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Katarina Dalayman as Brünnhilde [Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera]
12 May 2009

Der Ring des Nibelungen at the MET

It’s the Ring — not just an ordinary evening (or four evenings) of opera — indeed, if you accept its creator’s words on the matter, it’s a music-drama, not an opera at all.

Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Wotan: Albert Dohmen; Fricka and Waltraute: Yvonne Naef; Alberich: Richard Paul Fink/Tom Fox; Loge: Kim Begley; Erda: Wendy White; Donner: Charles Taylor; Fasolt and Hunding: René Pape; Fafner and Hagen: John Tomlinson; Mime: Dennis Petersen/Robert Brubaker; Brünnhilde: Katarina Dalayman/Linda Watson; Siegmund: Plácido Domingo; Sieglinde: Adrianne Pieczonka; Siegfried: Christian Franz; Forest Bird: Lisette Oropesa; Gunther: Iain Peterson; Gutrune: Margaret Jane Wray. Metropolitan Opera, conducted by James Levine, performances of April 27, 28, 30 and May 2.

Above: Katarina Dalayman as Brünnhilde [Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera]

 

It’s the sort of work for which the phrase “tour de force” was coined. First, you need a grandiose production using all the forces at your command (because we’ll all know just what you don’t command if you don’t have it here), and the Met had that — the much-loved Schenk-Schneider-Siemssen production, now being retired. (Will they destroy it? Or stash it and bring it back after a new one flops? Depends who’d have to pay the storage costs.) Second, you need a conductor and an orchestra, and James Levine, who has led so many Rings with the Met orchestra he so lovingly put together, is a known Wagnerian quantity. But even his experience cannot account for the lightness of touch, the ease with which the whole ponderous juggernaut glided, took flight, zipped seamlessly by, on the present occasion. Even the horns seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Dohman_and_Naef_0227.gifAlbert Dohmen as Wotan and Yvonne Naef as Fricka [Photo by Beatriz Schiller courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]

Third, you need a cast, especially a Wotan, a Brunnhilde, a Siegfried — though I’m with Wagner: there are no small parts. (The Rhinemaidens and Norns in this Ring proved that quite well.) Rather to my surprise, this was one of the best Rings for all-around singing of recent decades, even if it lacked the superlative Brunnhilde and Siegfried we all sigh for. First, the Wotan — Albert Dohmen, who has sung Wotan at Bayreuth, Vienna, Berlin and places like that, took over the part for, we assumed, a first essay to succeed the aging James Morris’s well-known interpretation. Who remembers how incredulous everyone was when Morris, a bel canto and Mozart specialist, first took it on? I do — in San Francisco, 1985 — and how excited we all were by the beauty of his way of doing things. Now, he seems to have been doing it forever, and I was foolishly surprised that Dohmen gave us so mature, so satisfying Wotan, different but equal. Dohmen’s singing of the part was audibly nastier and less sane than Morris’s bel canto shimmer, but full-voiced and thrilling — his own version, and a clear one. (And the loudest Wanderer I’ve ever heard.)

For the second cycle, erstwhile mezzo-soprano Katarina Dalayman sang the Brünnhildes of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, with far better command of the soprano tessitura than her Isolde demonstrated last winter, lovely bursts of warm sound, spectacular power in moments of high emotion, and a genuine trill in Act II of Götterdämmerung — besides looking rather fetching in those oddly-hemmed buckskin shmattas. (During the first season of this production, a friend whispered, “Barbara Mandrell would kill for that outfit.”) Unfortunately, Linda Watson sang the higher Brünnhilde of Siegfried with a shriek that blistered the pine trees — when she opened her mouth, you never knew what would come out, but very little of it gave pleasure. At that, a Ring with only half an act where you cringe is a pretty impressive Ring, and the previous two and a half acts may have been the best Siegfried of my experience of that least loved work of the tetralogy.

Siegfried_Norns.gifChristian Franz as Siegfried and the Norns [Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera]

Siegfried was sung by Christian Franz. He does not have the ideal physique for the role (he was shorter than Alberich) nor the ideal, tireless voice, but he is a talented, intelligent performer — his playing of the naïve, good-natured hero was charming, bumptious, in perfect character — I especially enjoyed his “Hey-I’m-here-too” wave at newly-wakened Brunnhilde, as she ignored him to salute the sun. He seemed tickled just to be Siegfried, and to be living Siegfried’s life — which is the figure Wagner wanted. And his skill when his voice audibly ran out of steam, at speaking or half-singing certain lines effectively, never left us in doubt that we would have a performance, whatever happened. It was very professional work, and in his better-rested scenes, musical as well.

Among the other excellent performers, top marks go to Yvonne Naef’s regal Fricka and, even more, her desperate, impassioned Waltraute (has one seen so intense a Waltraute? Even Troyanos?). It was a pleasure to hear the Nibelung brothers sing their music, instead of the usual whine and croak, and singing is what we got, with no loss of drama, from Richard Paul Fink’s nasty, gnome Alberich, and from Tom Fox, who took over the part in Siegfried, and also, top honors, Robert Brubaker’s fluttery, adorably creepy Mime. Rheingold also gave us Kim Begley’s fine, sleazy Loge and the underutilized Charles Taylor as a princely Donner — who ever notices Donner? Well, everyone noticed, and heard, this one, swinging his hammer like an Olympic athlete and tossing his voice about with similar power. René Pape sang a lovable Fasolt and a bitter Hunding; Iain Paterson a good Gunther; Margaret Jane Wray a stalwart Gutrune (but is the Met ever going to employ her as anything else? I’ve heard her splendid Sieglinde, but only in Seattle). John Tomlinson, who has been singing Wagner leads even longer than James Morris, was in total control of Fafner’s heavy lines, but also made a memorable Hagen — I’ve never seen that dour part done with such glee, as such a merry old elf — you thought he was going to put Siegfried on his knee and ask him what he wanted for Yule — and then not give it to him. Like Franz, he sometimes shouted lines he can no longer sing mellifluously, but he’s an actor, he made it work for him, and it’s somehow even more horrible to have Mr. Jolly stab the hero in the back than the usual grim hit man.

Hagen_Gunther.gifJohn Tomlinson as Hagen and Iain Paterson as Gunther [Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera]

From the many ladies in supporting roles, one might single out Kate Lindsay among the Rhinemaidens and Wendy Bryn Harmer as the soprano Norn, but these were standouts in absurdly good trios. The valkyries were fun, too — and hardly louder.

Slightly less deserving of the highest praise, but still worthy of a great Ring in a great opera house, were Wendy White’s pleasing but not deeply compelling Erda (in a costume that made her look like Amneris in a 1900 production of Aida) and Adrianne Pieczonka’s Sieglinde — beautifully acted and, on the whole, sung, but her lovely voice weakens on top, turning a bit white at moments of excitement, and there were gleams of wobble in her narration.

RHEINGOLD_Pape_Tomlinson_an.gifRené Pape as Fasolt, John Tomlinson as Fafner and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia [Photo by Beatriz Schiller/MetropolitanOpera]

Plácido Domingo cannot persuade the Met to lower Siegmund’s music a tone, as he often does in Italian roles, and his German sounds a bit like Spanish, but he did get through it — partly, it seemed, by rushing when he was short on breath, obliging his old friend Maestro Levine to hurry the pace as well. Yes, he’s a miracle, and he plays this life-battered hero well, but it might be time to call it a career, at least as a Wagner tenor. (Has anyone noticed that that ghastly painting of him in “Roman” costume at the top of the grand staircase, all shoulderpads and helmet, resembles an ice hockey goalkeeper?)

GOTTERDAMMERUNG_Wray_as_Gut.gifMargaret Jane Wray as Gutrune [Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera]

The only singers really not worthy of a great Ring were Watson and the tenor playing Froh. When did you last attend a Ring where only Froh and the last twenty minutes of Siegfried made you wince? This was a joyous and memorable week, with too many exquisite moments to enumerate, too many times Wagner and his interpreters seemed to be doing everything right, when you didn’t want to be anyplace else on earth.

There is no one way to stage any opera, and the Ring offers more interpretative opportunities than most, than almost any. You can be literal — but that’s not done much any more. You can be mythic or ethnic or archetypal or economic or historicist or very very dark (I have seen all these done) or you can impose your own artistic méthode on the matter (as Robert Wilson did in Zurich lately) or deconstruct the thing (as in Weimar last month) or do it in concert. The winged helmets and ladies in steel exoskeletons that were so novel in Wagner’s day are now a deathless cliché — the Met brought them back for its recent 125th anniversary gala, arguing — as can hardly be doubted — that almost no one going to the opera today has ever seen such things, and that everyone would be thrilled to do so, at least once. Actually, that’s not quite true — we’ve all seen ladies in winged helmets and hubcab brassieres — but we’ve seen them in automobile commercials, satirical skits, comic books, in parodies like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe or as a walk-on in The Ghosts of Versailles — few people have seen such things in an actual Ring.

SIEGFRIED_Fink_as_Alberich_.gifRichard Paul Fink as Alberich [Photo by Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera]

This is a major reason why the Met first decided to do an old-fashioned scenic Ring — because no one else does it that way any more (least of all Bayreuth, or anywhere else in Germany), and their judgment was sound. Every Wagnerian the world over (and that’s a lot of people) would love to see it done that way, just once (some of them would like to see it that way every time), and the fact that the Met does three cycles every three years (as has been the custom since this production was inaugurated, twenty years ago) is a great lure. This year, I ran into visitors who’d come from Melbourne and Budapest and Hong Kong and Zurich; I overheard conversations in Russian and German and French and Italian, and several languages I don’t know. There is an audience for the fairy tale treatment — whereas, if it’s motorcycle helmets, and ladies in fishnet stockings and spike heels, and gods (or Norns) reading the newspaper, and Alberich beating off in a trench coat, and a mechanical dragon — we’ve all seen that. We’ve seen it, seen it, seen it. It’s a damned boring way to do opera — the way everyone else does it now.

The Met’s old-fashioned productions are a major tourist draw. They make the Met stand out as its repertory and singing roster no longer do. And the audience they draw is very broad. A woman said to me that she felt quite young at this Ring — she was my age, which is not young — because so many far older folk were there. And there were. But the house was also packed with young people, kids brought by parents, 20-somethings and 30-somethings, on dates or showing off elegant new clothes or seeing that real music-lovers don’t always need to wear elegant clothes to go to the opera, and they were really grooving on it. Is this a Tolkien movie spinoff crowd? Or young people sick of CGI and sampled beats who want to hear real voices and real instruments, unfiltered by electronics for once? No idea, I didn’t ask, but it’s a fine sight at the Met, where these youngsters are imbibing the lesson that opera can be a thrill, and the Met is not a forbidding place to go. The Gelb administration gets much kudos for drawing them in, by whatever means: the Wagnerians of the future.

John Yohalem

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