‘Das Rheingold,’ ‘Die Walküre,’ and ‘Götterdämmerung’ at the Met: Three Quarters of a ‘Ring’ Cycle is Better Than None

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Das Rheingold -- Descent to Nibelheim (nytimes.com)
Das Rheingold — Descent to Nibelheim (nytimes.com)

It took composer Richard Wagner more than a third of his adult life to bring his monumental music drama, Der Ring des Nibelungen (known collectively, in English, as The Ring of the Nibelung), to life on the German stage. Not for nothing was he regarded by record producer John Culshaw, and numerous other individuals, as “a man possessed.”

Wagner was possessed, all right: possessed of an assiduous self-confidence, as well as an artistic vision and single-minded purpose few individuals could understand or appreciate at the time. That he was able to see this vision through to the end is quite possibly, to my mind – and to the minds of musicologists and historians before and after him – one of his few redeeming features. That and his disreputable ability to wrangle money out of friends and foe alike, all the way up to the crowned head of Bavaria, the mentally challenged King Ludwig, remain Wagner’s most ignoble feats.

Was the struggle worth it? Looking back on the sheer volume of productions over the past 130 some-odd years since the Ring cycle premiered in Bayreuth, I’d be forced to answer “yes.” In many of the most memorable Ring ventures there can be counted at least one outstanding feature in support of Wagner’s vision: in his grandson Wieland Wagner’s two cycles (one bare-bones, the other drawn from Jungian archetypes) from the 1950s and 60s; in Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 centennial version (indebted to George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite); in Harry Kupfer’s “Road to History” edition (revived and modified in Barcelona); even the Otto Schenk/Günther Schneider-Siemssen retro Ring installment at the Met; they all had something that encapsulated their creators’ themes.

The Metropolitan Opera’s current version, directed by Robert Lepage, with sets by Carl Fillion, costumes by François St.-Aubain, lighting by Etienne Boucher, and video imaging by Boris Firquet, resorts to a talented team of artists and artisans for the project. However, there is no other readily apparent purpose or vision to this production except to tell the story of the Ring – more on this aspect later on.

There’s Gold in That, There Rhine!

There are few works in the active repertoire that fill me with an overpowering desire to hear them anew, and at any time. I’m glad to report that the Ring is one of those works. Not only did I listen to last season’s cycle complete and on the air, but I also caught the PBS Live in HD re-transmission of the entire Ring, starting with Susan Froemke’s 2012 documentary Wagner’s Dream, about the making of this troubled Lepage/Fillion version.

The current cycle began with the first opera, Das Rheingold, broadcast on April 6, followed by Die Walküre on April 13, Siegfried on April 20 (a performance I happened to have missed, unfortunately), and the final Met broadcast of the season of Götterdämmerung on May 11. Most of the principal cast in Rheingold had previously sung in the September 2010 premiere, with several new members making their role debuts in this latest run.

Hearing the work in this back-to-back manner was most refreshing (it was exactly the way Wagner had planned for his operas to be heard all along). It was particularly revealing, I might add, in that one could more easily associate the composer’s intricate leitmotif system, a piece of music played by the orchestra that accompanies or underscores a particular incident, character, event or action, with what is actually happening (has happened or will happen) onstage. This is “film music” of the highest order before film or cinema had even been developed or invented! It’s what makes Wagner’s vision all the more prophetic.

Mark Delavan (Wotan) & Stephanie Blythe (Fricka)
Mark Delavan (Wotan) & Stephanie Blythe (Fricka)

In Das Rheingold, Mark Delavan, who we previously praised in Francesca da Rimini, was a Wotan with much promise, if not all of them fulfilled. The voice is ample and strong without the solid impact one normally associates with the part. The middle and lower registers gave off a dark, almost dusky timbre. This is undeniably a Wotan voice, of the kind Hans Hotter, George London, and (in our day) James Morris once possessed.

At times, though, Delavan’s top notes strayed from the pitch when pressed, but mercifully did not veer off into sharpness (unlike some singers). He took his time to warm up, with mushy diction at the start, but refined the focus later on, his German becoming more pronounced and the words carrying a dramatic weight to them that were lacking in the early going. His greeting to his new abode, “Abendlich strahlt,” was a bit of a letdown, but Delavan ended up stronger than he began – a welcome sign that bodes well for the rest of the cycle.

