Sunday, 12 February 2012

Götterdämmerung, Met Opera Live, 11 February 2012

Metropolitan Opera, New York: HD Live, viewed at BFI IMAX

Brünnhilde – Deborah Voigt
Gutrune – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Waltraute – Waltraud Meier
Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris
Gunther – Iain Paterson
Alberich – Eric Owens
Hagen – Hans-Peter König
First Norn – Maria Radner
Second Norn – Elizabeth Bishop
Third Norn – Heidi Melton
Woglinde – Erin Morley
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnson Cano
Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford

Robert Lepage (director)
Neilson Vignola (associate director)
Carl Fillion (set designs)
François St-Aubin (costumes)
Etienne Boucher (lighting)
Lionel Arnould (video image artist)

Patricia Racette (‘Live in HD’ host)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Fabio Luisi (conductor)

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. With the caveat that this is the only instalment of Robert Lepage’s Met Ring that I have seen, it really is as bad as everyone has said it is. In the face of uniformly negative reviews – I am sure there will be exceptions, but they have not come to my notice – Götterdämmerung proved to be one of the most vacuous productions of anything I have ever seen. Even the Otto Schenk production that this replaced seems in retrospect a monument to Wagner’s ‘emotionalisation of the intellect’ (the desired mode for reception of his yet-to-be-composed tetralogy, according to Opera and Drama). Well, not quite, but here, I am afraid, there is simply nothing. There has been a peculiar recent trend of presenting ideas-free or at least ideas-lite Ring cycles: witness Stéphane Braunschweig in Aix and Guy Cassiers in Berlin (and Milan). However one could fail to entertain any thoughts, however misplaced, about the Ring is a conundrum too far for me, but Lepage seems to have hit rock bottom. So far as I can discern, his only concern is the ‘machine’, about which we have all heard far too much already. A preposterously expensive mechanism for scene changes and video projections – disturbingly similar to Ex Machina’s ‘Cirque du Soleil’ – is not a substitute, or rather it is but not should be, for dramatic direction. A production that took technology as its starting-point could have a great deal to say. How about, say, starting with Victorian phantasmagoria in Nibelheim and making our way forward? (Memories of Patrice Chéreau’s hydroelectric dam necessarily return.) But here we simply have duller costumes than in Schenk, and video projections of a few natural phenomena. What is the drama about? What is at stake? The nihilism of Götterdämmerung, or at least that dramatised therein - Chéreau rightly characterised the world of the Gibichung court as ageing, pointing to the increasing desperation of its rituals, which seek some sort of moral code in a post-religious society that knows no morality, indeed finds it impossible to ‘know’ – is quite a different matter from presenting nothing at all. The mock-up horse seems so designed to appease ‘traditionalists’ that it would surely have been more honest to go the whole hog, if you will forgive the mixing of equine and porcine, and present a real animal on stage. It all looks at best like an expensive version of a school Viking play. Poor Waltraud Meier really pulls the short straw with Waltraute’s silly helmet.

Enough! If even the lobotomised would require a further lobotomy to find anything in the production, was there anything at least worth hearing? The score, after all, is not without interest. Fabio Luisi’s conducting was better than we tend to hear at Covent Garden; there was little of the stopping and starting that must be endured here post-Haitink. But if corners were for the most part safely navigated, the reading nevertheless struggled to rise above the efficient. How depressing it is to write that! In a brief interval conversation with Patricia Racette – may I never hear her inane questioning again! – Luisi claimed that he wished to rid the work of heavy German tradition. He accomplished that after a fashion, I suppose, but it might have been worth him considering whence that disparaged tradition arose. This was not a chamber reading – there is, up to a point, a place for such – but a dull one, quite uninvolving throughout. Again, I should remind you that we are talking about Götterdämmerung here. Choral singing, I am delighted to report, was excellent. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus was clearly well-trained, and sang with admirable heft, as well as clarity.

