Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Opening Night Met Rheingold

A few personal caveats: I saw this Opening Night performance of the Met's Das Rheingold at an HD screening at Times Square, not in the house. Moreover, as a dear friend of ours, the late Paul Jaretzki, would often remind me, hearing a performance via mechanical reproduction, no matter how sophisticated, is simply never the same as hearing a performance in the house. In addition, no review is objective. Every review must, at best, be a deeply personal set of impressions, no matter how carefully measured. Consequently, since what I'm providing here are strictly personal impressions, and personal impressions formed through a video screening yet, everything written here should be taken with both caveats clearly in mind.  My general view is that the sound system at Times Square is certainly superb, and it was amazing just how undistorted even the most awe-inspiring orchestral climaxes in Wagner's writing sounded that night. I take my hat off to whoever supervised the audio. Nevertheless, however undistorted the sound seemed, I remain aware that both voices and instruments will always sound different in the house, and thus my impressions via a virtual telecast can never be a substitute for a proper review inside the hall.

As always these days, what emerged from James Levine's orchestra was perfectly correct, with impeccable tuning and reflecting disciplined preparation. There was nothing that one could find really objectionable. He has now become an attentive accompanist for his singers, and that was still the case on this night. If there was any fault at all -- but the problem was only intermittent -- he did not always allow the strings the full prominence that many, including this listener, view as ideal. But that may partly have been a function of mike placement; things may have sounded different in the house. The other aspect to his conducting that renders it sometimes less than ideal is a tendency to present the music as a sequence of symphonic highlights rather than a continuous narrative span. This Opening Night performance was no exception. It's always possible that this impression on this night was also partly due to the way the mikes were set for the HD transmission.  But it does reflect what I've heard from him before.  Fortunately, however symphonic the occasional impression, the singers under Levine these days are rarely swamped the way they used to be. Over the years, he has brought a considerable degree of self-discipline to his performances in that respect. That too was reflected in his eminently dependable choices on Opening Night.

A lot of ink has been spilled on Robert LePage's special effects throughout this production. Unfortunately, while the audio supervision was superb, the choices in camera work circumscribed genuine opportunities of seeing the full stage picture far, far too much. Tight close-ups were the order of the day, and visual context was sometimes unclear. For as much as I could see, this is a production of both striking visuals -- for instance, the giants are always on a higher platform than the other principals -- and minimal interference with Wagner's narrative. This is an admirable combination in principle. Sadly, though, characterization and interrelationships, though never willfully distorted, appeared sketchy on the screen -- also a flaw, if we recall, in the Met's previous Otto Schenk production as well. What this means is that the heart of Wagner's drama -- which, as with all great drama, is often the interactions between characters -- is heavily dependent on the artistic imaginations of the individual principals instead. Unfortunately, in this case, whether through directorial neglect or ill-advised directorial choices or poor artistic imagination from some of the principals themselves, key distinctions among the various characters were virtually lost. One exception was the moment when Fasolt has to take final leave of Freia after Wotan has given up the ring. Here, the bond he's tried to make with her was made very clear, and his reluctant letting-go of her hand was actually quite moving. But the most critical distinction drawn in Wagner's drama is between Alberich and Wotan. This is the heart of the work, and if this is effaced, the rest of Wagner's powerful Ring cycle is rendered meaningless.

Candidly, for me, both Eric Owens' Alberich and Bryn Terfel's Wotan were entirely inadequate. This is my own take -- just one listener's -- but what I saw and heard at Times Square from the two of them was pointless. Not one ounce of musicality from either: just monochromatic bawling. It carried only one message: "Hey, man, phrasing is for sissies; we are men!"  Revolting.

There is such a thing as a vocal persona that is inherent for a whole role.  It's not just a matter of doing one or two token and insincere softenings every hundred hours or so when some clueless coach bothers to tell you to. It's also a matter of maintaining a face in the voice at all times. The only face that came from their two voices was a grim scowl -- boring!

