NEW YORK, Sept. 11, 2011 – The New York Metropolitan Opera’s new Robert Lepage production of Richard Wagner’s epic “Ring Cycle” of operas will air this week (September 11-14) in four installments on many local PBS channels. Wagner aficionados and perhaps even a few opera newbies will want to tune in to this cutting edge, high-tech production to see the kind of spectacular production an opera company can put together with an all-star cast and a better-than-average budget.
Many PBS stations aired “Wagner’s Dream,” Susan Froemke’s new documentary on this production yesterday evening in primetime. Easygoing in manner but unsparing in detail, this fast-paced film explored not only the joy of victory but the agony of defeat as the Met struggled last year to put its latest production of Wagner’s massive score on stage.
Headlined by star soprano Deborah Voigt in her first-ever appearance on stage as Brünnhilde, the Met’s new Ring, as outlined in the documentary, was initially plagued in rehearsal by glitch after glitch in its complex, computerized virtual set—a system of narrow, stair stepping platforms that resemble massive piano keys that can move in a variety of angles as each scene requires. The platforms in turn support subsystems of pulleys and wires while serving as a neutral backdrop for this Ring’s elaborate projected scenery.
The over all effect is at once modernist and traditional. But things didn’t quite work as planned on opening night last season when the tricky “Rainbow Bridge” effect that conclude Das Rheingold refused to play nice. Additional issues included a scary tumble by Deborah Voigt as she tried to negotiate a climb, along with serious personnel issues familiar to opera fans everywhere.
Chief of these was the iffy health of longtime Met music director James Levine. A chronic and dangerous back issue forced him to drop out as conductor of these performances, and has also led to an additional year’s absence from the Met this season as he attempts to achieve a full recovery.
Making matters worse, the Met lost its originally designated Siegfried, Ben Heppner, due, apparently, to either personal or artistic issues. Not long before the operas were scheduled to open, they also lost Heppner’s replacement, Gary Lehman, supposedly due to the lingering effects of a virus. Since there are only a handful of tenors in the world who are capable of handling this extraordinarily difficult tenor role, the Met got lucky and found that Texas-born tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who’d already understudied the role and had debuted as Siegrfried in San Francisco, would be available to step in, so they hired him on the spot.
In one of those stories that light up the world of live theater, Morris stepped right into the role with ease, singing brilliantly with scarcely any rehearsal while developing key romantic chemistry with Deborah Voigt whose earth-stranded Brünnhilde falls passionately in love with Siegfried.
While these real-life dramas remained in play, Froemke’s documentary also explored the hive of backstage activity, which includes what appeared to be an entire army of stagehands, lighting, and mechanical experts as well as a platoon of computer specialists who kept the endless special effects and visuals on track during each production.
Live theater, which indeed opera actually is, always involves a significant team effort and a high degree of professionalism to pull off, and Froemke’s film brilliantly explored both the technical scope and the individual efforts that all came together in the end to make this new Ring a spectacularly successful production in the end.
So now that the stage has been set, literally, the operas begin this evening. Met telecasts will be available to DC metro area residents on WETA in regular and high-definition formats. Check your own carrier’s listings for time and channel, and remember: WETA now has several channels and subchannels available.
For those new to Wagner’s epic, Das Rheingold, tonight’s offering, airs tonight. It’s a kind of prequel to the main action, detailing the origin of the curse of the ring, a story that’s familiar, in a different way, to fans of J.R.R. Tolkien but one that’s more deeply rooted in traditional northern European mythology.
Rheingold unfolds in one relatively short act, usually lasting two and one-half hours or so without intermission. It’s a good way to sample this kind of epic opera and see if you’re tempted to view the rest. (Check out the Met’s performance of the opening bars below.)
The remaining operas are considerably longer and may not be every new listener’s cup of tea, although true Ring aficionados, this critic included, won’t want to miss a single minute of this production. However, the final opera in the cycle, Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods”) usually clocks in at around five hours—count ‘em—punctuated by intermissions. So even die-hard Wagner fans might want to lay in a supply of popcorn, wine, and finger foods for Friday’s main event.
As Washington opera fans will recall, the last complete Ring Cycle actually produced here was brought to town in 1989 by the Deutsche Oper Berlin. It was an intriguing production that was set throughout in the depths of what seemed to be an underground tunnel in our own Metro system. We still feel lucky to have seen it, although Siegfried’s dragon could have been a bit more impressive.
