Robert Lepage’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Metropolitan Opera of New York
Conductors: James Levine and Fabio Luisi.
Production: Robert Lepage.
Principals: Stephanie Blythe, Richard Croft, Jonas Kaufmann, Hans-Peter König, Waltraud Meier, Jay Hunter Morris, Eric Owens, Gerhard Siegel, Bryn Terfel, Deborah Voigt, and Eva-Maria Westbroek.
Orchestra and chorus: Metropolitan Opera.
Set designer: Carl Fillion.
Costume designer: François St-Aubin.
Lighting designer: Etienne Boucher.
Video image artists: Lionel Arnould, Boris Firquet and Pedro Pires. DVD (8 discs) and Blu-ray (5 discs), including Wagner’s Dream, from Deutsche Grammophone (DG), 2012.
Region Code: 0. 1080i High Definition.
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, and Chinese.
Total time: 920 minutes + 77 minutes (extras).
The Ring is one of the major achievements in the annals of art and each time there is a new production, there are many questions about the success of interpreting Wagner’s intentions and conveying the full richness of the drama. This reviewer twice had the opportunity to see the live performances of the cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, as well as the high definition (HD) presentations in movie theatres, the US televised broadcast as part of the series “Great Performances at the Met,” and the Blu-ray edition distributed by DG, as well as the documentary Wagner’s Dream, which is also reviewed in this site. Jerry Floyd wrote about the first two installments of the Ring, “Going for the Gold” and “Machine Age Die Walküre” also in this site. DG included as extras the Rheingold rehearsal, Wagner’s leitmotifs, “A new Siegfried for the Ring,” and backstage interviews with Lepage, John Sellars, Fabio Luisi, Robert Parent (the wizard behind the interactive technology for the visual effects), and some of the principal singers. The booklets include “A Conversation with Robert Lepage” and the programme notes that Paul Thomason, from the Met, prepared for each opera.
Producing the Ring
Wagner championed the idea of reuniting the arts in his famous concept Gesamtkunstwerk (‘a total work of art’), where the text, the voices, the music, the acting, the choreography and the staging would provide a unified new entity richer than the sum of its parts. He was not satisfied with the production of the Ring in Bayreuth in 1876 and planned to improve it later on, but that day never came and he did not leave a clear indication about what was in his mind. Deryck Cooke, a leading Wagnerian scholar says “After all, the question is not ‘What meaning can we find in The Ring?’, but ‘What did Wagner really mean by The Ring?’” (I saw the World End. A Study of Wagner’s Ring, 1979). It has been estimated that during the first decade of the 21st century more than 50 new Rings have been staged or are in progress.
During the last 35 years, there have been numerous new productions, but among them there are three that deserve to be called landmarks: Patrice Chéreau at Bayreuth (1976), Otto Schenk at the Met (1987), and the current one by Robert Lepage. These three different Rings are good examples of how to stage an opera. Modern productions move between two poles. At one extreme, we have the Regietheater option, where the director (Régisseur) is allowed to stage a work at a different time and location from those indicated by the composer; the story is also modified to highlight new interpretative elements, “deconstructing” and demythologizing the original text and thus providing a totally new version of the work, highlighting its political, psychological or sexual message. Chéreau, with one of the most successful examples, places the Ring in the decadent Victorian industrialized society, where the Rhinemaidens “inside the Rhine” are replaced by three prostitutes at a hydroelectric dam, with Wotan, dressed in a tuxedo as the CEO of the operation. He considered the Ring “theatre, not only opera.” The Regietheater has many modern examples with abundant vulgarity, as in Peter Konwitschny’s end of Act I of Götterdämmerung when Brünnhilde removes her underwear and walks to her bed, allowing Gunther, disguised as Siegfried, to rape her. It seems that the idea of many of these modern productions is rather to “épater les bourgeois” (‘impress the bourgeois’) than to provide new meanings to the original work. Outside of German-speaking countries many of these productions are labeled “Euro-trash.” At the other end, there is the view that the director should maintain complete fidelity to the work and the text, as well as to the locations indicated in the text. This approach has been labeled “traditionalist” and has been illustrated as “a postcard exercise in nostalgia enjoyed by those who regard opera houses as a refuge from cerebral activity” (Barry Millington on the 1987 Schenk production at the Met). Lepage’s production could be placed somewhere in the middle. It is the eighth complete cycle in the history of the Met. Preparations began in 2007 and three people have been behind the new Ring, Robert Lepage, Peter Gelb, and James Levine.
