Mixing the Old with the New (and More): The Met Opera’s 2019-2020 Radio Broadcast Season

Embattled former Met Opera artist-conductor, and ex-general director of the Los Angeles Opera, Placido Domingo

I look forward with anticipation to the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD and Radio Program Guide. It can be found online, if you’re interested (here’s the link: https://www.metopera.org/season/radio/saturday-matinee-broadcasts/). I, for one, prefer to wait with bated breath for the physical delivery of this little gem of a booklet.

What I found in it both pleased and irritated me. There were photos of favorite works (for example, Massenet’s Manon and Verdi’s Macbeth), famous and not-so famous artists (Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato, Sir Bryn Terfel, Peter Mattei, Angel Blue, Eric Owens, Ailyn Pérez, and others), and lavish displays of such productions as Franco Zeffirelli’s Turandot and Sir Richard Eyre’s Così fan tutte.

My favorite parts of the guide are the descriptions of each production and the juicy tidbits of background information allotted to each opera. We’ll be getting to the particulars in a moment.

But there was one name, among so many, that stood out from all the rest: that of Plácido Domingo. Apparently, the booklet’s publishers had failed to expunge his moniker from the Met roster in time for the post office to mail off the guide.

From Fame to Shame

Another fall opening, another fall. Yes, readers, it’s been almost two years since former Met maestro and musical director James Levine was removed from his post due to accusations of sexual harassment of men that allegedly took place some twenty to thirty years prior. It was soon after the first broadcast work, Verdi’s Requiem, on December 10, 2017, that news of Levine’s behavior, which had been rumored for some time, finally broke in the print and online media (see the link to my original article: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/10/quid-sum-miser-verdis-requiem-and-the-end-of-a-met-opera-career/).

The fact that maestro Levine’s longtime colleague and fellow performer, Señor Domingo, had himself been implicated in demanding sexual favors from a bevy of women, all to further their careers (he claimed they were consensual) and to curry favor with respective opera houses (along with appeasing his own carnal desires), was another of those firmly-held “beliefs” that, for better or worse, had been bandied about for longer than anyone can remember.

Domingo’s decline, like that of his predecessor Mr. Levine, makes for fascinating if somewhat lurid reading. As of this writing, neither artist has yet to have his day in court. However, because of the delicate nature of the issues involved, the facts are that Levine had to step down from his position. Domingo, too, was forced to cancel his appearances at the Met (as Macbeth in Verdi’s opera, and Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), as well as resign the general directorship of the Los Angeles Opera. In addition, he withdrew from all future performances with Los Angeles and other institutions, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Opera.

This pretty much puts an end to Domingo’s fifty-year career in the U.S. It has also cast a pall over the upcoming season (as it did two seasons ago), which the company intends to dispel at all costs. The tenor-turned-baritone and opera conductor-director will continue to appear in Europe at select venues. While there, Domingo may expect to be hammered by journalists and dogged by accusations from nine women who claim that for nearly three decades he harassed them with “unwanted kisses, groping and sexual advances.”

It’s incredible how a person’s professional life involving opera and the performing arts can turn into an opera all its own. Not a comic opera, mind you, but an exceedingly tragic one. Let the courts decide Plácido’s fate.

The End of All Things

One another sad note, we pay respects to the memories of two fallen Met artists: American diva Jessye Norman at age 74, and Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani at 56.

Soprano, mezzo, contralto. Those terms were interchangeable in the mouth of a true force of nature, the formidable Jessye Mae Norman. At six foot one inch tall, Norman towered over most singers, but not only in height. Norman’s artistry was such that listeners would be hard pressed to place her country of origin. She was an all-American girl, born in Augusta, Georgia, of African American parentage. But you would never know it from her cultivated speaking voice. In fact, most radio listeners would swear she spoke the Queen’s English or, at the very least, favored Western European diction.

With regard to her chosen profession, Norman refused to be pigeon-holed in opera. Her vast repertoire, both on the stage and in the concert hall, was wide and eclectic. She spoke German like a native, and her French was more Gallic than those of many Parisians. She was grandly eloquent in Wagner, and absolutely magisterial in Berlioz. Verdi or Puccini were never her forte, but she could whip up a head of steam over Strauss. Her classic recording of that composer’s Salome revealed the playful teenager in her.

A true artist and an incredibly devoted professional, Norman had the fiery temperament of one who believed whole-heartedly in her talent. Although she could be cutting in her comments to others, or as gentle as a lamb, there was no doubt she was divinely inspired. And who could resist her open-throated assumption of Strauss’s Ariadne, the perfect part for this most perfect of prima donnas? She will be sorely missed.

The late opera diva Jessye Norman (1945-2019)

Marcello Giordani had a most infectious tenor sound. It was a powerful, thrilling instrument, absolutely electric in performance, and instantly recognizable. To reach that elevated status in so short a time is remarkable enough. That Giordani achieved it almost from the start is a testament to his innate ability to be recognized as a singer of worth.

Achieving renown in both his native land and in America during the 1980s, Giordani managed to capture the attention of the New York press with his assumption of such standard parts as Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore and Rodolfo in La Bohème, which occurred in 1993 and 1995, respectively. Now, here was a worthy challenger to Luciano Pavarotti’s mantle.

After overcoming vocal difficulties in the mid- to late ‘90s, Giordani began to flourish and shine in some highly unusual repertoire — unusual for the Met Opera, that is. His performances in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in 2003 (a Met first), and earlier in Bellini’s Il Pirata (another company first) in 2002, brought needed attention to these operatic rarities.

Marcello also appeared in standard repertoire (Prince Calàf in Puccini’s Turandot, Pinkerton in Butterfly, and in Verdi’s Ernani), but his excursions into the French variety were met with less favorable notices, i.e., his short-lived Aeneas in Berlioz’s mammoth Les Troyens. He abandoned the part soon after.

The late Met Opera tenor Marcello Giordani (1963-2019)

One wonders how many artists at the top of their game would have had the courage and wherewithal to know when they had pushed their voices beyond their natural limitations. Giordani knew. He earned our respect by doing the unthinkable: he canceled his subsequent Met Opera appearances, thus paving the way for another young talent, the New Orleans-born Brian Hymel, to triumph in the role. That’s humility for you! Grace under pressure. Giordani was that type of artist.

I have criticized Signor Giordani’s performances in the past — sometimes harshly, sometimes mercilessly. The only reason I did so was because I wanted to hear Marcello at his absolute best. I knew what he was capable of and urged him to husband his resources for better things. I’m hopeful he took my words to heart.

Marcello’s 2008 performances as Faust in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, in addition to Susan Graham’s lovely Marguerite and John Relyea’s dapper Méphistophélès, proved, without a doubt, what an unqualified tour de force the staged version of this “dramatic legend” became in their hands.

On October 5, 2019, Giordani’s golden throat was silenced. He died of a heart attack at his home in Augusta, Sicily. We wish his family our most heartfelt condolences.

What’s in Store for Radio Listeners

Onward and upward to bigger and better things. The broadcast season kicks off on December 7, 2019, with the Met premiere of minimalist composer Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, the last in a trilogy of works that began in 1975 with his and director Robert Wilson’s elaborately staged Einstein on the Beach, followed in 1980 by Satyagraha based on the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi. This final portion, Akhnaten, about the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and his founding of a monotheistic Sun-worship religion, premiered in 1984.

It will be performed at the Met by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role, mezzo J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti, soprano Dísella Lárusdóttir as Queen Tye, tenor Aaron Blake as the High Priest of Amon, baritone Will Liverman as Horemhab, bass Richard Bernstein as Aye, and actor Zachary Jones as Amenhotep III. The production is by Phelim McDermott, with sets and projection designs by Tom Pye, costume designs by Kevin Pollard, lighting by Bruno Poet, and choreography by Sean Gandini. The Met Orchestra will be led by Karen Kamensek, one of the few female conductors around, who made her English National Opera debut in 2014 leading this same work.

Philip Glass’ ‘Akhnaten’ comes to the Met Opera (any resemblance to Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is purely coincidental)

On December 14, we’ll be hearing Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame in French, or Pikavaya Dama in the original Russian), in Elijah Moshinsky’s acclaimed production. Met debutante, Norwegian-born soprano Lise Davidsen, sings the tortured Lisa, in love with the fiery gambler Gherman, voiced by Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov (replacing the previously announced Aleksandrs Antonenko). Eyvazov is married to Russian diva Anna Netrebko, who will be appearing this season as Lady Macbeth and Tosca.

Others in the cast include Russian mezzo Elena Maximova as Pauline, mezzo Larissa Diadkova as the old Countess (the lady with the secret of the cards), baritone Alexey Markov as Count Tomsky, and baritone Igor Golovatenko as Prince Yeletsky (who asks for Lisa’s hand in marriage). The opera will be conducted by Vasily Petrenko, completing this practically all-native-speaking cast.

And speaking of Macbeth (watch your mouth!), Verdi’s initial attempt at translating Shakespeare to the operatic stage will be broadcast on December 21st in Adrian Noble’s production. Sets and costumes are by Mark Thompson, lighting designs by Jean Kalman, and choreography by Sue Lefton. Replacing Mr. Domingo in the titular name part will be Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, who will share his nightmare visions with Anna Netrebko’s Lady M. American tenor Matthew Polenzani is Macbeth’s chief antagonist, Macduff, along with Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov as Banquo. The orchestra and chorus will be led by Marco Armiliato, whose brother Fabio happens to be a spinto tenor.

Mozart’s delightful The Magic Flute is the next radio offering on December 28. It will be performed, in English, in the famed Julie Taymor/George Tsypin production. Taymor also designed the costumes and puppets (along with Michael Curry). Lighting will be provided by Donald Holder and choreography by Mark Dendy. The colloquial translation is by noted author J.D. McClatchy.

Heading the large cast is soprano Ying Fang as Princess Pamina, tenor David Portillo as Prince Tamino, coloratura soprano Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, baritone Joshua Hopkins as the clownish bird catcher Papageno, tenor Rodell Rosel as the evil slave Monostatos, baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the Speaker, and bass Solomon Howard (who I personally saw in two North Carolina Opera productions of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Wagner’s Das Rheingold) as the High Priest Sarastro. Lothar Koenigs will preside at the podium.

Season’s Greetings!

The Met rings in the New Year in style with Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, to be broadcast on January 4, 2020. The opera will be heard in last year’s new production, directed by avant-garde Canadian Robert Carsen. The set designer is Paul Steinberg, with costume designs by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, lighting by Carsen and Peter Van Praet, and choreography by Philippe Giraudeau. Sir Simon Rattle will bring his expertise in leading the phenomenal Met Orchestra and Chorus in this most popular piece.

Such a noteworthy production demands singers of the highest caliber. So to that, we tip our hat to stylish Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund as the Marschallin, Moravian mezzo Magdalena Kožená as Octavian, South African soprano Golda Schultz as Sophie, German bass Günther Groissböck as the obnoxious Baron Ochs, tenor Thomas Ebenstein as the scheming Valzacchi, mezzo Katharine Goeldner as his accomplice Anina, baritone Markus Eiche as Herr Von Faninal, and Matthew Polenzani as the Italian Singer. Will Matthew hit that Act I high note before Orchs cuts him off? Tune in and find out!

Robert Carsen’s staging of Strauss’ ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

The next offering is Berg’s expressionist psychodrama Wozzeck on January 11. With a cast headed by Swedish baritone Peter Mazzei as the oppressed Wozzeck, soprano Elza van den Heever as his live-in lover Marie, mezzo Tamara Mumford as Margret, British tenor Christopher Ventris as the vicious Drum Major, German tenor Gerhard Siegel as the Captain, tenor Andrew Staples as Wozzeck’s comrade-in-arms Andres, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn (in a role more congenial to his talents than that of Boito’s Mefistofele) as the Doctor, sparks are sure to fly!

This is another new production, brought to you by famed visual artist William Kentridge (responsible for the 2010 production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, which starred Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot). Wozzeck will be co-directed by Luc De Wit, with projection designs by Catherine Meyburgh, set designs by Sabine Theunissen, costume designs by Greta Goiris, and lighting by Urs Schonebaum. The Met’s current music director, Canadian Wunderkind Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will lord it over the orchestra in this highly charged presentation.

Along traditional lines, Verdi’s La Traviata will be the next featured work to be broadcast (January 18). The production is credited to Broadway producer-director Michael Mayer, who did that Las Vegas-style Rigoletto a few years back. The cast includes Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak (aka Mrs. Roberto Alagna) as “the wayward one” Violetta, Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov as her lover Alfredo Germont, and Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey as his father Giorgio Germont. Gibraltar native, maestro Karel Mark Chichon (married to Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča), will conduct. You can feast your eyes (or ears, in this case) on the production’s opulent sets (by Christine Jones) and costumes (by Susan Hilferty). The lighting designs are the work of Kevin Adams, with dance sequences by choreographer Lorin Latarro.

