Otto Schenk’s Ring at the Met – Last Call for the last traditional production of Wagner’s Ring in a major opera house

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Katarina Dalayman as Brünnhilde in Wagner's Götterdämmerung, photo Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Katarina Dalayman as Brünnhilde in Wagner's "Götterdämmerung," photo Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Metropolitan Opera House
March 25, April 11, 18, 25
April 27, 28, 30, May 2

Der Ring des Nibelungen
by Richard Wagner
libretto Richard Wagner

(Cast listed in order of vocal appearance)

Das Rheingold (March 25, April 27)
Woglinde – Lisette Oropesa
Wellgunde – Kate Lindsey
Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford
Alberich – Richard Paul Fink
Fricka – Yvonne Naef
Wotan – James Morris / Albert Dohmen
Freia – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Fasolt – Franz-Josef Selig / René Pape
Fafner – John Tomlinson
Froh – Garrett Sorenson
Donner – Charles Taylor
Loge – Kim Begley
Mime – Gerhard Siegel / Dennis Petersen
Erda – Jill Grove / Wendy White

Die Walküre (April 11, April 28)
Siegmund – Gary Lehman / Plácido Domingo
Sieglinde – Waltraud Meier / Adrianne Pieczonka
Hunding – John Tomlinson / René Pape
Wotan – James Morris / Albert Dohmen
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin / Katarina Dalayman
Fricka – Yvonne Naef
Gerhilde – Kelly Cae Hogan
Helmwige – Claudia Waite
Waltraute – Laura Vlasak Nolen
Schwertleite – Jane Bunnell
Ortlinde – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Siegrune – Leann Sandel-Pantaleo
Grimgerde – Mary Ann McCormick
Rossweisse – Teresa S. Herold

Siegfried (April 18, April 30)
Mime – Robert Brubaker
Siegfried – Christian Franz
The Wanderer – James Morris / Albert Dohmen
Alberich – Richard Paul Fink / Tom Fox
Fafner – John Tomlinson
The Woodbird – Lisette Oropesa
Erda – Wendy White
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin / Linda Watson

Götterdämmerung (April 25, May 2)
First Norn – Wendy White
Second Norn – Elizabeth Bishop
Third Norn – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Brünnhilde – Katarina Dalayman
Siegfried – Christian Franz
Gunther – Iain Paterson
Hagen – John Tomlinson
Gutrune – Margaret Jane Wray
Waltraute – Yvonne Naef
Alberich – Richard Paul Fink / Tom Fox
Woglinde – Lisette Oropesa
Wellgunde – Kate Lindsey
Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford

Met Opera Orchestra, James Levine, conductor

Production – Otto Schenk
Set and Projection Designer – Günther Schneider-Siemssen
Costume Designer – Rolf Langenfass
Lighting Designer – Gil Wechsler

The 125th anniversary season of The Metropolitan Opera concluded this month with a final curtain for Otto Schenk’s production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. (Fortunately, it will remain available on a DVD set from 2002. —Ed.)The commemorative farewell, while heavyhearted for many, was historically befitting for an opera house that established its inaugural season in the year of Wagner’s passing in 1883. The retirement of Schenk’s 1989 staging after six revivals not only makes room for a new Ring directed by Robert Lepage to be unveiled in the 2011-12 season, with Das Rheingold set to premiere in advance during fall 2010, it also furthers the new course charted by Met general manager Peter Gelb toward revitalizing the current repertory for a broader audience.

Lepage was among those who, like myself, were viewing Schenk’s production live for the first and final time, and while the Canadian director is no newcomer to staging opera, his presence at The Met is relatively recent. Lepage made his house debut in November with an ambitious staging of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, a production Gelb had commissioned in 1999 while a stage producer for Seiji Ozawa’s Saito Kinen Festival in Japan, which was then fine-tuned for performances at the Opéra National de Paris in 2001, 2004, and 2006. A radical update to an opera not staged at The Met since 1906, Lepage’s Faust became the house’s first “interactive” production by featuring real-time visual transformations of sound and motion that were signaled by transmitters attached to the performers and projected onto a mammoth screen, which, during certain pivotal scenes, also presented computer-enhanced sequences of Faust underwater and Marguerite with a blazing crown of fire. Live acrobatics and aerialists were thrown in for good measure in the manner of KÀ, Lepage’s current theatrical reverie mounted on a rigged-up floating stage for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. The unapologetic embrace of technology, cinema, and spectacle are a foretaste of things to come in Lepage’s Ring, and while Wagner’s dramatic ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” based on a socio-aesthetic unity of the arts and its artists, may very well find brilliant realization in Lepage’s multimedia vision, that vision will still have to contend with its predecessor’s shadow.