The people behind the new Ring
Robert Lepage is a French-Canadian actor, playwright, film and stage director. In 1992 he was the first North American to direct a Shakespeare play at London’s National Theatre. In 1994 he founded a multidisciplinary production company called Ex Machina. Lepage’s debut at the Met was with Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust in 2008. Peter Gelb invited him to direct a new Ring and told the press, “Robert will be using a palette of contemporary stage techniques, but his intention is to tell the story straight. [He] is a great storyteller.” At the Wagner Society of New York (September 2010), Lepage said that his production “is an extremely classical and traditional interpretation. My job is very delicate: to be faithful to the early ideas and to initiate people to the story.”
Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera since August 2006, has been associated with the Met since he was a part-time usher while attending high school. Under his direction, the Met has presented 40 new productions. He made it possible to reach larger audiences through the radio (Sirius Satellite Radio – SiriusXM) and HD presentations worldwide, as well as free, live transmissions in Times Square and Lincoln Center Plaza. Mr Gelb has produced more than 25 televised broadcasts from the Met, including the famous 1990 filming and telecast of the Ring produced by Otto Schenk and conducted by James Levine. DG credits him as Executive Producer for the Schenk, as well as the Lepage Rings. Mr Gelb has declared on many occasions that the Ring has always been at the top of his list of favourite operas.
Maestro James Levine has been with the Met for more than 40 years and has conducted close to 2,500 performances. Since his retirement as principal conductor, he continues to hold the position of Music Director. He has conducted the Ring in Bayreuth and has no fewer than 21 complete Ring cycles at the Met. He has been a major champion of the Otto Schenk production of the Ring. Very early on, he acknowledged that the new Lepage technology would not help the new production, but later he declared to the press that “so far what we’ve got up there with ‘Rheingold’ is looking very good to me …“[when I saw the first attempts, I knew that] he is trying to use everything in his imagination and at his disposal to tell the story,” and now, he has given his blessing to the new production, as can be witnessed in the documentary Wagner’s Dream. Unfortunately, due to illness, Maestro Levine conducted only Das Rhinegold and Die Walküre; the rest of the cycle was conducted by Fabio Luisi, who is now the Principal Conductor at the Met.
Lepage, “the machine” and the visual effects
After studying the Icelandic Edda poems, and impressed by Wagner’s dictum that “the art of composition is the art of transition,” Lepage began to have a clear idea about his new Ring. Captivated by the coexistence of ice and fire, the flow of lava, and the tectonic movement of basaltic blocs and plates in Iceland, Lepage and his collaborators at Ex Machina, particularly Carl Fillion, crated “the machine.” The Met team, led by John Sellars and Ex Machina built a computerized set of 24 interlocking and swiveling aluminum planks, weighing 45 tons, being supported by two 7.9-metres (26 feet) towers. The Met had to install three new beams to reinforce the floor on the left side of the stage, where “the machine” is parked when not in use. Fortunately, many of the initial shortcomings of “the machine” have been solved, particularly its noisy and sometimes erratic movements. This majestic set is effectively used for the entire cycle as it can be transformed from walls, into a ceiling, a forest, cliffs and mountain ranges, and even the surface or the bottom of a river, with the use of proper digital animation and visual effects that can generate 3D imagery. The audience was enthusiastic about the use of the planks during the ride of the Valkyries; though unusual for a Wagner opera, the audience could not restrain itself and started applauding at every performance.
“The machine” provided majestic landscapes in some scenes but also an intimate environment, where the singing takes place in front of the planks, thus providing a perfect acoustic environment as a resonating chamber. Jonas Kaufman, who does not yet have a big heldentenor voice, gave a glorious performance as Siegmund, in comparison to his rather limited voice as Faust some months before. Voigt and all the other characters in the Gibichung hall projected their voices effortless and with beautiful tones.
Lepage says that he was guided by Wagner’s use of leitmotifs. With great effect, the transformations made by “the machine” provide a sense of continuity from leitmotif to leitmotif, from scene to scene, from act to act, and from opera to opera. Change and permanence were key concepts that Wagner tried to balance in the Ring and Lepage’s conception (Germans would call it ‘Der Konzept’) of this paradoxical duality is well presented in the movements of “the machine.”
Fundamental components in this production are the visual effects. Lepage selected three video image artists; Boris Firquet, who participated in Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust, was in charge of the first two operas, Pedro Pires for Siegfried, and Lionel Arnould for Götterdämmerung. The audience was thrilled by the visual effects, many of them voice-generated. Some spectacular moments happen when the Rhinemaidens are producing ‘voice-activated’ bubbles; the twisting of “the machine” in the descent to Nibelheim; the bridge to Valhalla; the forest becoming Hunding’s house; the rocky throne in Valhalla; the ice melting in the high mountains while Wotan is scolding Brünnhilde and putting her to rest in the rocks at the end of Die Walküre; Mime’s forge and the water flowing into a pond, snakes and insects roaming around, the 3D flying bird and the leaves falling and moving in the wind, the rocky mountain when Wotan encounters Erda, and later Siegfried; the pebbles at the Rhine shore when Siegfried arrives to the Gibichungs, the Rhinemaidens playing with Siegfried, and the red tinting of the river after Gunther washes his hands following Siegfried’s death.