Another popular item, Puccini’s La Bohème in the lavish Franco Zeffirelli production, will take center stage on January 25, but only in a recorded broadcast from Fall 2019. Featured in the predominantly youngish cast (and why not — this IS a story about young people, isn’t it?) are Chicago native, soprano Ailyn Pérez (of Mexican descent), as the tubercular Mimì, the peripatetic Matthew Polenzani as the poet Rodolfo, Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska as the fiery Musetta, Serbian baritone David Bižić as the painter Marcello, Moldovian baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky as the musician Schaunard, South Korean basso Jongmin Park as the philosopher Colline, and American bass Arthur Woodley in the dual roles of the landlord Benoit and the cuckolded Alcindoro.

The late Mr. Zeffirelli, an extremely refined and intellectually stimulated individual in his prime, had a boundless thirst for knowledge, music, and the arts. His familiarity with the classics of cinema and theater and his in-depth study of a work’s time period led to many an authentically based production. He dabbled in film and became a successful movie and television producer-director in his own right. Zeffirelli was responsible for two fine Shakespearean screen adaptations, The Taming of the Shrew (1967) with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and Romeo and Juliet (1968) with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. A third adaptation, Hamlet (1990) with Mad Max action star Mel Gibson in the lead, proved to be less durable.

We now come to what I feel is the Met Opera’s pièce de résistance: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, in a new production by James Robinson, with set designs by Michael Yeargan (a known quantity at the Met for many a season), costume designs by Catherine Zuber (also well known), lighting designs by Donald Holder, projections by Luke Halls, and choreography/dance numbers by Camille A. Brown. This is a co-production that first appeared at the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, and later at English National Opera in October 2018.

The Met Opera’s new production of The Gershwins’ ‘Porgy and Bess’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Boasting of a Wagnerian weight as well as length — and not just because of its music and choruses, but of individual performers and astounding production values — the opera Porgy and Bess (make no bones about it, this is an opera) is, first and last, an almost impossible work to pull off.

That it came from the pen of George Gershwin, one of Tin Pan Alley’s most beloved composers of popular songs and Broadway standards, and his lyricist brother Ira continues to astonish and delight. The wealth of melody, the depth of characterizations, and the understanding and love both Gershwin and original authors DuBose Heyward and his wife Dorothy brought to this endeavor take one’s breath away. I fondly remember the 2012 Broadway revival, with a cast starring Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy, David Allen Grier as Sportin’ Life, and Philip Boykin as Crown. It bowled me over!

Following in the footsteps of Leontyne Price, Leona Mitchell, Grace Bumbry, and Clamma Dale will be soprano Angel Blue as Bess. Her Porgy will be sung by bass-baritone Eric Owens (he of the clenched teeth). Owens has his work cut out for him — and some fairly big shoes to fill, what with memories of William Warfield, Robert McFerrin, Simon Estes, and Willard White still lingering in the air. The other cast members (in a VERY large cast) include Golda Schultz as Clara, Latonia Moore as Serena, Denyce Graves as Maria, Frederick Ballentine as Sportin’ Life, Alfred Walker (a fine Wotan and Titurel) as Crown, and Donovan Singletary as Jake. David Robertson will conduct the orchestra in what many musicologists refer to as the American Die Meistersinger.

It Always Sounds Better in French

Scene from Berlioz’s ‘La Damnation de Faust’ (Photo: Met Opera)

I am mildly disappointed that the February 8 broadcast of La Damnation de Faust will be given only in concert format. Although this is how Berlioz originally conceived for his work to be performed, the original 2008 production was a worthy attempt at a modern, technologically advanced concept.

It’s that once-in-a-lifetime digital showpiece, made up of a five-level metal scaffold divided into 24-screen cubicles (shades of that ridiculous Machine for the Met’s bungled Ring cycle). Director Robert Lepage’s MTV-style production values (with projection designs by Nelson Vignola and “Goethe-era” costumes by Karin Erskine) actually works. The online Met Opera guide states the reason for the concert performance as due to “unanticipated technical demands of reviving the Met’s staged production, which proved to be impossible to accommodate within the company’s production schedule.” Oh, well, our loss.

There’s a halfway decent cast, however, ready to do justice to this stirring piece. Mezzo Elīna Garanča has been tapped to sing the role of Marguerite, with high-flying tenor Michael Sypres as Doctor Faust and bass Ildar Abrdrazakov as the sinister Mephisto. Edward Gardner will lead the Met Opera forces from the pit and from the stage. This concert reading should prove interesting.

Jules Massenet’s Manon, based on the same Abbé Prévost source novel as Puccini’s strictly Italianate slant on the story, will be heard on February 15 in another of those prerecorded performances (this one from October 26, 2019). A Laurent Pelly production (he staged the same composer’s Cendrillon, which takes a typically Gallic angle to the Cinderella fairy tale), the sets were designed by Chantal Thomas, costumes by Monsieur Pelly, lighting by Joël Adam, choreography by Lionel Hoche, and associate direction by Christian Räth. Maestro Maurizio Benini will direct from the podium for this one.

A young (perhaps a shade too young) and talented cast will be headed by soprano Lisette Oropesa as Manon, tenor Michael Fabiano as the Chevalier des Grieux, Italian tenor Carlo Bosi as the old roué Guillot de Morfontaine, Polish baritone Artur Ruciński as Manon’s cousin Lescaut, Canadian baritone Brett Polegato as De Bretigny, and Korean bass Kwangchul Youn as the Comte des Grieux. Both the Massenet and Puccini versions are episodic in nature. It would be most instructive for listeners to compare their efforts to an earlier one, composed in 1854, by Daniel François Esprit Auber of Fra Diavolo fame (are you listening, Met Opera management?).

Lisette Oropesa (in the purple dress) in Massenet’s ‘Manon’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

No repertory house worthy of the name could ever neglect the next radio entry: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Le Nozze di Figaro, in the broadcast of February 22. Based on the second of three plays by the Marquis de Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro (its English title) was the first to be written and staged for the opera. The first play, Le Barbier de Séville, or The Barber of Seville, was set to music by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782, and subsequently by Gioachino Rossini in 1816.

The third play in the trilogy, La Mère Couple (The Guilty Mother), has a more checkered history. A version by Darius Milhaud premiered in France in 1966. However, American composer John Corigliano, with librettist William Hoffman, were commissioned by the Met to create The Ghosts of Versailles in English. This elaborate two-act piece had its world and Met premiere in 1991. It was partially based in part on The Guilty Mother. Topping that, there even exists a later version of The Marriage of Figaro or The Crazy Day, composed between 1799 and 1800, by the Portuguese musician Marcos Portugal.

To this heady mixture, we add the radio cast: Romanian soprano Anita Hartig sings the Countess, German soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller is Susanna, French mezzo Marianne Crebassa is Cherubino, mezzo MaryAnn McCormick is Marcellina, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień is the Count Almaviva, Czech-born bass-baritone Adam Plachetka is Figaro, and Italian basso buffo Maurizio Muraro is Dr. Bartolo. Cornelius Meister leads the orchestra and chorus.

Leaping Lizards, It’s Leap Year!

George Friedrich Handel’s Agrippina is the next item up on February 29, in a production originally created by the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie in Brussels and adapted by the Metropolitan Opera. Another Met premiere, it will be headed by mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role, joined by soprano Brenda Rae as Poppea, mezzo Kate Lindsey as Nerone, English countertenor Iestyn Davies as Ottone, baritone Duncan Rock as Pallante, and British bass Matthew Rose as Claudio. Another Brit, conductor Harry Bicket, will conduct. The production is credited to Sir David McVicar, with sets and costumes designed by John Macfarlane, lighting by Paule Constable, and choreography by Andrew George.

The last of the three Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations, Così fan tutte (“So Do They All”), will be heard on March 7. Harry Bicket leads a cast that includes Australian soprano Nicole Car as Fiordiligi, Italian mezzo Serena Malfi as Dorabella, soprano Heidi Stober as Despina, Kansas-native tenor Ben Bliss as Ferrando, the Venezuelan-born bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Guglielmo, and Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley as Don Alfonso. The opera will be given in Phelim McDermott’s colorful, Coney Island-inspired production, with sets by Tom Pye, costumes by Laura Hopkins, and lighting by Paule Constable.

Phelim McDermott’s production of Mozart’s ‘ Cosi fan tutte’ (Photo: Met Opera)

A welcome and much needed new production of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (or The Flying Dutchman) will set sail on March 14. Starring robust Welsh bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel as the titular brooding Dutchman, this will be another of French director François Girard’s insightful efforts (his brilliantly realized Parsifal from a few years back is considered a milestone in the annals of Met productions). John Macfarlane is once again tapped as set designer, with costumes by Moritz Junge, lighting by David Finn, choreography by Carolyn Choa, aided by dramaturg Serge Lamothe.

The supporting cast includes German-Italian soprano Anja Kampe as Senta, Japanese mezzo Mihoko Fujimura as Mary, Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov as Erik, American-born tenor David Portillo as the Steersman, and German bass Franz-Josef Selig as Daland, Senta’s father. The electric Valery Gergiev will attempt to batten down the Met Opera Orchestra’s hatches for this run.

We move from tragedy to comedy with Rossini’s take on the Cinderella tale, La Cenerentola, which should curry favor with radio listeners on March 21. It will be heard in the Cesare Lievi production that boasts storybook sets and costumes by Maurizio Balò, lighting by Gigi Saccomandi, and choreography by Daniela Schiavone. We’re expecting some dazzling coloratura displays from a cast that spotlights Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught as Angelina (the Cenerentola of the title), Mexican bel canto specialist Javier Camarena as Prince Ramiro, baritone Davide Luciano as Dandini, bass Maurizio Muraro as Don Magnifico, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Alidoro. The conductor will be James Gaffigan.

It’s so rare to have two Massenet works in the same season. So we’re heartened that Sir Richard Eyre’s production of Werther, based on Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, will take to the airwaves on March 28. The sets and costumes are by Rob Howell, with lighting by Peter Mumford, production design by Wendall K. Harrington, and choreography by Sara Ende.

Two of the company’s biggest box office attractions will be featured: Polish tenor Piotr Beczala takes on the part of melancholy poet Werther, while mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, in a change of pace from her usual comedic assignments, portrays his lady love, Charlotte. As her husband Albert, we’ll hear French-Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis, and as the Bailiff, British baritone Alan Opie. Fellow Canadian, maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will be in the pit for this not-to-be-missed event.

In a similar tragic vein, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice will be presented on April 4 in another recorded performance, this one from Fall 2019. Mark Wigglesworth will lead the Met Opera forces in director Mark Morris’ modern-esque adaptation of the centuries-old tale of the Greek minstrel Orpheus. Mezzo Jamie Barton will take over for Stephanie Blythe (the original creator of this part) as Orfeu, with Korean-American soprano Hei-Kyung Hong as Euridice, and South Korean soprano Hera Hyesang Park as Amore. Allen Moyer designed the sets, noted fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi supplied the costumes, James F. Ingalls the lighting, and Mark Morris will once again provide the choreography.

Production of Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ (Photo: Met Opera)

More tragedy to come in our next outing. Puccini’s perennial shocker, Tosca, steps up to the broadcast plate on April 11 in still another of Sir David McVicar’s many Met productions. This one has replaced the critically reviled Luc Bondy version. It will star Russian diva Anna Netrebko as the (ahem) parapet leaping Floria Tosca, tenor Brian Jagde as her lover Mario Cavaradossi, German baritone Michael Volle as Baron Scarpia, and baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the Sacristan. French maestro Bertrand de Billy will preside. The sets and costumes were created by the ubiquitous John Macfarlane, lighting by David Finn, and movement director is Leah Hausman.

Verdi gets short shrift this season, with only three of the master’s works on the agenda. Nevertheless, we look forward to the April 18 broadcast of Simon Boccanegra, one of Verdi’s more somber efforts. Headlining the cast is infrequently heard Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez as the Doge Simon, soprano Ailyn Perez as his long-lost daughter Amelia, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Gabriele Adorno, Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Fiesco, and Azerbaijani baritone Elchin Azizov as the conspirator Paolo. Carlo Rizzi will take hold of the baton in this Giancarlo del Monaco production. Sets and costumes are credited to Michael Scott, with lighting by Wayne Chouinard.

The last gasp of Italian grand opera, Puccini’s fabulous Turandot, takes over the microphones on April 25. Franco Zeffirelli’s tribute to faux chinoiserie will feature Swedish prima donna Nina Stemme as the Icy Princess Turandot, Italian tenor Marco Berti will belt his high notes to the rafters as the Unknown Prince Calàf, Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava will plead her case as the slave girl Liu, and bass James Morris will lead the final procession as the deposed King Timur. Maestro Carlo Rizzi will be back in the pit. Zeffirelli provided the set designs, with costume designs by Anna Anni and Dada Saligeri, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and choreography by Chiang Ching. This is probably the Met’s most extravagant display of sheer gaudy production values.

