The second installment in the Metropolitan Opera’s new Ring Cycle is a theatrical triumph. It places the exciting drama in a bold, imaginative theatrical space; evokes a profoundly romantic world depicted with contemporary flair; casts new and enlightening insights onto the familiar story; and provides an evening of music theatre that rivals any in the world.
Take aside for the moment “The Machine,” a topic with which every critic seems to be duty-bound to begin any discussion of this performance. Focus instead on the constantly fresh and provocative interpretation of the story, retold by Lepage’s actors with startling humanity and telling detail. Do you see Wotan hushing Brünnhilde’s second series of war cries as Fricka approaches, lest the raucous behavior of his illegitimate daughter feed Fricka’s indignant anger? Do you see the penny drop when Sieglinde realizes that this handsome man may be her brother? Do you see her hoping to help him pull out the sword?
What about Brünnhilde’s slow and hesitant entrance in the Act II Todesverkündigun, as she is “creeping like snail, unwillingly” to tell the confident Siegmund – contrary to all her instincts — of his impending slaughter? What about the visceral pain she experiences as his bravura persists? And when he lifts the sword to kill his lover and unborn son, it is not that Victorian theatrical gesture – cardboard sword raised above the head and held there while the actress gestures “stop” by waving her silly spear in his general direction No, this is a metal sword that he impulsively brings down on his sister with both hands, deflected physically by the timely intervention of Brünnhilde’s sturdy shield. And in the second scene of that act, doesn’t Wotan try again and again to keep his marriage intact, only to realize that finally, after all the work and the risks and the mistakes and the miscommunications of their long life together, finally, finally, this is the day when it at long last breaks?
It was Patrice Chereau, 35 years ago, who introduced a poignant bit of business at the end of Act II (now used by every stage director), in which Siegmund recognizes his father the moment before dying. Lepage does it one better, with Sieglinde having to be pulled away from her dying brother and Wotan only later holding him in his lap. Two iterations of the Fate motif, then – at a forte led by the cellos (see Schirmer score at p. 181, 4th system 2d bar) – Siegmund’s hand suddenly leaps up to hold Wotan’s face, his strength leaving him with the orchestral diminuendo, and death overtaking him at the “pp” mark. This is vital and unexpected stage action propelled by the music, exactly what a Wagnerian seeks to experience in the theatre.
The soaring horns in the familiar climactic orchestral passage in the Act III “Leb’ wohl” (Schirmer score p. 295 1st system 2d bar) are not accompanied by a father/daughter hug, as is customary. Father and daughter have already reconciled and hugged, four bars before. The characters slowly circle each other and, at the great E major chord, Brünnhilde turns away from him, towards us, weeping. It’s not that they love each other – it’s that they will never see each other again that breaks her heart and ours. I was with my father at the moment he died, and the need to accept that we would never talk to each other again was rekindled anew as I watched Brünnhilde confront the same sad truth in her life as I had in mine. I wept with her. This is what theatre art is meant to do for us.
The Met stage is rendered infinitely plastic, expressive and possible in the ever-remarkable unit set. Even more astonishingly than in the cinema, Lepage creates panoramas and moving points of view — taking the audience from inside Hunding’s hut to the cold outdoors by a shift of angle and a change of projection from planking to shingles; or lifting Wotan and Brünnhilde from the Met’s stage floor to an avalanche-prone alpine pinnacle, surrounded by crisp and forbidding air. The opening of the show is pure theatre, as great tall tree trunks appear in various lengths, their deep bark illuminated by silvery moonlight, with dangerous men, carrying lanterns, weaving among them, giving chase.
In January 1987 I wrote, in Vol. X No. 1 of Wagner Notes, that the then-new Otto Schenk Walküre looked like “a modern idea of what a Victorian’s idea of German mythology might have been. It lacks contemporary distinction or a personal point of view….” No risk of that now.
I am proud of this production – proud of the Met for mounting it, and proud to take others to see it when they visit New York. It makes me proud to be a subscriber and supporter of the Met. It makes me want to go back and find more details, experience new insights, shed more tears. Bravo, Gelb! Bravo, Levine! Bravissimo, Robert Lepage!