If one tends to view the world as one's oyster, and gets outraged at the very thought of having to accommodate others, one setback is sufficient to throw one right over the edge. That's what overtakes Alberich.  He is outraged at the Rhine Daughters' rebuff. How dare they? And there is nothing like the bitterness of such rejection to propel someone so self-centered into fathomless evil. Alberich leaves himself open to ridicule from the Rhinemaidens when his guard is down, and he is wounded!  So he erupts like a stung tiger: swift and terrible. His danger comes from the classic "I'll show you" attitude we've seen in countless shooting sprees on the news of the last twenty years from countless social misfits and worse. They have given in to evil totally, hurling shafts of destruction at a world that cannot accommodate them. Did we hear this fatal transformation from self-centered suitor to dangerously stung tiger in Owens' singing?  No!  He sang everything as if he was already in Nibelheim, slave-driving his enslaved compatriots from the get-go.  There was not an ounce of transformation in his singing from beginning to end. NOTE, NOTE, NOTE, NOTE, NOTE! That was all I heard. Not only didn't I hear an ounce of phrasing, every note seemed stuck in the throat without a shred of musicality. Maybe the most one-dimensional Alberich I've ever heard.

And Terfel?  He sounded as if he had been coached by every anti-musical Wotan who has ever lived. It is giving it too much respect to call it a characterization. I hope I'm wrong, but no (apparent) thought went into the character at all, that I could see. It came off as a simple "I AM GOD; HEAR ME ROAR!"  He may be the worst epitome of the Wotan-as-gangster shtick that I've ever heard -- although it may not be deliberate ............ since that would presume more thought behind it than I saw. If there was any deliberate character to it at all, then Scarpia is a sweetheart compared to this guy! And Terfel was occasionally sloppy with his music as well. He went totally off key for at least two phrases in the final "Abendlich strahlt", not just one note. It was a complete amnesia moment: He literally forgot which key he was singing in, and bawled two phrases way higher than they really go, making up completely new notes as he went along until back in place on the third phrase. It was pathetic and horrifying. There were also a number of other approximations and screw-ups like that throughout. What happened in the "Abendlich strahlt" was merely the most egregious. He really didn't seem so sure with his music for much of the performance.

With his having conveyed maybe the most frightfully thuggish Wotan I've ever encountered, the critical change of heart at Erda's appearance was more unconvincing than I have ever seen or heard. Nothing in his voice conveyed the least bit of being chastened at all. Oh, sure, he went for one nanosecond from forte to mezzoforte on the "Geheimnishehr" solo, but when he "softened" that one time, the face in the voice, softened or not, never departed from that all-purpose scowl. It was as convincing (not) as the most crude deus ex machina in Restoration tragedy. This Wotan wouldn't spend six seconds, let alone six minutes, even listening to an Erda at all! His plea to Erda, "Dich muss ich fassen, alles erfahren", came out the most insincerely I have ever heard it sung.  Some Wotans have not only managed to moderate their persona at that point, but have even contrived to show -- in their voices -- that Wotan is falling in love with Erda there and then (yes, maybe a step too far, but it's an object lesson in showing just how much vulnerability one can wrench out of Wotan's music at this point if one listens like a musician; going by this telecast, my personal impression, unfair or not, is that Terfel listens more like a macho egoist than a musician -- hopefully, future performances may prove me wrong).  From that point to the end, Terfel's singing was possibly worse than ever. Robbed of the opportunity to play mean, Terfel's vocalism now grew especially tentative, with the train wreck in the "Abendlich strahlt" the coup de grace. He did throw out one good high note at the very end of the "Abendlich strahlt" ("SOOO gruess ich die Burg"), but I felt that came too late to redeem himself.

