Understudy Triumphs as New ‘Ring’ Rolls In: Manuela Hoelterhoff

Jay Hunter Morris plays the title character in the new production of "Siegfried" by Richard Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Siegfried is forging the magic sword, "Notung." Photographer: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera via Bloomberg

The tenor had disappeared before the opening last Thursday of “Siegfried” at the Metropolitan Opera.

So had the conductor!

But that still left the soprano...

Richard Wagner’s four-opera “Ring” cycle is slowly, noisily, rolling into view in a new production by Robert Lepage that features an abstract set with movable slats so heavy the stage had to be reinforced before the first Valkyrie bounded into view.

“Siegfried” is opera number three, continuing the story of the bankrupt, sleazy gods of Valhalla with the murder of the gold-hoarding dragon Fafner, the education of Siegfried and the awakening of Brunnhilde, the spear-wielding warrior maiden.

Wotan, her angry father, left her sleeping on a mountaintop surrounded by a ring of fire in the preceding “Die Walkure.”

That opera opened in April, and we’ve been worrying about Deborah Voigt ever since.

Once the soprano had a bountiful voice and a figure to match. Now, after obsessively reshaping herself with the help of surgery, she’s almost thin, with a voice to match.

Triumphant Understudy

Brunnhilde is sadly no longer a role for her. It’s too hard for someone past 50 who has to invoke the gods to sing a high C. As always, she threw herself around with brave abandon, but the dropped consonants and quavery tone quality suggested a singer at the end of her rope.

I can’t imagine how she’ll survive the far more difficult Brunnhilde in “Gotterdammerung” next spring. Can Met manager Peter Gelb? Can she?

Standing handsomely by her side was the new Siegfried, Jay Hunter Morris, replacing tenor Gary Lehman, whose mystery virus, judging by amusingly contorted press bulletins, will keep him from the Met for some time. Maybe forever.

Morris, the understudy, has already been announced for “Gotterdammerung.”

He’s wonderful. He doesn’t have the vocal metal and power to deliver a thrilling forging scene, but he sings with taste and feeling. And he carries himself with an enjoyable swagger that is perfect for the role of a young, dumb killer.

Not much direction could be noted. The stage-filling set, which is often quite noisy, takes a few impressive spins, revealing majestic forests and an astonishing, three-dimensional projection of an underworld teeming with bugs, worms and snakes.

Where Are We?

But the big moments are oddly small-scaled. The sword-forging contraption is so dinky, he could be making cappucino. The dragon is a cute yellow snake. The bear wasn’t visible.

I never got the sense that the producing team had bothered to decide where the events were taking place. In the land of myth? In a post apocalyptic time? In the past?

When you haven’t asked yourself where everyone comes from, you can’t tell compelling stories.

Or costume people in a sensible way. Bryn Terfel, get rid of that wig right now! You sound terrific as Wotan, but you look like an albino wizard.

At least all was well in the pit, where Fabio Luisi conducted with supreme energy and captivating imagination.

A dapper Italian with a wide-ranging repertoire, Luisi, recently appointed principal conductor, took over “Siegfried” from Met music director James Levine, whose persistent health problems have darkened the company’s scheduling for several seasons.

After more complications, Levine finally withdrew from all his Met performances this fall (and also has departed from the Boston Symphony Orchestra).

Met Fixture

On occasion, I missed that huge brass sound the musicians once mustered for Levine, but Luisi offered thrilling moments and beguiling intimacy.

In those excruciatingly boring conversational scenes when characters drone on about events everyone there knows already, I kept sane focusing on lovely instrumental details and leitmotifs drifting up from the pit.

Audience response to Luisi was joyous enough to suggest he might fill Levine’s sneakers very nicely. And he surely should, by the time “Gotterdammerung” grinds into view at the end of January.

Levine, a Met fixture for 40 years, receives constant credit for improving a second-rate orchestra. But that was decades ago and for whatever reasons -- self-absorption? shyness? -- he never engaged with the cultural life of this city, despite huge pay checks (most recently around $1.5 million a year).

What a pity. The arts in New York could use a charismatic music spokesman.

The paralyzed board really should stop issuing sentimental garlands of gratitude and add “emeritus” to Levine’s title. It’s sad that the maestro didn’t have the judgment to step down, but he didn’t, and now should be assisted into the next phase of life.

At the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center. Information: +1-212-362-2000; http://www.metopera.org. “Siegfried” will be presented tomorrow and Nov. 5 (when it will be telecast live in HD) and then return in April and May as part of the complete “Ring” cycle. Bloomberg is global sponsor of the Met’s live telecasts.

Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.

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