A rare jewel among jewels is our next-to-last broadcast: Leoš Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová, sung in the original Czech language. It will be heard on May 2 in director Sir Jonathan Miller’s production, with sets and costumes provided by Robert Israel, and lighting by Gil Wechsler. Lothar Koenigs returns to lead the company in what promises to be a special afternoon of robust singing and emoting. The first-rate cast stars soprano Susanna Phillips in the strenuous title role, with Daniela Mack as Varvara, the great Dolora Zajick as the imperious Kabanicha (Mother-in-Law), Pavel Černoch as Boris, tenor Štefan Margita (heard a few seasons back as a vocally lithe Loge in Das Rheingold) as Tichon, tenor Paul Appleby as Vaňja Kudrjaš, and British bass Sir John Tomlinson (an excellent Wotan and Wanderer in his day) as Dikoj.

Janáček’s music has the jarring abrasiveness of a Prokofiev, the disturbing dissonances of a Shostakovich, along with both their penetrating sonorities — especially in the brass (listen to his remarkable Sinfonietta for a sampling of his accomplishments). I’m still waiting for the Met’s management to put on one of the composer’s most attractive and, in this day and age of concern for our environment and the natural world, most timely works, the opera The Cunning Little Vixen.

Last but least, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda wraps up the season on May 9. Part of the Tudor Trilogy devoted to British royalty (along with Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux), Maria Stuarda will feature German diva Diana Damrau in the title role, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Queen Elizabeth, tenor Stephen Costello as Leicester, Polish baritone Andrzej Filończyk as Cecil, and Italian basso Michele Pertusi as Talbot. Maurizio Benini will conclude his workaholic tenure with this piece. Sir David McVicar is again credited with this production, along with John Macfarlane providing the sets and costumes, Jennifer Tipton in charge of the lighting, and Leah Hausman leading the dancers through their paces.

In all, a diverse and stimulating season, with much that is old and much that is new. It remains to be seen if its promise will be fulfilled.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

The Three Norns (Elizabeth Bishop, Ronnita Miller, Wendy Bryn Harmer) from the Prologue to Wagner’s ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

From the Cosmic to the Intimate

The fourth and final installment by the Metropolitan Opera of Wagner’s tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung concluded on April 27, 2019 with Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) and the “resolutions,” so to speak, of the various participants’ dilemmas.

What do we mean by resolutions? Does anything ever get “resolved” in the Ring? Does the world really come to a watery end? Are the characters redeemed by their actions? Is Siegfried the long sought-after hero who finally returns the Ring to its rightful owners? Most of these questions are answered in this concluding segment. But, then again, many are not.

Oh, come on now! Why all the double talk? For goodness’ sake, do we have a satisfying ending or not? These are the continuing problems of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Indeed, one of the countless side aspects of this work is that its so-called “conclusion” is up to individual interpretation. That’s what makes the saga so compelling to singers and irresistible to stage directors. And why us Wagnerites love the drama in the way that we do.

Having listened to many of the complete recordings of all four Ring operas, including some hard-to-find broadcasts (most of which can be seen or heard on YouTube), I’ve come to the realization that there can be no “ending” as such. For instance, in East German director Harry Kupfer’s “Road of History” version at Bayreuth (revived in Barcelona), the cycle concludes in the same way that it began: with richly-dressed theatergoers at a dinner party watching the cataclysm on television. It’s unnerving how Kupfer had the foresight to anticipate, in a manner of speaking, the horrific events of the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Certainly many if not all of the intertwined stories in the Ring can be summed up in one line: things go from bad to worse to not-so-good and not-so-bad. Isn’t that how real life evolves? Well, maybe. The ancient Greeks, bless their souls, had a way of explaining human events by imposing moral truths onto an immoral world. Wagner took that statement to heart and created an ethos all its own. He purposely kept the story line circuitous and, for the most part, analogous to myths and legends.

The hero’s journey was one of his angles, the hero being the unruly Siegfried. In this final work (originally called “Siegfried’s Death,” the text of which was the first to be written, followed by a prelude entitled “The Young Siegfried”), the fall of the gods would come about by their own misdeeds; their redemption would be through human intervention.

The Immolation Scene – Bruennhilde (Deborah Voigt) riding atop Grane (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

We know that Wagner ended his saga with Das Rheingold. However, he began the composition of the music chronologically. By closing the chapter on his characters and setting fire to the Hall of the Gibichungs — the flames of which reached all the way up to Valhalla itself — the world’s sins could be washed clean by the overflowing Rhine River. Redemption, if that’s the term, could be achieved by returning the Ring to its source.

Fate Marches On

As the opera begins, the Three Norns, those enigmatic daughters of Earth Mother Erda, recount the tragic history of the past (the withering away of the World-Ash Tree, the piling up of its logs around Valhalla, Wotan sitting and waiting for the end time) and attempt to prophecy what’s to come. The Norns tug and pull at the Rope of Destiny, hoping to untangle the mess that Dark Alberich’s curse has placed on it and on humanity. Suddenly, the Rope snaps which leaves the Norns mourning the fate of the world. They slink back down to Erda.

Dawn breaks. Brünnhilde now leads Siegfried out from the cave, where their love has been consummated. No one knows how much time has passed. Since “mythological time” is not “real time,” we can presume that events after Siegfried have moved along at a faster than normal clip. The restless hero is eager to partake of further adventures. His bride, now semi-mortal, has enough tricks up her sleeve to cast a protective spell around her man. Only Siegfried’s back is vulnerable, for he would never turn away from a foe. This is key to understanding what takes place in Acts II and III. As the orchestral passage known as “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” is played, Brünnhilde is left alone on Valkyrie rock to await the hero’s return.

Bruennhilde (Christine Goerke) bids farewell to her hero, Siegfried (Andreas Schager) in the Prologue (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Moving on to Act I proper, we meet Gunther, heir to the Gibichung throne, his lovely sister Gutrune, and their half-brother Hagen, the illegitimate son of Alberich and the Gibichung’s mother Grimhilde (“grim” is right!). Gunther pays heed to Hagen’s advice to take a highborn wife. Gutrune, too, should crave a worthy husband. This would add to their fame and fortune. But who should Gunther wed? There’s a bold maid who sleeps on a fiery rock, Hagen tells him. She would be the perfect mate! And for Gutrune? Why, the hero Siegfried would serve that purpose handily. He could be enticed to marry Gutrune by drinking a powerful potion of forgetfulness.

Lo and behold, who do we hear but Siegfried and his hunting horn. Answering the call, Hagen welcomes the brash youth and his horse, Grane, to the dark, imposing strains of Alberich’s curse (shivers!). After reiterating some basic plot points — mostly to recap for the audience’s benefit about Siegfried’s dragon slaying, the Ring, the gold, and the magical Tarnhelm — their conversation turns to matrimony. Hagen offers the hero a refreshing drink, which not only quenches his thirst but makes him forget the past (to be exact, certain aspects of his past). It also ignites his lust for the charming Gutrune.

Promising to provide Gunther with a bride of his own, Siegfried is tricked into helping to bring the wild woman Brünnhilde down from her perch. Hagen seals the deal by presiding over Siegfried and Gunther’s swearing of blood brotherhood — not realizing that our hero’s death warrant has been sealed with this oath.

Gunther (Evgeny Nikitin) heeds the advice of Hagen (Eric Owens) to take a wife (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

In the next scene, Brünnhilde is thrilled to welcome her sister Waltraute to Valkyrie rock. She’s not so thrilled by what Waltraute has to say: that Wotan is beside himself with sorrow. All he and the other gods and warriors do is sit around Valhalla waiting for the place to catch fire. The only way to salvage the situation is for Brünnhilde to throw the Ring into the Rhine. Mirroring what Wotan once told Fricka, her response is “Are you mad? No way!” The Ring is a token of Siegfried’s love. He gave it to her when he moved on to new adventures. See, she wears it proudly! Waltraute is dismayed.

With her sister’s exit, the Valkyrie is heartened once again to see the surrounding flames shoot up and part. Her hero has returned! Siegfried, my love! But wait! It’s not her beloved. It’s Gunther (actually, Siegfried in disguise, by means of the Tarnhelm). Speaking in low, halting tones, the stranger claims Brünnhilde for his own. She shows him the Ring of power in a last ditch effort to frighten the intruder away. A violent struggle ensues with Gunther overpowering the maiden and grabbing the Ring as his prize.

Ordering her to go into the cave and await his presence, Brünnhilde sadly marches to her fate. The next step is for Siegfried to pretend that Gunther has wooed the wild woman, but with the sword Notung placed between the pair as they lie in bed. That way, he can claim that he never violated his blushing “bride to be” (a false claim, to be sure, since the couple has already spent many a blissful night together).

Which Ring is Which?

In Act II, Alberich re-emerges in a dream-like sequence wherein he charges Hagen to brace himself for battle against the bold Siegfried. The Ring is all he cares about and forces Hagen to swear allegiance to him, that he will destroy the youth and recapture the Ring for themselves. Siegfried suddenly materializes (thanks to the power of the Tarnhelm) to proclaim that Gunther is approaching with his new bride in tow. Hagen summons the Vassals with a blast of his horn. The overwhelming power of a full male chorus (all the way up to high B), the first such number in the cycle, dominates the proceedings.

With everyone gathered for a grand old time, what could possibly go wrong? A double wedding, the imbibing of spirits, the slaughter of steers, goats and boars. A merry banquet indeed for our brave lads! Gunther introduces his downcast bride who bristles at the sight of Siegfried arm-in-arm with another woman. What gives? There’s a commotion among the men and women gathered. All of a sudden, the celebration turns into accusations of chicanery. Siegfried wears the Ring. But Gunther wrenched it from her hand. How can that be?

Sensing an opening, Hagen takes Brünnhilde’s side in denouncing the hero as a liar and cheat. Gunther hasn’t a clue as to what everybody is arguing about. Obviously, he wasn’t the one who snatched the Ring from his bride. As noted, it was Siegfried in disguise. To make matters worse, the vengeful Valkyrie proclaims herself to be his lawfully wedded wife. Unwittingly, Siegfried admits that he won her for his blood brother Gunther, but claims that Notung lay between them in the cave as they slept. Ah, clever rascal, that’s true as far as it goes. But that wasn’t so when they first met, back at good old Valkyrie rock. (Why do I hear myself singing, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”?).

Bruennhilde (Goerke) swears an oath on Hagen’s spear (Owens), along with Gunther (Nikitin) in Act II of ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Accusations and recriminations bounce back and forth, which lead both Siegfried and Brünnhilde to swear an oath on Hagen’s spear that they are speaking the truth. “May I be struck down dead if I have broken faith,” Siegfried pledges. Act II ends with a rousing trio for Brünnhilde, Gunther and Hagen as the Valkyrie spews forth the secret of how to vanquish the deceitful Siegfried. It takes all of Hagen’s guile to convince Gunther to agree to the hero’s slaying. It’s the Ring, stupid! That’s all that matters.

The first scene of Act III brings back those flirtatious Rhine Maidens. Curiously, they wonder when Siegfried will come around to visit them. No sooner said than done: the exuberant dragon slayer enters by way of having followed a stray bear. They tease him good-naturedly until one of the maidens notices the Ring. They ask him to hand it over, but he refuses.

Diving back into the water, the maidens splash around playfully until Siegfried decides to offer them the booty. Warning him of its power and the evil curse that’s been placed on it, they chime in unison that today he will meet his doom. Siegfried scoffs at their threats, but the Rhine Maidens insist that before the day is out a wise woman will grant their wish and return the Ring.

The Rhine Maidens (Renee Tatum, Disella Larusdottir, Jennifer Johnson Cano) warn Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) of the Ring’s power in Act III of ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Hagen, Gunther and the hunting party gather for some feasting and drinking. After a long day out in the woods, Hagen asks the hero if he can truly understand birdsong. Siegfried turns to Gunther who has grown serious and taciturn. Gunther knows what’s about to happen, but he can do nothing to prevent it. The cheery Hagen plies Siegfried with ale which gets the hero to relate some of his tall tales: about the mean-spirited dwarf Mime, about his slaying of the dragon, and how he tasted the dragon’s blood which gave him the ability to understand birds. Everyone is entranced by his stories; everyone, that is, except Gunther. Having laced his drink with special herbs and spices, Hagen offers some more refreshment — the ploy being to bring Siegfried’s memory back.

It works! Siegfried tells the story of how he got through the flames that surrounded Valkyrie rock. Once there, he witnessed a wondrous sight: a woman warrior. He awoke the sleeping warrior with a kiss to find Brünnhilde alive and kicking. Gunther is thunderstruck by the news. At that moment, Hagen points to two black ravens hovering above. They are Wotan’s ravens, the god’s only link to the outside world. As they take off, he demands that Siegfried tell him their song. As Siegfried looks up to the sky, Hagen plunges his spear deep into the hero’s back. “Vengeance is what they say!” Hagen shouts at him.

