Near the end of Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, which opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday, there is a moment of arresting visual beauty. The raked stage slowly rises and, with the help of projections, turns into a looming, stark, snow-covered mountain. It’s a breathtaking transformation, one that encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Mr. Lepage’s work.
This scenic shift takes place right after the god Wotan has been forced, harrowingly, to disown his favorite daughter, Brünnhilde. She lies on the ground in shock; he has turned away in grief. Our attention should be fixated on the tortured pair as the orchestra swells in solemn sympathy, but instead we watch in awe as the massive set–a series of enormous, seesaw-style beams that together weigh about 45 tons–noisily creaks its way upward. It’s only after 30 seconds or so, when the passage is over, that we remember that there are two people onstage in desperate pain. That Mr. Lepage has chosen to draw us away from them at this crucial interval turns out to be disastrously typical of his costly production.
Many people assume that the Ring is about size and splendor, but as Alex Ross observed in last week’s New Yorker, the cycle is ultimately not about spectacle but is rather “a deconstruction of power, the dismantling of grandeur.” Tracing an eerily familiar story of the gods who want to hang on to power at any cost, as well as those who can glimpse a new world order, most of the Ring is, in fact, disconcertingly intimate–far closer to Ingmar Bergman than to Cecil B. DeMille. And yet too often in the new production, Mr. Lepage keeps giving us the DeMille–big, often gorgeous stage pictures–because, you suspect, he’s worried that the Bergman material isn’t enough to keep our attention.
In Walküre, the second of the Ring‘s four parts, Mr. Lepage does some stunning things. As with his production of the cycle’s prelude, Das Rheingold, the beginning is a high point. He brings the opening storm to vivid life: We are in a sky full of dark, rushing clouds; then we are in the middle of a forest during a snowstorm; then we are inside a hut glowing with firelight. It is sweeping and evocative, showing off the set’s much-touted ability to swiftly morph into the cycle’s dozens of settings.
So Mr. Lepage understands the mixture of stylization and realism that can make us seem to see what we are hearing. But far too often, his interventions undermine his cast’s connection with the audience. There’s that scene change on the mountaintop, which diverts us from one of the opera’s most intense moments. Even worse, once the snowy mountain is in place and Wotan and Brünnhilde confront each other with heartbreaking candor, Mr. Lepage further undercuts the performers by distracting us with projections of avalanches. These have no inspiration in the libretto or score; they’re just punctuation, something to keep us from getting bored. But it’s hard to imagine anyone being bored by one of the most moving, riveting scenes in the opera, as Wotan finally forgives his rebellious daughter before abandoning her forever.
A sure sign that Mr. Lepage doesn’t quite trust the text he’s been given to interpret is that the most effective of Wagner’s radically extended monologues are the ones with which he feels most compelled to interfere. To Siegmund’s Act I description of his troubled childhood, Mr. Lepage adds an unfortunately Disney-ish animated shadow illustration of the story. Later, when Wotan tells Brünnhilde the dark story of the Nieblung’s ring, Mr. Lepage has an eyeball emerge from the floor; onto it he projects, dutiful as CliffsNotes, the narrative’s key images. But when you have, as Siegmund and Wotan, two of the world’s greatest singing actors–the tenor Jonas Kaufmann and the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, respectively–you need to guide them and focus their emotions, not distract from them or compete with them for the audience’s attention.
As in Mr. Lepage’s Rheingold, the performers seem largely to have, if anything, been left to their own devices, a lack of cohesiveness not helped by James Levine’s erratic conducting, including a lethargic first act. Sometimes the absence of directorial attention worked out all right: Mr. Kaufmann, an intensely eloquent, intelligent singer, used his focused, dark tone to project Siegmund’s wounded cautiousness, his sense of isolation. The mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, a resplendent Fricka, seemed more vocally comfortable than she had in Rheingold.
But this is Wotan’s opera, dominated by his agonized monologues about his tragic lust for power, his fears about losing everything. While Mr. Terfel sings richly, he could, with the help of a more acute director, broaden his emotional range and turn a powerful performance into an unforgettable one. The soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, making her Met debut as Sieglinde, seemed blandly generalized before withdrawing due to illness after Act I.
Perhaps most egregiously, Mr. Lepage hasn’t helped to guide the soprano Deborah Voigt, singing her first-ever Brünnhilde, past stock expressions of grief–fake crying and awkward contortions–in the final act. We should always respect the risk-taking that separates true artists from merely good singers, but Ms. Voigt was disappointing. As always, she was a warm, tender presence, pointing the text with clarity. But her tone has turned edgy and thin in the past few years. She now lacks the vocal flexibility to capture all the facets of this complex character, a task made more difficult in a production allergic to complexities.
The only complexities are, alas, logistical ones. Act I seems to take place behind a low wall, such that we only see the performers from the knees up. The set was noisy throughout the opera, and the huge planks bounced disturbingly as the singers climbed on them. On Ms. Voigt’s first entrance, she tripped trying to step onto a particularly steep section, and Ms. Blythe at one point seemed terrifyingly close to stumbling off the structure entirely.
These flaws, though, are minor and fixable. The production’s deeper problem is its utter lack of vision and lack of trust in the intelligence and power of the work and the talented cast. Mr. Lepage might justify his emphasis on visual splendor at the expense of a deep reading of this rich text as a post-ideological reaction to the grandly charged Ring stagings of directors like Patrice Chéreau. But it looks more and more like he just doesn’t have any ideas.
Next season brings Mr. Lepage’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Perhaps we should be optimistic: As Wotan says in Act II of Die Walküre, “Things can suddenly happen that have never happened before.” But Mr. Lepage’s Ring has thus far been so opposed to the spirit of the cycle that the prospect of the final two installments is more depressing than exciting.
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