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By Joel Kasow

NEW YORK, 25 SEPTEMBER 2012 — America's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is now showing the Ring Cycle from the Metropolitan Opera (check local listings) in its entirety, along with a documentary, Wagner’s Dream, detailing the production of opera’s monumental tetralogy. I’m glad I watched the operas prior to the documentary as I was thus able to form my own opinions prior to being subjected to the inevitable puffery and enthusiasm on display in Susan Froemke’s film. It is, of course, impossible not to have heard tales of the monster machine that dominates Canadian Robert Lepage’s concept, but one of the advantages of seeing the Ring on television is that much of the Machine’s effect is diminished. One can therefore concentrate on the story-telling aspect which is neatly handled, though the costumes and wigs were surely not meant to be seen up close.

Adam Diegel as Froh, Dwayne Croft as Donner, Bryn Terfel as Wotan
and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka in Wagner's Das Rheingold
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The emphasis on close-ups is not always favorable to the singers when they are expressionless, something that too often occurs. Occasionally the images become distracting, for example, Wotan and Loge’s descent and ascent to and from Nibelheim, or Brünnhilde hanging by a cord at the end of Die Walküre. It was pointed out on an online forum that these images, and presumably the Rhinemaidens, were meant to be thought of as an overhead view, but an image that needs an explanation cannot be considered successful.

Brünnhilde hanging by a cord in Wagner's Die Walküre
Photo: © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Musically, James Levine and Fabio Luisi steered their performances with a sure hand, Luisi perhaps a touch lighter but this remains nonetheless a coherent Ring. Attention is focused on Deborah Voigt’s first assumption of the role of Brünnhilde and the sudden jump to heldentenor fame of Jay Hunter Morris taking the role of Siegfried  on very short notice before the premiere of the opera bearing his name. It is difficult to believe that both singers are virtually the same age when Hunter Morris’s time in the limelight has only recently begun, and the freshness with which he both sings and acts is amazing.

Jay Hunter Morris in the role of Siegfried 
Photo: © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Voigt will be a Brünnhilde for several years to come, despite the fact that her voice lacks freshness, the high B’s and C’s not always comfortable or sufficiently held, and the lower range somewhat detached in quality from the rest of the voice. She is heroic. Bryn Terfel’s Wotan lacks the solid bass underpinning that should be a requisite for the role, but is nonetheless touching as he gathers Brünnhilde in his arms before putting her to sleep.

Deborah Voigt in the role of Brünnhilde 
Photo: © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Eric Owens menacing Alberich is enough to make anyone cower, let alone the hapless Mime of Gerhard Siegel. Jonas Kaufmann’s Siegmund surprises us with the vocal heft he brings to his part, and Eva Maria Westbroek is a worthy if not transcendent Sieglinde.

Eric Owens as Alberich in Wagner's Das Rheingold
Photo: © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Lepage does wonders with the transformations, whether Alberich into a toad in Das Rheingold or Fafner’s dragon in Siegfried, while his solution for Grane is ingenious. The sets, aka the Machine, may have lacked a certain romantic poetry though I appreciated the Ride of the Valkyries. At least the viewer is almost never trying to figure out what the director is trying to tell us (the upside-down Brünnhilde), as the story telling is clear and faithful while making use of sophisticated technology (but at what cost?). One of the major problems with home viewing is that the voices all come through at the same volume level, which is far from being the case in the house.

The Rhinemaidens crawling on the steep planks
Photo: © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Wagner’s Dream offers a look into the birth of the production, from the moment that the sets were being created and tried out on a small scale. Froemke does not hesitate to show us the occasional mishap in performance, such as the Machine’s ceasing to operate at the end of the Das Rheingold premiere, or Voigt’s fall in Die Walküre or the fear of some of the Rhinemaidens and Valkyries crawling on the steep planks. Of course, Wagner, Gelb and Lepage triumph at the end, as is only to be expected. This is not Michael Moore.

The full Met "Ring" cycle – complete with Wagner’s Dream – was released by Deutsche Grammophon as a Blu-ray DVD-set on September 11.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque. He has been opera critic for Opera (U.K.) and Opera News (U.S.A.) for over thirty years and was elected to the International Music Critics Association (UNESCO) in 1996.

Headline image: Bryn Terfel as Wotan in Wagner's Das Rheingold
Photo: © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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