The second step in Robert Lepage’s new production of Wagner’s Ring for the Metropolitan Opera House has few surprises for the audiences treated to his Rheingold a couple of months ago. All money, energy and creativity have been invested in the development of the structure called “the machine”. In act I, it represents, with the help of realistic projection, both tree trunks in a forest and then the ceiling of a wallless house plus the ash tree; in act II, it becomes a rocky landscape where Fricka arrives in her chariot; in act III, individual planks going up and down are supposed to be horses for Valkyries and, by the end, projections take care of the magic fire. Considering that costumes look almost exactly like those Amalie Materna wore in 1885, I cannot recall the point of making a new Otto Schenk production whose single novelty is a mechanical structure that makes singers afraid of falling down: Voigt was on scene for barely 2 minutes when she had her first accident. So far the director has not showed a single insight about the libretto. In an interview, his profound take on the role of Brünnhilde is “she has the wisdom she inherited from Erda and the personal sense of justice that comes from Wotan – these two things are in conflict and she’s trying to find a way to be faithful to both, which is typical of a tragic character, trying to reconcile two aspects of one’s own personality”. At this point, my 6 or 7 readers may have guessed that singers ran to and fro striking stock gestures while the machine turned and showed Lion-the-king-like “flashback” little films to add some spice to Wagner’s narrative episodes.
Maestro James Levine is, of course, an experienced Wagnerian, but at his age and afflicted by health problems, he is no longer able to provide the richness of sound necessary for a slow-paced performance. At times, a surge of energy seemed to come from the podium, such as in the closing of act I, with beautiful transparent sonorities, but the Walkürenritt was basically messy and, in the last scene, the orchestra seemed just tired – brass were variable from the beginning. It must be said that the conductor had to adapt for a very particular cast with various levels of difficulties and never failed to help them out in the many instances in which they found themselves in trouble.
For instance, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s rich soprano started to hang fire after 30 minutes. In the end of act I, the voice was grey and unfocused. Before act II, she was announced indisposed but willing to go on, but was finally replaced by a powerful Margaret Jane Wray, who understandably seemed a bit short of breath in act II before a most-satisfying farewell to Brünnhilde in act III*. In her debut as Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt seemed to be in control of her resources and survived to the end of the opera, but what these resources are deserve consideration. Round, big top notes have always been her assets in this repertoire, but in a hoch dramatisch assignment one quickly realizes that bracing for every one of them does not make her the most comfortable Brünnhilde in the market. Also, her middle register is foggy and overgrainy and the basic tonal quality is extremely unattractive, shrewish and nasal, as if she were dubbing a Walt Disney character instead of evoking anything noble or heroic. One could adjust to that nonetheless if there were some interpretation going on. As far as I can remember, she sang everything in the basic mezzo forte, uninflected style, not to mention a not really idiomatic German. Although Stephanie Blythe barely moves in this production, her presence alone exposes the lack of true Wagnerian quality in almost everyone in this cast. This is a true dramatic, flashing voice in the whole range, with some intelligent and discrete word-pointing. If you want to sample a legitimate Wagnerian mezzo soprano, you really have to listen to Blythe.
Voigt’s was not the only role debut this evening: Jonas Kaufmann’s first Siegmund was probably the raison d’être of this evening. Although his tenor is adequately dark, the fact is that his voice is a bit more lyrical than the usual Siegmund’s. As a result, a great deal of low lying passages sounded a bit timid. He took sometime to understand how to make his voice work in the role and his attempts at intensity often ended in lachrymosity and lack of immediate impact. The intermission proved to be providential, for the German tenor seemed more at ease then, readier to try his hallmark soft singing and to convey stamina when necessary. I don’t think he will ever be a really powerful Siegmund, but I am convinced that a little bit more experience will focus his performance into something more in keeping with his reputation.
Bryn Terfel’s bass-baritone is more incisive than rich, but it is big and authoritative enough. I am not sure if I agree with his whimpering approach to the role, but one must acknowledge that his detailed delivery of the text brought it to life, even if this involved some hamming. Last but not least, Hans-Peter König was a strong, reliable Hunding.
*My original text read “I first thought that the problem was nerves, for she was in far better shape. The voice was then bright and clean, but one could see she needed a great deal of extra breath pauses to reach the end of phrases. The effort cost her act III, when she was replaced by a powerful and solid Margaret Jane Wray”. Although it seems that the Met has confirmed that Ms. Wray sang act II, she too sounded (and looked) different in act II and III. No conspiracy theory suggested, but the whole situation is somewhat strange.