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A Musical Tapestry: Part One

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
03/25/2009 -  & March 28*, April 23, 27, May 4, 2009
Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
Wendy Bryn Harmer (Freia), Yvonne Naef (Fricka), Jill Grove*/Wendy White (Erda), Lisette Oropesa (Woglinde), Kate Lindsey (Wellgunde), Tamara Mumford (Flosshilde), Kim Begley (Loge), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Garrett Sorenson (Froh), Charles Taylor (Donner), James Morris*/Albert Dohmen (Wotan), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich), Franz-Josef Selig*/René Pape (Fasolt), John Tomlinson (Fafner)
Metropolitan Opera, Orchestra, James Levine (Conductor)
Otto Schenk (Production), Günther Schneider-Siemssen (Set and Production Designer), Rolf Langenfass (Costume Designer), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Designer)

(© Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera)

This is an occasion for gratitude and the first stirrings of nostalgia. Otto Schenk’s revived 1986 production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is making its valedictory appearance at the Metropolitan Opera. (It will be replaced beginning in the 2010-2011 season.) The entire Ring is being presented in three cycles; this performance is the first opera in cycle one. In addition, two non-cycle performances of Das Rheingold and one of Die Walküre have been scheduled. For years, Schenk’s staging has been the last traditional one on view at any major opera house. It’s been dismissed by critics as a relic of the past – hopelessly old-fashioned, a musical dinosaur. The world that Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen have created is devoid of both socio-political critiques and a 21st century context. It’s a magical world with fairy tale sets, anchored in the timelessness of the myths from which Wagner drew.

Thus, the Met gave its highly appreciative audience a feast for the eyes. But it was also a feast for the ears. The music that is the heart of Das Rheingold was superbly realized by James Levine and the Met Orchestra, which Levine has done so much to mold. From the first notes -- as mankind emerged from the primordial ooze, and the music emerged exquisitely from absolute silence, taking on more and more color and volume -- it was abundantly clear that this performance will live in the memory of anyone privileged to have been in the audience.

Twenty-three years after its debut, two pillars of Schenk’s original production remain – James Levine and James Morris. Levine’s tirelessness is awe-inspiring; he is conducting every performance in this revival. Under his baton, the Met Orchestra gave a magnificent performance – sweeping, nuanced, exquisitely textured. Morris gave an uneven performance. Particularly in the softer passages, his voice sounded dry and rather ragged at the top. He was at his best in the last scene where he sang beautifully. Throughout, he was dramatically persuasive.

One of the vocal highlights was Richard Paul Fink’s brilliant portrayal of Alberich. His wonderfully resonant baritone voice gave thrilling and chilling expression to Alberich’s rage and desire. Fink’s enunciation was perfect, his comic timing impeccable. Slithering around the rocks, he was almost reptilian. His demonic laugh as the darkness descended was unforgettable. Kim Begley was a superb Loge. He sang with a winning baritone and used the agility and grace of a dancer to convey the lightness and darting movements of fire. He was unsavory but always charming – just the right combination of traits for a master of deceit. Gerhard Siegel’s Mime was wonderfully evocative and beautifully sung. His monologue was superb. I look forward to hearing him again in Siegfried.

Yvonne Naef was in marvelous voice as Fricka and Wendy Bryn Harmer used her lovely voice to great effect in a touching portrayal of the vulnerable, frightened Freia. Jill Grove’s rich resonant voice won her well-deserved prolonged applause for her portrayal of the primeval Erda, who rose from the earth to issue a dire prophecy of doom. And now we come to the giants – two hulking, menacing creatures, whose ponderous footsteps are so brilliantly conveyed in the music. Franz-Josef Selig’s Fasolt was well acted and well sung.