The Washington National Opera has fully staged three of the four Ring operas as part of its new “American Ring” cycle. But WNO ran into fiscal problems, like many opera companies, as a result of the fiscal collapse of 2007-09, and was unable to fully stage Götterdämmerung or offer the complete cycle in order as it had originally planned.
Now that WNO is affiliated with the Kennedy Center, however, WNO might be able to get its own epic project back on the boards in the relatively near future, so stay tuned.
Meanwhile, it’s time to get your moneysworth out of your outrageous cable TV or FiOS bill. Courtesy of the Met, here’s a listing and brief description of each of the four operas in the Met’s Ring Cycle which starts tonight.
Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold)
(PBS: Tuesday, September 11)
Conducted by James Levine
Starring Wendy Bryn Harmer (Freia), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Patricia Bardon (Erda), Richard Croft (Loge), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Eric Owens (Alberich), Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt), Hans-Peter König (Fafner)
In the first opera in the Ring cycle, the gods of Valhalla clash with underworld dwarves and brawny giants, with disastrous consequences. The evil Alberich steals gold from the Rhine and uses it to forge a ring of unimaginable power. Wotan, the king of the gods, uses magic to steal the ring, but Alberich places a curse that guarantees misery for whoever wears it.
Wotan’s unwillingness to part with the ring leads him to break a contract with the giants who have built the gods’ new castle in the sky, setting in motion a chain of events that will end in his own destruction.
(Terry’s take: The action moves pretty quickly in this, the shortest of the four operas. For viewers new to the Ring, watch out for the evil dwarf Alberich, sung by Eric Owens who once trained here back in the day with the Wolf Trap Opera company. Alberich swipes the enchanted gold from the Rhinemaidens, setting in motion the curse that dominates the action of the next three operas. Special effects fans will want to listen for the pounding of a set of tuned anvils as the scene shifts to Alberich’s underground smelter. Also notable: the spectacular final orchestral march as the gods climb the rainbow bridge to their new digs in Valhalla. This may be the best special effect in the Met’s entire cycle, but there will be others as well to come.)
Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
(PBS: Wednesday, September 12)
Conducted by James Levine
Starring Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Hans-Peter König (Hunding)
The mysterious hero Siegmund finds shelter in the strangely familiar arms of a lonely woman named Sieglinde. Their forbidden love leads Wotan’s daughter, the warrior maiden Brünnhilde, to defy morality and intervene on behalf of the hero. Brünnhilde’s transgression forces her father to choose between his love for his favorite daughter and his duty to his wife, the formidable goddess Fricka. Overcome with grief, Wotan takes away Brünnhilde’s godlike powers and puts her to sleep on a mountaintop, surrounded by a ring of magic fire that can only be crossed by the bravest of heroes.
(Terry’s take: Walküre and the other operas are a good bit longer than the first. Part of this is due to the fact that Wagner knew full well that these operas, laboriously composed over many years, wouldn’t always be performed right after one another. So to help folks out, he works lengthy vocal “instant replays” into each opera in which one character or another narrates what happened in the last opera. Walküre, in spite of its title, is mostly focused on the tragic love story of Siegmund and Sieglinde, twins sired of an earthly mother by the god Wotan and separated not long after birth. Their incestuous relationship scandalized not a few in Wagner’s day, and things end tragically. Fortunately, we’re clued in that, in the end, Sieglinde will bear a heroic son named Siegfried.
In a bizarrely parallel romance, Wotan punishes his favorite daughter, Brünnhilde, by taking away her godly powers, putting her asleep, and surrounding her with a lake of fire that can only be overcome by an earthly hero who knows no fear. And guess who that will be?
Things to watch for: the spectacular entrance of Brünnhilde and her sisters, the Valkyries, whose collective job is to scoop up heroes who’ve just died in battle and bring them up to Valhalla where, apparently, they’ll be happy again hanging out with the gods. No one alive, opera fan or not, will fail to recognize the dramatic orchestral passages that describe the Valkyries’ flight.
Nearly always as spectacular: the finale where a regretful Wotan surrounds Brünnhilde with fire as the curtain—metaphorical or otherwise—falls.)
