Brünnhilde has been kidnapped and replaced with Strindberg’s Miss Julie! Katarina Dalayman in, what looks like, a very cool, interesting take on “Die Walküre”…
Because I have completely lost all interest in Robert Lepage’s new “Ring” cycle, with its clumsy mechanics and hollow charms, I’ve been in search of more daring, thought-provoking productions of Wagner’s epic parable; something that feels like an actual piece of theater, and not merely an exercise in empty, high-tech spectacle.
As stated in my previous article, I’ve grown increasingly incredulous with the Metropolitan Opera’s consistently mediocre output: a series of bland, aesthetically-minded productions, which cater to middlebrow tastes and offend only the most simple-minded opera-goers.
A recent article by George Loomis in the New York Times sated my appetite for audacious, mind-blowing “Ring” productions. Two prominent opera houses in Germany – the Frankfurt Opera and the Bavarian State Opera – are currently putting their own fresh spins on Wagner’s tale of godly struggles. (Both houses will present their full cycles in the summer.)
Both productions appear to use striking visuals to comment on the characters and themes. (A technique that is, alas, beyond Mr. Lepage’s abilities.) More to the point: these productions conjure vivid, exciting new worlds by using largely experimental, avant-garde theatrical techniques.
Experimental productions are de rigueur in Germany these days. They’re usually written-off with terms like regietheater or Euro-trash because the directors often approach works with a radical, sometimes political concept that, on the surface, appears to be at odds with what the composer originally indented. But because German opera houses are more willing to take risks, they often reap the more satisfying rewards. German opera tends to think a bit harder, and it invites audiences to glean new insights from familiar works. This approach makes opera more immediate, more visceral - bringing it closer to exciting, experimental theater, rather than a well upholstered museum piece.
Here’s a thought: perhaps regietheater doesn’t have to be such a dirty word. Perhaps this brand of director-driven opera has a place in opera houses the world over. It is easier to reject the unfamiliar, than to challenge one’s preconceived notions. Let’s try to keep an open mind, and expect more from our opera companies.
“As in ‘Die Walküre,’ the standout in the final two operas was the soprano Nina Stemme, singing her first Brünnhilde in a complete ‘Ring.’ In the punishing Immolation Scene at the end of ‘Götterdämmerung,’ far from sounding vocally spent, Ms. Stemme took her singing to higher levels of burnished brilliance and expressive depth. A riveting presence, she was committed to the moment in every phrase she sang, every gesture she made. She received an ecstatic ovation.” - Anthony Tommasini
We’re back with the giant keyboard. Yup…it’s still there. Only this time it’s in the formation of the “wild rocky place” that Wagner calls for. It actually looks very cool. Except the poor singers look a little dismayed at having to climb up and down the thing.
It also appears to have developed “feelings” and “emotions” of it’s own. Perhaps one day it could learn to love? Or kill? In any case, it appears to be experiencing far more complex emotions than any of the characters onstage and it keeps undulating up and down like a wandering attention span. It’s easy to sympathize with the keyboard.
So now we have two gods. A douchebag named Wotan and his wild tomboy of a daughter by the name of Brünhilde...yes that’s right. Wotan looks like a mash-up of Captain Hook, C-3PO, and one of the reject trains from “Starlight Express,” and he acts like a cross between The Six Million Dollar Man and Cloris Leachman in “Young Frankenstein.” Brünhilde looks like a second-hand Raggedy Ann doll, who went shopping at a 99¢ store, in search of a Renaissance Fair costume.
Wotan tells her to go bridle her horse and intervene in the giant cat-fight between Hunding and Signmund…he tells her, “Brünhilde, when those two girls have at it, make sure Sigmund wins. He’s part of the family and, after all, we do for family. It’s nothing against Hunding. Honest! But he is a giant fat sack of crap, and Valhalla has no use for him. He’s a lot like your mother!”
Brünhilde responds to this with a series of shrill “Hojotoho” squawks…and wouldn’t you? This is either a battle cry or a sign that Brünhilde seriously needs to up her Xanax in the morning. She then climbs the mountain to deliver what feels like 54 more Hojotoho’s, and plays grab ass with her father. (Gross.)
As an audience, we are seriously concerned for Brünhilde. Not only because of her name, but because she’s clearly a loony lady singing loony tunes, and she’s climbing an equally mentally unstable set of giant piano keys that might swallow her whole if provoked. One has to question Wotan’s parenting skills.
