Andrew's Opera was previously published at

13 May, 2012

New Metropolitan Ring - Aussie connection!

The Met Ring. Cycle II starting with Rheingold Thurs 26th April 2012 (also see separate notes on Rheingold).  Die Walkure. Saturday 28th April 2012. 11am.  Siegfried Monday 30th April; Gotterdamerung 3rd April (evenings)

Why bother writing about it? 
It would be a challenge to describe what happens during the fifteen hours of vocal drama in the Lapage Ring at the Met this spring - and one I am not equal to.  I tried for Rheingold and hardly began to describe what happened in the introductory two and a half hours in my summary.  Furthermore, the operas have now all been broadcast to the cinemas of the world, mostly by direct transmission - exceptions being Japan, Australia and the Far East where delayed showings are necessary due to unfriendly time zones. 

The singers.
Apart from the novel production, the vocal high points are well known for example The Woodbirds songs, Ride of the Walkyries, Brunnhildes war cry, Wotans monologue, Wotans farewell, Wintersturme, Du bist de lenz, Gibichungs chorus, (de rigueur!) the fat lady singing’ (Siegfried love duet) and the immolation scene, to name just a few. 

Regarding the ‘large lady’, neither Brunnhilde this year is big.  A slight Katarina Dalayman sang with great confidence, ease and beauty.  Intriguingly she omitted the high note at the end of Siegfried, despite hitting lots of other high, almost icy notes in the lead-up.  Ms Westbroek did not scream as the sword (Notung) was pulled from the (two-plank) tree trunk she did, however, collapse at that moment with a great limp fall center stage.  Her Sieglinde was exemplary.  In a second Die Walkure we heard the Brunnhilde of Deborah Voigt, now again a slender and elegant singer but no better than Ms Dalayman and perhaps less balanced in her delivery. 

There were two last minute changes, one major and one minor.  Mr Gelb came out on stage before Die Walkure and related Mr Kaufmanns illness and the serendipitous availability of Mr van Acken, husband of Ms Westbrook (Sieglinde) in real life back in Holland.  A disappointed patron near me shouted refund!  It was 11am Saturday morning when few people would envisage going to an opera, let alone in these disastrous circumstances. 

The Dutch replacement tenor Mr van Acken sang creditably but was not quite in his wifes class.  I dont know how he learned the production in just a few hours!  And his German seemed fine.  The next performance of Die Walkure (cycle III) which I was also lucky enough to attend, had Australian tenor Stuart Skelton in the role of Siegmund and he was magnificent, even allowing for compatriotism.  The audience applause was rapturous for this consummate artist who, although also a stand-in, was amongst equals on the Met stage in this role which Placido Domingo had made his own for the past 15 years in this city. 

Having sung brilliantly in Rhinegold, Eric Owens illness saw Alberich played by Richard Paul Fink in the Gotterdamerung role.  The other cast members are mostly well known - and that is why they are singing at the Met.  Adam Diegel performed Froh with great dignity.  His rare and rounded tenor voice for his small part in Rheingold revealed a great talent which I would like to hear in other more major roles.  The confidence and elegance of Bryn Terfel as Wotan also warrants noting and he is now a true Wagnerian of the highest calibre in my view. 

Jay Hunter Morris has a pleasant, highly placed tenor voice with the staying power needed for Siegfried.  Stephanie Blythe is a marvel as Fricka.  The other singers in this years Met Ring were all of the highest calibre, too numerous to name in these superficial notes. 

The machine (all 48 tons of it!).
The set for all four operas consists of 24 rotatable flattened isosceles triangles each set on a horizontal axis which can be raised and lowered from the floor level to about half way up the proscenium.  Hence one side of each plank is flat while the other has an angle of about 150 degrees as part of the cog.  This convenient angle was used for the riverbank to great effect in the first opera as well as in perhaps a hundred other discrete and moving tableaux during the long saga ending back in the same place a full week later. 