Eric Owens, billed as a bass-baritone, was more bass than baritone as the dwarf Alberich, the Nibelung of the title as well as Wotan’s arch nemesis. With his distinctive sound and superb enunciation of the text, Owens deserves the positive notices he’s been receiving in this role, although his topmost notes were still more hinted at than held. His acting was above reproach, however, making this detestable creature all the more sympathetic. That’s a major victory in itself.

Eric Owens as Alberich
Eric Owens as Alberich, with Rhine Gold in hand

Spitting his words out with relish, Alberich’s Curse was overwhelming in its malevolence and bearing, save for the highest note. But even that limitation turned out to work in Owens’ favor: by using this deficiency to his advantage, he succeeded in producing a real flesh-and-blood personage – that’s quite a creation!

Stephanie Blythe’s limited assignment as Fricka was delivered with the expected steadiness and nobility only she could achieve. The role is not the most vocally satisfying of the cycle, and is usually portrayed as a stereotypical nagging Hausfrau in most productions. This was no different, but Blythe practically owns the part at the Met, with the voice projecting tellingly over the orchestra and into the audience. After seeing her a few weeks ago as Nettie Fowler in Carousel, I must say that Blythe is more than capable of “slumming it” on Broadway, and in the opera house, in any capacity she chooses!

Stefan Margita as the crafty Loge (Ken Howard)
Stefan Margita as the crafty Loge (Ken Howard)

Slovakian tenor Stefan Margita’s Loge was a real find. Basically a lyric tenor, Margita too gave much emphasis to the words, painting a marvelous picture of this mischievous character. His “Durch raub” (“By theft”), when asked how the gods could acquire the Ring, was hurled with all the bite and glee the phrase required, with a built-in tongue-in-cheek manner quite appropriate to the god of Fire. I loved his feigned reaction to Alberich’s transformations in Scene iii, giving a sly wink and a nod to Wotan while “trembling” with fear at the dwarf’s monstrous presence. He’d make an excellent Mime, should he venture forth in that direction.

The giants, Fasolt and Fafner, were taken by Franz-Josef Selig and Hans-Peter König, respectively. Selig has a leaner, sweeter tone than König, which aided in differentiating the two brothers’ personalities and separate agendas: Selig, lovelorn and lonely, practically fawning over Freia (a game Wendy Bryn Harmer), the goddess of youth and beauty; and König, sinister and stern, insistent on driving a hard bargain with Wotan and the other gods. About whom, Richard Cox’s Froh and Dwayne Croft’s Donner were pleasantly sung, with neither artist bringing much insight into these deliberately limited roles. Donner’s famous hammer call was given a firm reading, if with slightly underpowered tone. Meredith Arwady as the mysterious Erda, the Earth Goddess, boasted a cello-like instrument in its lowest reaches, but faded into the woodwork stage-wise. One of the best sung performances of the day, however, was the cackling, megalomaniac Mime, Alberich’s brother, voiced by the sturdy tenor of Gerhard Siegel. He was particularly adept at delineating the drawf’s various cries of “Au, au, au,” each one different and unique.

Fabio Luisi, the Met’s principal conductor, who led last year’s cycle (for the most part), was once again at the helm. His beat was steady and firm, coaxing wonderful playing from the Met Orchestra, though I felt that he failed to linger over certain musical passages (i.e., the dreamy interlude before the first Valhalla theme; the journey to Nibelheim and back) that would normally be taken at a slower, more leisurely pace.

The gods entering Valhalla (bloomberg.com)
The gods entering Valhalla (bloomberg.com)

About that trip to the land of the dwarfs: there were unseen technical difficulties with the 45-ton contraption known as “The Machine,” those 24 movable planks that bend and fold and creak and squirm into countless configurations on stage. In this production, acrobats take the place of Wotan and Loge as they descend into the lower depths of where the Nibelungs toil. We see their journey from above, however in this instance the planks faltered, which led to a last-minute improvisation by Owens and Siegel (a similar incident occurred when Rheingold premiered back in 2010, as the gods failed to cross the Rainbow Bridge into Valhalla. Instead, the singers looked at each other and then simply walked off the stage in a most un-god-like manner).

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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