[Met Performance] CID:296130
Das Rheingold {130}
Ring Cycle [89] Uncut
. Metropolitan Opera House: 04/24/1989.


Metropolitan Opera House
April 24, 1989

Der Ring des Nibelungen: Cycle [89] Uncut

Wotan...................James Morris
Fricka..................Helga Dernesch
Alberich................Franz Mazura
Loge....................Siegfried Jerusalem
Erda....................Birgitta Svendén
Fasolt..................John Macurdy
Fafner..................Matti Salminen
Freia...................Mari-Anne Häggander
Froh....................Gary Bachlund
Donner..................James Courtney
Mime....................Graham Clark
Woglinde................Kaaren Erickson
Wellgunde...............Diane Kesling
Flosshilde..............Meredith Parsons (2)

Conductor...............James Levine

Review of Martin Mayer in Opera (UK)

The Met 'Ring': gambled and won

Planning the new production of "Der Ring des Nibelungen" which played the week of April 24 - the first time in 50 years the house has offered the four operas in a single week - James Levine as artistic director of the Met took two major gambles. The first was that an interpretation modeled on what was done in Bayreuth in the decade following the composer's death would be viable 90 years later; the second was that the vocal talent available today could carry the heavy burden of these operas in a theatre with 3,949 seats. The first, I think, was a clear and convincing win; and the second was not a loss. Indeed, six of the cast were nothing less than magnificent: James Morris as Wotan, Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde, Franz Mazura as Alberich, John Macurdy as Fasolt, Helga Dernesch as Fricka and Waltraute, and Matti Salminen as Fafner, Hunding and Hagen.

Glory first to Levine himself and Otto Schenk for their willingness to subordinate their own cleverness to a mainstream vision of what Wagner wanted in his time and in his place. We did without horses (though the score does ask for them here and there), and without Victorian "trompe l'oeil." The story was told straight, part fairytale, part myth, part commentary on human and social (especially family) relations. Whatever interpretation the ticket-holder wished to place on what he saw or heard was acceptable to the producers: gold changed hands to devastating effect, the law was broken and then enforced, libido was released and the release was punished, the loveless had power but not much fun, love had to be in the end its own reward.

The stage showed all the virtues of sufficient rehearsal time well used by a master: every character was reacting at every moment to everything said or done by every other character. Given the extent to which Wagnerian persons must physically illustrate what Wagner is suggesting in the pit, these theatrical interactions lie at the very centre of a successful Ring, and played a much larger role than I think the audience realized in the general delight with which the performances were received.

Musically, we were at the centre of the German Romantic tradition, large and lush, rock-solid in rhythm, moderate in tempo. All the preludes were profoundly evocative of action ("Walküre") or power fully expressive of trouble ("Siegfried"). The architectonics rose to a terrifying climax in the Funeral March. As always with Levine, the surfaces were sensuous and the tunes soared; the only thing missed in four nights, I thought, was "Weiche, Wotan, Weiche," and that largely because Birgitta Svendén's limited vocal size (she did better in "Siegfried") forced Levine to hold back. An augmented 80-voice male chorus raised the roof in the second act of "Götterdämmerung." The orchestral execution was beyond praise; one singles out the lower strings, the timpani and the brass simply because there was so much magic there. An audience that knew and cared gave the orchestra a standing ovation before the third act of "Götterdämmerung."

Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's sets, closely modeled on 1897 Bayreuth, were roughhewn, suitably outsize, all grey, brown and (for the Lenz and the Wald) green, with suitable and evocative projections on cyclorama and scrim. We had spears and shields and winged caps, and a wonderfully loathsome Worm my sophisticated friends tell me is modeled after something in a film called "The Empire Strikes Back." Rolf Langenfass's costumes were vaguely barbaric, fancy for Gibichungs and Loge, plain and voluminous for the one-eyed Wotan, diaphanous for Rhinemaidens and (don't know why) for Erda. Fricka was a splendid white-gowned matron, the giants wore Masonic aprons. I grew tired of Siegfried's pinkish waistcoat and shorts, and of Brünnhilde shift, which will look even worse donned by someone other than the belligerently high-breasted Behrens.

Morris must be praised first among the individuals, because nobody had any notion he was or could ever be so great a Wotan. After a rather confused start in "Rheingold," which is surely legitimate, he came to majesty in his necessary loss to Fricka, gave the "Monologue" an unusual propulsion, sang a most moving farewell to his son, and in the third act both his rage and the softening of it were entirely credible. And the Wanderer's four duets in Siegfried were the rescue of the one disappointing evening. Dorle Soria said he had been studying with Hans Hotter, and of course he had been studying with Levine and Schenk. He sang with a richness and variety of tonal resource and an unexpectedly firm grasp on how each long phrase should go.

