From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Two)

Gods and Giants: The principal characters of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ at the Metropolitan Opera (Photo: Ken Howard)

The River Runs Wide, the River Runs Deep

The first scene of Das Rheingold takes place in the Rhine River. As the late comic and raconteur Anna Russell used to describe this scene, “IN it!” And the first sounds uttered by those naive denizens of the deep, the Rhine Maidens, are nonsense syllables: “Weia, Waga, Woge, du Welle!” One director I know categorized this passage as the early beginnings of language. If the language alluded to is “baby talk,” then the Rhine Maidens’ childish prattle is nothing more than gibberish.

Next, we catch a glimpse of the loathsome dwarf Alberich. With a voice that could peel the bark off a tree (hopefully, not the World-Ash from whence Wotan carved his spear), the debuting Tomasz Konieczny fulfilled every promise in the part with a purposeful and powerful characterization. The Polish bass-baritone exuded strength and an inbred capacity for cutting through Wagner’s orchestration, along with a commanding stage presence and leonine ferocity. Konieczny’s idiomatic German and textual acuity put him in a league of his own. Most reviewers named him the outstanding performer of this Ring revival with good reason.

The boisterous river maids (soprano Amanda Woodbury, and mezzos Samantha Hankey and Tamara Mumford) were enjoying themselves by the Rhine. Dangling from wires suspended from the Met’s stage ceiling, they resembled a trio of singing manatees. They romped through the imaginary stream — that is, until Alberich happened to come by and steal the gold they were so nonchalantly guarding. His howling laughter resonated in their watery wonderland.

Those delightful but ditzy Rhine Maidens (Samantha Hankey, Amanda Woodbury, Tamara Mumford) dangling for dear life (Photo: Ken Howard)

In the next scene, which takes place on a mountaintop — the image of the newly completed fortress, Valhalla, clearly visible in the background — the richly opulent mezzo-soprano of Jamie Barton as Fricka beckoned her husband, the one-eyed warrior Wotan, to rise from his slumber. Embodied by New Orleans native Greer Grimsley, a veteran of many a Ring production from Seattle, Washington to New York State, the growly leathery-voiced singer was the real deal. His potent bass-baritone provided a fitting contrast to the intensity of Konieczny’s leaner but no less penetrating instrument.

When these two artists competed against each other in scenes iii and iv, their clash of temperaments riveted audience members to their seats, while flooding the Met stage with lava-like outpourings. For once, listeners could thrill to an electrically charged atmosphere elicited by these two dissimilar vocalists. A verbal tug-of-war emerged from this encounter, one that (in this reviewer’s mind) was won, but just barely, by Konieczny’s snarling, vitriolic personification.

Not giving any ground to his colleague, Grimsley’s George London-esque timbre pleased these ears immensely. It’s been some time that a voice of this substance has been heard at the Met. In the role’s highest reaches, however, Grimsley’s tone tended to spread and lose focus. Otherwise, he savored the German text to an extraordinary degree. Those deliciously rolled r’s, tossed out into the Met auditorium with gusto and abandon, was one of many details. The sheer size of the voice was enough to call attention. Would that his stage deportment was one of a Norse god incarnate: aiming for macho swagger, Grimsley was reported to have wandered about the stage looking distracted, no doubt due to the cumbersome sets.

Freia’s cries for help were crisply delivered by soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer (she also sang one of the Valkyries as well as the Third Norn in the opening Prologue to Götterdämmerung). They came on the heels of the lumbering giants Fasolt, smoothly sung by the engaging Günther Groissböck, and his brother Fafner, the booming Russian basso Dmitry Belosselskiy. They have come to claim their prize. Wotan, who promised Fricka he would find a suitable replacement for her sister Freia, looks to Loge, the trickster, to salvage the situation. Only Loge, the cleverest of the gods, can come up with a viable alternative.