The Vassals are shocked. “What have you done?” they cry in disbelief. Gunther repeats their query. Hagen responds: “Meineid recht Ich!” – “Perjury have I avenged!” Then he slinks off, back to the Gibichung palace. The Vassals hear Siegfried’s dying words. To the same music that his beloved Brünnhilde greeted the rising sun, Siegfried pronounces her name. He greets her in death. The orchestra plays the familiar “Siegfried’s Funeral March,” punctuated by the sledgehammer blows of the tympany. The pounding continues as the hero’s theme is heard in all its glory. The Vassals solemnly place the dead hero’s body on their shields and take him away.

In the last scene, Gutrune is alone. She is frightened and has premonitions of doom and gloom. Hagen calls out to her to light the way, her hero has returned: dead on arrival. Reviving his sister, Gunther is wracked with guilt. She accuses him of murdering her husband, but he points to the real culprit, Hagen. Back and forth they rage, until Hagen finishes Gunther off with a single blow (just as Fafner had done to his brother Fasolt). When Hagen reaches out to take the Ring from Siegfried’s hand, the dead hero’s arm rises in a threatening gesture (an eerie coup de théâtre). All recoil in horror.

At this definitive moment, Brünnhilde strides in, solemnly and deliberately. She demands that they heed her words. Gutrune hurls accusations at her, but the Valkyrie silences her cries. Gutrune was only his lover, but she, Brünnhilde, was his adoring wife. With that, Brünnhilde begins the passage that will lead up to the Immolation Scene. What happens in this scene? Practically everything! Wagner labored long and hard over this sequence, which underwent numerous revisions until he finally settled on the right manner of how to end his saga.

In sum, the Valkyrie orders the populace to prepare for a conflagration. Siegfried’s body will be cremated as befits a hero, along with her own and that of his wonder horse, Grane. The steed is brought in (most productions substitute a fake horse for the real thing — it’s, uh, less “messy” that way). Brünnhilde absolves Siegfried of all blame for the chaos that’s left behind. He was true blue, his only crime being his childlike ignorance of human cunning and deceit.

Bruennhilde (Goerke) bemoans the loss of the hero, Siegfried (Schager) before the Vassals in Act III (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

What of Wotan, who is guilty of multiple crimes against his own flesh and blood? She pardons the god as well. Bidding him eternal rest, she takes the Ring from Siegfried’s finger and places it on her own. Hagen greedily eyes her every movement. In some productions, he paces restlessly about the stage, waiting for the perfect opportunity to steal the bauble from her person. No way, José!

Brünnhilde now addresses the Rhine Maidens, who are to take the Ring from her ashes after it has been purified by the flames. The waters of the Rhine will wash away the curse. With that, she grabs a torch and charges Wotan’s ravens (which, according to Wagner’s instructions, are supposed to be flapping about the palace) with sending word to the gods that the end is nigh. “Go tell Loge to shoot his flames up to Valhalla!” With her last breath, Brünnhilde speaks directly to Grane (there’s a bit of psychological insight in speaking to her horse). She leaps into the funeral pyre, delighting in death.

So much happens musically in this final episode that it would take a voluminous book to relate all that occurs. Suffice it to say that Valhalla burns (you can hear the characteristic motif in the orchestra), Hagen tries to steal the Ring from the Rhine Maidens, but he’s drowned for his efforts. The Gibichung palace collapses, but the populace is spared (at least, that was the composer’s intention). And the violins intone what most announcers describe as the “Redemption through Love” theme, which in reality belongs to Brünnhilde’s transformation (or “apotheosis”) from warrior maiden and wife to healer and deliverer.

Burning Down the Opera House

American soprano Christine Goerke resumed her strongly realized, granite-like vocalization and emotionally straightforward interpretation of ex-Valkyrie Brünnhilde. Some garbled diction and under-the-pitch top notes aside (which proved less troublesome here than in her broadcast of Siegfried), Goerke closed the saga with that marathon session known as the Immolation Scene. Again, the shading of words and her declamatory statements before the big moments (a wistful “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott” – “Rest now, you god”) were moving in their sincerity of feeling. This was straightforwardness taken to the extreme, especially in Act II when she pulled out all the stops to hurl some mighty imprecations at her clueless “husband,” Siegfried.

The crowd loved her performance, which in person, I am told, was urgently felt and nobly personified throughout. Such dedication to the task at hand deserved a ringing endorsement. But was it the big barnstormer that everyone had expected? The online reviews were all over the map. This was a marathon outing, no doubt about it, so we will reserve judgment and leave the final verdict to others.

Gutrune (Edith Haller) comforts her brother Gunther (Nikitin) as they listen to Bruennhilde’s ravings (Goerke) in Act II (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Tenor Andrea Schager’s more “mature” sounding Siegfried, while unlike in shading and tone from Stefan Vinke’s youthfully exuberant embodiment, convinced listeners that here was a fully-formed personality, as viable in its own way as his predecessor’s. Schager’s death scene was particularly touching, as it should be, with his voice ringing out impressively. And, as was previously mentioned, he hit the high notes squarely and securely, no mean feat in itself. The voice gained strength and firmness the more he sang, a truly noteworthy undertaking.

Eric Owens, a past Alberich and a recent convert to Wotan, took on the villainy of Hagen, the Nibelung’s bastard offspring. Lacking the lowest notes and that high bass thrust that made the likes of Gottlob Frick, Bengt Rundgren, Matti Salminen, and Hans-Peter König so captivating, Owens nevertheless reveled in his character’s treachery. Still, he disappointed by making too many phrases sound “samey-samey,” with little to no differentiation between them. A perfectly distinguished Alberich, his lighter than expected timbre and affable air did have their moments (his second act call to the Vassals, however, was not one of them). Overall, while expectations ran high, most of them went unfulfilled. His lowkey acting, however, was above reproach.

Similarly, Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin was miscast as the easily manipulated Gunther, the head of the Gibichung clan. Long an able-bodied villain (i.e., the magician Klingsor in Parsifal, and a forceful Alberich in his own right), with the vocal deftness of a snapping turtle, Nikitin represented overkill in this part. Gunther is not a “bad guy.” He’s incapable of making good decisions; when he does make them, they go wrong at every turn. His basic sins are his vanity and gullibility. A singer with a more flexible tone and supple weight (Welsh baritone Iain Patterson was excellent in this part) is needed, not one with Nikitin’s forte-at-full-throttle capabilities.

Soprano Edith Haller’s lighter-voiced Gutrune, Gunther’s shy sister, brought coloratura-like shading to her role. Properly girlish and giddy at the same time, Gutrune is the one who wishes for (and takes) the drugged Siegfried as her husband, not realizing that he’s spoken for. Her scream at the sight of Siegfried’s corpse was hair-raising. Dripping black venom with every syllable, Tomasz Konieczny brought his sonorous inky-toned portrait of Alberich to brief life (is he really there, or a figment of Hagen’s imagination?). Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster contributed a solid, emotionally pleasing assumption of Waltraute, Brünnhilde’s sister, who pleads with the ex-Valkyrie to return the accursed Ring to the Rhine Maidens.

The Three Norns, those Nordic-Germanic equivalents of the Greek Fates, were taken by mezzo-sopranos Ronnita Miller (especially memorable) and Elizabeth Bishop, and soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer. Returning as the beguiling Rhine Maidens (as boisterous as ever) were soprano Amanda Woodbury and mezzos Samantha Hankey and Tamara Mumford.

Swiss-born maestro Philippe Jordan presided over the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra throughout the four Ring operas in a “lean, mean fighting machine” manner: competently led, responsive to the work’s lyricism and drama, with smoothly projected “singing” string tones, but poorly executed brass (too many stray or sour notes). Jordan did exceedingly well in painting a sonic picture, certainly better than one could expect from such an empty-headed production as this. His conducting brought unity and strength to the most demanding of moments (the Act II ensemble, for example, was particularly well balanced). It was comparable to, if no less individualistic than, Fabio Luisi’s lighter interpretation from a few seasons back.

Former Met musical director James Levine, in his later years as the company’s orchestral force, favored slower tempos and leaden sonorities, sometimes down to a crawl, by pulling the musical line out of proportion to the whole. On the positive side, Levine made the brass section ring out majestically; the strings vibrated with tactile life and proved most affecting in the melodious postlude that wraps up the saga.

Perhaps the Metropolitan Opera’s new music director, Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will be given the opportunity to add his vision of Wagner’s Ring cycle to the company’s repertoire and turn it into a future conducting triumph. With any luck, in a brand new production that does better justice to the work than this superficial white elephant does.

We’ll be waiting with bated breath.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) faces the dragon Fafner in the Met Opera broadcast of Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Gods and Monsters

In Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle, we return to the realm of gods and monsters; of heroes and villains, myths and legends, dragons and dwarfs, mighty deeds and damsels in distress (well, one damsel, at any rate). For listeners, Siegfried represents a respite from the runaway emotions that ran rampant throughout Die Walküre. And conductors, as well as laypeople, have regarded Siegfried as the saga’s scherzo movement, much as one would experience with a Haydn or Beethoven symphony.

Indeed, there is much to savor, not only in the lustrous Forest Murmurs of Act II (with the titular hero’s ruminations about his dead mother), but in the lengthy tenor-soprano interlude that concludes the work. There’s also Siegfried’s battle with the dragon Fafner, and, of course, that marvelous Forging Scene in Act I. With the pounding of the anvil and the firing up of the blast furnace, Siegfried forges the shattered remnants of Notung (along with his manhood) in order to slay the savage beast.

As well, the dusky forest settings of Acts I and II and their darkly brooding scoring will evoke memories of George Lucas’ Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, in which Luke Skywalker seeks out Jedi Master Yoda so as to learn the ways of the Force. In Siegfried, the title character is taught the ways of the world (or not) by the malicious dwarf Mime. Siegfried learns about his mother, Sieglinde, who died while giving him birth. He’s also shown the fragments of Notung, which his mother had entrusted to Mime. Up to this point, Mime has played for time.

Behind the dwarf’s feigned concern for his ward’s education, though, is the ever-present influence of the all-powerful Ring of the Nibelung. To wit, the Nibelung himself, Alberich, returns to the cycle by means of an Act II argument with the god Wotan and his no-account brother, Mime. While there is no Darth Vader as such, Siegfried’s grandfather, Wotan (in the guise of the Wanderer), does cross swords (or his spear) with the emboldened youth.

Certainly, the last scene of the opera is where fairy tales can come true by way of Brünnhilde’s awakening. To be precise, the entire third act is a masterly reconfiguration of the Sleeping Beauty story — albeit with a smattering of pre-Freudian psychoanalysis thrown in. As you may recall, Wotan’s disobedient child acted out his fondest wishes by protecting Siegmund (Siegfried’s father) from harm in the fight with Hunding. As punishment, Brünnhilde was deprived of her godhead and placed under a powerful sleeping spell. Surrounded by a ring of impenetrable fire, the former Valkyrie dozes away until such time as a fearless warrior can awaken her.

There’s even a hint of classical Greek mythology, i.e., the Oedipus and Sphynx-like colloquy in Mime’s vituperative questioning of the mysterious Wanderer. He, likewise, poses three questions of his own — with the scheming dwarf failing to answer the third and most vital question of all: Who will forge Notung anew? The answer: Only he who is without fear (and we know who THAT is, don’t we?) can make Notung whole.

The Wanderer (Michael Volle) tells Mime (Gerhard Siegel) that he has forfeited his head in Act I of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

It’s not all brain teasers by any means. Personally, I find Siegfried to be a most refreshing interval, and a totally involving one where the nature of the hero’s journey is concerned. Siegfried is honest to a fault, a bit dense in the head and slow to catch on, but he’s diligent and brave, trustworthy and strong. He’s also a lot swifter than he lets on.

On the other hand, the crafty Mime thinks himself superior in every way to the motherless brat. But the main point is this: Siegfried figures prominently in Mime’s plans to secure the Ring for himself, and the bountiful treasure that goes with it. All he needs is for the valiant lad to slay the dragon Fafner, who guards the hoard and magical Ring from deep inside its cave. After which, Mime will quench Siegfried’s thirst with a poisonous drink and chop his head off. With that, the Ring and the gold will be his! How simple is that?

Plot Points to Ponder

Not so fast! There’s more to the plot than meets the eye (or rather, Wotan’s missing organ). Remember Alberich’s curse? He placed it on whoever holds the Ring. And all those who long to possess it will be cursed as well, including those innocent folks who know nothing of its power. In essence, there are more expository sequences in this work than in the two prior ones. It’s those long, protracted stretches of dialogue that audiences find grueling and a chore to slog through. With the arrival of supertitles (aka surtitles) and such, the intricacies of the plot can be explained and that once-impenetrable Wagnerian veneer can be cracked.

For me, the real interest in this piece lies with the sonic, orchestral and philosophical contrasts between the second and third acts. At his wits’ end — emotionally, creatively and financially — Wagner abandoned work on the Ring before concluding Act II of Siegfried. Dismayed at ever being able to finish and produce his piece, the composer went off to write Tristan und Isolde, about as complicated a project as any that came before. After Tristan, Wagner took up the composition of Die Meistersinger, another exercise in vocal and literary extremes. What was Wagner thinking?