Behrens was a known quantity. Once past some rather tentative "Ho-jo-to-ho's" and a careful "Todesverkündigung "(it was announced that she was singing "Walküre" with a cold), she proved to be at the height of her vocal form. The top of Brünnhilde range is work for her, but she was up to the work. Indeed, I have never heard her so loud at the Met: she was going off for a rest at the end of the week and she absolutely let go. She played wonderfully against Morris in the closing scene of "Walküre," she communicated her unique enthusiasm in love in the two "Siegfried" duets, and she was a fascinating study in reminiscence and withdrawal while Waltraute tolled her funeral gongs. But what makes Behrens the Brünnhilde of choice is the depth of her performance in the second act of "Götterdämmerung." From the tremble that suffuses her before her first call to Siegfried, through the grasping of the spear when she sings her oath to the abjectness of her betrayal at the end of the scene - there has never, I think, been anyone like her. Levine does not like to be quoted on individual artists, but he will, I think, excuse the repetition of his comment on Behrens: "You don't have the tower of sound you got from Nilsson, or that warm bath from the stage that Flagstad gave, but have you ever been so moved by a Brünnhilde when she stands there in Act 2?" If Bernard Shaw had seen Behrens's Brünnhilde, he would not have objected so violently to the fact that in "Götterdämmerung" the characters must be believable as people.

Mazura's vicious Alberich, culminating in the oily appeal to "Hagen, mein Sohn," has been praised here before, as has Salminen's authoritative, perfect Hagen, a standard for all time. Salminen is also a darkly threatening Hunding and a superb Fafner, at whose stomping entry the earth shakes. (Someone should do an "Acis and Galatea" for him.) I had not previously noted Macurdy's Fasolt, superbly sung and acted, the itch for Freia strong upon it. And I had never before heard Dernesch as either Fricka or Waltraute, which she sang and acted with so satisfying a feeling for the idiom that even in this cast it was a wonder to hear her.

The rest varied. Kathryn Harries and Anthony Raffell were fine Gibichungs, more into the production than they had been in the autumn (Harries especially had been given more to do and did it girlishly well; her farewell to Siegfried was truly sad). Siegfried Jerusalem repeated his flashy Loge, not quite so commandingly as 18 months ago; the lesser gods did no harm but left no impression. Dawn Upshaw's Forest Bird was surprisingly edgy through the loudspeakers, but still lovely. Graham Clark as Mime was less athletic, less sinister and (just as well) less Semitic than Horst Hiestermann; he sang brightly and well. Robert Schunk and Ellen Shade were okay Walsungs, small for the house but well into the style; Shade carried off her third-act interjection with emotional power, though she had to force her voice to do it. Kaaren Erickson, Diane Kesling and Meredith Parsons were fetching Rhinemaidens; Gweneth Bean, Hanna Schwarz and Marita Napier were less well-matched as Norns, but what one was listening for was in the orchestra, anyway. The Valkyries blended better this year than last.

Which leaves "Siegfried," the gamble Levine lost, Toni Krämer did, I'm sure, the best he could, but neither vocally nor dramatically did he measure up, and the harm to "Siegfried" was considerable. This is a role that will not play itself, especially because, as Shaw wickedly noted, Siegfried "inherits from Wotan a mania for autobiography which leads him to inflict on everyone he meets the story of Mime and the dragon, although the audience have spent the whole evening witnessing the events he is narrating." Krämer also had bad troubles in "Götterdämmerung," but it mattered less, and he pulled himself together for the rather lighter scene with the Rhinemaidens. Perhaps when the time comes to televise this "Ring" (destined for the air next June), the Norns can pull those threads together one last time and make us a 'Siegfried."

I must note in passing that almost everything I disliked in these productions as they were introduced has been remedied. Brünnhilde's Annunciation is done with effective evocation of the Archangel Michael; the girls no longer roll lewdly down the hillside in the [beginning] of "Walküre" Act 3; Wotan no longer grinds his spear in his groin as Siegfried shatters it; some years have been taken off Gutrune, etc. Especially where Levine himself is involved, Met productions are no longer cast in bronze; they are changed, and invariably improved, as time passes.

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