An Immense Epic of Turbulence, The Ring Works Its Magic Again

The other day, when I asked a young friend of mine if he was interested in joining me for a Saturday matinee performance of Siegfried at the Met, he reacted as though I’d suggested a weekend in Falluja. He’d never been to a Wagner opera and couldn’t imagine spending a fine spring afternoon listening to oversized singers squabbling in German. Recalling what William Berger says in his entertainingly helpful book Wagner Without Fear -”This is the opera veteran Wagnerites use to scare newcomers”-I admitted that Siegfried could be an ordeal, since the hero’s a bit of a jerk and the vocal requirements are so demanding that one can hardly think of a tenor who has the chops for the part.

And yet, with trepidation, my friend accepted the invitation. Before the performance, I filled him in on the events that had preceded this, the third installment in the four-opera Ring cycle: The evil dwarf Alberich’s theft of the Rhinemaidens’ gold, out of which he forges the omnipotent, accursed ring; the bad deal that Wotan, king of the gods, makes with the giants who have built his outlandish dream palace, Valhalla; Wotan’s wrath at his favorite Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, for disobeying his orders not to protect his son Siegmund, who has fallen incestuously in love with his twin sister, Sieglinde-a union that will produce the boy wonder, Siegfried.

After the snarling orchestral prelude to Act I gave way to Mime’s marvelously dyspeptic declaration of his plan to trick Siegfried, his wild foster-child, into slaying the current keeper of the ring, Fafner the dragon; and after the breathless arrival of Siegfried himself, with bear in tow, I glanced over at my friend. He was riveted-and he stayed that way for the next five and a half hours to the very end, when the young hero subdues Wotan and rushes through the circle of fire to discover sleeping Brünnhilde and the radiance of love.

Once again, the most astonishing theater piece ever written had worked its magic. George Bernard Shaw, a famous Wagner buff, was right when he urged “modest citizens” not to disqualify themselves “from enjoying The Ring by their technical ignorance of music.” Shaw added, “There is not a single bar of ‘classical music’ in The Ring -not a note in it that has any other point than the single direct point of giving musical expression to the drama.”

That insight goes to the heart of The Ring ‘s magnetism, which has made it the Met’s most cough-proof draw for more than a century. The four Saturday afternoon performances that I attended, each of which was broadcast throughout North America, were sold out. The current staging, by the German director Otto Schenk, dates from the late 1980′s, and it’s been perhaps the most popular Ring in the Met’s history.

It’s also been the most reviled of recent Ring s, especially among Wagnerites who feel that the cycle’s immense complexity needs to be inflected with a little attitude in order to reach today’s dumbed-down philistines. The Ring far surpasses all other operatic works as an invitation to interpretation, thanks to its paradoxical combination of mythological rituals and melodramatic plot twists. Its myriad themes touch on more human frailties than came out of Pandora’s box. An epic of turbulence, it ends on an admonitory note that has assumed ever more urgency in the last terrible century and in the terrible first decade of the new one: The gods are finished, they’re history, and only we are responsible for what happens to us.

Like Shakespeare, The Ring has the power to transfix you with magnificent language-in this case, the all-enveloping splendor of the music-while making you squirm with self-recognition. In recent years, the most “advanced” productions have concentrated on the squirm factor, the idea being to reduce Wagner’s vast vision to a scold about the evils of materialism, the evils of sexism, the evils of fundamentalism-what have you.

The Schenk staging sticks resolutely to an older tradition: Let the magnificence flow and meaning will take care of itself. It’s a retrogressive approach that I’ve applauded for years (though, having just completed my fourth go-round of this production, my enjoyment may have finally run its course). What Mr. Schenk and the set and projection designer, Günther Schneider-Siemssen, the costume designer Rolf Langenfass and the lighting designer Gil Wechsler realized is that somewhere in this cornucopia of timely concerns is a fairy tale trying to get out. Replete with sets and costumes out of the Brothers Grimm and special effects out of George Lucas, the Met’s Ring puts into the mix the one member of the human family Wagner never showed much interest in-the child in all of us.

In keeping with a house whose Ring s have featured virtually every great Wagner singer of the past 100 years (Lilli Lehmann, Albert Niemann, Olive Fremstad, Frida Leider, Friedrich Schorr, Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Hans Hotter, Wolfgang Windgassen, Astrid Varnay, Birgit Nilsson and Hildegard Behrens, among others), the current Ring has availed itself of most of the world’s top Wagnerians. The challenge brought out their best, and even when the voices faltered-which they seldom did-there was the Met’s mighty orchestra, under James Levine, to fill the ears with wave after wave of sumptuous, expertly delivered sound.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more strongly cast, more seamlessly paced Das Rheingold . Richard Paul Fink, a young American baritone of keen dramatic and vocal agility, showed that Alberich will retain all his desperate menace during the next generation. Another newcomer to the production, the Austrian mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef, was a refreshingly warm and unshrewish Fricka. And there, once again, as her impossibly errant husband, Wotan, was James Morris, still holding his own and minus the vocal wobble he’s had of late-but looking rather like the old coach who’s been through too many playoffs.

Die Walkürie reunited the ageless Plácido Domingo, who brought to Siegmund the sort of Italianate lyricism that Wagner wanted in his singers (but has seldom got), and Deborah Voigt, who forged her own incomparable ring of vocal gold as Sieglinde. And, yes, we were treated yet again to the Met’s Brünnhilde of choice, Jane Eaglen. To my ears, this enormous artist offers a very mixed treat: a clarion top register that becomes a wan, unmusical shadow of itself in the middle and lower registers and delivers no hint of the character’s vulnerability. Two operas later, in Die Götterdämmerung , she managed to bring down the house (and, figuratively, the Hall of the Gibichungs) with those steely high notes, but by this time her ability to penetrate the unforgiving sound-mass of Mr. Levine and his troops seemed like a stunt. Brünnhilde is by far the most complex of Wagner’s oh-so-pure heroines, but the only real complex character onstage was the Hagen of the venerable Finnish bass Matti Salminen, who gave this deeply unlikable villain a Shakespearean grandeur I hadn’t seen before. (Earlier, he made a wonderfully chilly, cavernous Fafner.) I eagerly await Ms. Voigt’s ascendancy to the Valkyrie goddess, which I suspect will occur any day now.

Siegfried , to everyone’s delight, finally landed a real Siegfried in the person of Jon Frederic West. His triumph in the most punishing of heldentenor roles was a surprise. I’d heard this veteran American tenor give fine but not especially memorable performances at the Met as Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos and Eric in The Flying Dutchman , but neither role demands what this one so inhumanely calls for: four hours of all-out singing, much of it above a dense, high-decibel orchestra, climaxing with 20 minutes of impassioned vocal ecstasy. Short and stout, Mr. West is scarcely the picture of impetuous adolescence. His vocal timbre lacks distinctive beauty. Nonetheless, he sang all the notes and all the words with thrust and sense. He brought out the cruel callowness of the young man toward his greedy guardian Mime (powerfully sung by Gerhard Siegel) and brandished his magical sword Notung with a good stab at panache. Best of all, he was indefatigable. If he lacked the ringing splendor of the most celebrated Siegfried of the last century, Lauritz Melchior, he seemed the incarnation of our present government’s heedless approach to the world’s shadowy evils-a Siegfried for our time, a Siegfried without fear.