It would be twelve years before he would return to Siegfried. Well, to be honest, before he put down his pen twelve years earlier, Wagner managed to place some final touches to Act II. This may help to explain why that act is so jumbled story wise. One would think that the slaying of Fafner would put an end to that portion of the saga. Not so! We’re only at the midway point. There’s still that nasty little back-and-forth between Alberich and Mime, and others matters to attend to (like slaying Siegfried).

To top it off, Siegfried returns to the scene of his “crime,” after having tasted the dead dragon’s blood and learned to decipher bird song. Too, his newly acquired ability to comprehend the meaning behind the dwarf’s words (in a comedic episode where Mime mindlessly betrays his intentions to murder Siegfried and make off with the Ring and its booty) leads our hero to strike the villain down with one blow. Next, the Forest Bird tells him of a wondrous maid named Brünnhilde just waiting for him beyond the ridge. Siegfried is elated at the news. Finally, a new friend is within his reach, someone to talk to, someone to trust!

Wotan, as the Wanderer (Michael Volle), bows before Erda, the Earth Mother (Karen Cargill), in Act III of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

At the start of Act III, the change of mood is palpable. The orchestral tone has modified somewhat and is immediately felt with the massively impressive introduction. Lightning and thunder abound. The world order is about to collapse. The Wanderer’s theme and that of Wotan’s spear are heard above the orchestral storm as the music rages on. But the god’s authority will be tested. And with it, the old must give way to the new.

Still disguised as the Wanderer, Wotan urgently calls upon Erda one last time. He uses her alternate name, Wala (“Wache, Wala! Wala! Erwach! – “Awake, Wala! Wala! Wake up!”), to summon the Earth Mother from her eternal slumber. He seeks knowledge of the future and what to expect from coming events. Erda, her speech as impenetrable as ever, can no longer help or offer any advice. Left to his own devices, Wotan is resigned to his fate. He tells her that he welcomes the end and will wait in expectation of whatever is in store.

When Siegfried approaches, the Wanderer purposely bars his way. Goading him on and plying him with query after query, the exasperated Siegfried has had enough. If the bothersome stranger won’t budge and let him through, then Notung will clear the path. Wotan challenges the youth, but the god’s spear is splintered in two with one blow. Calmly picking up what’s left of his authority (the act of which will remind audiences of Wotan’s shattering of Notung in Die Walküre), our weary warrior tells Siegfried to press on: he can no longer stop him. Wotan has removed himself from interfering in life.

The next sequence in the saga is pregnant with psychological insight and replete with magnificent music, including Siegfried’s passage through Loge’s flames and his discovery that the sleeping figure before him is no man. Now he knows what fear is! (In Harry Kupfer’s Ring, Siegfried places Notung between his legs, thus the sword has become a phallic symbol of youth about to attain maturity). Our hero bends down and cautiously places a prolonged kiss on Brünnhilde’s lips to music of aching mystery and longing.

The sleeping maiden awakens to a brilliant theme, that of the rising sun: “Heil, dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!” (“Hail, rising sun! Hail, glorious light!”). Both are delirious with joy to discover one another, but in the midst of their happiness Brünnhilde remembers that she is now a mortal, helpless and defenseless against this presumed lover.

Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) greets the rising sun in Act III of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Unfazed by her appeals to leave her be, Siegfried the bold convinces the former war-maiden to give herself over completely to his love; to be his bride in what must be the most challenging and uplifting soprano-tenor twosome Wagner ever wrote. And it comes after almost five hours of music-making! Let them enjoy their rapture for now, for it shall be short-lived.

Broadcast Delights

I’m sure you will agree that this particular Ring-cycle broadcast held ample delights for yours truly. As in most of Wagner’s works, its length can be trying to us mortals. Not here. In the first place, we were thrilled to hear an honest to goodness Siegfried voice in that of the debuting Stefan Vinke. Where has this fellow been hiding for goodness sake? The German-born tenor bounced around the stage with the abandon of youth. Not only that, but he brought a cutting yet cultivated edge to Siegfried, gobs of personality and charm, superb diction, lyrical restraint where called for, and boyish enthusiasm to spare, capped off with ringing top notes.

Indeed, not since the time of Wolfgang Windgassen at Bayreuth (and on records) has there been a tenor so attuned to the vocal and physical demands of this nearly impossible part. How well I remember the labored quality of Jess Thomas, gorgeous to look at but barely up to the task. When this Robert Lepage production was new, Jay Hunter Morris made headlines as a last-minute substitute for the indisposed Gary Lehman (who was himself a replacement for the retiring Ben Heppner). Morris has since abandoned the role (a wise decision) for more, shall we say, mature offerings. Vinke, on the other hand, looked, acted, and sang as an impetuous youth should, a marriage made in Met Opera heaven and in spite of this production’s stage limitations.

Siegfried boasts to Mime that he alone can forge the sword Notung in Act I of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard/ Met Opera)

The Met was indeed lucky to have not only Vinke but another fine tenor, the Austrian Andreas Schager, waiting in the bullpen so to speak. We heard Schager on the April 27, 2019 broadcast of Götterdämmerung. Both singers turned in stellar contributions, with Vinke taking a victory lap for the most outstanding appearance by a new artist. Schager, lighter in timbre, clearly luxuriated in the language. Yet Vinke captured the doltish, pigheaded behavior of a post-pubescent teenager better than any singer in recent memory. In contrast to which, Schafer’s more modest scale proved winning in itself, especially when he let loose with a ringing high C in Act III of Götterdämmerung, before being joined by Gunther, Hunding and the Vassals.

Either singer’s approach can work within the context of this production’s demands. The character’s volatile nature and hair-trigger temperament came naturally to both artists. Vinke’s mood swings and verbal sparring matches with Gerhard Siegel’s feisty Mime were a highlight of Acts I and II. Many small details and pointed repartee were noted in both their performances — some subtle, others more overt. On the radio, Siegel’s voice was easily discernable from that of the younger Vinke; this made differentiating between tenors less arduous than usual.

What of the production’s Brünnhilde? She must have the longest wait time of anybody in opera: three full acts, and lots of plot exposition to plow through before she sings a note of music. When she finally did awake, the glorious sound of soprano Christine Goerke filled the Met hall with vibrant, full-toned abandon. Yet, I noticed some unsteadiness in the higher reaches, and, unusual for her, a certain lack of focus. Perhaps the lengthy wait took some of the “oomph” out of Ms. Goerke’s approach. Not so with her acting, which stressed the Valkyrie’s warm and womanly side.

Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) marvels at the warrior maiden, Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) in Act III of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Do I sound like I was disappointed in her performance? Yes, I hate to admit it. I strained to experience that moment of elation where many Brünnhilde’s are wont to display at this point in the drama. I’m thinking, of course, of the likes of Birgit Nilsson, Gwyneth Jones, Hildegard Behrens, and others. Not every singer can emit the raw power of a Nilsson, or the depth of feeling a Kirsten Flagstad or a Helen Traubel could bring, to name but a few of the classic interpreters from the past.

Yes, it was an undeniable pleasure to hear Goerke in this part, one she has taken to other select venues besides the Met. Still, I’m at a loss to explain my lack of exhilaration. Where was that sense of discovery, the realization that Siegmund’s son and heir is the hero that Brünnhilde has waited so long for? With all that said, Goerke did bring susceptibility to the Valkyrie maiden, lovingly expressed toward the end as she accepted Siegfried as her conqueror. The pair went out in a blaze of glory, with each jointly taking a high C that ends their ebullient musings. As Siegfried all-but pounced on the prostrate prima donna, the Met audience let out a roar of approval at the final curtain.

As the white-haired Wanderer, baritone Michael Volle, previously heard as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger and as the mythical Flying Dutchman, took over for Greer Grimsley in this radio broadcast. Volle brought equal reserves of intelligence and endurance to the part, along with steadiness and a balmy timbre that were lacking in Grimsley’s Walküre Wotan. I missed the sense of self-deprecating humor in Volle’s portrayal, and the voice was a tad drier than his predecessor’s. Overall, he engaged the listener’s interest in the question and answer session with the wheedling Mime, courtesy of Herr Siegel. Volle’s two confrontations in Act III — his call to the Earth Mother and his verbal clash with his belligerent grandson — were vocal and histrionic highlights. Well done, sir!

The Wanderer (Michael Volle) raises his spear, the symbol of his authority, in Act I of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Equally prominent was returning bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny’s vitriolic Alberich, as clear-voiced and vocally galvanic as the positive impression he had made in Das Rheingold. Stratospheric coloratura Erin Morley as the chirpy Forest Bird and basso Dmitry Belosselskiy, while both were heavily amplified, conveyed their respective character’s pluses and minuses convincingly. Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill repeated her resonantly sung Erda, who also goes by the nickname Wala. Too bad the part is so short, a handicap that also afflicted Wotan’s mate, Fricka.

This production made the best use of the digital technology for which it was designed, especially in the scenically enchanting forest sequences. Holding it all together was maestro Philippe Jordan, who demonstrated deep affection for this longish score. Numerous minor details in the orchestral writing were brought out, to loving effect. Indeed, all the performers were happily greeted with cheers and bravos at each act’s end, a not-so-standard practice at the modern Met Opera. There was a time when artists were treated to prolonged cheers between acts (it was considered routine). Nowadays, the practice has become as rare as passenger pigeons (or talking Forest Birds).

End of Part Four

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes      

 

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

The Valkyries await their sister Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke, above center) in Act III of Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

The Human Element

The second and most popular opera in the four-part Ring cycle is Die Walküre. It’s the most frequently performed outside of the collective works. And why is that? It’s not the longest by any means, clocking in uncut at around three hours and forty-five minutes. The last two opuses, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, are lengthier than that (at least, Siegfried “feels” longer). So, what is it about Die Walküre that attracts listeners more than any of the others?

One factor looks to the missing human element in Das Rheingold. None of the participants in that introductory piece are particularly laudable. In fact, the squabbling universe of gods, goddesses, giants, dwarfs, and water nymphs grows tedious with each repetition: deceit, duplicity, backbiting, trickery, theft, brutality, and so forth tend to make the above subjects highly dislikable, if not undeserving of our respect. One looks in vain for a glimpse of humanity among both antagonists and protagonists.

Fortunately (and for the future approbation of his cycle), Wagner was shrewd enough to temporarily leave the world of the immortals and concentrate his next entry on the doomed love affair between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the ever-mounting pressures placed on his other lead characters, Wotan and Brünnhilde.

When last we left Wotan, he had reluctantly given up the Nibelung horde, as well as the all-powerful Ring that was forged from it, to the greedy Fafner. Having stolen the Ring from its original purloiner, Alberich (the titular Nibelung), Wotan had every intention of using the object for his own selfish purpose: to add to his lust for power and exert control over the world. However “noble” his cause, Wotan’s efforts at same were destined to flounder due to Alberich’s all-enveloping curse.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) calls on his daughter Brunnhilde to defend Siegmund – Act II of Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Instead, the Ring was turned into a symbol of man’s inability to influence the course of events: all those who sought to possess it would never achieve their aims; and those who did possess it were predestined for an early demise. No sooner had Wotan lost the ill-fated bauble than he plotted to reacquire it. But how to go about that end?

One of several notions that occurred to the one-eyed deity was to conjure up a hero, one who by his own volition could do what Wotan himself was incapable of doing. Another was to give this so-called “free-willed” champion a weapon by which he might accomplish the deed. That weapon would be the sword Notung (or Needful). It would come to his hero’s aid whenever the need was at its greatest. Despite his self-assurances, Wotan’s plans go terribly awry.

Starting things off in Act I, we are immediately introduced to the mortal Siegmund, who comes bursting through the door of Hunding’s hut. Hunding shares kinship to a band of tribesmen who roam the forest pillaging and otherwise creating mayhem. On one such raid, young Siegmund and his papa (I wonder who THAT might be?) had come home to find their residence looted, the mother killed, and the sister abducted or lost. On another foray, Siegmund became separated from dear old dad and forced, by circumstances, to roam the woods on his own. This led to a life on the run.

His “twin sister,” Sieglinde, whom we also come to meet, is married to the brutish Hunding, who’s not really a bad sort but a simple rustic. Brother and sister do not know of each other’s existence, but as Sieglinde retrieves some refreshment for the parched intruder, they cannot take their sights off one another. Perhaps it’s their resemblance that has sparked their interest, or the warm glow in their eyes. Whatever it is, the music tells us what we suspect: they are hopelessly in love.

Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) eyes Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) as husband Hunding (Gunther Groissbock) listens – Act I of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

These two individuals soon find themselves entangled in the plot by way of their parentage. You see, that unnamed mother gave birth to two siblings; and the father, as we have surmised, was Wotan in human guise. After he came up with the idea of the sword, Wotan left Valhalla and his wife, the goddess Fricka, to roam about the earth on one of many dalliances where the god sought out human (read: female) companionship.

