Siegfried is often termed the scherzo of the Ring – the light and playful internal movement of a great symphony. Each time I have the privilege to see it, though, I leave quite shattered – hardly the response to a scherzo. The performance at the Metropolitan Opera on October 27, 2011, had this effect and more.
The hiatus between the composition of Acts II and III that was imposed on the composer by life’s vicissitudes offers modern audiences one of the great experiences in music. I can think of only one comparison: the silence between the “Crucifixus” and the “Et Resurrexit” of Bach’s B-Minor Mass, which seems to hold within it the very essence of the mystery of Christian faith. Here, we leave Act II with the sweet and cheerful winds playing off the strings as the Woodbird leads our boy hero off to adventure. We begin Act III with the extraordinarily dark mix of the Erda theme and the Walküre theme in the basses and celli, followed immediately by motifs of Wotan’s Frustration in the lower brass and, without interruption, layered evocations of the Wanderer and of Fate by brass and winds. As the textures overlap and brood among themselves in impossible and brilliant constructions and interstices, we abruptly realize that we are now in the hands of a master of composition, harmony, tonality, rhythm, orchestration and dramatic narrative. Then, how to characterize the dramatic action that immediately follows the Prelude itself, when the gods relinquish power to the fates and the hero smashes all authority with his father’s sword, remade through instinct? Simply the tops. It is a great work of art.
Jay Hunter Morris had performed this role in the San Francisco Ring this past summer and was quite good. At the Met his performance had become even more his own. He is not a bellowing Siegfried and did not produce great quantities of sound at the end of Acts I or II. Instead he was musical, slender, touching and human. He seemed to embody the oxymoronic attributes of this character: youthful of outlook yet mature of stature; eager for adventure yet shy of the unknown; instinctively feral yet morally heroic. Considering the fearful tessitura of the part, Morris’ lyricism was a welcome change from the muscled attack of most Siegfrieds, and his inquiries in Act I and grief in Act II were just beautiful. Fabio Luisi brought out delightful textures in the Forest Murmurs scene and, most spectacularly, during the Prelude and first two scenes of Act III, when the majesty of Wagner’s mature gifts in counterpoint are revealed in their glory.
Eric Owens’ success as Alberich in Rheingold last year continues to yield rewards. All he had to do was to walk onto the stage in Act II to send shivers down the spine, and when he opened his mouth to sing one was reminded of every creepy thing that crawls.
Speaking of which, Acts I and II open with spectacular projected images of the forest floor – creeping, slimy grubs and crawling worms, set before us magnified and in the most remarkable silver-and black ultra-realistic detail. The wonders of Robert Lepage’s technology continue to draw gasps and whispers of “wow” from the audience. This time we are treated to 3-D imagery that I had never before seen on stage. The reliance on projections to set the scene means that there is no limit to the possibilities of the settings except the imagination itself. The production is revealing itself as a highly conventional, quite realistic telling of the story (my seatmate observed, “It’s really quite conservative as it turns out – why didn’t he just explain that when people were complaining last year?”) but better and more exciting than “real” physical sets could ever muster. A Woodbird that flies about on cue and alights from limb to limb? No problem. Two ravens preceding the Wanderer? You got it. Streams of water flowing down the raked platform, spilling in pools onto the stage and emptying in shallow waves into the prompter’s box? Your wish is his command.
As Lepage’s production settles in, so does Bryn Terfel’s Wotan/Wanderer. This was musically a fine Wanderer, and dramatically a great one. The thwarted ambitions of Rheingold and the frustrated moral energy of Walküre have now set upon the great god, who roams the universe as an observer rather than a participant, heavy with regret and loss, and hollow without his power to influence events. Terfel perfectly portrays this tired god’s last futile reaches for greatness, particularly during the Erda scene when it seems to dawn on him, at the very moment that he announces it, that nothing can stop what fate has ordained, and that the great forces of the universe have been engaged to work the end of his era. It is a majestic performance and I look forward to experiencing the full arc of the character’s rise, rise again, and decline, during the performance of the full Ring in May.
It is with sympathy and admiration that one must regretfully report profound misgivings with respect to the decision of that great artist, Deborah Voight, to assay the role of Brünnhilde. It would seem that one can do lots of things with the role of Siegfried, but the role of Brünnhilde is more powerfully drawn. Ms. Voight did not maneuver the leaps and blasts of her Act III scene with either grace or confidence, and when sheer power was called for she seemed oddly unprepared to supply it. She is an artist of such stature that one hopes it was merely an off night. One suspects, however, that Brünnhilde may prove to have been the proverbial “bridge too far.”
(This post also appears in Wagner Notes, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York.)