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This Is The Way The World Ends

New York
Metropolitan Opera
04/24/2004 -  
Richard Wagner: Goetterdaemmerung
Jane Eaglen (Bruennhilde)
Yvonne Naef (Waltraute and Second Norn)
Margaret Jane Wray (Gutrune)
Elena Zaremba and Christine Goerke (Norns)
Jon Frederic West (Siegfried)
Alan Held (Gunther)
Matti Salminen (Hagen)
Richard Paul Fink (Alberich)
Orchestra and Men's Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera
James Levine (conductor)

In the Wagnerian concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, the tetralogy of “Ring” operas needs to be experienced as a cycle (and, some would argue, only at Bayreuth, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion) wherein one is totally invested. The Metropolitan opera schedules these cycles in the traditional manner, taking one week to complete each one of them. However, there are other ways to peddle that cycle and, for this season, an interesting alternative is a series of four Saturday matinees, the string only interrupted for Holy Week (and no Parsifal). After thrilling to the initial Rheingold broadcast and remembering that Donner’s call to the mists might very well be the most powerful moment in all of Western music, I found myself whistling various leitmotifs at the oddest possible times. Once Walkuere came around, I was singing my own Winterstuermes while walking into the strong winds of a brutal Gotham spring, attempting not to be blown over in the process. Once actually attending the Siegfried, I was hooked. To enhance my total involvement, I attended receptions and seminars hosted by the Wagner Society of New York, at one of which I was able to converse with the inspirational tenor of the televised MET “Ring”, Siegfried Jerusalem.

The process of absorption works something like this. Here’s what I wrote in December 2000 about a Barenboim Beethoven week:

“I was fortunate enough at university to study with a man who allotted six months for the reading of The Magic Mountain. He wanted his students to experience this towering work as a totality, to take walks while ruminating on its concepts, to think of its scope and power while dining, to admire its poetry while daydreaming in other professors’ courses. Wagner had a similar idea at Bayreuth, the Festspiel gestalt allowing for an immersion in the worlds of Valhalla and Nibelheim even when not at the opera house (although Tchaikovsky, there as a journalist, did little but complain about the food).”

Competing against yourself is the most difficult contest of all, and that is the current task of James Levine. Let us point out at the outset that this is a terrific performance, was, is and ever shall be. But how does it stack up against the powerful iterations of the late 1980’s? Perhaps the biggest difference is in the conductorial approach. Slower and more measured, Levine’s interpretation today seems to go more for the nobility and lyricism, the broader melodic line. What’s lost in translation is quite a bit of the dramatic intensity. In this afternoon’s performance, for example, the orchestral stunners were a little less so, the Rhine Journey and Funeral March more staid and less taut. The newer cast members also seemed less inclined (or would it actually be able?) to wrest the deeper emotions from our breasts. In fact, only the sole survivor of the original production, the Hagen of Matti Salminen, and two of the minor characters appeared to connect on a visceral level with their audience.

Alan Held was a creditable and strong-voiced Gunther while Richard Paul Fink reprised his slitheringly slimy Alberich with glee. It was at this production fifteen years ago that this reviewer first came up with the idea that perhaps all of acts two and three (and therefore the cataclysm) was actually but a dream of Hagen (think of the steersman of the Dutchman), since the action begins with him asleep and being asked if that is indeed his condition by his father and ends with him plunging into the fire turning to Freudian water. Salminen certainly plays the part as if he were the star, and sounds as menacingly confident as he did when this Ring was new (as did James Morris in the first three installments). Our new Siegfried, Jon Frederic West, was again serviceable and tireless, but I must admit to thinking when he emerged amidst horn calls, “oh, this guy again!”

Two newcomers were extremely impressive. Yvonne Naef, who dazzled as Fricka, was an extremely involving Waltraute, singing, well, rings around our catatonic Bruennhilde. I don’t remember the older performances of this role (no, there were not by Waltraute Meier) as being anywhere near as affecting. Margaret Jane Wray was a sympathetic Gutrune with an extremely secure top line, her scene at the bier of Siegfried providing stark contrast to the wooden performance of Jane Eaglen, once again dispensing notes like a candy machine. The three norns were quite chilling in their lamentations. Elena Zaremba, now allowed to stand on the stage (she had been buried in a hole for her Erda), belted out her rich and deep vibrato in a suitably otherworldly manner and Ms. Naef, just killing time until her big number, was spectacular as well in this crucial part. Christine Goerke was fine as the third string-puller, but, with this duo surrounding her she was, well, the weak sister.

One can’t ignore the greatness of the production, a true contrarian in the contemporary environment of glitz over substance. How much more interesting to harken back to the original Bayreuth models than to regurgitate one more “Jesus in the urinal” solipsism. When was the last time you ever heard a set applauded? For me, it was but a few hours ago.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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