Voigt Shrieks But Lepage’s Ring Should Survive: Review

If you don’t have tickets to the last performance of Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung” (Twilight of the Gods) at the Metropolitan Opera on May 11, why not stay home and sing along with Deborah Voigt, the Brunnhilde, while crisping your fingers on an oven burner?

Waaaaah. That sounds about right.

The matinee will be broadcast live and there are many opportunities for screaming in this nearly six-hour opera with two intermissions about a race of power-hungry gods destroyed by a brutal lust for gold. You may even hit higher notes than Brunnhilde.

“Ring” cycles are special events in the life of any company, and years will pass here in New York before we hear again from these Valkyries, gods, giants, dwarves, humans, Rhine maidens, one dragon and, of course, that now infamous 45-ton machine.

That stage-filling contraption with movable slats, the brainchild of Met general manager Peter Gelb, director Robert Lepage and set designer Carl Fillion, has provoked much comment, a good deal of it negative.

It sometimes grumbles when moving into a new position and isn’t always cooperative -- unlike selfless singers.

Bridge to Valhalla

At its debut in Sept. 2010, the machine failed to conjure up the bridge to Valhalla as “Rheingold” blasted to a close. Very bad!

And yet the image I will remember till my own last journey is that beautiful opening scene with Rhine maidens suspended in a river of blue.

At its best, Lepage’s production creates a thrillingly strange world remote from our own, while avoiding the social commentary Germans especially enjoy. Imagine, not one reference to the Hitler who loved the “Ring” cycle and was inspired to create a “Gotterdammerung” of his own.

Now there’s talk Lepage’s “Ring” might disappear forever.

I hope not. With its interpretive demands, a new “Ring” invariably provokes cries of outrage. Someone is always personally offended.

Patrice Chereau’s 1976 Bayreuth “Ring” cycle is now remembered as a work of genius. But it was booed on opening night and only became a legendary film after much tinkering by the director and his helpers during subsequent revivals.

The Met’s production looks like no other “Ring” in the world and that alone is an achievement, if one that cost a fortune. Surely more than the reputed $16 million were lavished on the four operas (“Rheingold,” “Walkure,” “Siegfried,” “Gotterdammerung”). At least another $125,000 went just to reinforce the stage with the kind of steel I-beams used to build skyscrapers. Add to that around $4.5 million to replace the rolling wagons bringing on the sets.

Affluent Patrons

So what? Affluent patrons like spending their money here. The real question is why more wasn’t spent on fixing glaring problems, from the many clumsy entrances and exits to the stunningly inept conflagration. Those tiny heads popping off mysterious statues provoked laughter and the underwhelming funeral pyre couldn’t fry a little girl scout much less the greatest hero of heroes.

And that’s just “Gotterdammerung.” The end of “Die Walkure” was laughably concluded with a double for Brunnhilde hanging upside down from a cliff, ruining Wotan’s heartbreaking goodbye to the daughter he loves.

Mystery Casting

Which brings me to this “Ring’s“ greatest mystery: the casting of Voigt as Brunnhilde.

How could Gelb entrust his biggest project to a soprano who was pushing 50 without ever having dipped more than a toe in the Rhine? Wagnerian great Birgit Nilsson was in her late 20s; Kirsten Flagstad in her 30s.

Voigt has not been singing anything near well since her thin self emerged with the help of gastric bypass surgery some seven years ago. The shrewd leaders of the Chicago Lyric have quietly canceled her out of future contracts. Why the Met has continued to enable her is inexplicable.

That fantastic blooming radiance is long gone and no magic potion will bring it back. “Gotterdammerung” was a trial with its stressful high notes, pitch lapses and hard timbre so devoid of luster and emotional depth.

In evident discomfort, attired in an unflattering, constricting dress more becoming to a country western singer than the top Valkyrie, Voigt offered little of the gravitas that Brunnhilde must exude as she sacrificed herself, not to mention a very fine horse, for the benefit of mankind.

No Soprano Shortage

It’s not that there is a shortage of Brunnhildes these days. The amber-voiced Katarina Dalayman, for example, has been stuck waiting in the wings and tossed a spare performance. Nina Stemme was just in town giving a concert.

Thank goodness Lepage’s machine so often distracts with glowering forest projections and images of great charm, most memorably Siegfried boating down the Rhine.

And yet here, too, the choice perplexed. The Met had hired a B tenor who mysteriously imploded before the opening, leaving his utility costume to Jay Hunter Morris, an engaging performer with a rough voice. He now sings with more power, but how nice it would be if those forest birds would teach him more poetry and translucence.

So good luck to everyone on Saturday. Afterwards, you might want to do what I did after the tiresome wailing finally died down.

I listened to “Zu Neuen Taten” (Off to new deeds, great hero) on YouTube in a 1941 souvenir with Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior, conducted by that firebrand Arturo Toscanini. OMG. What sheer beauty and power. Reach into the fridge for a beer and dream.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own.)

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