Meier’s Waltraute was, unsurprisingly, a highlight. Somehow she managed to wring some drama from the situation: she did so as only she can, with her extraordinary intensifying synthesis of word and gesture. Iain Paterson was an excellent Gunther, conflicted and insecure, and Wendy Bryn Harmer offered an excellent, complementary Gutrune, often quite beautiful of tone. Hans-Peter König’s Hagen was interesting. There were times when I thought him too benevolent, but his portrayal won me around: a nasty turn thereafter suggested that it might actually have been an act, Hagen’s act. We were left guessing. Sad to say, I missed Eric Owens’s Alberich: confusion – entirely my own fault – concerning the interval timings meant that I missed the very opening of the second act, surely one of the most extraordinary scenes in this extraordinary drama. Owens certainly received a rapturous curtain call. As for Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde, I have heard worse, but the view that her weight loss entailed a great deal of vocal loss seemed pretty close to confirmation here. There was a dignity to her portrayal that promised more than it delivered, but if hardly memorable, there was no disgrace here either. Jay Hunter Morris should probably be applauded for managing, more or less, to sing the well-nigh impossible role of Siegfried – we all have horror stories to recount in that respect – but there were times when he sounded strained, even in a recorded balance that offered undue emphasis to the singers. Moreover, this was a role for the most part presented as opposed to lived. The production of course did not help, but Meier and Paterson in particular showed what might nevertheless be done by intelligent singing-actors. Intelligence, alas, was not something with which Lepage and company credited their audience.

It was unfortunate that much of the final scene of the first act was vitiated by some problem with transmission. First an unpleasant noise replaced the music, then silence. Whether this were the fault of the broadcast or the cinema, I do not know. Strange computer announcements appeared on screen from time to time, too, and there were problems with the subtitles (quite apart from the often questionable translation). I shall not bore readers with too many of my thoughts concerning opera in the cinema – I have come rather late in the day to it, this being my first time – but this was, for whatever reasons, a far less involving experience than I had anticipated, and it would be good to hear a balance that sounded a little closer to what one might hear in the opera house. Wagner's great Chorus, the orchestra, suffered especially.

(See also the review by Classical Iconoclast, including links to reviews of previous instalments.)


Doundou Tchil said...

The interaction between Waltraud Meier and Deborah Voigt was priceless. Meier is too poised to glare but you can imagine what shew thought!

Gavin Dixon said...

Hi Mark. I'll probably be on my own here, but let me put in a short word in defence of the production. Lepage is clearly intent on telling the story in as straightforward a way as possible. Too straightforward perhaps, but in this of all works, the director can rely on the music to elaborate its psychology and significance. Signs and symbols in a production are all very well, but can easily become excessive, as Keith Warner has recently demonstrated. And the narrative focus of this production is helped by good casting and, for the most part, good acting too. That said, Lapage could have worked out some more meaningful interactions between the singers on the stage, and the 2nd half of Act 3 was mostly just standing and singing at the audience, but up until then I thought it worked very well.

Anonymous said...