One of the most realistic and effective uses for the planks was to form tree trunks.  The planks are actually made of some sort of interactive self-illuminating material which, like a computer screen, can change colours and patterns, presumably controlled by some computerised cue system.  There was also highly focused projection onto them and sometimes it was not clear if the present effect was one or the other or both used together. 

The opening in Siegfried was brilliantly evocative with a depiction of the forest floor in close-up.  Then, as the set rose, the vista changed to the roots, worms and insects in crevices below the ground.  There was also real beauty in the representations of the tree bark, leaf shadows, roots, snakes, birds and other forest dwellers.  At other times one was transported to an open rural landscape, a waterfall, stormy waves breaking, snow storm and other dramatic and usually very beautiful scenes. 

The machine makes some clicks and clunks at time, but no more than one often hears with standard stage machinery.  Those sitting in the front of the auditorium may have heard the pneumatic sounds of the centre of gravity of the planks rising which followed it by a few seconds each time.  Again, the nuisance value was modest and the benefits included being able to be as close as ever to Wagners specific instructions for his epic drama.  After the callisthenic displays, I was happy when the machine stopped moving for extended periods and one could focus on the marvellous palette it had created for the drama we were experiencing. 

Some high-points of the production.
Both Rhinemaiden scenes were magnificent the first with suspended singers/swimmers and riverbank settings.  The final one saw the ladies slipping and sliding on the most spectacular sloping rocks amid flowing water (which evocatively turned red when Gunter washed his hands of Siegfrieds blood). 

The Norns rope weaving scene was very cleverly and tastefully done.  Two dozen strands appeared as the curtain went up, each issuing from one of the plank ends.  These are about the only unfortunate and less-than-attractive points of the machine they look like temporary riveted letter boxed lined up.  The   24 suspended strands made three substantial ropes, one for each Norn.  These then joined into a major rigging which in turn shred and perished as the sorry story requires. 

The snow storm opening Walkure was indeed spectacular and immensely beautiful.  It is hard to describe the electric feeling that can be elicited by this unique orchestral introduction to the following 5 hours of glorious musical drama.  I have often complained about directors deciding to put stage events to overtures or preliminary music which were originally intended to be unaccompanied symphonia.  Lepage has here put two simple but beautiful video images to his audience, starting with constant breaking waves on a shoreline followed by a quite realistic snow storm across the screen.  Following all of this activity on stage, Hundings house with central tree was presented as ordered by the book. 

One of the most memorable stage tricks of all time MUST be Lepages serpent appearing in response to Alberichs transmutation using the Tarnhelm to the shock and/or hilarity of the packed Met audience, the front of a gnashing skeletal horror figure appeared on the right side of the stage with the corresponding tail flapping opposite, as if the beast went right around the theatre, town or perhaps the whole world!  Next Tarnhelm trick saw the frog as a small, slimy and sedant character, easily caught up in the net of Loge and Wotan.  Their plan was to pay off the castle Valhallas builders before the Giants took the agreed collateral being Freia, the goddess who grew the apples which kept all the gods from aging.  Anna Russell said at this point in the story: I am not making this up, you know! 

Fafners dragon cave was indeed impressive as was the blow-up out-sized nematode-headed beast.  To go further would be unfair on those intent on seeing this production which is bound to become a classic.  Not that everyone has to like it but I do. 

Maestro Fabio Luisi, producer Robert Lepage and their musical and artistic colleagues deserve many accolades for this marvellous addition to the Wagner canon. This production might be the closest to Wagners detailed instructions for the operas, some of which are seemingly impossible to physically enact on a 'normal' stage (like the famous ship sinking in La Gioconda by Ponchielli). With the projections and moving-plank stage virtually anything is possible. There must be innumerable others who should be credited with getting this enormous undertaking realised.

Speaking of which: some criticisms.
By the end of the long act I of Gotterdamerung we had some gratuitous and pointless uses of the planks to no particular dramatic purpose.  It was as if the director was saying the opera is nearly over but look what I can do with the controls.  At one point numerous planks were literally spinning, making some for some unpleasant noises as well as frantic movements on stage.  The opening of Act II of Gotterdamerung was immensely beautiful with a huge wall of small concentric circles of red and yellow with three niches for three statues of Wotan, Donner and Frika (these explode at the end).  However, rather than the curtain just rising to this, the team insisted on twisting and turning their machine in order to form it, taking ones attention away from the glorious orchestral introduction. 