Prior to that encounter, Wotan had found solace in the arms of the goddess Erda. You remember Erda: she was the one who warned him of the gods’ impending doom, should they refuse to relinquish the Ring. Well, not only did Wotan learn a few dark secrets from Earth Mother Erda, he also fathered from her a noisy bunch of female warriors called Valkyries (nine in all), one of whom became Wotan’s favorite daughter, Brünnhilde.

As Siegmund tells his side of the story, Hunding suspects this trespasser of being the one his kinsmen have been looking for as the perpetrator of another assault (darn those pesky raids!). While offering him refuge for the night, Hunding swears vengeance. “Sleep tight, stranger,” he warns, but in the morning “Prepare to defend yourself!” This brings cold comfort to our hapless hero. But his luck changes when Sieglinde strides back in, telling this woebegone fellow that she gave Hunding a powerful sleeping draught — thus allowing both her and Siegmund some “alone” time.

After relating her version of events, the night wind blows open the door of the hut to reveal a springtime sunset. It’s here that Siegmund and Sieglinde discover each other, with Wagner’s heavenly music providing the perfect lyrical backdrop. They realize, after much back and forth, that they are indeed related (and become illicit lovers forthwith — ouch!). Oh, and one more thing: coincidentally, Wotan had earlier in the saga passed by a clearing and shoved a hefty sword into a tree trunk, challenging all comers to pull it out (Excalibur anyone?). Only the strongest of mortal men can draw this sword and make good use of it. And around this specific tree trunk, Hunding had built his home. How convenient is that!?!

With a triumphant shout, Siegmund draws the sword from the tree, repeating the name “Notung” as he does (and inspiring countless Freudian interpretations to boot). We can thank French director Patrice Chéreau for introducing a bit of “spice” into this scene. It was during the 1976 Centenary Ring production at Bayreuth that he instructed his Siegmund and Sieglinde to grab hold of each other and throw themselves lustfully onto the ground for a little “fun and frolic.” From such an impulsive act, an institution was born.

At the Met, the part of Siegmund was taken by Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, whose Tristan and Otello I have previously reviewed. Having fully recovered from the flu, Skelton was in his natural element in Wagner, his baritone-like instrument showing a deep and abiding commitment to making audiences sympathize with his character. He invested the role with a large, powerful Heldentenor that encompassed the full range and weight needed to bring this brooding portrayal off. He also displayed tremendous breath control on the long-held passages called for in this act — especially the repeated cries of “Wälse, Wälse!” His Spring Song was expertly articulated.

Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) calls out to his father, Waelse, for the sword Notung, in Act I of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

After a nearly disastrous series of appearances in Verdi’s Otello, Skelton bounced back with vigor, favoring listeners with an emotional stream of raw passion not heard in many a Met season. No wonder audiences fell in love with this character! He was ably partnered by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, who turned in a daunting, breathlessly sublime performance. Her extended scenes with brother Siegmund felt convincing and lived in the moment, proving once and for all that Wagner was absolutely on the right track when he wrote this scenario.

Not to be outdone, the talented German basso Günther Groissböck returned to the Ring as a steely voiced yet brutally honest Hunding. He refused to bow to convention by making Hunding the all-purpose villain of the piece. He’s more a victim of circumstance, and the bass conveyed that aspect with his solidly vocalized interpretation of the wronged husband’s dilemma.

Speaking of going against convention, the Met’s management allowed their artists to bow after each act — in this instance, it was more than merited since the performers in question were over and above the already high bar set for them.

Wotan’s Walls Come Tumbling Down

As you may have guessed, the extraordinary state of illicit affairs between Siegmund and his sister did not sit well with Fricka, the four-square goddess of marriage and the hearth. Incest and its portent are frowned upon, even among the faithless gods.

In Act II, after Wotan has charged Brünnhilde with protecting the couple, Fricka challenges her wayward mate to come to terms with his plans. Wotan tries every which way to justify the actions of his earthly offspring, to little avail. Nevertheless, his futile attempts to convince Fricka to allow their relationship to blossom falls on deaf ears. She refuses to buy any of his arguments. Besides, Hunding has called upon her to preserve the sanctity of marriage. And Fricka, as the titular guardian of that institution, has to respect his wishes. Ergo, Wotan must bend to her will.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) tries to justify his actions to his wife Fricka (Jamie Barton) in Act II of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

At first, the macho god refuses. He puts up pitifully self-deluding excuses for their coupling. Trying to defend the indefensible, Wotan stumbles badly. In claiming that Siegmund is acting of his own free will, Fricka tears apart Wotan’s explanations. Indeed, the walls of Valhalla begin to crumble before him: how dare he provide the means by which Siegmund could triumph over Hunding, when he knows full well it was Wotan’s doing all along. He is the one who fathered his children; he is the one who planted the sword; and he is the one who deliberately influenced events in his favor. There was no “free will” at all, only Wotan’s will.

Wotan realizes, of course, that she is right. What does Fricka ask of him? The ultimate sacrifice, she replies: take Notung’s power away from Siegmund. When Hunding comes to do battle, do not give Siegmund aid. Even more disturbing to Wotan, he must prevent Brünnhilde from interfering in the outcome. Otherwise, whatever authority the god has over mortals will be neutralized. Siegmund must fall! After a brief exchange with the Valkyrie, Fricka withdraws.

A dark cloud descends upon War Father, the name the Valkyries call him. In utter despair, Wotan cries out that he is the lowest of creatures. He must comply with his wife’s demands, or else face the consequences. Brünnhilde is aghast at War Father’s situation, but has little grasp of the dire straits he has placed himself in. However, she convinces Wotan to unburden his mind to her: by reasoning with the god, the Valkyrie enables him to discourse at length about the path he’s been on and where that path might take him. Call it “armchair analysis” at its best, but this is one of the most gripping dialogues in the entire Ring saga.

A lengthy narrative takes shape, wherein Wotan relives past occurrences as well as looks forward to a bleak future. Events yet to come were foretold long ago, many by Erda herself. One such prophecy references Alberich, who has bribed a woman to give birth to an evil offspring. Wotan mockingly toasts this child of hate (with Hagen’s sinister theme sounding in the orchestra). We, the listeners, can only marvel at how psychologically astute and perceptive Wagner was in conceiving this self-revelatory sequence. The one thing Wotan longs for, “Das Ende!” (“The end”), is all he has left. Woe to Brünnhilde, or anyone else, who dares to disobey him. With that final, pained outburst, he departs. What’s a daughter to do?

Wotan (Grimsley) berates Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) for disobeying his orders

Mezzo Jamie Barton repeated her earnest and strongly felt Fricka, the custodian of the conjugal order and stern advocate for maintaining the status quo. There are many parallels with Wagner’s real-life situation as a married man having an open affair with a married woman (and with the husband’s full knowledge and tacit consent!). Still, it’s a shame Wagner did not give this character more to sing and do. Barton embodied the goddess’ decisiveness and regal bearing as if to the manner born.

Too, veteran bass-baritone Greer Grimsley’s world-weary Wotan was heard to better effect here than in Das Rheingold. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to hear a singer so closely matched in ability and timbre, and in temperament, as he was to the beleaguered god. But at this point in Grimsley’s career, the high notes don’t come as easy and focused or as solidly produced as they might have in earlier days.

Regardless, his portrayal lacked for nothing: the authority, the thrust, the anger, the command of language (his German was crisply articulated and flung full force into the auditorium), all combined to give weighty substance to the impotent god. Grimsley’s physical appearance may have been less happy, i.e., a certain casualness in holding his spear and a persistent distracted quality. But these were minor quibbles, to be honest, and, for radio listeners such as myself, beside the point. This was first-rate work all the way.

One-Way Ride to Valhalla

Wotan has lost his grip on a situation of his own making. Caught in his own web and done in by circuitous logic, he is incapable of action. And powerless to change the outcome. This god of gods rails against the flowing tide of destiny. If Alberich, his antagonist, can have his way with a woman by plying her with gold and conceiving a child of hate, what of the loving Wotan? The god fathered the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde out of love. Why must he step aside and watch his beloved couple fall into the abyss?

His desperation is keenly felt by Brünnhilde, boldly sung and acted by American soprano Christine Goerke in her role debut at the Met. She bore the burdens of Wotan’s daughter with sincerity and warmth. Despite a voice of tremendous thrust and staying power (her assumption of Strauss’ Elektra at the company was a major triumph), Goerke left this listener puzzled as to the opaqueness of her diction and the obliqueness of her characterization. Notwithstanding the above caveat, her Valkyrie maiden made one feel the emotion of the moment as she moved to save Siegmund’s life, thus changing her own fate.

The character’s blossoming humanity whereby she deliberately goes against her father’s wishes, along with that of defending the ill-fated Siegmund, were fully brought out in the marvelous Todesverkündigen (“Annunciation of Death”) sequence with Skelton. The act ends quickly and decisively with Wotan’s last-minute appearance and shattering of Siegmund’s sword. Hunding kills Siegmund with one thrust of his spear, as the dying son is cradled in his father’s arms.

Siegmund (Skelton) guards his beloved Sieglinde (Westbroek) as Brunnhilde (Goerke) looks on – the “Annunciation of Death” from Act III of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Meanwhile, Brünnhilde whisks away both Sieglinde and the shattered pieces of Notung before War Father’s angry wrath takes hold. Terrible and swift is the god’s justice: with a wave of his hand, Wotan strikes Hunding down and sends his limp form back to Fricka with his “blessing.” He takes off in furious pursuit of his disobedient child.

Act III begins with the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” theme music, voiced by eight of Wotan’s daughters with Erda. They’re a wild bunch, these rollicking war children. All of the artists involved contributed to a fine ensemble as they rode their planks (the 45-ton monstrosity dubbed “The Machine”) in hobby-horse fashion. It’s silly, I know, but what can one do with the staging? Can producers be TOO literal in their interpretation of Wagner’s demands, or must they resort to ingenuity (as inane as it is)? A difficult call, no matter which side you fall on.

Kudos to the Valkyrie sisterhood, though, which featured an ensemble headed by sopranos Kelly Cae Hogan, Jessica Faselt, and Wendy Bryn Harmer, along with mezzos Renée Tatum, Daryl Freedman, Eve Gigliotti, Maya Lahyani, and Mary Phillips. Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan led the Met Opera Orchestra in a deliberately paced but tightly wound interpolation of the score, with many a sonorous take on Wagner’s melodies. There was no drag in any of the episodes, and the brass was much smoother in this production than in Das Rheingold.

The spent Sieglinde is brought before the sisters, who are aghast at Brünnhilde’s boldness. Sieglinde herself is resigned to a quick death, but the Valkyrie insists she must live. For within her womb, a hero will be born: Siegfried the bold. Rejoicing at this news, the ecstatic Sieglinde hails Brünnhilde as the bravest of maids. She rushes off into the forest, in time to avoid War Father’s judgment.

Facing her father’s wrath (the other Valkyries flee before Wotan’s anger), the lone warrior daughter tries to make amends and explain her actions. Wotan, who happens to be a manic-depressive type (especially in Harry Kupfer’s “Road to History” cycle at Bayreuth), will have none of it. She deliberately disobeyed him, and must be punished for her act. He plans to take away her godhead, leaving her exposed to whatever mortal happens to pass by. A quick thinker, Brünnhilde begs her father to at least provide a protective ring of fire around her. Only the bravest and most stout-hearted of beings could penetrate the flames.

With his defenses down, the broken-hearted War Father relents. Wotan sadly sends his beloved daughter, Brünnhilde, now bereft of her godhead, off to slumber land. The Sleeping Beauty will patiently await her Prince Charming — uh, more like an undisciplined teenager in the form of the boisterous man-child Siegfried — who will awaken her with a kiss. Wagner’s fairy tale could not have ended any other way but with a cliffhanger of a close in the memorable Magic Fire Music:

Brunnhilde lies asleep on Valkyrie rock as Wotan takes his leave to the strains of Magic Fire Music that ends ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

“He who fears my spear’s sharp point shall never pass through the flames.”

Famous last words….

End of Part Three

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes      

Making Grand Opera Great Again: ‘Samson et Dalila’ and ‘Aida’ at the Met

The Act III Bacchanal from ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Gaudy and Campy: The New ‘Normal’

Before we continue with my review of Wagner’s Ring cycle, let’s take a break from the action and revisit some old favorites. The Metropolitan Opera, in its infinite wisdom (tongue planted tactfully in cheek), opened its 2018-2019 season with a new production of a tired, old potboiler: that over-cooked kettle of operatic stew by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, Samson et Dalila (or “Samson and Delilah” for those not in the know).

Talk about old hat, this lavish effort was once a popular item, and not only at the Met but in Europe and throughout North and South America. The main requirements for telling this age-old Biblical story from the Book of Judges are simple: a strong-voiced, beefy-built heroic tenor; a sumptuous and alluring mezzo or contralto; and a malevolent-sounding bass-baritone. Given these ingredients, any opera house worth its weight in décor can put-over this stirring piece. Or can it?