All of a sudden Fricka, a giant crap/worm lady with Marge Simpson hair and a space suit, appears from behind the keyboard and then glides forward in her La-Z-Boy recliner chair…she’s clearly not a very active woman. Plus she seems pissed. Really pissed. Alors, Mrs. Fricka decides to engage in a bitch match à la ”Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with Wotan.
FRICKA: “Wotan you dumbass!!! What the HELL is the matter with you? They are BROTHER AND SISTER for Valhalla’s sake! Has that glitter from your eye patch started to seep through?”
WOTAN: “Stop yelling woman! You’ll wake up the other Walküres and they’re so NOISY. I love Sigmund…I dunno there’s something about him. He’s my favorite illegitimate child”
BRÜNHILDE: “Hey! I thought I was your favorite illegitimate child!”
FRICKA: “Enough! Sigmund MUST die. I won’t have incest in addition to adultery in this family!”
WOTAN: “How’d you know about that???”
FRICKA: “Oh I don’t know…maybe it’s the fact that I live up here with Brünhilde and all her Brotha’s from Otha’ Mothas…genius?”
WOTAN: “oh…yeah that.”
FRICKA: “Anyway, Sigmund must DIE! I will not tolerate incest…for god sakes we’re Jewish…not from the Ozarks”
WOTAN: “We’re Jewish??? How do you figure?”
FRICKA: “We’re greedy despicable characters in a Wagner opera…plus we die at the end.”
WOTAN: “Good point.”
FRICKA: “Now go kill me some Sigmund! RAAAAH!”
Fricka’s recliner recedes backwards on the keyboard. She’s then lowered beneath the stage, presumably to meet with Jabba the Hut’s attorneys over copyright infringement issues concerning stealing Jabba’s likeness.
(Story will continue in Die Walküre - Part 3)
NOVEMBER 10, 2009, 3:26 PM
More than 30 years after it caused a sensation at the 1976 Bayreuth Festival, Patrice Chéreau’s ground-breaking staging of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle is still considered a high point – and an inflection point — of opera directing.
When he undertook the project, Mr. Chéreau was a French theater wunderkind in his early 30s who had garnered attention of Parisian critics while he was still in high school. He had only directed two previous operas, the notably lighter fare of Rossini and Offenbach. Perhaps it was the sheer audacity of his hiring by Wolfgang Wagner, who was then running the festival, that rankled with the critics who expressed outrage at the production’s premiere. In subsequent years, as the production was revived and revised, outrage was far outstripped by respect and reverence.
Seen today on DVD (the production was filmed in 1980), Mr. Chéreau’s Ring hardly seems the kind of radical, interrogatory production that regularly can be seen on the stages of European opera houses today. (And which some Metropolitan Opera traditionalists may irrationally fear will become the house style under general manager Peter Gelb.) It appears tame indeed compared to the light sabers and other oddities described by Anthony Tommasini in Achim Freyer’s new production of the Ring for the Los Angeles Opera. The text is followed more or less respectfully. Brunnhilde walks with spear, breastplate and metal headdress.
Mr. Chéreau’s primary innovation was updating the time of the opera to the Industrial Revolution – roughly Wagner’s own era. In the years that have followed, and perhaps due to the production’s worldwide acclaim, setting a work in the era in which it was composed (as opposed to the time specified in the libretto) has become something of a cliché of opera production, a standard choice for directors with no fresh ideas of their own.
What still stands out as arresting is the sheer vitality of the acting. Watching opera on television can be a stultifying experience, but Mr. Chéreau’s Ring is made compelling by the intensely focused, emotionally vibrant performances. Catching opera performances on film and video can sometimes reveal the melodramatic clichés and stock generalities that can affront – or amuse – people used to the more subtle standards of first-rate theater. But the singers in this production seem to be fully inhabiting their characters, bringing Wagner’s epic family drama to life so vividly that it sometimes almost verges on the pulpy. It’s the only time I’ve ever sat down to watch an opera on television and felt an unmistakable craving for popcorn.
By Zachary Woolfe April 26, 2011 | 4:57 p.m
Near the end of Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, which opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday, there is a moment of arresting visual beauty. The raked stage slowly rises and, with the help of projections, turns into a looming, stark, snow-covered mountain. It’s a breathtaking transformation, one that encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Mr. Lepage’s work.