(PBS: Thursday, September 13)
Conducted by Fabio Luisi
Starring Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Patricia Bardon (Erda), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Bryn Terfel (The Wanderer), Eric Owens (Alberich)
The young hero Siegfried grows up in the wilderness, raised by Alberich’s conniving brother Mime. He puts together the broken pieces of the sword Nothung, uses it to slay the fearsome dragon 8overcome one more opponent—Wotan, now disguised as the Wanderer, who knows the world of the gods is coming to an end—and cross through the magic fire to awaken his true love, Brünnhilde.
(Terry’s take: Finally, we get to see the Ring’s romantic hero in this opera, the fearless and slightly goofy Siegfried, sung here quite spectacularly by last-minute replacement tenor Jay Hunter Morris. “Last minute replacements” are not uncommon in opera. Stars catch cold, miss flights, have hissy fits, it happens. Speaking of which, it was also at this point in the Cycle that the Met’s beloved conductor, James Levine, was compelled to bow out due to the aforementioned health concerns. He was replaced, quite ably, in the final two operas of the cycle by Fabio Luisi.
With regard to Jay Hunter Morris, stepping up to sing the character of Siegfried—a Met Siegfried—was no trivial matter, particularly when he’d never sung this role as the lead before. But like the Texan he was and is, Morris swaggers right into the role and makes it his own, becoming a kind of overnight sensation, particularly when you consider he started out his singing career by jamming with amateur garage bands. It’s a wonderful performance and a life-giving characterization.
The visual highlight (or sometimes lowlight) of this opera is always Siegfried’s epic battle with the giant dragon whom we last saw in the first opera and who now jealously guards the Rhine gold. The dragon in the preview shots of this production looked pretty good, but we’ll see how it works. The dragon in WNO’s “American Ring” Siegfried actually warmed the hearts of every environmental fanatic in the audience. It was a huge, clanking, smoke-belching, mountain-busting steam shovel, perhaps the most original “dragon” ever. The Met’s looks to be a bit more traditional.)
Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
(PBS: Friday, September 14)
Conducted by Fabio Luisi
Starring Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Gutrune), Waltraud Meier (Waltraute), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Iain Paterson (Gunther), Eric Owens (Alberich), Hans-Peter König (Hagen)
Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s love is torn apart by the curse of the ring. A trio of scheming humans separates the two heroes in a desperate attempt to steal the ring for themselves. Their villainous plan fails, but they succeed in murdering Siegfried. Heartbroken, Brünnhilde takes the ring and leaps into the hero’s funeral pyre, causing a global cataclysm and the twilight of the gods.
(Terry’s take: As we warned earlier, this one is the longest of the long, clocking in, generally, at five hours more or less including intermission. Load the tables in your media room with snacks, popcorn, crudites, and plenty of wine or designer brewski. But calibrate your beverage intake lest you have to head for the facilities before one of the intermissions.
This grand finale has a lot going on, in addition to the usual plot summaries, of course. Though Siegfried and Brünnhilde are now an item, Siegfried falls prey to his own naïveté and becomes friends with the nasty Hagen who, in short order, slips him a potion that causes him to forget some crucial stuff, namely that Siegfried and Brünnhilde are an item. Hagen sets Siegfried up to marry Hagen’s sister while Hagen “marries” a reluctant and indignant Brünnhilde, which all leads up to Hagen’s murder of the supposedly invulnerable Siegfried. The aim, ultimately, is to swipe the ring and all the Rhine gold for himself.
But, in one of the greatest moments in opera [if you’re still there in front of the TV] all this really torques Brünnhilde off and she reverts to Valkyrie form, destroying Hagen, his palace, and ultimately, Valhalla itself when she rides her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre.
This finale is often (though not always) the most visually impressive scene in the entire cycle, and, once Brünnhilde’s started the conflagration, the singing also stops (save for a final cry from Hagen) and the orchestra and special effects take over. We, like you, haven’t seen how the Met pulls this off in this production, but it’s usually worth the wait.
Runner-up scene: the dramatic, all instrumental funeral procession for Siegfried.)
Here’s wishing everyone an enjoyable operatic week on PBS. We plan to do a short review of each opera up in our music and theater column, “Curtain Up!” so check us out in that column for the rest of the week.
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