The key, though, can be found in those same title roles. In olden times, tenors who could do justice to the mighty Samson were ripe for the picking: worthy contributions from the likes of Enrico Caruso, Leo Slezak, Fernand Ansseau, Georges Thill, José Luccioni, René Maison, Ramón Vinay, José Soler, Mario del Monaco, Jon Vickers, Richard Tucker, James McCracken, Guy Chauvet, Plácido Domingo, and José Cura could be counted on to (quite literally) bring down the house.

On the opposite end, such sultry sirens as Louise Homer, Margarete Matzenauer, Risë Stevens, Gladys Swarthout, Blanche Thebom, Ebe Stignani, Regina Resnik, Giulietta Simionato, Rita Gorr, Mignon Dunn, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Christa Ludwig, Elena Obraztsova, Fiorenza Cossotto, Agnes Baltsa, Olga Borodina, and Denyce Graves lent class and stature to Dalila, and (at one time) were a dime a dozen but just as thrilling.

Opening night of September 24, 2018 for Samson starred tenor Roberto Alagna and mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča. These two hearty souls have sung together often, most excitingly as Don José and Carmen in Richard Eyre’s Franco-era production of Bizet’s masterpiece. On the Saturday broadcast of March 23, 2019, however, listeners had to settle for a substitute Samson, tenor Gregory Kunde, a former bel canto specialist, and the lush Dalila of Georgian-born Anita Rachvelishvili. The previously announced Aleksandrs Antonenko was nowhere to be heard.

Former bel canto specialist turned heroic tenor Gregory Kunde as the strongman Samson in Saint-Saens’ ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

We did get to hear Antonenko on the May 4, 2019 transmission of Verdi’s grand opera Aida, which marked the house’s role debut of Russian diva Anna Netrebko as the titular Ethiopian princess, along with Anita Rachvelishvili’s bone chilling Amneris, baritone Quinn Kelsey’s capable Amonasro, and bass Dmitriy Belosselskiy’s High Priest Ramfis. This was a pre-recorded broadcast taken from the performance of October 6, 2018. So where did Antonenko go? To paraphrase from Ole Blue Eyes, the Latvian tenor did not have a very good year. We’ll get to the specifics later on, once we get to reviewing that Aida broadcast.

For now, I hope readers don’t’ mind if we dig into the artifice of Samson et Dalila. Once a massive hit, Saint-Saëns’ oratorio-cum-stodgy religious epic needs first-rate singing actors to convince viewers that: one, the Hebrew strongman could be duped into revealing the secret of his strength to his enemies; and two, we can feel some kind of kinship (albeit fleetingly) to his villainous seducer. On records, these matters manifest themselves both vocally and sonically. On the stage, the visual aspects take precedent, but with the requisite tonal contribution. Was the Met’s cast effective in conveying these facets to radio listeners such as myself? Hmm…

Samson (Gregory Kunde) is about to get a haircut from Dalila (Anita Rachvelishvili) in Act II of ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

It goes without saying that the big draw here was Rachvelishvili’s warbling of Dalila. Or should I say outpourings? Yes, the fiery Georgian mezzo can deliver the aural splendors of Dalila’s three marvelous airs with amplitude and high-voltage capacity. Anita is young and vibrant, and made quite a mark for herself early on as the fiery gypsy girl Carmen. Since then, she’s gone on to triumph as the Princess de Bouillon in the revival (also, a new production) of Francesco Cilèa’s verismo warhorse Adriana Lecouvreur, with Ms. Netrebko on the receiving end of their rivalry (see my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2019/04/28/operatic-hodgepodge-the-met-opera-presents-adriana-lecouvreur-pelleas-carmen-iolanta-and-bluebeards-castl/). The result? Expectations were running high for something out of the ordinary.

Today, honest to goodness Samson and Dalila voices are difficult to come by. There are still some qualified candidates out there, among them native Virginian Carl Tanner, who appeared in an April 2018 concert performance of Samson with North Carolina Opera. Tanner was also “first cover” artist at the Met last season but come broadcast time we were given Kunde.

From the sound of things, Kunde managed the part well enough. He hit all the right notes (albeit with a pronounced beat), even if his middle voice turned hollow and his phrasing rather bland. He managed to express the fallen hero’s anguish at betraying his people in the Act III scene where Samson is tied to a millstone. As far as his having a heroic timbre, the higher up Kunde went the wirier he sounded — at least on the radio, not the best source for acoustics. Overall, an acceptable replacement.

What was missing from Kunde’s assumption was that inner fire, that spark, that flame that illumines the best Samson performers. Of course, I’m thinking of Canadian Jon Vickers in his prime. Granted that no modern-day interpreter, either on or off the record, could match what Vickers’ galvanic presence brought, both physically and vocally, to the part. His was the Samson voice I hold most dear in my mind’s eye whenever such lines as “Arrêtez, ô mes frères!” or “Dalila, je t’aime!” are uttered. It was not only the sheer size of the Vickers sound that never failed to impress, but his total immersion in the character’s plight.

The late Canadian tenor Jon Vickers as the mighty Samson

Oh, I know, I know. I’m not being fair to the other candidates (Domingo and Cura, for one, and José Carreras and Alagna for another) whose vocal resources were nowhere near the late tenor’s class. Still, one can’t help being guided by his model — and what a model it was.

To give the 65-year-old Kunde his due, he partnered well with Rachvelishvili’s Dalila. Yet even her contributions left me cold emotionally, although she too poured out tones of molten lava. Their extensive Act II duet where Rachvelishvili seduces Samson into mush (“Shall I take a little off the top, Sammy boy?”) proved enthralling. Anita spun out her long phrases (via her entrance song, “Je viens célébrer la victoire” – “I came to celebrate your victory,” and the accompanying “Printemps qui commence” – “Springtime begins”) with passion and meaning and plenty of subtle, persuasive feeling. Certainly, her big number, “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart at your voice”), mixed charm and tenderness with overarching purpose.

Rachvelishvili’s second act scena with the wobbly High Priest of French-born bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, whom I praised for his campy portrayal of Cendrillon’s father in the Met’s premier production of Massenet’s opera about Cinderella (see my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2018/07/15/massenets-cendrillon-a-fairy-tale-wish-comes-true-at-the-met/), missed the mark entirely. True, this duet is far from the composer’s best material.

Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila in Act II of ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Personally, I find the episode tiresome, to the extent their plotting tends to bog down the action. Still, in the right hands it can stir the blood. How well I remember a 2013 Richard Tucker Gala concert performance of this duet, with the glorious chest tones of the renowned Stephanie Blythe partnered by Greer Grimsley’s roaring thunder as Dalila and High Priest, respectively. Now THERE was a formidable exchange!

Thankfully, the secondary roles were expertly handled by two newcomers to the Met’s roster. Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, who triumphed as Alberich in the Ring cycle works, created an acid-tongued Abimélech, delivered in patented tongue-lashing manner. His voice poured forth with the same venom as earlier, only in insinuatingly enunciated French — solid work all around. Similarly, the golden-throated German basso Günther Groissböck regaled audiences with his warmly vocalized Old Hebrew. He easily hit the lowest note in the trio that closes Act I, and both artists received rousing ovations at the end.

Regarding conductor Sir Mark Elder’s elephantine pacing, the less said the better. However, kudos to the Met Orchestra and especially to the excellent Met Chorus for their contributions to the final scenario. Director Darko Trenjak’s production (a spinoff of Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics), with sets by Alexander Dodge and costumes by Linda Cho, held up the kitschy end of things as befit a gaudy and campy outing.

Mind you, I’m not out to destroy the fun, I’m just being honest. The virtues of Samson et Dalila are plenty, and include a memorable and stunningly melodious first act, followed by a rapturous and heady close from the middle of Act II onward (excluding that laborious twosome for Dalila and the High Priest) and into that pitiable scene with Samson and the millstone. The opera ends with an all-out, anything-goes Bacchanal, to wildly cliched music of the bump-and-grind variety that, if nothing else, tends to give grand opera a bad name.

The Verdian Take on the Grand

It’s a shame that Meyerbeer, the fellow most responsible for turning grand opera into an extravagant, out of proportion, bloated and cumbersome display piece, is given the blame for its undeserved demise. Truth be told, his path-breaking ventures at the Paris Opéra paved the way (and the impetus) for such Verdi masterworks as I Vespri Siciliani (known also by its French title as Les Vêpres Siciliennes), La Forza del Destino, and especially Don Carlos — all operas that predated Aida.

When Aida made its 1871 premiere in Cairo, most audiences, including the majority of critics and reviewers, felt that Verdi had reached the absolute summit of lyric drama. Given in four acts, Aida was based on a story by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette Bey. The story was adapted by poet Antonio Ghislanzoni into a libretto, with additional input from Verdi himself. That grandiose vision we know as Aida, then, fulfilled every expectation of the grandiose in opera: sweeping historical pageantry, public duty versus private agony, compelling and impressive characterizations by a large cast, outsized emotions, elaborate sets and costumes, ballet sequences, and massive choral episodes.

Radames (Aleksandrs Antonenko) professes his love for Aida (Anna Netrebko) in Act III of Verdi’s ‘Aida’ (Photo: Met Opera)

How times have changed! After several decades or more of revisionist theory, lovers of Verdi’s music have come to the conclusion that Aida, which made up a major portion of the standard repertory (it was the “A” of those A-B-C productions, followed closely by La Bohème and Carmen), has been replaced by the letter “D” for Don Carlos. There is much to believe in this conceit, with part of the problem being that singers who can take on the vocal challenges of Aida and Amneris, Amonasro and Ramfis, and, most distressingly of all, the lead tenor role of Radames, have become a vanishing breed.

Sadly, I am not the only writer who has observed (and been influenced by) this growing trend. Listeners once searched in vain for tenors who could tackle the parts of Otello, Tristan, and Siegfried. Today, such artists exist (we’ll meet some of them when I pick up the thread of Wagner’s Ring). On the other hand, how many successful Radames have you heard lately? Is there anybody out there who can convince you of his intentions? With the ageless Plácido having taken on nothing but baritone parts, who is left to give voice to our Egyptian general?

In our day, one could count on the efforts of Messrs. Del Monaco, Corelli, Mario Filippeschi, Tucker, Bergonzi, Vickers, McCracken, Richard Cassilly, Domingo, Carreras, Alagna, and others to do their duty or bust. Where is that voice today? Certainly not with Aleksandrs Antonenko.

The Aida broadcast mentioned above had its moments in the Egyptian sun. This was to be the last gasp of the Sonja Frisell-Gianni Quaranta production before a planned new version is given sometime in the near future. Let’s hope the Met hires the right people for their venture. To be honest, some of them were already present and accounted for in the May 4, 2019 radio transmission: Netrebko, Rachvelishvili, Kelsey, Belosselskiy, bass Ryan Speedo Green, soprano Gabriella Reyes as the Priestess, and tenor Arseny Yakovlev as an especially arresting Messenger. All of them held together by the baton of Nicola Luisotti.

Aida (Anna Netrebko) pleads for mercy to Amneris (Anita Rachvelishvili) at the Met’s performance of Verdi’s  ‘Aida’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Netrebko’s magical presence graced this role with startling accuracy and delicately filigreed pianissimos. Her artistry is such that little needs to be said about Netrebko’s mushy diction. When she lets out all the stops, there’s no holding her back. Her voice has filled out remarkably well, its sound plush and plummy, with no register breaks and solid craftsmanship up and down the line. She created a flesh-and-blood figure through voice alone, although some felt her generalized acting ability did not match her singing skills. In my experience, few singers could match the nobility and bearing of Leontyne Price, the essence of which is embedded in every Aida performance, whether at the Met or anywhere else.

Rachvelishvili was right behind, or ahead of the game if that sort of thing matters to listeners. The two divas duked it out vocally and, I must say, judiciously, much as they had done in the aforementioned Adriana Lecouvreur. Here, though, I felt their individual voices blended a whole lot better in conformity to Verdi’s demands. In another example, Amneris’ fabulous Judgment Scene was overpowering in its dimensions, the brass blaring out impressively as the priests delivered their verdict over Radames’ fate: he’s to be entombed alive in the crypt for divulging military secrets to the enemy.

Kelsey’s stirring Amonasro, the recipient of those military secrets, was also on fire vocally and histrionically. A brief but telling assignment (the Ethiopian king appears midway in Act II and has a duet and trio in Act III), Kelsey’s voice rang out firmly and cleanly. He always reminds me of Italian baritone Rolando Panerai, whose clear and precise enunciation was a joy to listen to as well.

Amonasro (Quinn Kelsey) makes his demands on daughter Aida (Anna Netrebko) in the Nile Scene from Act III (Photo: Met Opera)

Ryan Speedo Green’s bottomless King of Egypt (historically, he should have been called Pharaoh) was a pleasurable asset as always, as was Belosselskiy’s Ramfis. How I miss the voice-of-doom quality an artist such as Boris Christoff could bring to the role, or the rock-solid authority of an Ezio Pinza or a Cesare Siepi. Nevertheless, everyone acquitted themselves commendably — everyone, that is, except Antonenko.