The costumes were not well received by many critics. Yes, the outfits were traditional and connected to early performances; they helped to place the action in a mythical time. François St-Aubin said that he meticulously studied the costumes used by Wagner in 1876 and tried to design them to fit the new technological features of the production.
The singers, the chorus and the orchestra
To select the best available cast, the principal singers were contacted and engaged three to four years in advance. For many of them, the opportunity to appear in a new production of the Ring at the Met was a dream. Very few of the principal singers cancelled their performances. The most notorious casualty was Siegfried, one of the most demanding Wagnerian roles; Stephen Gould, who sang the role in Bayreuth in 2006 and Gary Lehman were initially casted. Lehman made an early cancellation and after his first appearance, Gould also cancelled. Fortunately, Jay Hunter Morris, who sang the role in San Francisco, accepted with delight at the last minute and delivered acclaimed performances. Of the 11 principal singers, there are five Americans, four Germans, one British and one Dutch. As it happens in any operatic performance, particularly interpreting Wagner, some singers are not able to deliver their best performances all the time; there are “good and bad moments.” We are fortunate to have in the broadcasts and the recordings of the Ring the very best of their performances. The majority of the principals were performing their Wagnerian roles for the first time at the Met. Some of them sang their roles for the first time ever, as in the case of Deborah Voigt who always dreamt about performing it.
Among the new performers in line to be idolized for their vocal and acting prowess are Eric Owens, the American bass-baritone who sang Alberich, and the lyric tenor Jonas Kaufman as Siegmund. The two Croft brothers, Richard (Loge) and Dwayne (Donner) also gave effective performances. The American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe gave us the opportunity to see how powerful can be a sly and manipulative Fricka, with plenty of anger but commanding. The German bass Hans-Peter König played three main characters magnificently, Fafner, Hunding and Hagen; his acting and voice were superb. Gerhard Siegel, the veteran German tenor who had sung Mime 98 times before, was also a big hit. Wendy Bryn Harmer also sang three roles, Freia, Ortlinde, and Gutrune. Bryn Terfel, the Welsh bass-baritone, seemed a little bit distracted and disengaged in his first appearance, but as the cycle evolved, he increased his divine stature; the close-ups in the video cast and the Blu-ray recording shows how good he can be as an actor, as shown in his farewell to Brünnhilde and in his debut as the Wanderer. We had the luxury of having Waltraud Meier in Götterdämmerung, giving an enthralling performance of Waltraute; she has sung that role, as well as Erda, Sieglinde, and Fricka on many occasions. And the big surprise of the cycle was Deborah Voigt; fortunately during her televised and recorded performances she showed exemplary acting and a good command of her voice, fully recognisant of her limitations; her chemistry with Wotan and Siegfried and her rage and authority at the Gibichungs hall and her riding of Grane are memorable.
The Met orchestra and chorus are considered among the best in the world and when Maestro Levine is at the podium they are able to offer unforgettable performances. Maestro Levine was aware of his health limitations and passed the baton to Maestro Fabio Luisi, who was able to maintain the standards of the Met orchestra. In many unforgettable passages, the orchestra was following strictly the instructions of Wagner to play like a “Greek chorus,” adding a special meaning to the narration. The chorus in the hall of the Gibichungs was also memorable. Fortunately, the Blu-ray format has been able to capture the sound and the images at their best.
The critics and the public
Many critics have complained about the announced cost of US$16 million; but others pointed out that the Los Angeles Ring climbed to US$31 million, and Julie Taymor’s Spiderman to US$60 million. This new production has been criticized on many counts (see below under Critical and Other reviews). On the opening night of Das Rheingold, Deborah Voigt was addressing the audience at the Lincoln Plaza and projected at Times Square; in the middle of the rain, the public expressed deep enthusiasm. Similar positive reactions were evident in the HD presentations in the movie theatres; many spectators were clapping.
The “Lepage, Levine and Gelb Ring,” as Levine called it, can be judiciously considered one of the best achievements of the Met in recent years. The Blu-ray edition is breathtaking. Many skeptics have changed their mind after seeing the documentary about the preparation of the new production, Wagner’s Dream, where its director, Susan Froemke says that “the stagecraft unimaginable in the 19th century has made what seemed impossible possible.” A big question asked by many Wagnerians is “live? or HD?” And the answer is not easy; this reviewer sees the complementarity of the two. What you miss on one occasion you can appreciate in the other. In many of the HD scenes, you feel disturbed by the projected painted backdrops that appear on the singers’ faces, something that is less perceptible in the live performance.
