Monday, 7 November 2011

The Curse of the Ring - Siegfried and the Met

A project as big as Wagner's Ring is, or should be, planned years in advance, but the Met seems to have taken on board criticisms of this complex Ring cycle. But has it learned the real lesson of the Ring?

In this Siegfried, the notorious Machine isn't called upon to do anything spectacular. It's now a giant projection screen for a banal, generic light show, which could easily be achieved through simpler means. It's a tragic waste of the sophisticated technology available. Many will gloat, taking pleasure from seeing the biggest house in the country humbled. That's silly, short-term thinking, because technology is not the problem, but the way it is used. In the first two parts of the cycle, the Machine generated some very creative ideas, suggesting its potential as an artistic device, but now the buzz is gone. The Met's Faith in the Machine is no different to the old obsession with maximalist excess. Trouble is, trappings don't make opera any more than bling buys taste.

The whole point of the Ring is that Wagner doesn't equate wealth with virtue. Quite the contrary. So it's ironic that the old values of conspicuous consumption should override vision. But for many audiences, opera isn't about art, but about display and ostentation. So the Met is in a double bind.

This Siegfried is remarkably benign and ideas-free, almost Disneyfied.  Even Eric Owens's Alberich is more lovable than lethal. He sings well, but the non-direction limits the part to cartoon.  Owens deserved better. Gerhard Siegel is extremely experienced but this Mime sanitizes menace so it won't disturb, whatever the text and music tell us. Siegel is a wonderful artist, but this production isn't interested  in his  interpretive abilities. As he walks offstage, sweating under that heavy costume, he gets waylaid by Renée Fleming, who wants to make small talk. Siegel's naturally witty, so does good snappy one-liners, but his real job is singing, not playing along with chat-show farce. Evidently, the chatter is more important  to the Met than the artist or the role, because they think audiences must be kept amused and can't deal with deeper issues.  Sure it's interesting to see the mechanics of opera, but the chat is usually so artificial. Fleming feigns surprise when Siegel mentions his heart attack at the Met two years ago, her eyes fixed on the autocue above the camera.

During Die Walküre, Bryn Terfel brushed off the the chat, saying "Sorry, Renee, I've got another Act to sing". He was right. His first duty is to his art. He wanted to stay in character and rest his voice, not fritter it away. This time, though, they weren't going to let him escape.As the Wanderer, Wotan is distressed because he realizes he has little power now to influence events. Terfel's Wanderer simmered with suppressed violence. Terfel has never been part of the Establishment, despite his status. He's a natural outsider, who only plays the game when it suits him. This gives hisWotan its metaphysical intensity. Sometimes Terfel can be frustrating,  but here he was fully engaged. His voice bristled, breathing depth into every phrase, revealing the Wanderer's emotional complexity. Someone once told me, "Watch the eyes"  Actors who pose make the right gestures, but their eyes betray them. Terfel's eye(s) flash with many conflicting feelings, since he's so  instinctively in character that even involuntary muscles contribute to his portrayal.

Jay Hunter Morris is the answer to the Met's dreams. Like it or not, movie values influence opera these days and Morris has matinee idol good looks. Few seriously expected Ben Heppner to sing Siegfried in HD broadcast, at this stage in his career, whatever the state of his voice. (Gary Lehman would have been fine, and he can sing Tannhäuser). But Morris's sudden rise to prominence has sensation value. It's a Star is Born scenario everyone can sympathise with, so the Met is right to market it for all it's worth. This is exactly the magic this otherwise dull production needs to catch public attention. It's wonderful human interest and the audience gets to share the dream. You want to wish him well. Morris is fine, but the voice is pretty rather than truly lyrical.  It's not specially distinctive and unstable at the top. Many infelicities in this performance, though he evened out for the crucial final love duet. The Met publicity department makes a lot of the fact that it's a demanding role and that there aren't that many true Heldentenors around, but Morris is not a miracle discovery, though he's great box office.

This production is helped, too, by Fabio Luisi's light, almost Mozartean finesse, which was nicely vernal in the woodland scene, supporting Morris well. Having heard Mojca Erdmann live and on CD several times I was very worried about her Woodbird, but she sang it nicely. Pity about the staging though!  The mock-forest film projection was bad enough but the depiction of the bird was plain embarrassing. An oriole the size of a turkey, run in repeat loop so it flies in the same formation most of the time. Of course this is no natural bird, but this was so bad it would shame an amateur production. Disney would do it better.

Deborah Voigt's Brünnhilde was interesting because she made the connection between Brünnhilde and the  Woodbird, both of whom are critical to Siegfried's development.  Her fast, tight vibrato resonates like a bird, for Brünnhilde, now mortal, is nesting at last.  It's cosy and domestic, very charming.  A glorious Heil dir, Sonne! and she looks pleased with herself, as she should.

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