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.)