For those who missed this season's Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, take heart. You didn't miss much. Wagner's titanic four-part saga of the downfall of the gods in the Met's new production by Robert Lepage was a mostly depressing and vapid affair. It illustrates what can be accomplished when a virtually limitless budget is applied to realize a production that has no original ideas.
Wagner's great creation, of course, is mythical in conception and monumental in execution. Because it is mythical there is no reason for the Ring to be staged in the German woods and forests, even though the Rhine plays a central role in the tetralogy. The Rhine could be any river, and it is nonspecific to Germany. The Ring has been staged with great success in the forests of the American Northwest by the Seattle Opera, and less successfully by Francesca Zambello in the American West for the joint Washington/San Francisco production, among others.
Still, there must be some thought behind a production of the Ring other than "what can I do next with this absurd stage machinery that I have created?" Lepage's stage contraption, known to the Met's General Director Peter Gelb as "the Machine," is a collection of large panels that rotates and revolves on the same axis. The singers in the cast, whose primary job after all is to sing Wagner's stupendously difficult music, spend much of their time trying to avoid being flattened by the Machine.
Occasionally there are impressive moments, as when the gods cross the rainbow bridge to enter Valhalla at the conclusion of Das Rheingold or when Wotan and Loge descend into Nibelheim to confront Alberich and seize the ring of power. One of the great challenges in all opera is staging the end of the world that concludes Die Götterdämmerung. Lepage's realization of that cataclysmic event is so tepid, even foolish that the Met audience was left tittering at the absurdity of it.
The singing in the principal roles was adequate, which is accomplishment enough in this era so lacking in great Wagnerian voices. Still, the singers deserve great credit in making something musical out of the antics they were often asked to perform. Meriting special distinction were Stephanie Blythe's Fricka and Eric Owens' menacing, hate-filled Alberich. Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde, although both are among our most distinguished singers, were simply miscast. Jonas Kaufmann may yet be one of our great Siegmunds, at least for those who remember Placido Domingo's peerless portrayal of that doomed character. The Met Orchestra played with distinction for Fabio Luisi, although the special fire that is lit in Wagner by James Levine was absent.
Some say this Ring was conceived by the Met with HD broadcast in mind. The New York critics seem generally to agree that this Ring was even less compelling in the theater than on the big screen. The Met's HD broadcasts present great promise for the company, but they also may put the in-house theatrical experience at risk.
This reviewer finds the Met in HD broadcasts generally unsatisfying, although for an out-of-towner, they are better than not being able to see the Met's productions at all. Next year is the Wagner bicentennial, and one can only hope that other companies with the resources to stage the Ring will do better than did the Met, even if they have fewer financial resources at their disposal. Come to think of it, maybe throwing fewer dollars at Lepage's Ring would have made it less undisciplined and ultimately more successful.