Kate Lindsey, Lisette Oropesa and Tamara Mumford as Rhinemaidens and Richard Paul Fink as Alberich in Wagner's "Das Rheingold."

Kate Lindsey, Lisette Oropesa and Tamara Mumford as Rhinemaidens and Richard Paul Fink as Alberich in Wagner's "Das Rheingold." Photo Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera

The strength of Otto Schenk’s Met production, as I experienced it in two of the three cycles offered this season, is its deference to Wagner’s music. Directors perennially vow that their visual and theatrical interventions dare not overshadow the Ring’s musical richness, but Schenk delivers on that promise, even to a fault. Visually, Schenk does not fuss over details. This does not mean, however, that his production is without clever touches. In the opening scene of Das Rheingold, he directs the eye to the gold gleaming atop a crag, and replaces it with the sight of Valhalla illumined in the following scene (a cinematic effect of a sort), thus underscoring the parallel fates of Alberich, the underworld Nibelung—sung by a delightfully ghoulish Richard Paul Fink, who fulfilled Wagner’s indications for a “rough” and “dry” vocal style to the hilt (March 25, April 18, 25, 27) and the able Tom Fox (April 30, May 2)—and Wotan, lord of the gods—at once nobly and tenderly sung by James Morris in his signature role (March 25, April 11, 18) and a somewhat wooden but vocally effective Albert Dohmen (April 27, 28, 30)—who both ransom love for objects of power. The core of the Ring’s dramatic tension derives from Alberich and Wotan, characters from different ends of the stratified world united by a common dilemma between love and power. To convey the far-reaching consequences of their actions, Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s monumental sets place Wagner’s characters in vast arenas of cavernous dwellings, mountain heights, and pastoral spaces evocative of German romantic landscape paintings.

Still, Schenk’s primary device for foregrounding the drama that is inherent in Wagner’s music is to anchor each scene with an overall image that shifts only subtly against the ever-shifting inner lives of its characters. It is as if Schenk has adhered to Schopenhauer’s belief that music is the true storyteller of the human condition, voicing an unmediated reality that the visual medium fails to convey as an artificial extension of the phenomenal world. We know that two years after Wagner completed the Ring libretto he read Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation in 1854, and that the essay’s renunciation of the material world led Wagner not only to a deeper understanding of his dramatic cycle but also to revise its ending so that Siegfried’s death no longer resulted in the temporary restoration of the gods but in their imminent destruction—together with the redemption of love freed from Alberich’s curse of death on the ring’s possessor. As a result, Wagner’s text for Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung communicates one thing, a bold renunciation of the world, and the music another, a rapturous celebration of love through which she and Siegfried are eternally united.

A scene from Act Three of Wagner's "Götterdämmerung." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

A scene from Act Three of Wagner's "Götterdämmerung." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Wagner’s Ring is an exquisite fabric of music, and because it is not cut into alternations of aria, recitative, and ensemble numbers the work has a tendency to surprise the listener with intensely expressive and brilliant music that elusively recedes back into the sonic texture. Its arioso vocal style furthermore allows extended lyrical and homophonic passages to stand out dramatically without interrupting the musical line. It is perhaps telling, then, that Wagner made an overt use of contemporary grand opera conventions, with large chorus and ensemble singing, for the scene at the Hall of the Gibichungs in Act II of Götterdämmerung in which Siegfried—which Christian Franz performed with unrelenting spirit and vocal might in his Met debut (April 25, May 2)—and Brünnhilde—sung with penetrating rage by Katarina Dalayman (April 25, May 2)—have reached their most disoriented mental states, spellbound and betrayed by a Gibichung potion. In contrast, one of the most intimate moments of Wagner’s Ring is a lyrical cello solo for Sieglinde’s simple water offering to Siegmund at the start of Die Walküre, which unexpectedly but seamlessly emerges from the stormy Vorspiel. Filling a long pause in the dialogue between Sieglinde and Siegmund, tenderly sung by both Gary Lehman and Waltraud Meier (April 11) and Plácido Domingo and Adrianne Pieczonka (April 28), the instrumental arietta allows dramatic tension to build and offers the listener a reflective moment with the music. Schenk’s uncluttered staging gives its audience room to absorb Wagner’s Ring by prioritizing the listening experience over the viewing experience. The Ring’s extended pauses and introspective characters might be the source of impatience for some (“Get over yourself and move on!” was the sentiment I heard from one member of the audience.) yet, these are also its main draw, even the arcanum behind its power to initiate or alienate listeners. This sacrosanct element to experiencing the Ring was evident even before Das Rheingold began, as James Levine assumed the podium inconspicuously in darkness to bypass the ceremonial applause. Das Rheingold’s Vorspiel is one of the most beautifully composed parts of the Ring, emerging almost imperceptibly from a soundscape seemingly buried in memory and burgeoning into the heroic E-flat tonality with each arpeggiated octave.

