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Lepage 'Ring' comes full cycle at Met

Associated Press Modified: May 4, 2012 at 10:46 am •  Published: May 4, 2012
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NEW YORK (AP) — In the end, it's all about The Machine.

And that's the fundamental flaw in Robert Lepage's staging of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, which is closing out the Metropolitan Opera's season with three complete performances.

By now even many people who don't follow opera have heard about the $16 million high-tech set Lepage devised for the production: a 45-ton contraption consisting of 24 movable metal planks which, aided by computerized projections, can look like a forest one moment and a mountaintop the next.

Watching the four operas piecemeal as they were assembled over the past 19 months, this reviewer was enchanted by some of the effects Lepage has conjured up: the Rhinemaidens dangling forlornly high atop the set after Alberich steals their gold; the planks twisting themselves into a giant staircase on which Wotan and Loge descend to Nibelheim; the 3-D forest bird flying through the trees and even perching on Siegfried's lap.

Those and other dazzling moments are still there. But seen over the span of just eight days in a cycle that ended Thursday night, the production comes across as less than the sum of its parts. That's because Lepage has failed to dig beneath the surface of Wagner's epic tale of greed, betrayal, love and redemption. With no coherent vision of what the "Ring" might have to say to a modern audience, the production becomes an arid exercise in mechanics.

It's heavy lifting with no heart; spectacle with no soul.

The redeeming aspect of this "Ring" is the musical performance, which meets the highest standards. All the leading roles were in strong hands: Bryn Terfel was a tower of vocal strength and dramatic presence as Wotan; his fellow bass-baritone Eric Owens brought Wotan's nemesis Alberich to life with searing vocalism; mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe sang with her usual sumptuous power as Wotan's wife, Fricka; the stentorian bass Hans-Peter Koenig stood out in three different roles, most notably as the villainous Hagen; Katarina Dalayman (sharing the role with Deborah Voigt) was a compelling Bruennhilde, though high notes at times forced her into a piercing shriek.

Fabio Luisi led the orchestra in an account of the score that, if not the last word in sweep and majesty, maintained elegance, transparency and brisk pacing.

Because this is the Met's first new "Ring" in more than 20 years and the highest-profile undertaking since Peter Gelb became general manager in 2006, the production has been closely scrutinized by critics, and many have been harsh. None more so than Alex Ross, who wrote in The New Yorker magazine: "Pounds for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history."

Earlier this week, The News York Times disclosed that publicly funded classical radio station WQXR had pulled a blog posting that criticized the production following a complaint from Gelb. Laura Walker, president and chief executive of WQXR's parent, New York Public Radio, told the Times that the post "wasn't up to our high standards" and was already under review when she heard from Gelb.

In another unusual move, the Met took out a full-page ad in last Sunday's Times filled not with the customary blurbs from critics but with quotes from ordinary music lovers who had written their views about the production — pro and con — on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.

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