Brass Ring

Somewhere, over: James Morris's Wotan, in Das Rheingold, was the Ring's rare glimmer of light.Photo: Jack Vartoogian

Every opera house with international aspirations tackles Wagner’s Ring cycle these days, despite the scarcity of great Wagner singers and conductors. Since the drought is far from over, the central issue in any new mounting of the mighty tetralogy now tends to be a stage director’s controversial notions of what the composer really meant rather than purely musical considerations.

Not so at the Metropolitan Opera. In its effort to counter the auteur trend, the Met’s version, first performed complete in 1989, seems positively radical: a stand-and-sing approach that unfolds amid old-fashioned storybook settings and on a stage devoid of ideology and fancy directorial conceits, with James Levine’s famous orchestra as the main attraction. And apparently that satisfies a lot of operagoers. The Met Ring always draws enthusiastic audiences, and the latest outing – three full cycles during April and May – is no exception.

There is certainly room for a literal interpretation that portrays Wagner’s gods, giants, dwarfs, and heroes as the Nordic myth and the libretto describe them. I would love to see just such a Ring, one that illuminates the characters’ complex personalities and relationships while exploiting the work’s theatrical excitement and dramatic potential to the hilt. If only the Met’s production had the courage and imagination to do exactly that. Instead, Otto Schenk’s perfunctory staging amounts to little more than functional blocking. When an effective moment does come – Wotan poignantly cradling the dying Siegmund in his arms, for example – it is either lifted from another, more creative Ring director or the result of an individual singer’s ingenuity. One need not dip far into the Wagner literature to learn how much importance the composer attached to expressive stage movement, always closely coordinated with the music, and how hard he worked with his singers to achieve it. In this hands-off production, the cast is virtually abandoned.

I suppose Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s picture-postcard sets do occasionally offer a certain Disneyland charm, but these spun-candy confections increasingly look like kitsch to me. We seem to be eavesdropping on characters idly frolicking in some sort of quaint Wagnerian theme park rather than watching the composer’s apocalyptic vision of human greed, power plays, and political and emotional betrayal. It’s ironic, actually. The more these banal sets strive for realistic detail, the phonier they look and the more artificial the characters who wander through them are made to appear. With so little happening onstage to nourish the spirit, the whole burden inevitably shifts to Levine’s orchestra and the singers to conjure up whatever musical and dramatic splendor they can.

The thrills for this veteran Ring-goer, who attended the second cycle, arrived infrequently. The most impressive performance came from James Morris, whose interpretation of Wotan has grown enormously over the past decade. Morris keeps his movements to a minimum, expressing volumes of authority through understatement – exactly the quiet menace that makes his Claggart in Billy Budd so incomparable. Perhaps Morris’s imposing bass-baritone has lost some of its richness and easy facility over the years, but there is still plenty of quality left, and his expressive nuancing of the text has added a whole new dimension to his take on the chief god.

Another distinctive feature of the Met Ring continues to be Plácido Domingo’s eloquent Siegmund, quite this singer’s best role at the moment. The part is low for a tenor, but it lies in the strongest, most comfortable area of Domingo’s voice, and he takes full advantage of the fact. Deborah Voigt’s creamy soprano and ardent temperament are also ideal for Sieglinde; she and Domingo have now sung these roles often enough that they can work together to create a dramatic frisson without directorial assistance.

Other welcome singers in key roles included Felicity Palmer, a wounded but proud Fricka etched in vocal acid, and later a heartbreaking Waltraute; Richard Paul Fink, a vulnerable but always dangerously sinister Alberich; Graham Clark, whose sniveling Mime is a chilling portrait of malevolence when not threatening to go over the top; and Eric Halfvarson, who effectively delineated a variety of black-bass villains. Siegfried remains a casting dilemma, although the latest stopgap measure, Wolfgang Neumann, managed the hero’s job tolerably enough whenever his slippery tenor wasn’t flirting with the correct pitch.

Judging from the rapturous audience approval, James Levine and Jane Eaglen made the Met’s current revival more than worthwhile for many Ring groupies. Perhaps, but since both conductor and soprano have such potential for real greatness, their failure to tap fully into their resources was all the more disappointing.

As Brünnhilde, Eaglen most assuredly possesses the volume, amplitude, and stamina for the role, but the organization of her voice is problematical: a rich mid-range offset by weaknesses at the bottom, a less-than-soaring top, and rocky register transitions. Beyond that, her soprano is strangely colorless, and her projection of the text flat and matter-of-fact. Her size, of course, is an obstacle, although it needn’t be so. Deborah Voigt, also a large woman, moves easily and gracefully to create a genuine character, but Eaglen gives the impression of a dowdy charwoman trudging from one appointment to the next. I don’t doubt that there is a great Brünnhilde lurking somewhere in her, but much more vocal and dramatic coaching is needed to bring it out.

Try as I may, I fail to hear the greatness of Levine’s Wagner. Yes, under his direction the Met orchestra has reached an impressive level of instrumental brilliance. But I hear very little of musical significance going on beneath the surface, no emotional core or distinctive musical character that might shape the score in a meaningful way or stamp his interpretation with an original and distinctive point of view. And those preposterous tempos! Each opera got progressively slower as the evening wore on, like a great machine winding down to a virtual state of stasis – Wotan’s “Farewell” nearly stopped dead in its tracks.

One day, it would be instructive to hear a different conductor lead a Met Ring with this formidable orchestra, even in such a vacuous production.

Brass Ring