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That (18)70's Show

New York
Metropolitan Opera
04/17/2004 -  and 04/19, 05/06
Richard Wagner: Siegfried
Jane Eaglen (Bruennhilde)
Elena Zaremba (Erda)
Joyce Guyer (Forest Bird)
Jon Fredric West (Siegfried)
James Morris (Wanderer)
Gerhard Siegel (Mime)
Richard Paul Fink (Alberich)
Matti Salminen (Fafnir)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
James Levine (conductor)

Those of us who have expressed concern about an erosion in the quality of the performances of conductor James Levine over the past five years or so often use as a benchmark his spectacular “Ring” cycle of the 1980’s. As an event, this masterful treatment may very well have been the apex of New York theater of the past generation, a series which established Levine as the greatest Wagnerian alive today. The level of orchestral play, the energy, the scope and the detail were astounding, ranking with some of the other Levine performances of the same era (for this reviewer, notably Wozzeck and Elektra) as true statements of timeless excellence. Now, after all these years and many differing casts, a new revival is gracing the MET stage, anecdotal evidence and a close listening to the first two live broadcasts indicating that the magic fire is indeed back even if some of the flames are mere sputters.

It is also a pleasure to revisit the Otto Schenk production, traditional enough to not have been out of place at the early Bayreuth. After what seemed like an eon when arrogant directors ironically turned their back on nature itself, like the gods at the end of Rheingold, and situated the action in such inappropriate places as subway tunnels, nightclubs and Seattle, the original reception to the “throwback” staging was decidedly mixed but certainly passionate. The production perfectly embodied the spirit of the gift of the Sybil Harrington trust, which sued the MET over a minimalist Tristan where large amounts of money were spent (some would say squandered) on but a few lighting effects. However, the “Ring” looks marvelous in this version, now doubly nostalgic for buffeted and bruited opera fans who care about authenticity.

Veteran Levine watchers in attendance yesterday told this reviewer that the conductor, who already moves at the pace of the Grand Inquisitor from Don Carlo, approached the podium with an even slower step than usual. His condition, whatever the root cause, has had a ritardando effect on his tempi for some time, even though he began his career in New York as a bit of a tortoise (25 years ago, the MET changed the starting time of Parsifal from 6:30 to 6:00 to ensure that Levine wouldn’t keep anyone past midnight). The resulting measured performance of Act I was contemplative and very interesting, the tap-tap-tapping of the hammer song an entirely new, elongated rhythm. This quasi-religious dirge fit nicely into the mythic ethos of this production and pointed the way to profound elasticity of tradition in the pit complimentary to original staging topside. The true star of Levine’s “Ring” is his supple orchestra and they played like champions. Joseph Anderer handled the horn calls expertly and maestro could wring much excitement from them when the mood struck, although his ruminative approach kept everything on somewhat of a flat emotional line. One might have wished for more power in the prelude to Act II, for example, but a peek in the pit at the interval revealed that the timpani were caged behind plexiglass to achieve a more balanced overall sound (and to preserve the ears of their neighbors).

Having seen the Siegfried when it was new, it is natural to compare this 21st century cast to the shadow of their forgotten ancestors. Other than the offstage voice of Fafnir, only James Morris as Wotan remains from even the televised production. Morris is indeed a phenomenon, sounding just as powerful as ever, but now more thoughtful and resigned. Gerhard Siegel was a lively and sympathetic Mime, engaging in pratfalls and kabuki-like gestures that emphasized his motherly side. Richard Paul Fink was an appropriately slimy Alberich whose entrance out of the ooze was thrilling, and Matti Salminen as the amplified voice of the dragon was still the most impressive of all. Of course, everyone came to hear the new heldentenor. Jon Fredric West has great energy and even greater stamina, never once faltering in four and one half hours, but there is little to like about his voice beyond its volume and serviceability. For all of his effort, what is lacking is a certain, well, ringing tone. He was less a thoroughbred and more a plowhorse.

Siegfried is the quintessential “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings” opera and Jane Eaglen gave her usual dull performance. Blessed with enormous ability to hit and hold any note in the universe, but not, apparently, the desire to shape it into anything meaningful, Ms. Eaglen is the laziest performer through which this reviewer has ever suffered. One might as well have had a computer up there as this uninteresting diva. Elena Zaremba appeared to possess a dark, exotic contralto as Erda (an observation borne out after the fact by the radio broadcast), but was barely audible from her hole in the stage floor. Joyce Guyer exhibited a rather disappointing lack of sweetness as the disembodied voice of the forest bird. The net result of this ultimately weak cast was a disturbing disconnect between the innovative master (one might even argue genius) at the podium and the yeomanlike finished product on the stage. An instant nostalgia was created for the likes of Norman, Altmeyer, Lakes, Jerusalem and, most of all, Behrens.

Perhaps the most controversial bit of staging from the original production was the representation of the dragon, much more of a snapdragon in this naturalistic set of tableaux. I was in the minority at the time, liking this visualization quite a bit for two reasons. First, the conceit of having the monster be floral is consistent with the overall conception of this realization (and the urtext itself), emphasizing the all-encompassing nature of nature and the anthropomorphism of the forest in this particular section. Secondly, the scene depends on our getting inside of the perceptions of Siegfried himself, journeying with him from awkward boy feeling his way through unfamiliar terrain and progressing (significantly, after tasting dragon blood) to a oneness with his environment. If we see the monster as a threat (say, for example, as in the Pabst film), then we are not looking at it in the way that the hero perceives it. Just as he is master of the ferocious bear (in this production a bit of a Paddington) at the beginning of the opera, he is not afraid of the dragon at all, and we should not be either. Neither should we be afraid of an honest effort to recreate the original magic of the composer, a consummate man of the theater. Give me this enchanted forest anytime; I have to look at the real subway on my way home.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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