Flawed Efforts: Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters Is Moody and Engaging, but Lacks a Story

"Dark Sisters." (Photo by Richard Termine)

It’s difficult to write about something you didn’t see, and The Observer didn’t see Robert Lepage’s new production of Siegfried, the third of four operas in Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Well, to be fair, we saw most of it. But in the final act at the second performance, two weeks ago, when the 24 seesaws that form the production’s giant set were supposed to morph, Transformer-like, into a fire-encircled mountaintop, there was a sudden loud noise and then everything went entirely, eerily still. A raging fire was projected over the stage—a supersized version of one of those Yuletide log screensavers—but the fact that the projection was a bit off, missing two of the seesaws, indicated that something was very wrong.

The point of the last scene in Siegfried is that the title character, our impetuous, youthful hero, finds the warrior maiden Brünnhilde trapped in a magical sleep within that circle of fire. He awakens her with a kiss, setting off a soaring love duet. But at the start of the scene two weeks ago there was no Siegfried, no sleeping Brünnhilde. After an awkward minute or two, the tenor Jay Hunter Morris and the soprano Deborah Voigt walked onstage from the wings. She lay down. He walked a few feet farther. Troopers both, they played the scene, Yuletide log a-blazing.

It was an embarrassing moment uncannily reminiscent of the opening night of the Met’s 2009-10 season, which was also the opening night of Mr. Lepage’s production of Das Rheingold, the first Ring opera. Then, too, the major problem came at the end, when Wagner’s gods were preparing to cross the rainbow bridge into their shiny new home, Valhalla.

The music surged and—nothing. Some projections of colored bars passed over the floor, the singers fidgeted, and after a few moments, they walked off stage and the opera ended. The Observer still doesn’t know what the end of the production is supposed to look like; we guess we’ll find out when the Met does a series of full Ring cycles in the spring.

The thought of sitting through 15 hours of Mr. Lepage’s work all over again, with the operas following closely on each other, is disheartening. His Ring is a folly. The fact that the 45-ton set doesn’t even function consistently is awful enough, an affront to the donors who gave millions for it and a disgrace in this economic climate. But the real problem is that it’s boring and underwhelming even when it does work.

All that time, effort and money, and for what? Some hypervivid projections of running water, a forest floor crawling with insects and that fire. They are all more or less impressive when they first appear, and uniformly dull after a minute or so. The singers look small, strange and unconvincing in front of them, as if the players remained in analog in an otherwise high-def broadcast of a football game.

The content of the projections seems to exist in our world, not the opera’s. The water runs at a steady, realistic pace; leaves blow like they blow in real life. But operatic time doesn’t work that way. It slows down and speeds up; it bends and stretches. Second by second, minute by minute, it is evolving. The disjunction between the music’s clock and the projections’ grows wearying. Mr. Lepage seems not to have noticed that his production, even when it’s functioning, is literally out of sync with Wagner. It gradually wears down the reality, the power, of what’s happening on stage, actively resisting our engagement with the characters. Mr. Lepage has created a production that his singers have to fight against.

And fight they did. Mr. Morris was brought on the week before the opening to replace Gary Lehman as Siegfried, one of the most daunting roles in opera. With penetrating tone and ample stamina, he was winning and watchable. Bryn Terfel seemed like he had finally made his peace with the production’s absurdities; obviously uncomfortable in Rheingold and Die Walküre, he sang more strongly here and a character—convincingly both impulsive and reflective—began finally to emerge. As in Rheingold, Hans-Peter König was darkly profound as Fafner.

The painful spectacle of Ms. Voigt’s Brünnhilde continued: a distinguished artist trying to will her way through a marathon role—a series of marathon roles—with vastly diminished resources. Doubtless the set failure unnerved her at the performance we saw in the house, and her acting was braver and truer in the “Live in HD” broadcast a few days later. She attacked the text with almost desperately overenunciated German, as if crisp consonants alone could make a Brünnhilde. But at both performances her voice was thin and her high notes weak. A phrase would emerge clearly and then sour.

Mr. Lepage and his team would have done well to travel a few blocks south of the Met, where the director Rebecca Taichman and the designers Leo Warner, Mark Grimmer and Donald Holder gave a lesson in the elegant, powerful use of projections and video in their production of Nico Muhly’s new opera, Dark Sisters. As in Siegfried, the natural world is integral to Dark Sisters: the desert of the American Southwest, where the story unfolds in a polygamist sect dealing with the aftermath of a government raid.

Flawed Efforts: Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters Is Moody and Engaging, but Lacks a Story