But before Loge’s appearance, the giants make a nuisance of themselves. This draws the attention of Freia’s brothers Froh (Adam Diegel) and Donner (Michael Todd Simpson). Simpson was adroit in expressing his character’s boisterous nature (we all know him as Thor). Just when all seemed lost, enter the slippery Loge to music of an equally diaphanous nature. Taken by tenor Norbert Ernst, who relished his position as apart from the other gods, Loge expounds on his whereabouts. A fascinating actor as well as a singer of note, Ernst paid keen attention to the text, and was alive to every nuance. He has searched high and low, Loge tells his audience, for something of value to replace the beauty of the goddess of youth, but to no avail.

Loge the Trickster (Norbert Ernst) operating in close quarters with Freia (Wendy Bryn Harmer), goddess of youth and beauty (Photo: Ken Howard)

He did learn that the Rhine Maidens were robbed of their precious plunder, which they would very much like to be returned. This captures Wotan’s interest, as well as that of the giants. They challenge Wotan to fetch this priceless trinket for their own as compensation. Otherwise, they will hold Freia hostage until Wotan coughs up the loot. Realizing that without Freia the gods will gradually grow old and pale, Wotan and Loge escape through a crevice that takes them directly to Nibelheim, home of the Nibelung dwarfs.

Much pounding of anvils is heard (twelve of them to be accurate), which evoke the dwarfs’ enslavement to Alberich’s lust. He’s forced them to labor, day and night, on mining the gold out of their environment. From the vast hoard of glittering rocks he had Mime, his duller and greedier brother, forge a Ring of power, which Alberich uses to command his minions to obedience.

Mime was played by Gerhard Siegel, who we will meet again in Siegfried. In this early incarnation, Mime is a more sympathetic creature. He gets battered about by his bigger and bolder sibling, who sits atop the food chain, as it were. Whiny of voice (and of visage), Mime spills the beans to Wotan and Loge about the gold, until Alberich comes back to hurl imprecations and threats of more violence against his lazy brethren. Another native German speaker, Siegel, a past exponent of this role, has a large, rather nasally voice which he uses to his advantage in character parts such as these (he was the Captain in the Met’s revival of Wozzeck).

Out of the Dark and Into the Light

Breakout performance by Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich in Scene ii of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ (Photo: Ken Howard)

Alberich’s thrashing of Mime was particularly effective. Poor Mime gets the worst of their encounter. But now, Schwarz (or Dark) Alberich confronts Licht (or Light) Alberich (i.e., Wotan) in a battle of wills steered and guided by the scheming Loge. It’s here, one would think, that director Robert Lepage’s introduction of digital technology and hi-tech knowhow into Wagner’s Ring would win out over lesser productions, or so the prevailing theory went.

As mentioned, the clash of egos, of both the Light and Dark Sides (with notable similarities to the Star Wars saga), expressing both aspects of the same persona, symbolize the lust for power. This can only be accomplished by renouncing love, which Alberich dutifully does without giving it a second thought. Wotan, however, is incapable of such a renunciation. His very soul, indeed his very being strives and yearns for amorous adventures. At the very least, this is what Wotan longs to find and that sets him apart from his alter ego. He fails miserably, of course, which leads to his downfall.

Loge, too, realizes he can’t deal with Alberich on his own terms, so he uses guile and flattery to get to his nemesis. Loge challenges Alberich to show off his newly acquired powers of transformation (via something called the Tarnhelm) by assuming, first, the shape of a formidable serpent, and then a lowly toad.

The digital toad and Muppet-like beastie were a scream and a howl, but nothing that standard scenic designs and props couldn’t muster. Which, on the whole, just about sums up the ludicrous and misbegotten nature of this production’s reason for being. Hopefully, if the rumors prove to be true, the Met will finally ditch this boondoggle of a show for something worthwhile and longer lasting.

Stepping on the tiny toad, Loge and Wotan break Alberich’s spell and tie him down with rope. They whisk him off to the surface to face their judgment. Here, the low brass predominated and were especially prominent and/or bombastic as the music required. In the last scene, Alberich is forced to give up the gold and his precious Ring. The cruelty that Wotan demonstrates against a vanquished foe is especially galling. He wrenches the Ring from Alberich’s grip.

Too, Konieczny’s howl at losing the object of his desire was most telling. His curse was forcefully conveyed, and gripping from beginning to end, the words spat out with the sting of anger and disgust. The orchestra likewise lashed out, in turn punctuating Alberich’s taunts mercilessly. If Wotan honestly thought the battle had been won, let him rethink the situation.

The Dark and the Light: Alberich (Tomasz Konieczny) ponders his next move, as Wotan (Greer Grimsley) looks on (Photo: Ken Howard)

Soon, the gods are reunited — just in time, too, for along come the giants, with Freia at the end of her rope. Much coaxing and taunting and back-and-forth insulting ensue, but the giants insist on piling up the hoard of gold to hide the goddess’ fair features. When all the gold has been used up, Fafner spots a shiny glow on Wotan’s finger. He demands that Wotan throw the Ring onto the pile, but Wotan refuses. Immediately, the giant takes Freia away as the gods are once again thrust into a quagmire. Will Wotan relent? No, he insists. Not on your life! He, too, has been captivated by the mighty Ring (this same aspect would inspire a budding young writer and professor of languages named J.R.R. Tolkien).

The lovely Rhine motif returns with the appearance of the Earth Goddess, Erda (the appropriately earth-toned Karen Cargill). She warns Wotan of the Ring’s grip over men. Only disaster will befall those who possess it. Surely, Alberich’s curse will take its toll. As mysteriously as Erda had materialized, she now sinks into the ground. Wotan is transfixed. He wants to know more — and, indeed, he does get to know more in Die Walküre, the next opera in the cycle.

Wotan finally gives up the Ring and Freia is released. While Fasolt bemoans the loss of this beautiful maid, Fafner berates him for acting like a fool. He starts to take the bulk of the gold for himself, but when Fafner reaches for the Ring, Fasolt, egged on by Loge, confronts him. With one prodigious blow, Fafner strikes his brother dead. Barely wiping the sweat off his massive brow, Fafner dumps the gold into a huge sack and makes off with the booty. Wotan, Loge, and the other gods can only marvel in wonder at the Ring’s power. The orchestra sounds the theme of Alberich’s curse, which will be heard throughout the remaining operas of the cycle.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) refuses to heed Fricka’s call (Jamie Barton) to give up the Ring of Power (Photo: Ken Howard)

The sky grows dark and clouds begin to gather. Donner’s call to the mists (“Heda, Heda, Hedo!”) came up a trifle short, and the orchestral brass section was a bit out of tune. Otherwise, Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan kept the score moving by refusing to dawdle. His interpretation of Wagner’s opus steered a middle road between the weightiness of former Met musical director James Levine and that of ex-acting director Fabio Luisi. There were touches of the briskly paced Pierre Boulez rendition at Bayreuth, and the lingering detail of a Herbert von Karajan. Sonority and structure were stressed first and foremost, sometimes at the expense of emotional intensity. Still, this was a major undertaking. Maestro Jordan can be proud of his contribution. He can be applauded for keeping this at times unwieldy production on firm ground.

Mr. Diegel and Mr. Todd Simpson, along with Ms. Bryn Harmer, did what they could with their one-dimensional personages. Ms. Cargill’s brief bit as Erda was well vocalized, as were the various Rhine Maidens. Herr Groissböck’s more human Fasolt was a joy to hear; the same could be said for Herr Ernst’s sharply delineated Loge. The gods made their way across the Rainbow Bridge and into Valhalla. Everyone contributed to making this “opening act” of the Ring circus into one of much anticipation and solid realizations. Were those expectations completely fulfilled? Stay tuned for further developments….

End of Part Two

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes     

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