Robert Lepage’s new Metropolitan Opera production of the Ring is being staged in collaboration with the director’s own multidisciplinary company Ex Machina. Ironically enough, my attention was drawn to this fact during the long wait for the delayed May 14 matinee of Die Walküre to begin. Locked out of the auditorium, the audience was given no indication as to the cause of the problem, and the Met seemed either too panic-stricken or embarrassed—a high-profile hitch, it was also witnessed by hundreds of thousands of radio listeners and cinema viewers around the globe—to explain why the performance eventually ran 45 minutes late. Speculation was fairly evenly split between a set malfunction and the possibility that the frail James Levine was too ill to conduct, and eventually it transpired that a spiteful deus ex machina had struck at the stage, not for the first time in this troubled project’s history. A sensor in one of the giant planks that make up the set had needed replacement before the show could start.
Seemingly the Met’s answer to Broadway’s accident-prone Spider-Man, this Ring cycle has involved reinforcement of the stage and is rumoured to be costing a staggering $40 million. Even if a figure of half that—as has been claimed by the Met’s defence—is closer to the mark, it would not be money well spent. ‘Lepage aux folles’, as Martin Bernheimer has dubbed it, involves an ugly and cumbersome mobile sculpture (set design by Carl Fillion) made of multiple planks that twist and contort into various singer-unfriendly obstacle courses. Sure, the tree trunk we see at the start of Die Walküre tips up to make the roof of Hunding’s hut; by Act 3 the planks have become see-saws on which the Valkyries ride make-believe steeds, but their horseplay not only looked absurd but felt cautious (at least one of their number had hurt herself at an earlier performance). The planks also allow for the projection of naive shadow-play onto the set, supplying, for instance, an irrelevant illustration of Siegmund’s story of the Wölfing family. For the kitschy Magic Fire, Brünnhilde is replaced by a body-double who hangs upside down. So Cirque du Soleil, so … so what? In an effort not to frighten operatically conservative New Yorkers, this expensive white elephant comes complete with semi-traditional costumes (François St-Aubin) straight out of a Wagner comic book. It’s hard to believe that this audience—passionate enough about its singers—is really serious: applause broke out with the drop of the final curtain, a good few seconds before the end of the quiet chord that the orchestra strove to balance so well.
Making it all worthwhile were the high musical standards enforced by Levine. Though the stricken conductor had reportedly struggled through some recent performances, here he started off with surprising vigour, and—even more surprisingly—maintained it. Tempos were fleet, even by his own previous standards, and his wonderful orchestra played with glowing focus and definition. With a feeling for the huge musical arches, he never allowed the dramatic energy to slacken, nor did he ever compromise the music’s great expansiveness. Levine is not scheduled to conduct at the Met again until October, and many must have wondered whether they were witnessing what will prove to have been his last performance. If so, it will have been a worthy farewell from one who has served the house with such distinction.
Vocal standards were similarly high, and it is hard to imagine a better all-round cast being assembled anywhere else today. But with Lepage offering no Personenregie and precious little other illumination, each singer was left to upload their most generalized interpretation. Tackling his first Siegmund, Jonas Kaufmann’s coolly-acted and sometimes self-conscious character may have lacked the unfettered ardour of his great predecessors on this stage, but he sang with subtle musicianship and had reserves of power for a thrilling ‘Wälse’. Together with the Sieglinde of Eva-Maria Westbroek, making her Met debut, he brought shining ardour to the climax of Act 1. Westbroek supplied gleaming tone and showed once again what a serious artist she is (everything she wasn’t in Covent Garden’s Anna Nicole). Hans-Peter König was the admirably black-voiced Hunding.
Looking ludicrous (enthroned on a ram’s-head float) but sounding wonderful, Stephanie Blythe projected Fricka with laser-like clarity and more vocal substance than is usually heard in the part today. Bryn Terfel’s young personification of Wotan (quite bright at the top of his range to match this) could have done with firmer direction, and he made up a playful god as he went along, spanking Brünnhilde with his spear during her ‘Ho-jo-to-ho’, but especially in Act 2 he sang with absolute commitment and clarity. That leaves (in addition to an excellent team of Valkyries) the hard-working Brünnhilde of Deborah Voigt, in some ways an endearing figure but vocally out of place here, with a brittle, narrow-bore voice in comparison with those of Terfel and Blythe. Hers was the sort of Brünnhilde you’d be pathetically grateful to find in a provincial house, but which seemed overparted at the Met.