This scenic shift takes place right after the god Wotan has been forced, harrowingly, to disown his favorite daughter, Brünnhilde. She lies on the ground in shock; he has turned away in grief. Our attention should be fixated on the tortured pair as the orchestra swells in solemn sympathy, but instead we watch in awe as the massive set—a series of enormous, seesaw-style beams that together weigh about 45 tons—noisily creaks its way upward. It’s only after 30 seconds or so, when the passage is over, that we remember that there are two people onstage in desperate pain. That Mr. Lepage has chosen to draw us away from them at this crucial interval turns out to be disastrously typical of his costly production.
Many people assume that the Ring is about size and splendor, but as Alex Ross observed in last week’s New Yorker, the cycle is ultimately not about spectacle but is rather “a deconstruction of power, the dismantling of grandeur.” Tracing an eerily familiar story of the gods who want to hang on to power at any cost, as well as those who can glimpse a new world order, most of the Ring is, in fact, disconcertingly intimate—far closer to Ingmar Bergman than to Cecil B. DeMille. And yet too often in the new production, Mr. Lepage keeps giving us the DeMille—big, often gorgeous stage pictures—because, you suspect, he’s worried that the Bergman material isn’t enough to keep our attention.
In Walküre, the second of the Ring’s four parts, Mr. Lepage does some stunning things. As with his production of the cycle’s prelude, Das Rheingold, the beginning is a high point. He brings the opening storm to vivid life: We are in a sky full of dark, rushing clouds; then we are in the middle of a forest during a snowstorm; then we are inside a hut glowing with firelight. It is sweeping and evocative, showing off the set’s much-touted ability to swiftly morph into the cycle’s dozens of settings.
So Mr. Lepage understands the mixture of stylization and realism that can make us seem to see what we are hearing. But far too often, his interventions undermine his cast’s connection with the audience. There’s that scene change on the mountaintop, which diverts us from one of the opera’s most intense moments. Even worse, once the snowy mountain is in place and Wotan and Brünnhilde confront each other with heartbreaking candor, Mr. Lepage further undercuts the performers by distracting us with projections of avalanches. These have no inspiration in the libretto or score; they’re just punctuation, something to keep us from getting bored. But it’s hard to imagine anyone being bored by one of the most moving, riveting scenes in the opera, as Wotan finally forgives his rebellious daughter before abandoning her forever.
A sure sign that Mr. Lepage doesn’t quite trust the text he’s been given to interpret is that the most effective of Wagner’s radically extended monologues are the ones with which he feels most compelled to interfere. To Siegmund’s Act I description of his troubled childhood, Mr. Lepage adds an unfortunately Disney-ish animated shadow illustration of the story. Later, when Wotan tells Brünnhilde the dark story of the Nieblung’s ring, Mr. Lepage has an eyeball emerge from the floor; onto it he projects, dutiful as CliffsNotes, the narrative’s key images. But when you have, as Siegmund and Wotan, two of the world’s greatest singing actors—the tenor Jonas Kaufmann and the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, respectively—you need to guide them and focus their emotions, not distract from them or compete with them for the audience’s attention.
As in Mr. Lepage’s Rheingold, the performers seem largely to have, if anything, been left to their own devices, a lack of cohesiveness not helped by James Levine’s erratic conducting, including a lethargic first act. Sometimes the absence of directorial attention worked out all right: Mr. Kaufmann, an intensely eloquent, intelligent singer, used his focused, dark tone to project Siegmund’s wounded cautiousness, his sense of isolation. The mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, a resplendent Fricka, seemed more vocally comfortable than she had in Rheingold.
But this is Wotan’s opera, dominated by his agonized monologues about his tragic lust for power, his fears about losing everything. While Mr. Terfel sings richly, he could, with the help of a more acute director, broaden his emotional range and turn a powerful performance into an unforgettable one. The soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, making her Met debut as Sieglinde, seemed blandly generalized before withdrawing due to illness after Act I.
Perhaps most egregiously, Mr. Lepage hasn’t helped to guide the soprano Deborah Voigt, singing her first-ever Brünnhilde, past stock expressions of grief—fake crying and awkward contortions—in the final act. We should always respect the risk-taking that separates true artists from merely good singers, but Ms. Voigt was disappointing. As always, she was a warm, tender presence, pointing the text with clarity. But her tone has turned edgy and thin in the past few years. She now lacks the vocal flexibility to capture all the facets of this complex character, a task made more difficult in a production allergic to complexities.
The only complexities are, alas, logistical ones. Act I seems to take place behind a low wall, such that we only see the performers from the knees up. The set was noisy throughout the opera, and the huge planks bounced disturbingly as the singers climbed on them. On Ms. Voigt’s first entrance, she tripped trying to step onto a particularly steep section, and Ms. Blythe at one point seemed terrifyingly close to stumbling off the structure entirely.