Plácido Domingo as Siegmund and Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde in Wagner's "Die Walküre." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Plácido Domingo as Siegmund and Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde in Wagner's "Die Walküre." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

In spite of its merits, there are some glaring technical deficits in Schenk’s production that are sorely apparent when Wagner’s characters collide with the forces of nature. Nature as a wise and unpredictable entity looms throughout the Ring, but when it manifests forcibly it exposes the limitations of Schneider-Siemssen’s still-life sets and Gil Wechsler’s atmospheric lighting. As Donner redirects the storm in the final scene of Rheingold, for instance, there is a significant stretch of incidental music for which Wagner specified inventive stagecraft: “Donner vanishes completely behind a thundercloud which grows ever thicker and blacker. His hammer-blow is heard striking hard on a rock. A large flash of lightning shoots from the cloud, followed by a violent clap of thunder. Froh has vanished with him into the cloud.” We get a modest version of this in Schenk’s staging, with Donner atop a misty plateau amid shifting clouds and a brief spark of light, enacted by Charles Taylor, whose mighty efforts and winding arms attempted to convey something more dramatic.

The weakest staging in Schenk’s production, albeit also the most challenging, is the finale of Götterdämmerung, which involves a series of events triggered by Brünnhilde’s immolation. Brünnhilde sings of joining Siegfried in death by riding into his funeral pyre on her horse, but in Schenk’s staging she leaps into the pyre alone, which occurs so far upstage that it seems deliberately to conceal an inadequate staging. Moreover, the ensuing images of the Hall of the Gibichungs collapsing, the Rhine overflowing with Hagen engulfed, and Valhalla burning are executed in hasty collage form. While the music leaves limited time to present this chain of events, Wagner’s libretto specifies them in clear detail so that there should be no uncertainty about what occurs. Here, the options of cinema or newer technology would have benefited Schenk’s staging, as would have a stronger directorial interpretation of the finale. Wagner was loathe to provide any definitive interpretations for his dramas, but Schenk’s finale is in need of a concluding perspective beyond the full moon that we get as a seemingly literal translation of the “twilight of the gods.” Schenk’s final image for Das Rheingold, for instance, had consisted of Loge, sung by a nimble Kim Begley, facing the audience with shrugged shoulders and hands raised, an awkward but nevertheless interpretive ending that was derived from Loge’s earlier comment about possibly destroying the gods with fire for their self-delusion—“Who knows what I’ll do?”

More could also be made of the role of magic and herbal potions in Schenk’s Ring, particularly in the Tarnhelm transformations. Alberich’s turn as a “curling and coiling” dragon in Das Rheingold, for example, was nothing more than a manually held stick that barely moved up and down, and his guise as a toad was indiscernibly small, eliciting chuckles from the audience. Fafner’s incarnation as the dragon in Siegfried, though impressive in size, was a cross between a four-legged crab and one-eyed spider rather than the spiny, winged species mythically slumbering in its lair. If not for John Tomlinson’s netherworldly voice for Fafner, Siegfried’s heroic resistance to fear during his Bildung scene in the forest would have been less credible. The realism and naturalism of Schenk’s production break down in preternatural situations where some technical and physical acrobatics are clearly needed, and Lepage will surely leap at these moments. In another instance, in Act III of Die Walküre, the Valkyries gaze out at the audience to watch for their sisters approaching with slain warriors on flying horses, including Brünnhilde with Sieglinde. We are left staring back at the stage searching for these same appearances, given that Wagner’s libretto indicates this is not a moment in which the drama is purely musical, but also unequivocally visual: “A flash of lightning breaks through the cloud; in its light, a Valkyrie on horseback becomes visible; on her saddle hangs a slain warrior. The apparition comes closer, moving from left to right past the rocky ridge.” Clearly meant to be seen, Schenk’s production leaves this dramatic sight too readily to the spectator’s imagination. Some stage directions are less clearly marked. In Act II of Siegfried, the young hero “listens with bated breath and enraptured look” at the branches of the lime tree above him where the Woodbird sings, and Schenk chooses again to have his character face out at the audience while the dialogue between Siegfried and the Woodbird is sounded offstage by English hornist Pedro Díaz, who skillfully played Siegfried’s unpracticed melody, and soprano Lisette Oropesa, who sang ethereally as the Woodbird. But here too, some visual creativity would enhance an act that is largely characterized by mysterious forest encounters.