I attended the performance at the Met; your comments on the conductor are unfounded and I think based on 1) knowledge gained by listening to recordings or other performances, rather than via the score and an open mind (i.e. it didn't sound like Goodall or whoever) and 2) the poor conditions under which you experienced the reading which you admitted to. In the "flesh" the dynamics were beautifully and aptly handled so that real climaxes registered as such, not as just triple-forte badly-balanced bluster. The solo winds played with great nuance and flexibility of tempo, so that solos were memorable (clarinet!). The phrasing of thematic material was very sensitively shaped (through agogic accent, dynamics, tone color) so that, for example, the music associated with Gutrune was magically lovely. The conversations between characters (i.e. the scene when we meet the Gibichungs, the plotting "Terzett" at the end of Act II) really came off as such due to the pacing. This aided the drama. An example of the care taken and beauty evoked: when the "Blutbrudershaft" melody comes "horning in" in that Act II "trio", it was really "Sehr getragen" and when the second "verse" came in, the rhythmic difference at the end of the phrases (1st time crotchet triplet, second time quavers) really told. One could go on detailing the felicities that imparted great poignancy and emotion. How could you hear this under the conditions you described? And you missed the scene between Alberich and Hagen that opens the second act. Incidentally, this is not known as "Hagen's watch"; that is rather the scene in Act One after Siegfried and Gunther depart to "obtain" Bruennhilde ("Hier sitz' ich zur Wacht..."). At any rate, you remarked as follows regarding the cinema transmission:
"but this was, for whatever reasons, a far less involving experience than I had anticipated, and it would be good to hear a balance that sounded a little closer to what one might hear in the opera house". So was it fair to criticize the conductor under these circumstances? Hardly.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you for your comment and first of all for the correction to my mental aberration. (I was in a rush and writing at speed, but should nevertheless have checked more thoroughly.) What I had meant to say was 'the end of Hagen's watch,' which of course that scene is, but even that might read ambiguously, so I have replaced the offending phrase with 'opening of the second act'. I am also very interested to hear of what you discerned in Luisi's reading. The sound was a problem, I am sure, but to a good degree, I think one's ears begin to adjust (not that they should have to do so, given the much-trumpeted nature of the enterprise). Otherwise, how would one ever reach any sort of judgement concerning so-called 'historical' recordings? What I can say is that your first point is quite unfounded. To say that my knowledge of the 'Ring' is limited only to listening to other recordings and other performances is simply not the case. I have no wish to trumpet my credentials, such as they might be, so shall leave it at that.

Doundou Tchil said...

Dear Anonymous, If you're in NYC, you'll know about the criticism about Luisi, which I hap0pen not bto agree with, but it exists. So what if his approach isn't like Levine? Luisi has his own style and is respected in Europe at any rate. Unless you heard the broadcast, you can't comment on the sound engineering. The balance was badly distorted for whatever reason (I can think of at least one) and spoiled what was probably a good performance (bar the horns). But we can only say what we heard. In any case, the orchestra is only one element in any true Gesammtkunstwerk. And the rest of this was a mess.

Brainpack said...

Mark, thanks for your review! I cannot agree with you more on the lack of emotional involvement in Lepage's Ring.

At the end, Debra Voigt/Bruennhilde struggled to swing over this mechanic horse, then we were treated with the view of a not-very-attractive backside of both the horse AND Debra being led away VERY SLOWLY...oh why oh why?!!!

On Fabio Luisi's "Kapellmeister"...oops, that would be doing other great Kapellmeisters a gross injustice, let say, "Schulmeister"'s lacklustre conducting, suffice it to say it was not gripping. This is Goetterdammerung, after all!!!

But I am grateful for the MET Live broadcast, despite of all its flaws...the BIG PLUS of being able to experience this great music from afar is just fantastic!

Anonymous said...

[Anonymous rears ugly head again].
You stated:
"reading nevertheless struggled to rise above the efficient ... This was not a chamber reading – there is, up to a point, a place for such – but a dull one, quite uninvolving throughout. Again, I should remind you that we are talking [sic] about Götterdämmerung here."
This sort of summary judgment consists of meaningless, which is to say, unsupported generalities. Please adduce evidence culled from the written score to bolster your claim that the performance "struggled to rise above the efficient", and was "a dull one, quite uninvolving throughout". And what the hell is a "chamber reading" (something not loud enough?)??? And what bearing does "again, I should remind you that we are talking [sic] about Götterdämmerung here" have on the discussion other than to contribute an obvious tautology? What should the conductor have done that he didn't do? Were rhythms and tempo relationships distorted? Were balances awry (as if you could tell given the circumstances of your audition). Etc., etc. Don't answer with vagaries. Please present confirmation of the deficiencies you heard from the written music so that we might learn something.
Unsupported "thought-bite" generalizations have become the bane of published criticism, allowing condemnation without evidence, indictment by superficial impression and besmirching of reputations without the need to demonstrate a confirming diagnostic expertise. Calling something "dull", for example, requires no skill; illustrating the reason does. Why join the ranks of those who pander "opinions" without meaning?