Thomas Adès’ The Tempest has had something like eight runs since its premiere at Covent Garden in 2004. It recently opened at the Metropolitan Opera in a new production by Robert Lepage which was broadcast as part of the Met in HD series this afternoon. It’s an interesting work musically. Some of the vocal writing is reminiscent of Britten. It all tends to a high tessitura for the voice type concerned and goes to extremes in that direction for the soprano part of Ariel where parts are so high that clear articulation of the words is impossible. Writing for voice and orchestra ranges from dissonant to extremely lyrical (the act 2 duet between Miranda and Ferdinand). Key and time signature changes are legion and many of the intervals for the singers are extreme. It must be extremely difficult to perform but it’s rather lovely to listen to.
Robert Lepage’s 2007 Brussels production of The Rake’s Progress is fascinating on many levels. I think all good opera productions start with the music and this is no exception. Lepage sees a crucial relationship between Stravinsky at the time the work was written (1948) and film and television. It was an era when insubstantial visual imagery was being supported emotionally by pretty impressive music. Lepage works with that idea; setting the work in the 40s and incorporating film and film making imagery extensively. I think this decision also frees up the music. By taking the piece out of the 18th century it becomes possible to take the 18th century out of the piece. For instance, there are elements in the libretto that mimic 18th century street ballads but Stravinsky absolutely avoids writing the kind of phrasing one might expect and quite deliberately breaks up the line. That phrasing is respected here whereas I have often heard a false legato imposed on some of those phrases. In a way, the production is helping the viewer to hear the music differently which is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay an opera production. There are other intriguing relationships between Lepage’s vision and Stravinsky’s. Lepage sees Stravinsky as playing with time in a cinematic way i.e. rendering it non-linear. Lepage seeks to mirror this in the spatial dimension by using some odd perspectives and some cinema devices; notably Anne driving her car in front of a moving backdrop just like a studio movie of the period. There’s a lot going on and it would be tedious to describe it in detail.
Just back from the HD broadcast of the Met’s Götterdãmmerung.
Musically, I was really quite impressed. I thought Luisi’s take on the score was original, valid and enjoyable. His tempi were generally quite quick and there was a taut, sinewy quality to the strings that really brought out the shape of the music. No romantic wallowing here! I really liked the Gibichungs; Wendy Bryn Harmer as Gutrune, Iain Paterson’s Gunther and, especially, Hans-Peter König’s Hagen. All were well sung and characterful. Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried and Deb Voigt as Brünnhilde were really exciting in the Act 1 love duet and Deb nailed the Immolation scene, almost managing to overcome the staging. So much for the music, what about the production?
I went in not expecting much from the production given the caning it had been getting from just about everybody I knew who had seen it. I wasn’t too surprised then when the video director for the broadcast, Gary Halvorson, showed us as little of it as humanly possible. The use of super close-ups was extreme even by MetHD standards and there were some really weird camera angles. Sometimes we were shown a close up from below and to the side of five or six “planks” from the machine. He must have been absolutely desperate. I can see why. There did seem to be an endless procession of scenes where either flowing water or tree like objects were projected onto a basically plain back drop. The one place where I thought the machine worked was in the scenes in the Gibichung Hall where it seemed to reconfigure quite nicely. On the other hand there were a couple of real horrors. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey included a cheesy hollow horse on an all too literal raft floating lamely on an all too literal Rhine. It got worse when the horse reappeared in the crucial Immolation scene. What should be one of the most breathtaking moments in all of opera was reduced to sheer bathos. Deb Voigt was singing her heart out on this horse thing that looked more like it should have been sitting outside a supermarket and which might have been a bit more animated if she had remembered to put a quarter in it. It trundled off into a funeral pyre that looked more like an ad for fake electric log fires before all was obscured by the Machine, covered with the by now all too familiar flame projections. A few cheap looking statues above the Machine crumbled unconvincingly before we reverted to another flat Machine screen things with wavy bits on for the last few bars. There certainly wasn’t a bang and I, for one, was whimpering.
I think I’ve learned one thing from Lepage’s production. Even if it had succeeded on its own terms, and I don’t think it did, the production would have been weak. I don’t think it’s possible, in 2012, to do an essentially naturalistic ring with no Konzept. But that’s material for another post.