Overall, however, Schenk’s deference for Wagner’s music is a reflection of the respect he has for his audiences, and this was fulsomely acknowledged by Met audiences that greeted Schenk, on hand for curtain calls during the first cycle, with rousing applause matched only by those for James Morris and maestro Levine, both of whom have appeared in just about every Met performance of Schenk’s Ring since 1989. Adulation for the musicians reached a crescendo by the closing night of each cycle, with the May 2 audience of Götterdämmerung on its feet even before the final act, providing an apt prelude to Levine’s direction of Siegfried’s momentous funeral procession. Rather than exploit its fortissimo and staccatissimo passages as a bombastic catharsis fueled by a 14-hour buildup (as my neighbor, who was conducting vigorously in his seat, seemed to wish), Levine led the full orchestra with a precise percussive timbre in mind, maintaining a finely balanced and tight ensemble to eulogize the hero’s death.

Siegfried’s tragic death was the originating point for Wagner’s Ring libretto in 1848. Working backwards from Götterdämmerung, Wagner scripted Siegfried as a lighter, contrasting sketch of the hero as a petulant youth, followed by Die Walküre, which served as the necessary backstory to his protagonist’s fate. The libretto for Das Rheingold came last, serving as the “preliminary evening” to the trilogy proper. His libretti drew from varied sources including 13th-century Icelandic compilations of the Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and Völsunga Saga; the Nibelungenlied, an epic poem written in Middle High German dating from around 1200; the Thidreks Saga of Bern, a prose narrative in Old Norse dating from 1260-70; Greek drama; and secondary sources by scholars of these texts. After completing the Ring libretto in 1852, Wagner began on the music in two stages, now in its order of performance, completing Das Rheingold and Die Walküre between 1853-56 and Siegfried and Die Götterdämmerung between 1864-74, interrupting the project to write Tristan und Isoldeand Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The complete Ring debuted at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth in August 1876.

As with Wagner’s creative process for the Ring, the drama itself has a cyclic structure wherein a beginning is tantamount to an end, and an end to a beginning. When Alberich steals the Rhine’s gold and renounces love to forge the all-powerful ring, the act is tantamount to the end of godly rule. This cyclic aspect is evident too when Siegfried is dying in Götterdämmerung (“Brünnhilde! Heilige Braut!”) and he reprises the music of Brünnhilde’s awakening in Siegfried (“Heil dir, Sonne!”), sung sweetly by the exuberant and coquettish Iréne Theorin on April 11 and more powerfully by a magnificent Linda Watson on April 30. Similarly, Donner’s storm music from the finale of Rheingold returns in the Vorspiel of Walküre, as if Siegmund had been journeying through the forest since Donner initially conjured the storm. The power shift that ensues because of Alberich’s theft also plays out as a generational shift, with characters inheriting the tendencies and consequences of their elders. Brünnhilde defies Wotan’s wishes to thwart Siegmund’s duel with Hunding, just as Wotan’s infidelities had betrayed Fricka, sung with strong character by Yvonne Naef (March 25, April 11, 27, 28); Siegfried betrays Brünnhilde and strips the ring from her, just as Wotan and Loge had deceived Alberich into surrendering the ring; Hagen cries, “I’ve punished Falsehood!” to justify his killing of Siegfried, fulfilling his father Alberich’s parting words in a dream sequence,“Be true! True!”; and when he kills his half-brother Gunther, he commits the same act of violence as Fafner on his brother Fasolt; Hagen, pursuing the gold just as his father once did, ultimately drowns in the Rhine.

Indeed, one of the realities of experiencing Wagner’s Ring, with its recurring themes and parallel action across four discrete evenings, is that one lives with the work. The first cycle I attended at The Met unfolded across the span of a month, while the second cycle occurred over the less protracted duration of a week, as is typically done at Bayreuth and most opera houses. For its performance schedule alone, Wagner’s Ring becomes lodged in the memory; but just as one cannot forget the work, the work does not forget about the listener. Wagner employs leitmotifs, recurring themes associated with characters and subjects, to interconnect the four parts and recapitulates the action regularly. With each retelling, however, Wagner humanizes the drama with nuanced details that reflect the subjective experience and personal investment of the character retelling the action. We first learn of Wotan’s infidelities from Fricka in Das Rheingold, which is retold from Wotan’s viewpoint in Die Walküre while confiding to his daughter Brünnhilde, born from Erda, about fathering the Wälsungs with the she-wolf, then detailed further in a dialogue in Siegfried when the wandering Wotan summons Erda, performed memorably by Wendy White (April 27), who replaced Jill Grove who had some trouble locating pitch when she emerged in the final scene of Das Rheingold (March 25), and finally in Götterdämmerung the all-knowing Norns and the Valkyrie Waltraute retell this history in the context of Wotan’s demise.

René Pape as Fasolt, John Tomlinson as Fafner and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia in Wagner's "Das Rheingold." Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera  Taken during the April 27, 2009 performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

René Pape as Fasolt, John Tomlinson as Fafner and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia in Wagner's "Das Rheingold." Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera Taken during the April 27, 2009 performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Of all these performances, the standout performer was John Tomlinson, a virtuosic bass who is also a consummate operatic actor unafraid of embodying his characters. During the first cycle, Tomlinson appeared in all four parts, transformed like a leitmotif, in four different roles: Fafner the giant (Das Rheingold), Hunding (Die Walküre), Fafner the dragon (Siegfried), and Hagen (Götterdämmerung). Tomlinson is famed for having sung the higher bass-baritone role of Wotan at Bayreuth every year from 1988-92 and 1994-98 after being invited for the role by Daniel Barenboim in the Harry Kupfer production. Tomlinson is a tremendous stage actor and the many colors of his languid voice—see his Messiah and “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,” recorded in the same year he began as Wotan at Bayreuth—allows him to connect precisely with his characters. I still remember his Moses in The Met’s 2003 revival of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, an unfinished opera that left Tomlinson making his curtain calls after smashing the tablets in a fury over Aron’s golden calf. Clearly still in character, Tomlinson took his bows reluctantly with eyes ablaze. Likewise, Tomlinson’s commitment to his characters in this season’s Ring was exceptional. In playing several brusque characters he adopted as many menacing voices with unpolished and blunt styles of diction. Though constricted by prosthetic nose and platform boots in Rheingold, his expression of greedy lust for the ring piled on the hoard of gold was priceless. Alongside René Pape as Fasolt on April 28, they were an imposing force. Pape demonstrated a commanding sense of phrasing and a majestic voice that effortlessly projected across The Met, which was at times a problem for other performers. Plácido Domingo also seemed at home playing Siegmund on April 28 (though leaving midway through the May 5 performance, replaced by Gary Lehman, who was excellent in the same role on April 11) with an unmistakably heroic voice that was both powerful and vulnerable as the ill-fated Siegmund. Indeed, the most memorable aspects of The Met’s valedictory performances of Schenk’s Ring were the singers who relished playing their characters and optimized the creative room that Schenk’s production offered. Christian Franz especially understood this in his portrayal of Siegfried, and in spite of his voice noticeably tiring by the end of Siegfried in the second cycle, he managed to improvise a playful response to Brünnhilde’s awakening in that performance (April 30), raising his hand with innocent humor at the Valkyrie’s own hands raised to shield her eyes from the light. Franz embraced the “free” and boorish nature of his character who knows “no fear,” and recognized that Schenk’s production was not without its wit, being the creation of a director who is equally known as a comic stage actor and whose staging of Wagner’s Ring might be Romantic in style but never a romanticization of its characters.

Schenk’s Ring is as deferential towards Wagner’s score as it was historically unwilling to follow the trend of its time in Regietheater, unidiomatically revisionist productions defined by the director’s contemporary vision, which culminated in the 1976 Boulez/Chéreau centennial production at Bayreuth. Notably, this featured Rhinemaidens as streetwalkers, an explicit sexual encounter between the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, and an opening night riot. Lepage appears to be finding a middleground between Schenk’s spare and universalizing staging and the subtextual Marxist, Jungian, or historically located readings of Wagner’s Ring. Lepage’s Rheingold will enter The Met repertory at an opportune time in fall 2010, following on the heels of Achim Freyer’s new and modernized Ring, a highly publicized $32 million project for L.A. Opera that began performances in February with additional performances running through spring and summer 2010. While it remains to be seen whether the new stagings by Lepage and Freyer will sharpen or dull further comparisons with Schenk’s Ring, it is certain that they will revive debates about the interpretation of Wagner’s musical drama for contemporary audiences.

A scene from Act III of Wagner's "Siegfried" with Christian Franz in the title role and Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde. Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera

A scene from Act III of Wagner's "Siegfried" with Christian Franz in the title role and Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde. Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera

About Rebecca Y. Kim

Rebecca earned her doctorate in musicology at Columbia University with a dissertation on John Cage. She has taught at Williams College, Fordham University, and The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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