring down the greatest hero the world has yet seen.

Hans-Peter Konig proves as Hagen why he is unparalleled as the Wagnerian bass of this generation.  His sepulchral vocal colour perfect for the scheming son of Alberich, matched by his superb acting skills and the way he uses his physical presence to dominate each scene as appropriate to the score.  This was a towering achievement, his previous experience in this role evident in the depth he gave Hagen in the underlying violence simmering beneath his barely controlled public veneer of civility.

I have always found the Gibichung scenes difficult to like, but that is testament to Wagner's brilliant insight into human psychology more than anything.  To me it portrays the ugly side of humanity in all of it's subtleties, it's varying shades of grey.  This trio of protagonists is a fitting tribute to Wagner's purest intentions.

The arrival of Siegfried on his skiff with Grane was beautifully staged, the projections of a pebbled shore gently buffeted by waves as the hero and steed sailed into view, superbly realised.  The potion scene was nicely done, as was the oath and I loved the continuing allusion for the rest of the opera that Siegfried was fighting an inner turmoil resulting from the potion's effect on his memory and therefore the resulting outcome of events to unfold.  As Siegfried and Gunther sailed off on their conquest of Brunnhilde, Hans-Peter Konig's Hagen relished in his moment alone guarding the palace, the depth of his wicked plan coloured perfectly by his wonderous bass.

Transported back to a Brunnhilde waiting somewhat impatiently for the return of her hero-husband, the visual transformations by Video Image Artist Lionel Arnould, including the requisite lightning effects on the approach of her Valkyrie sister Waltraute, were striking.  In what is a very brief role in the scheme of things, Waltraud Meier gave a star turn as the sister bent on defying her father's orders in order to warn Brunnhilde of their father's decline and acceptance of the end of the God's dominance on earth.  She is a consummate artist, at the very height of her career, possessing the rare gift of being able on inhabit every facet of her characterisation, physically, vocally and histrionically, her ability to convey that even Waltraute herself was not immune to the possessive power of the ring was subtle but telling.

Deborah Voigt worked very well with Meier in this scene, and even managed a respectable trill in their early exchange.  Her voice is perfect for Brunnhilde at this stage of her career, having the necessary weight coupled with a beautiful timbre, she is convincing as an actress and the ensuing confusion resulting from the Siegfried/Gunther deception wholly believable.  Through her conviction here it is easy to understand the concept of Woman as a prize of conquest, an object to be won and the fact that we are talking about rape here, even though the text puts it in rather quaint and sexist nineteenth century wording.

In Act 2 Alberich makes his final appearance of the cycle, albeit as a vision dreamt by his son, Hagen, thereby reminding him, and the audience, of the reason why he was fathered upon his mother in the first place.  Eric Owens, as the only protagonist to appear in all four operas, was the epitomy of the evil dwarf, driven by lust for the Rheingold and of the ring itself.  It is another very short appearance, but pivotal in it's reminder of his original intent and very convincingly done.

The ensuing scene with appearance of the vanquished Brunnhilde on the arm of Gunther and it's resulting conflicts was handled by Lepage with great style.  Voigt was impeccable in her anguish and confusion at seeing Siegfried with Gutrune on his arm and the ensuing confusion skillfully staged.  The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, under the direction of Donald Palumbo, in their first appearance in the entire Ring Cycle were enthusiastic, particularly the men.  The women were especially sympathetic as is called for, notable in Act 3, however I found some of the costuming for them particularly strange, I seem to recall seeing what looked like a lime green pleated mini skirt in there somewhere, not one of St-Aubin’s finest creations.

I loved the staging of the oath scene, Hagen a menacing presence as he should be, towering over Brunnhilde and even Siegfried.  Design-wise I thought the varying interiors and exteriors of Act 2 most interesting, providing some visual variation to what can be a somewhat static act and the final scene where Brunnhilde conspires with Hagen and eventually Gunther, to bring about the death of our Hero was as bitter as it should be. 

Voigt’s high notes here were beautiful, pitch perfect.  In all honesty it is refreshing to hear Brunnhilde’s music sung with a steady voice, with nowhere near as much above the stave pitchless warbling that seems to have afflicted sopranos in this repertoire over the past decade or so.  She has been under intense scrutiny vocally in the last few years, many critics complaining about a loss of tonal beauty and clarity of line and admittedly she was in much better voice here than in Die Walkure.  The Gotterdammerung Brunnhilde seems to suit her voice better than the other two operas, she herself admitting in the intermission that the Siegfried Brunnhilde lies rather high for her.  There were one or two swallowed consonants in order to cope with the tessitura, however blame for this could be squarely placed at the feet of Fabio Luisi’s rather fast and unyielding tempos, especially in the conclusion of the love duet from the prologue and the conclusion of Act 2.

Act 3 sees the return of the enticing Rhinemaidens, deliciously flirty with Siegfried, the look on his face when he first encounters them was priceless.  As a trio, Tamara Mumford as Flosshilde, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Wellgunde and Erin Morley as Woglinde were exquisite, their voices a perfect blend of harmony and their onstage antics beautifully staged, especially with their constant movement on the severely raked stage, making much use of the projections of rocks and waterfall.

The hunting party scene moved along briskly, the unfolding drama helped by conductor Luisi’s pace in this case.  Siegfried’s telling of his early days was rather poignant, especially after a little narcotic assistance from Hagen’s potion of remembrance.  I found here that a little bit of a slower pace would have helped in the evocation of the Waldwebenfrom Siegfried, and for the first time Jay Hunter Morris seemed to tire slightly.  He made up for this with some very convincing acting, he is an impressive Siegfried, both physically and vocally.  His delivery of Brunnhilde, Heilige Braut was heartbreaking and the following funeral march gorgeously staged, paced here beautifully by both Lepage and Luisi.  It was here that emotion overwhelmed me and I have to admit I spent the rest of the opera in tears.  Gunther washing his hands of Siegfried’s blood in the Rhine was a masterstroke, especially in the visuals that followed, somewhat literal but profoundly fitting and incredibly moving.

I have heard many differing views on Lepage’s staging of the final moments, Brunnhilde’s great Immolation Scene.  Personally I found it worked exceptionally well, faithfull to the score and to Wagner’s intentions.  It was great to see Grane return for his final ride into mythology, any Immolation scene without him is seriously missing something in my mind, considering Brunnhilde spends a good deal of time singing to him.  Deborah Voigt was incredible in this scene, delivering a vocally triumphant reading of this demanding 18 minutes.  As she rode Grane into the flames every hair on my body stood on end and the tears just kept on coming. 

The destruction of the statues of the God’s to symbolise the fall of Valhalla and the true beginning of the Age of Man managed to avoid cliche as well as direct comparison to the final moments of the Otto Schenk production, which I find somewhat overblown.  This was a beautiful conclusion to Robert Lepage’s entire vision for the cycle, and the return to the state of the stage at the opening bars of Das Rheingold’s prelude perfectly encapsulated the theme of never ending cycles of birth, death and renewal, that the slate has been wiped clean in order for the entire process to begin anew.

All in all I thought this was one of the strongest in the cycle, with Lepage concentrating more on character development and plot rather than a dependence on designer Carl Fillion’s Machine and it’s ‘wow factor’.  The possibilities with this production are endless and I think with time the concept will deepen even further.  This is a vision of Der Ring des Nibelungen that stays with you long after the curtain has fallen and the theatre, or in my case the cinema, is empty.  Congratulations to the Met in staying true to their promise of giving us a Ring for the 21st Century, balanced with Wagner’s original vision.