Finally, it is important to highlight the large role played by Maestro Levine in the development of this new Ring. Even in his absence, everyone noticed his presence. Since the beginning he told Lepage that in spite of its cosmic dimension the Ring is a very intimate work and advised him to listen to the music and to follow the music. At the end, Lepage found himself completely transformed and said that “the Ring is a revolutionary work of art … You’re not the same person once you’ve done the Ring.” Neither are we after seeing it!
Germán A Bravo-Casas a member of the Board of Directors of the Wagner Society of New York
- Jerry Floyd (Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in Wagneropera.net).
- Peter Phillips (Wagner Notes, the magazine of the Wagner Society of New York -WSNY. Peter was a moderator at Lepage’s presentation to the WSNY and he reviewed the four operas (December 2010, June and December 2011, and February 2012). In his view, “The production shares one of the dispiriting characteristics of too many Met productions: It is intellectually tepid … [However, Die Walküre was] a theatrical triumph. I am proud of this production – proud of the Met … Yet the Met’s [production] is profoundly traditional in substance. … Honoring tradition while embracing theatrical innovation”
Other important reviews
- Martin Bernheimer (The Financial Times)
- Justin Davidson (The New York Magazine)
- Claire Prentice (The Telegraph)
- Alex Ross (The New Yorker - The New Yorker
Encircling the “Ring”
The Met Ring Cycle Critics
- Roberta Smith (The New York Times)
- Anthony Tommasini (The New York Times )
James Levine Is Back for Met’s Opening Night
Peter Gelb on Wagner's Ring
- Daniel J. Wakin (The New York Times)
Der Ring des Nibelungen on DVD
Deborah Voigt, Bryn Terfel, Jay Hunter Morris, Jonas Kaufmann, Stephanie Blythe, Hans-Peter König, Eric Owens, Gerhard Siegel, Eva-Maria Westbroek
Zubin Mehta, Juha Uusitalo, Jennifer Wilson, Lance Ryan, Matti Salminen
Johan Reuter, Randi Stene, Sten Byriel, Michael Kristensen, Bengt-Ola Morgny, Stephen Milling, James Johnson, Iréne Théorin, Stig Fogh Andersen, Susanne Resmark, Peter Klaveness, Guido Paevatalu, Ylva Kihlberg
John Keyes, Nadine Secunde, Jeannine Altmeyer, John Bröcheler, Kurt Rydl, Graham Clark
Robert Künzli, Michaela Schuster, Robert Gambill, Angela Denoke, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Renate Behle, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Wiebke Göetjes, Jon Fredric West, Lisa Gasteen, Luana DeVol, Albert Bonnema
Falk Struckmann, Deborah Polaski, Lioba Braun, Kwanchul Youn, Eric Halfvarson, Andrea Bönig, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Linda Watson, Cristina Obregón, John Treleaven, Matti Salminen, Elisabete Matos
Mario Hoff, Renatus Mészár, Catherine Foster, Erin Caves, Kirsten Blanck, Frieder Aurich, Hidekazu Tsumaya
Stefan Heidemann, Antonio Yang, Veronika Waldner, Andrew Sritheran, Rebecca Teem, Jürgen Müller, Stuart Patterson, Richard Decker, Gary Jankowski
Der Ring des Nibelungen (complete recordings) on CD
Martha Mödl, Ferdinand Frantz, Alfred Poell, Wolfgang Windgassen, Gustav Neidlinger, Josef Greindl, Hilde Konetzni, Gottlob Frick, Ludwig Suthaus, Julius Patzak, Margarete Klose, Lorenz Fehenberger, Elisabeth Grümmer, Ruth Siewert, Elsa Cavelti
Theo Adam, Wolfgang Windgassen, Gustav Neidlinger, Erwin Wohlfahrt, Martti Talvela, Gerd Nienstedt, Gerhard Stolze, Zoltán Kelemen, Birgit Nilsson, James King, Leonie Rysanek, Josef Greindl, Thomas Stewart, Martha Mödl
Wolfgang Sawallisch, Kurt Moll, Ekkehard Wlaschiha, Marjana Lipovsek, Robert Hale, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Hanna Schwarz, Robert Tear, Helmut Pampuch, Cornelia Wulkopf, Robert Schunk, Hildegard Behrens, Julia Varady, René Kollo, Hans Gunther Nöcker, Matti Salminen, Waltraud Meier, Lisbeth Balslev