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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/James Levine, Fabio Luisi
Production by Robert Lepage
Operas originally transmitted live in HD to cinemas
Recorded live, 2010-12
NTSC Format 16:9, 1080i High Definition; PCM Stereo & DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; Region Code 0
Documentary: Wagner’s Dream
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD 0734770 [8 discs: 18 hrs 31 mins]

I have never been to the Met but feel I am reasonably familiar with their style, thanks to the splendid series of live transmissions which I go to at the cinema down the road from where I live. So I know I can expect singers of international standing, good orchestral playing and conducting, and sumptuous sets. The production will usually be in a traditional style. By traditional, I mean that the director has aimed to evoke the time, place and action intended by the composer and librettist – the same person in Wagner’s case – as opposed to Regietheater. Directors who practise this feel free to discard the original setting to impose their own concept. Wagnerian examples include setting Das Rheingold in a petrol station in the American mid-West (Frank Castorf, Bayreuth 2013), including a crashed aeroplane in Mime’s forge (Keith Warner, Covent Garden 2005), and, worst of all, in fact unforgiveable, changing the ending of Der fliegende Holländer so that Senta is left discarded on the shore (Tim Albery, Covent Garden 2015). Personally, I have had quite enough of Regietheater and no longer attend performances where I know it will be employed.

I was a little apprehensive when I received this Ring, as it preserves a relatively recent production by Robert Lepage, replacing a naturalistic one by Otto Schenk which had held sway since 1987. I had seen some of that and liked it. However, this is a basically traditional production, and the only concept is to use a single, very adaptable set. This is a set of what look like very large planks, ranged in a set which can be pivoted individually or collectively as well as raised or lowered. This may sound like nothing much, but they are surprisingly versatile and the production has been very imaginatively lit by Etienne Boucher. The set can become a convincing hut for Hunding, complete with tree with sword in it, Brünnhilde’s mountaintop, Mime’s forge with on-site running water, Fafner’s lair and the hall of the Gibichungs. The fire effects are very good and the water ones even better. All necessary props are included, with particularly good drinking horns, a mysterious glittering tarnhelm and a splendid hat for Wotan as Wanderer. Fricka has her chariot drawn by rams, Wotan his ravens and Brünnhilde her horse. The Rhinemaiden scenes are most convincing and the Valkyrie gathering the best I have seen. There are a few failures: Fafner as dragon is a bit tame, and neither the rainbow bridge nor Valhalla in flames come off, the last being particularly surprising and disappointing, as I would have thought it could easily be done with the lighting effects we had already seen and we are left at the end of the great work with a bare stage. The all-important ring looks as if it came from a Christmas cracker and the sword Nothung as if it was made of plastic and bought in a toy shop. There is only one tiresome gimmick: after Fafner the dragon has been killed, he is made to re-emerge in his original form as a giant. This is directly contrary to Wagner’s text and stage directions; I know that Siegfried takes the tarnhelm off him but the point is that, unlike Alberich, he cannot change back to his proper form.

Although some Ring productions have cast changes, I believe that all previous ones have had a single conductor throughout. This Ring was intended to have James Levine, the veteran conductor of the Met, in charge. However, illness forced him to withdraw after Die Walküre, and his successor, Fabio Luisi, took over for the final two operas. Levine has vast experience with the Ring and this shows: he is freer and more expansive than Luisi. Luisi is perfectly competent but, I imagine, has had much less experience with these scores; there is something slightly brittle about his work, particularly in Siegfried, where the third forging song is noticeably too fast and some of the tempi seem rather rigid. However, I do not want to overstate this.

The cast is, as you would expect from the Met, very strong. Bryn Terfel gives us his tough and scheming Wotan, slightly insecure and occasionally not in the best of voice in Das Rheingold, but steadily improving as the character matures, and very impressive as the Wanderer in Siegfried. Some people do not care for Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde, which, surprisingly, was the first time she had sung the role. She has great stage presence and dominates every scene she is in, and her ringing and tireless soprano reminded me of Nilsson. Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried was also making his debut in role. He was the third choice after two others had had to withdraw. He had previously been known mainly for new American operas, but he had studied Siegfried and I was very impressed by him. For a start he looks the part: proud and confident, you can feel this really is the boy who does not know fear. His voice is bright and clear and he seems tireless: even in the final duet with Brünnhilde at the end of his title opera he was fresh.

Of the other parts the obvious front runner is Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, making another debut in role. He is completely inside it: noble, heroic and doomed. His voice is also quite different in quality from that of Hunter Morris, so the two characters are as strongly contrasted as they should be. Eric Owens as Alberich seemed almost too nice a man to be singing a villain, but he rises to the height of the curse and oozes malevolence in his later appearances. Hans-Peter König plays no fewer than three villains: Fafner in Das Rheingold and Siegfried, Hunding in Die Walküre and Hagen in Götterdämmerung. Fafner does not give him much scope, and he is suitably dour as Hunding, but he really excels as Hagen: powerful and sinister, effortlessly dominating the hapless Gibichungs and very nearly succeeding in getting the ring for himself.