These flaws, though, are minor and fixable. The production’s deeper problem is its utter lack of vision and lack of trust in the intelligence and power of the work and the talented cast. Mr. Lepage might justify his emphasis on visual splendor at the expense of a deep reading of this rich text as a post-ideological reaction to the grandly charged Ring stagings of directors like Patrice Chéreau. But it looks more and more like he just doesn’t have any ideas.
Next season brings Mr. Lepage’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Perhaps we should be optimistic: As Wotan says in Act II of Die Walküre, “Things can suddenly happen that have never happened before.” But Mr. Lepage’s Ring has thus far been so opposed to the spirit of the cycle that the prospect of the final two installments is more depressing than exciting.
OKAY…SHE IS JABBA THE HUT! I didn’t even have to Photoshop this one. She actually looks like Jabba right? If the Met insists on casting this glorified tuning fork (who CAN’T act to save her life), they need to update the librettos so the soprano’s disease is diabetes instead of consumption. Consumption makes you skeletal. With diabetes it makes more sense if you’re morbidly obese.
Last night I had the craziest dream. It was about a giant fat slug that was holding a prisoner hostage in golden S&M garb…
“Gelb, mah bukee, keel-ee caleya ku kah. Wanta dah moole-rah?”
Turns out, it was no dream!!! This is actually happening backstage, at the Met, at this very moment. Jabba the Blythe has taken Bryn Terfel as her sex slave, and he’s being held hostage in a gold sex suit. She’s placed a bounty on Peter Gelb’s head…apparently he owes her money for the expensive Ring Cycle and she won’t release Terfel until the debt is paid.
Boonowa tweepi, ha, ha. Gelb! Hay lapa no ya, Gelb!
The press alleged the reinforcement of the Met stage was due to the expensive machine for the Ring production, but it was actually because Jabba the Blythe was going to spend over 2 hours on that stage…Nothing could support that kind of weight…NOTHING!
Gelb, ma bukee. Bargon yanah coto da eetha. See fah luto twentee, ee yaba…
Princess Anna “Will Lay Ya” Netrebko has placed information vital to the Rebellion in the systems of the Met’s HD broadcasts…this is our MOST desperate hour! Help us Met patrons…you’re our only hope! Help us Met patrons…you’re our only hope! Help us Met patrons…you’re our only hope!
“you’ll never get that bucket of bolts past the blockade! Or that gigantic ass!!!”
“My dream would be an empty stage…EMPTY! One chair, and bodies!” - Natalie Dessay
This quote always comes to mind whenever I see/read a review for a new opera production. Too often, opera lovers quibble over the sets and costumes, as opposed to focusing on what’s really important: the drama on stage; I just want to see if the director has brought out nuanced performances from the cast. Is the acting real? Do the singers inhabit their characters?
The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of The Ring Cycle is a great example. Much has been made over the giant unit set that functions as…well…anything! It’s a costly contraption that features a series of rotating planks able to morph into forests, rivers, Valhalla…again anything!
Much has been made about the device malfunctioning, how it looks, if it’s distracting…etc. What I haven’t heard much about, is if Robert Lepage has actually spent time working with his cast to develop the characters and to tell a story.
Of what little I’ve seen/read, it would appear that the cast is awash in a giant high-tech sea. I suppose the technical aspects of the production are of more concern to Mr. Lepage, but not having seen the production, I’ll never really know.
But opera audiences are just as guilty. The new production of La Traviata features next to no scenery and, sure enough, audiences used to Zeffirelli’s bloated circus have taken issue. But I was moved by the production, particularly the internalized, focused performances of the cast. In this Traviata, stories and characters come first and chandeliers come second - or in this case, not at all.
After all the ballyhoo that attended last year’s Tosca, a friend and I were surprised to enjoy certain aspects of the production. Article after article claimed what a disaster the production turned out to be and much was made of the drab sets and costumes. I had no problem with the sets or the new stage business that had been concocted by Luc Bondy. As many pointed out, Tosca is a dark story about power and greed not the picturesque fairy tale it’s often presented as. I was disappointed by the stock operatic gestures and the unmotivated acting that one expects when attending a Zeffirelli production.
It was telling, when afterward, waiting for the subway, a friend and I ran into a composer at our school. I had expressed my dismay at the terrible acting, and the composer turned to me and said, “as long as it sounds and looks pretty. Fine by me!” Case closed.