Good for What Ails You

Considering that he was replaced, after Act I, in Samson et Dalila (but not the radio broadcast, which he missed entirely), Antonenko has been experiencing vocal problems of his own for several seasons now. Pitch-shy, labored, mealy-voiced, and squalling, his wobbly, unromantic rendition of “Celeste Aida,” Verdi’s opening torture test for tenor, was abominable (Opera News reported that he was “in ghastly voice”). He was incapable of sustaining a soft note, in particular that infamous B flat that concludes the air. Verdi had marked the note to be taken “pianissimo.” Good luck with that! Antonenko bawled it out of the ballpark, and none too steadily either.

Shouting is not singing, people, as I have pointed out on previous occasions. The only explanation one can have for this disaster is that Antonenko is in dire vocal distress. Don’t get me wrong. I like Antonenko’s way with the score, and he has a large, serviceable voice. He is excellent in Russian opera, especially as the Pretender Dimitri in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. He’s a relatively young man (still only 43), with time enough to develop and progress in the direction he wishes to take his talents.

If that direction is the lirico spinto repertoire, then he needs to take better care of his instrument. Take a season or two off, Aleks, and go see a good voice doctor; learn fewer demanding roles or re-learn old ones. Give yourself a break. Try to develop a technique for getting around those tough assignments. Whatever you need to do to get your act together, by all means do it now. We want to see you back in action, pronto!

It’s worth comparing Antonenko to Vickers, who, in my honest opinion, gave one of the most stupendous and moving accounts of Radames on record. Vickers, along with colleagues Jussi Bjoerling and Carlo Bergonzi, set the standard for how the role should be interpreted. Scene after scene, including the entirety of Acts III and IV, are lovingly expressed in that inimitable Vickers style (before he became embarrassingly mannered toward the end).

Opera on Record: Volume One noted that Vickers was “in his best period as a singer” in the 1961 RCA Victor Aida with the formidable Leontyne Price, “communicating that rare sense of devotion to the music, sometimes imprinting his individuality so that it is hard to hear phrases like ‘Sovra una terra estrania’ in another voice, so beautifully haunting is it, half painfully, half entranced.” Amen to that.

Original album cover of the Grammy Award-winning RCA Victor Red Seal recording of Verdi’s ‘Aida’ (1961)

The above observations will not cure what is ailing Aida. For my money, Aida is not some lumbering circus-like spectacle, but an emotional roller-coaster ride. AND I LOVE THIS OPERA TO DEATH! It was one of the first complete opera albums I had as a teenager (an earlier RCA Victor effort with Bjoerling, Zinka Milanov, Fedora Barbieri, and Leonard Warren in the leads). It’s a concise political drama with grandiloquent elements that transcend what replaced it, i.e., verismo and so-called “realism.” There is more human drama in this opus than in most verismo works. And it’s been much too maligned of late, no doubt due to the high cost of production: sets, costumes, cast, orchestra, extras, supernumeraries, you name it. That the opera is not as popular today as it has been in the past “may” have something to do with the vocal crisis of past decades. Very true!

More so today than before, it might also have to do with the opera’s specifically racial themes: that of a black African slave having fallen in love with a light-skinned Egyptian warrior (historically inaccurate, if we go by what historians have told us); and the subjugation of a race of people. In an interesting slant, I’ve read about productions that use all-black casts to tell Aida’s story in a postmodern, true-to-our-everyday-reality way.

Similarly, the experience of seeing an all-white cast in Aida, or in the Met’s “politically correct” misrepresentation of Verdi’s Otello as a white general (the very premise of the piece, along with the Shakespeare play on which it was based, demands that the lead character be black), has given potential converts to opera, as well as battle-weary veterans, a sour taste in their mouths. Even those more knowledgeable about opera have been taken aback by such efforts.

Let me remind readers that in many critics’ views, as well as my own, the finest modern interpreter of Aida, Mississippi-born African American soprano Leontyne Price, clearly identified with this part. With pride in her heritage and upon her impending retirement from the Met in 1984, Ms. Price gave an interview to the New York Times wherein she insisted that “I want to go out as the glorious Ethiopian, Aida. She is not a slave at all. She is a captive princess — she is of noble blood.”

Her statement, that Aida “is of noble blood,” means much more today, in our politically charged environment, than it ever did. A note of thanks to the nobility and dignity of Ms. Price, who alone made grand opera great by the majesty of her voice and by her presence and regal bearing.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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     

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

“Magic Fire Music” from the Centenary ‘Ring’ production by Patrice Chereau (Photo: Bayreuth Festival 1976)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders

Wagner’s Ring is back. And with a vengeance! On alternating Saturday afternoons, the Metropolitan Opera presented Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) — complete and uncut — to radio audiences and Sirius-XM satellite affiliates around the world.

The Ring cycle floated up to the top of the Rhine River, first with a live performance on March 9, 2019 of Das Rheingold, then on March 30 with Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), followed two weeks later on April 13 with Siegfried, and concluding on April 27 with “The Twilight of the Gods,” or (in the original German) Götterdämmerung.

People new to opera, and to Wagner and his world, often ask a pertinent question: “Who are the real heroes and villains of the Ring?” We meet both protagonists and antagonists in Das Rheingold, which Wagner called a “prologue” to his stark tale. With the subsequent work, Die Walküre, the characters we thought of as heroes don’t always act the part. In fact, things turn ugly rather quickly in Acts I and II. And in Act II, the gods, so-called, are a lame bunch, but the humans are no different. What about the dwarfs in Das Rheingold? Slimy and sinister. And the giants? No better! One brother slays the other (the Cain and Abel story in disguise), while one god (Wotan) trades in his sister-in-law (Freia) in lieu of payment for a botched real estate deal.

Pushing on with the cycle, the titular Siegfried is touted as the nominal hero. But what does he do that smacks of the heroic? First, he’s a boorish lout whose petulance and wild mood swings, along with constant temper tantrums, would put to shame many of today’s teenagers. And second, he wakes the sleeping Brünnhilde from her slumber, woos and “marries” her, then betrays the woman he loves to another pretty face and, most unheroically of all, lies about it. Oh, sure, it was the “potion of forgetfulness” that did all that. In compensation, he dies a “heroic” death by getting stabbed in the back. But does all that justify what came before?

Siegfried awakens the sleeping Brunnhilde in Wieland Wagner’s 1954 production of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Bayreuth Festival)

“Geez,” you say to yourself, “what a bunch of losers!” This doesn’t give us listeners much to root for, does it? Ah, but you would be mistaken to assume that good triumphs in the end and that evil is punished. To be honest, no one comes up smelling like a rose in this four-part family drama. Which is all to the good for opera lovers.

Wagner, no shining example of humanity, crafted a spectacular Game of Thrones series for the ages. Beginning with Das Rheingold, audiences are introduced to the giant Fasolt, a love-starved brute in need of TLC and understanding. Along comes a double-dealing, conniving and shiftless real-estate developer who refuses to pay Fasolt and his brother, Fafner, for their labors. (Hmm, now where have we heard that one before?) It’s all downhill from there. And then we have Alberich who, right from the start, has love on his mind (or, rather, sex). But who does he approach to alleviate his lust? A bunch of mermaids, that’s who. We know what happens to him: he gets spurned, which leads him to steal their gold.

As the old saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is the prevailing theory of Wagner’s vision. But what were the means by which power can be attained? Why, through politics, of course.

Politics, as most politicians will tell you, is a dirty business. If that be the case, then Wagner was mired in it, although he wasn’t particularly adept at playing the game. Too brutally honest and much too self-indulgent! He believed that what was good for him in terms of creature comforts would be good for Germany as a whole and for everybody else. His woefully ignorant efforts at changing the politics of his time led to his fleeing his native land for more (politically speaking) temperate zones.

Richard Wagner’s grandson, director-producer Wieland Wagner (1917-1966)

Wagner’s genius, besides his unquestioned musical abilities, was in basing his operatic themes on the corrosive, all-corrupting influence of power — absolute power, we should be clear. Hand in hand with power came that oft-associated connection to the political. And the characters that Wagner created and developed and eventually set to music were themselves enslaved to it. And to destiny, a destiny that could be traced to that primal act of thievery, i.e., Alberich’s pilfering of the Rhine gold so casually guarded by those witless Rhine Maidens.

Another facet of the composer’s genius was accomplished by crossing Norse legends and Teutonic myths with Greek tragedy and Biblical creation stories. Was not Siegmund and Sieglinde the first man and woman? Did they not commit original sin against the law? And were they not punished for their crime? There are dozens, if not more, examples of the familiar and not-so-familiar passages from all these various sources. That Wagner managed, through limitless trials and personal tribulations, to complete his vision and bring it to fruition is a textbook example of obsessive compulsion.

It’s All in How You Interpret It

Siegfried faces the dragon Fafner in the 1951 Wieland Wagner production of ‘Siegfried’ (Bayreuth Festival)

After his death, Wagner’s legacy continued with his widow Cosima, and later his son Siegfried, who begat two sons of his own, Wieland and Wolfgang. The two W’s eventually inherited the Bayreuth Music Festival by birthright. In the early 1950s, Wieland made the fateful decision to purge any and all Aryan (read: Nazi) influences from the Festival by stripping his grandfather’s works to their essentials.

As a matter of fact, he eschewed all manner of props and decor, to include helmets, shields, tables, chairs, thrones, even sets and scenery, for subtle lighting effects and pseudo-classical wardrobe. Armature was pared down to a minimum which made the look he gave his cast akin to Greco-Roman fashion.

The tragedy itself took place on a circular-shaped disc that stood-in for the all-powerful Ring (or the world, if you will), while the stage was set ablaze by modern lighting techniques and appropriately dark shading to highlight the ups and downs of the plot. Wieland’s second Ring production from the late 1960s (captured live on CD by Philips and conducted by Karl Böhm) took another giant leap forward by incorporating Jungian archetypes and totemic set designs.

French director Patrice Chereau at Bayreuth Festpielhaus directing the Centenary ‘Ring’ cycle (Photo: Bayreuth Festival, 1976)

This ultimately gave rise to the iconic Centenary Ring cycle production by French director Patrice Chéreau. Conducted by the iconoclastic Pierre Boulez, with Richard Peduzzi responsible for the set designs, Jacques Schmidt as the costume designer, and André Doit as lighting director, the story was placed during the Industrial Revolution, on or about Wagner’s time.

With little to no knowledge of the composer’s work (or of opera, for that matter), Chéreau patterned his ideas after George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite, a minor classic in the “Marxist struggle” field of writing and a credible capitalist interpretation of the Ring. The production proved illuminating in that the director, along with his Gallic colleagues, took a remarkably fresh look at the story. They introduced a theatrical basis for their views by padding the drama with singing-actors who could dive head-long into the polemics, yet preserve the all-important human element so far lacking in earlier versions.

Chéreau brilliantly and, I might add, perceptibly employed Brechtian distancing techniques, such as the bursting of the fourth wall — specifically, during the finale to Götterdämmerung when what’s left of the Gibichung contingent stares accusingly out into the audience — in order to convey the folly of mankind’s pursuit of material matters.

Gwyneth Jones as Brunnhilde in the Immolation Scene from ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Bayreuth Festival 1976)

He also took advantage of the Victorian setting by having many of the characters pose as individuals from music history. For example, Wotan was made up to look like Wagner himself; the Rhine Maidens pranced around an industrial waterworks as if they were floozy prostitutes looking for customers; and Mime was played as a cringing old fool who resembled Wagner’s father-in-law, the composer and concert pianist Franz Liszt, and so on.

Although the singing, in general, was below the quality of Bayreuth’s heyday in the 1950s to 1960s (what artist could hope to compete with the likes of Hans Hotter, Martha Mödl, Astrid Varnay, Wolfgang Windgassen, Birgit Nilsson, Hermann Uhde, Josef Greindl, and Gustav Neidlinger?), the acting was of a level previously unseen in prior Festivals. Among the participants who gained positive notices by their association with this production were Donald McIntyre as Wotan/Wanderer, Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde, René Kollo and Siegfried Jerusalem alternating as Siegfried, Heinz Zednik as Mime, Zóltan Kélemen and Hermann Becht as Alberich, Jeannine Altmeyer and Hannelore Bode as Sieglinde, Peter Hofmann as Siegmund, Matti Salminen as Fasolt, Fritz Hübner as Hunding, Karl Ridderbusch and Hübner as Hagen, and many others.

What other Ring production of the past 40 some-odd years, with the “possible” exception of Harry Kupfer’s “Road to History” version from the 1990s, has made such a revolutionary impact in the way we envision Wagner’s epic? Certainly not the Robert Lepage cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, which, despite the millions spent on bringing it to the company’s reinforced stage, needs to be mothballed posthaste before further damage is done.

End of Part One

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes