Glorious Singing Marred by Poor Staging: The Met’s Götterdämmerung, Live

Götterdämmerung, Metropolitan Opera, February 3, 2012, live; conductor: Fabio Luisi; Brünnhilde: Katarina Dalayman; Siegfried: Stephen Gould; Gunther: Iain Paterson; Gutrune: Wendy Bryn Harmer; Hagen: Hans-Peter König; Waltraute: Waltraud Meier; Alberich: Eric Owens; director: Robert Lepage

It was with the keenest anticipation that I settled into my Family Circle seat at the Met for a performance of Götterdämmerung on February 3, the third in the run preceding the complete Ring Cycles, which will close the season. Having seen all three previous installments in HD as well as a most unfortunate Siegfried in-house where the “machine” collapsed before the final scene and all the staging was totally improvised, I had many questions. Would Robert Lepage be able to repeat, if not top, his fine Siegfried? Would the machine work without issues? Having endured the techno-wonders and minimal acting/interrelating of the cast in the first two operas and having seen a considerable refinement and improvement in Siegfried, I had high hopes that the closing pages of this mighty epic would demonstrate suitable stage magic from Robert Lepage. I found the answers to all my questions on that night’s performance.

What a great pleasure it was being in the musical company of Katarina Dalayman, our Brünnhilde. For the first time in two years this listener did not have to worry about flat and splattered notes above the staff, textual mistakes, excessive vowel modification, and a decidedly unheroic sound. Dalayman is among the very few who own this role today. From the opening “Zu neuen Taten” to the final “Selig grüßt dich dein Weib!” she brought total authority and wonderful mastery and command to this taxing part (which is vocally not as difficult and clumsy in certain ways as the Siegfried Brünnhilde). She certainly deserved the ovation accorded her at the end of a long evening.

Stephen Gould, her Siegfried, was much stronger throughout than his colleague, Jay Hunter Morris. The young Siegfried is an ideal role for Morris, whose bright and somewhat lighter, more lyrical sound brought forth the requisite naïveté the role in Siegfried demands. It remains unclear how many hours, weeks, and months have elapsed before Siegfried tires of love on the rocks with Brünnhilde, but in any event the Siegfried in Götterdämmerung is clearly more mature, and Gould’s undeniable vocal strength and heft created a most plausible character. While Morris and Voigt made for a wonderful pairing at the end of Siegfried, Gould’s sound was a superior match for the other singers in the cast, the Gibichung clan in particular.

The Hagen of Hans-Peter König, the Gunther of Iain Paterson, and the Gutrune of Wendy Bryn Harmer were all that one would ever want for these parts. And yet once again, Eric Owens demonstrated conclusively that he owns the role of Alberich. What a pity the role is so short! The best singing and acting during the entire evening came from Waltraud Meier as Waltraute. Her scene with Dalayman was as riveting as the Act 3 Wanderer/Siegfried scene in the fall. If only all the rest of the acting and drama throughout Lepages’s Ring could have matched these two miraculous scenes!

The Norns were more than adequate, and the three Rhinemaidens turned in their best performance thus far in the run. (This listener had already heard the opening-night and second performances on Sirius.)

Seldom have I heard and enjoyed the exciting Götterdämmerung choral parts as much as I did during this performance. It seemed as if we had only one chorister (rather large, to be sure); such was the total unanimity of attack and phrasing, not to speak of control of dynamics. This is an extremely fine operatic chorus, and Met chorus master Donald Palumbo (formerly of Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica) deserves the credit. This chorus is on the same precise and exacting level as the one at the Bayreuth Festival; the latter is perhaps one of the few remaining reasons to consider trying to obtain tickets there (but that’s the subject of another article).

The orchestra, having played this music for the last 20 years under the company’s music director, certainly knows its way around the score. The musicians covered themselves in suitably splendid Wagnerian glory under the direction of Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi. His way here, as in the earlier run of Siegfried, was to find a far greater clarity and superior balance both within the orchestra and with the stage and pit. He favored slightly brisker tempi than those we have grown so accustomed to in this house. (Total running time was 5 hours and 40 minutes, including two intermissions.) The grandeur of the work’s scoring and the overall continuity as a totality may not have been as overwhelming as before; still, Luisi’s reading was a remarkable statement, and it was clear that this orchestra very much likes playing for him. When the time comes, and it will, Met audiences will be in good hands.

One had the highest hopes for Lepage’s staging, especially since the intensity of the acting and interrelating of the singers in Siegfried were on a much higher level than in the previous two operas. Unfortunately, and at such a ridiculous expense, his work here was not terribly exciting or effective—or offensive, for that matter. Particularly irritating was this director’s refusal to trust the composer’s music—the set would begin moving while there was singing going on. As soon as the machine started altering its position, and noisily to boot, one was no longer really listening to the music and being dramatically involved. It all became a techno show. Wagner clearly indicates one specific set/scene design for Act 2, for example, and yet within the context of this roughly 70-minute span, the machine changed positions more than a few times. Seldom has this listener (who has seen and heard many a Ring opera as well as participated in six Ring Cycles as assistant conductor and prompter) been so frustrated and disappointed by the anticlimactic and botched ending. There was not the slightest trace of the cataclysmic apocalypse called for in the libretto. Given the sad history of the machine’s failures in performance during the previous three operas, one could be forgiven for wondering at every change of position whether something was going to fail and the whole thing come to a crashing halt.

There was also a complete lack of a directorial statement. Lepage was content to present these four operas without any Brechtian alienation or religious/economic/political/social statement. I do not know which is worse: seeing some ridiculous and infuriating Regietheater nonsense (such as a recent Bayreuth Parsifal with two dead rabbits on a wire as the Grail) or seeing nothing of note. What is clear is that Lepage’s Ring is a throwback to Wieland Wagner but without his genius. Both Wieland Wagner and Lepage used essentially a unit set that was modified continually. In the latter case, the set changes were almost always a vistawith noise. Whereas Wieland Wagner used revolutionary lighting effects (probably for financial reasons) to achieve his magic, Lepage employed state-of-the-art computer projections onto his basic unit set. But there was precious little real acting happening. Certainly, the latter two operas were better acted, and there was somewhat less play with his toy, but in the end, his efforts fell flat.

Ultimately, it will be a question of what to do with the set when the Met discards this production in about 20 years. Will the 24 planks of the machine be sliced up and sold to the public as expensive souvenir pens? (This happened to the stage floor of a world-renowned concert hall.) Or will Peter Gelb weatherproof the entire apparatus in iron or steel and set it in front of the house for future generations to wonder at?

Folks who cannot get enough of the machine are free to buy a cheap and rather inaccurate wooden replica now selling at the Met gift shop. But techno-wonders, computer-generated projections, and an extremely noisy set prone to mishaps, no matter how good the music making, do not a Ring make.

–Jeffrey Brody

Jeffrey Brody, composer, conductor, pianist, and coach, is the Music Adviser of the Boston Wagner Society. His most recent opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was performed by Longwood Opera in 2011.