The other parts are well taken but I want to praise in particular the excellent trio of Rhinemaidens – or rather quintet, since there are two cast changes between Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung. Not only the staging but also the singing of the Valkyries is admirable. The Norns are also strong, though their rope of destiny was unusually tangled. The Gibichung vassals make up a formidable force, suitably subservient to Hagen but not much impressed by Gunther.

Not only is the cast strong, but they work well together. The more intimate scenes, such as the first act of Die Walküre, the Wanderer scenes in Siegfried and the those in the Gibichung hall, have been most carefully prepared with interplay of the characters following Wagner’s directions, not slavishly, but entirely in the right spirit.

The orchestra know their Wagner and respond with a will. It seems invidious to single out individual members, because it depends on who gets prominent solos, but I was very impressed by the sizzling of the strings in the fiery passages, and by some of the wind soloists, such as the cor anglais, the bass clarinet and the bass trumpet. However, some of the special effects were disappointing: the anvils in the descent into Nibelheim and the reascent therefrom seemed few and tinny, and neither in Die Walküre nor Götterdämmerung did we get proper steerhorns for the summonses to battle. No one brought up, as I was, on the Solti audio recording, will be satisfied with inadequacies here, and I am amazed that the Met did not do better. Perhaps the production team were too preoccupied with getting the complicated set to work. Both the picture and the sound are excellent.

The supplementary DVD, Wagner’s Dream, is a documentary on the making of the production. Robert Lepage explains that they wanted to realize Wagner’s vision using the technical advances possible today. Preparations started in 2008, with Lepage making a model of the set with its pivoting planks. The final result, which they called the machine, was enormously elaborate and also heavy. The team had a lot of trouble with it. We also meet some of the cast. Deborah Voigt, in particular, made herself available and we hear a good deal about her preparation for her debut as Brünnhilde. The film does not avoid the glitches that arose, which include the rainbow bridge not working on the first night, Levine’s withdrawal, and the need to bring in Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried only a few days before opening. Given that mounting the Ring is the most ambitious thing an opera house can do, this documentary was well worth making.

Those familiar with the Met live cinema transmissions know that some of the intervals are taken up with interviews with some of the cast and production team. Here these are added on to the discs for each opera. They partly duplicate some of what is in Wagner’s Dream, but there are several others who do not appear in that and have some interesting things to say. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka reminds us that Wotan and Fricka in Das Rheingold are young and in love, whereas they are older and the relationship has soured in Die Walküre. Deborah Voigt considers her single scene in Siegfried more demanding than the much longer roles in her other two operas. Eric Owens as Alberich tells us he enjoys playing villains. Perhaps these do not add much but they are nice to have.

The five DVDs are presented in a handsome box. Each has a booklet in three languages. No libretto is supplied, but subtitles in five languages are available. These are quite good, but serious enthusiasts should have a proper libretto with translation, such as Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung: a Companion by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington. A new translation is forthcoming from John Dethridge. We could also do with a modern replacement for the introduction to the Ring which Deryck Cooke provided for the Solti recording. In default of that I recommend Roger Scruton’s The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, the best recent study of the Ring I have come across.

No production of the Ring can be perfect and I have mentioned some places where this one seems to me to fall short. But overall, it is a very satisfying production and I commend it to those who want a traditional Ring but with imaginative staging.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Simon Thompson

Casting:
Das Rheingold
Alberich – Eric Owens
Fricka – Stephanie Blythe
Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Freia – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Fasolt – Franz-Josef Selig
Fafner – Hans-Peter König
Froh – Adam Diegel
Donner – Dwayne Croft
Loge – Richard Croft
Mime – Gerhard Siegel
Erda – Patricia Bardon
Woglinde – Lisette Oropesa
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnson Cano
Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford
James Levine (conductor)
Recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera, 9 October 2010
[163 + 12 mins]

Die Walküre
Siegmund – Jonas Kaufmann
Sieglinde – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Hunding – Hans-Peter König
Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Brünnhilde – Deborah Voigt
Fricka – Stephanie Blythe
Gerhilde – Kelly Cae Hogan
Ortlinde – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Waltraute – Marjorie Elinor Dix
Schwertleite – Mary Phillips
Helmwige – Molly Fillmore
Siegrune – Eve Gigliotti
Grimgerde – Mary Ann McCormick
Rossweisse – Lindsay Ammann
James Levine (conductor)
Recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera, 14 May 2011
[243 + 22 mins]

Siegfried
Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris
Mime – Gerhard Siegel
Wanderer – Bryn Terfel
Alberich – Eric Owens
Fafner – Hans-Peter König
Woodbird – Mojca Erdmann
Brünnhilde – Deborah Voigt
Fabio Luisi (conductor)
Recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera, 5 November 2011
[242 + 28 mins]

Götterdämmerung
Brünnhilde – Deborah Voigt
Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris
Gunther – Iain Paterson
Gutrune – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Hagen – Hans-Peter König
Waltraute – Waltraud Meier
Alberich – Eric Owens
First Norn – Maria Radner
Second Norn – Elizabeth Bishop
Third Norn – Heidi Melton
Woglinde – Erin Morley
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnson Cano
Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford
Fabio Luisi (conductor)
Recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera, 11 February 2012
[272 + 15 mins]

Wagner’s Dream: The Making of the Metropolitan Opera’s new Der Ring des Nibelungen
[114 mins]


 

 




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