But one of the standout performances came from Sir John Tomlinson as the greedy and lascivious Fafner. For this minor role, he gave us a fully realized portrait in miniature, if one can say that about a giant. He sang with unforced power, beautiful vocal color, and a strong resonant voice that plumbed the very bottom of his range. He was superbly sinister. Particularly memorable was his grasping of the gold with an almost sexual passion. He gave this role such loving attention. I couldn’t help but feel regret that the Met audience has never had the chance to hear him as Wotan, a role that he has owned in the UK for many years. He seems to have become a rather indispensable man around the Met these days. Just last month at the 125th Anniversary Gala, he replaced the indisposed René Pape in the death scene from Boris Godunov and turned in a shattering portrayal. He will appear in all three remaining operas of the Ring, alternating with Pape as Hunding in Die Walküre, reappearing as Fafner in Siegfried, and portraying Hagen in Götterdämmerung.

The big story and great debate around the Met’s Ring are not about the quality of the singers, which was and will surely continue to be first rate. What has got people talking across the opera world is the traditional production. Modern productions tend to depict the Ring from a specific point of view which, while interesting and thought-provoking, nevertheless limits the mythological resonance. Two examples: The Copenhagen Ring conceives of the operas as a family history of Brünnhilde, going back through preceding generations. It’s a sort of Rougons and Macquarts in reverse -- with music. Covent Garden’s Ring characterizes Alberich as a kind of mad scientist visiting evil upon the world through his pursuit of dangerous knowledge and nasty experiments. As someone who writes a great deal about science and ethics, I am aware that what scientists are up to is a major source of public suspicion and concern. But surely, Alberich’s impulses are a lot more evocative – and primal – than this. Of course, any discussion of updating and reconfiguring Wagner’s operas must be part of the larger question (most recently raised with the Met’s new La Sonnambula) about how true opera productions should be to the composer’s conception. With Wagner, it seems, such discussions are especially heated.

The scope and character of the Ring invite interpretation. Its mythological subject matter encompasses nothing less than the totality of human experience – the needs and motivations that govern human relationships, the values and imperatives guiding the law and social institutions, and even the place of man in nature. Because symbols are the language of myth, and the Ring is replete with symbols, one can discern virtually endless layers of meaning. We all bring our own context and point of view when we interpret the Ring. My favorite music critic is the socialist propagandist, George Bernard Shaw. With his tongue planted firmly in cheek, Shaw analyzed The Ring as a critique of the rapacity and brutality of capitalism, its subjugation of workers and despoiling of the environment, all in the pursuit of greed.

As a lawyer, I am intrigued by Wotan’s role as the law-giver and enforcer of agreements. In our personal relationships and as a society, we depend upon others to honor their promises. Yet Wotan tells Loge, the trickster, that he is relying on him to find a way for Wotan, as the guarantor of contracts, to squirm out of his promised payment to the giants. If you want to breach a contract, Loge tells Wotan that he needs absolute power; he needs the ring. Alberich had to renounce love in order to get the ring, a greed-driven bargain that - alas - in contemporary society has lost its ability to shock. But Loge finds a loophole for Wotan: He need not renounce love as long as he merely steals the ring. Tricksters with loopholes – what a dispiriting characterization of aspects of the legal profession! Of course, it is Wotan’s role as the law-giver that will create excruciating personal dilemmas for him in Die Walküre, but discussion of those must be left for another day.

Perhaps the best authority on staging Wagner’s operas is Wagner. His vision of the art of the future was of a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Wagner wrote both the music and the libretto and provided specific instructions as to how he wanted his operas staged. He also explained in his prose works, sometimes in exhaustive detail, why he did what he did. In Opera und Drama, he criticized operas of the past for subordinating drama to music, with music being the end and drama the mere means. His approach was far different. Music and drama were to be integrated with the two forming an organic whole. Because of its ability to convey pure emotion, music would be the inner core of the drama and the words the outer manifestation. Allowing for such organic wholeness was the great achievement of Schenk’s production. As such, it comes far closer than many modern and controversial productions to realizing Wagner’s conception of the music drama in general and this music drama in particular.

I could not recommend these performances more highly. Very few tickets remain. Information may be found on the Met’s website.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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