I am getting well pissed off with people taking ill informed shots at Robert Lepage based solely on his Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera. For three decades Lepage has been one of the most brilliant minds in the dramatic arts. His oeuvre spans straight theatre, film, circus, opera, multimedia performance art and stuff I don’t even know how to categorize. He acts, he directs, he designs. He also takes risks. In the nature of risk taking, sometimes they don’t come off and, frankly, I don’t think his Ring works. That said I think it shows the height (or depth) of poor taste and ignorance to launch ad hominem attacks on Lepage based on that one production and ignore all the things that have succeeded. The list is long; Elsinore and The Seven Streams of the River Ota would top my list but there have also been award winning opera productions such as Erwartung, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and The Nightingale and other Short Tales along with a dozen movies, a Cirque du Soleil show that has run for years and an astonishing outdoor multi-media exhibition celebrating the history of Québec. There’s lots more if one cares to look. Even Shakespeare had his off days. Would anybody go on and on and on about how crap Shakespeare was based solely on seeing A Comedy of Errors?
Once in a while an opera performance really blows you away and it becomes quite hard to write about, especially when the work is as long and dense as Die Walküre because even with a great performance one is in overload by the end. Yesterday’s broadcast from the Met was one of those experiences. Here’s what I think I saw!
The show started forty minutes late, which is not good news for a show scheduled to run five and a half hours anyway. There was no explanation of the delay until the first interval prompting speculation about Maestro Levine dropping out again or a stagehand being crushed by The Machine. It turned out to be a relatively prosaic component fault on The Machine(1).
The first act was terrific. Jonas Kauffman was a completely convincing Siegmund who combined power with beauty of tone. Eva Maria Westbroek was a Sieglinde with a genuine touch of vulnerability and Hans-Peter Kõnig was perfectly solid as Hunding. The chemistry was there though I may have seen more ecstatic conclusions to the act. The Machine was mostly used to represent a forest with characters passing in and out of the trees in quite a convincing manner. It was a very strong act.
Act 2 was also pretty strong. The confrontation between Stephanie Blythe’s Fricka and Bryn Terfel’s Wotan was epic. The chemistry between Wotan and Deb Voigt’s Brünnhilde was amazing. At the bottom of this is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the production (The Machine aside), Deb’s interpretation of Wotan’s warrior daughter. Hers is a very young, tomboyish Valkyrie. It’s far from the majesty of, say, Birgitt Nilsson but it gives room for the character to develop through the next two operas to that most devastating of all operatic climaxes. Her singing matched the take on the character being somewhat lighter than perhaps the norm. Is that deliberate for now or a limitation in the voice? Ultimately we’ll see in Götterdämmerung. The final scene of the act with Siegmund and Sieglinde was excellent. Deb steeled up into the implacable warrior goddess before melting again in the face of Siegmund’s love. Really well done. In this act, The Machine functioned alternately as a rocky landscape for the first two scenes and a forest for the last. Spare but reasonably effective and nobody lost their footing.
Act 3 starts with the “Ride of the Valkyries” and now The Machine came into it’s own. Eaxh Valkyrie rode a “plank” as if a horse with the planks bucking wildly until each in turn dipped to the stage allowing the singer to slide down the plank and onto the stage. It worked. I have to be honest I was getting tired by this point and I think my critical faculties were waning but the singing and acting seemed to be sustained at a high level through Wotan’s confrontation with Brünnhilde. Again here, the youngness/immaturity of Deb’s Brünnhilde added to the drama. The final fire scene was another triumph for The Machine with Brünnhilde ending up suspended upside down, high above the stage with the flames flickering around her as a distraught Wotan watches from stage level and the curtain comes down.
The conducting and orchestral playing was quite wonderful. Watching Jimmy Levine hauling himself awkwardly and painfully into his chair in the pit one wondered what was going to happen. Then from first chord to last the orchestra produced a gorgeous and thrilling flood of sound and there is nothing on earth like Wagner played this well.
Small, local bonus; Leonardo Vordoni, who conducted La Cenerentola that we saw last night was in the cinema (again) and I was able to ask him about Levine and how he does it. He waved his hand about and said “it’s less about this, than (pointing to his heart) this”. Long may Maestro Levine’s heart keep going.
(1) The Machine is the 45 tonne multi-million dollar contraption around which Robert LePage’s vision of The Ring (literally) revolves. Some critics regard it as a soulless (and boring) infatuation with technology and a way of avoiding thinking about “meaning” in the work. Some think it’s a valid attempt to present the cycle as Wagner might have done if he had access to the technology. My own view is that I think Wagner would have loved it but that’s no excuse for ignoring the psychological aspects of the tetrology. After Das Rheingold I was worried that we were going to get technology and just technology. Now I’m more optimistic. And honestly, with singing and playing as good as yesterday I could shut my eyes and still get my money’s worth.
I am concerned though about the reliability of the thing. Two performances out of about twenty have now been affected by major issues with the machine. The odds of a major failure are about on a par with an Angela Gheorghiu no show and that’s not good enough.