The only respectable moment for him, where he seemed somewhat comfortable with his music, was his colloquy with Alberich back in Valhalla leading up to his wrenching the ring from Alberich's finger. Of course, this is Wotan's most menacing moment in Rheingold anyway (apart, perhaps, from his refusal to yield the ring right before Erda's appearance), so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised at his suddenly getting so comfortable with Alberich here. This scene was his "norm" for Wotan, after all. So naturally it worked better. Still, it was ironic hearing more natural phrasing at the very point where Wotan is being at his most baleful.

Ultimately, though, we cannot really blame Terfel. There is a misplaced zeitgeist around this role today, and it will take at least two generations to dislodge it. That zeitgeist dictates that Wotan be monochromatic and "dangerous". Naturally, Wotan as Mr. Menace is never going to assume a persona that is any different from Alberich, and we are foolish to expect otherwise. Terfel is merely following the herd. Listening to Wagner's music more attentively might wake him up. Wagner's music makes it clear that -- however wrong-headed the youthful Wotan's actions in Rheingold -- there is still an abiding loftiness to him from the very start. That loftiness makes his sudden attentiveness to Erda perfectly natural. The audience will have already sensed this dimension in him way before that last scene, if the Wotan does his job and sings the music clearly and honestly.  Sung that way, the Erda scene becomes a fulfillment of a potential already glimpsed, not a cheap deus ex machina surprise.

Recently, we did hear a little something of both the real Alberich and the real Wotan in the singing of Johannes Martin Kränzle and René Pape at La Scala this past season. But I see no sign of Kränzle anywhere this year, and Pape will no doubt be told sooner or later that he has Wotan "all wrong" and shouldn't bother listening to his music the way he's been doing. Again, phrasing is for sissies, remember?

It's only a matter of time before we hear Pape expectorating his Wotan from his throat, the way all the hand-me-down Terfels do. Proper "coaching" will quickly tell Pape to "mature" his reading so it's properly unmusical and one-dimensional to fit with the knee-jerk Mr. Menace so de rigeur these days.

In any case, Pape is a heavy smoker, so it's only a matter of time before Pape will be unable to do the role any other way than as a Terfel redux. There's also no point to acquiring the video of Pape's marvelous reading, because the Scala production is an insult and an object lesson in how to distract from every ounce of Wagner's drama. We can only hope for an audio CD instead, particularly since -- and you heard it here first -- the powers-that-be will not allow Pape to develop the three-dimensional musical Wotan he initiated at La Scala. It will be corrupted soon enough, making any audio CD of the Scala reading a precious snapshot of what happened before the rot set in.

On Opening Night at the Met, we did get a sensitive multi-dimensional Loge from Richard Croft, and Stephanie Blythe was a stunning Fricka, and Richard's brother Dwayne was in the best shape I've heard him in in years -- his Donner showed a superb authority and ease and musicality throughout, with none of the rasps and snarled nasal tone we've sometimes heard from him recently, which made me think that he and Richard may have had a useful heart-to-heart. Hans-Peter König was also an excellent Fafner (complete with a Salminen-like trill).  Positive contributions were also made by Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia and Lisette Oropesa as Woglinde, leading a strong trio of Rhinemaidens.  Patricia Bardon's Erda was not really at this level; but despite her not being a true contralto, she was never unmusical.  She may come off to better advantage in higher repertoire.

With all these pluses, though, when you get a Rheingold where the heart of the drama -- the face-off between Alberich and Wotan -- is hobbled by a Wotan and an Alberich who sing like two peas in a pod throughout -- and bor-ring peas at that -- what have you really got? Nothing.

© Geoffrey Riggs

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At 9/29/2010 7:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! What a review. I was very impressed with what I read. You shoud do this for a living!

Mort Ohren

At 11/20/2010 9:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thx for your great review. I have seen the Scala Rheingold twice, in the house. Pape is a thoughtful, disenchanted Wotan. Compared to others who are singing this role, you mention one, it is possible not only to understand every word of Pape, but every syllable and even letter. One major distinction to many others!
A few days ago Pape postponed his debut in Walküre to Berlin, April 2011.


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