Erdas sermons were solid and well delivered by Patricia Bardon when she was woken.  In Siegfried she reappears with her long white hair wearing a full length dress make of pieces of black pietra dura, appropriate perhaps for an Earth Goddess.  If others can get away with a dress made of meat I suppose biotite mica is equally possible.  It reflected rather uncomfortably in the curtain calls and I dont think that this heavy igneous style will take on more widely. 

It was an enormous privilege to join over 4000 people on this glorious Rhine journey and for untold more in cinema-land.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

03 May, 2012

Das Rheingold at the Met: complex stagecraft with great vocal story-telling.

Das Rheingold. Wagner. Met Opera NYC. Thurs 26th April 2012.

I attended the Met Rheingold having seen this production twice before, once in the cinema in Sydney and once at its opening in the theatre in March last year.  All three were splendid performances of the radical new production by Canadian Robert Lepage and his team.  This time I was also fortunate to be in central seats up the front of the theatre so that I could see the whites of their eyes!  It was an added privilege to see the conductor side-on for the entire performance as he directed two and a half hours of incomparable continuous drama, vocalising and orchestral playing. 

In fact the performance was truly magnificent in every way.  Not one singer let the side down they all possessed large and elegant voices.  For me the greatest pleasure of Rheingold was again hearing Stephanie Blythe in the role of Fricka.  Her voice is an acoustic flow of glorious vocal caviar, served up to a receptive and doting Met audience (as well as the world of cinema screens).  Her dramatic credulity is supreme as a mature authority figure even though her considered advice is ignored by Wotan her uncommon law husband. 

The surprise of the night for me was bass baritone Bryn Terfel playing Wotan the wanderer.  He had seemed ill-at-ease in this role last year but now assumes a dramatic confidence and vocal output which approaches the ideal in this challenging part (he is in the first three Ring operas).  It would seem that Mr Terfel may be completing the difficult transition from a lighter Mozart/Puccini/Verdi singer to becoming a true Wagnerian.  It might be like a sprinter becoming a marathon runner. 

Brothers Alberich (Eric Owens) and Mime (Gerhard Siegel) need to have not only pleasant voices but also ones capable of expressing anger, fear, pride and sometimes ugliness itself.  They too were perfect for the job.  The giants are again played by Messers Konig and Selig, an ideal deadly duo.  Loge was well played by Adam Klein as Stefan Margita was indisposed (nothing is easy in opera management).  Adam Diegel made a handsome Froh (spring) with a voice to match along with his partner demi-God Dwayne Croft as Donner (thunder). 

The stage effects were awesome using the new 50 tonne multiple see-saw machine.  The Rhinemaidens floating introduction was almost unbelievable with weightlessness, bubbles, sandy-bottom pebbles and other quasi-realisms amongst the fantastic.  The lateral twisted staircase for the journey to Neibelheim was cleverly evocative.  The rainbow bridge at the end was a vertical climb by under-weight stunt-persons with string-like technicolour projections forming the bridge itself which flattened out on the enormous set as the last strains of the opera were heard. 

Maestro Fabio Luisi, producer Robert Lepage and their artistic and musical colleagues deserve many accolades for this marvellous addition to the Wagner canon.  This production could be the closest to Wagners detailed instructions for the operas, some of which are seemingly impossible to physically enact on stage (like the famous ship sinking in La Gioconda).  With the projections and moving-plank stage virtually anything is possible.  No longer is there a lighting director (Etienne Boucher) working in isolation since every scene has its own cascade of video images, requiring Boris Firquet the resident Imaging Artist (done by Pedro Pires in Siegfried). 

My apologies to readers for this incomplete Ring summary some might find it heresy.  I am trying to digest the multifarious aspects of the following two operas as well as preparing myself for Gotterdamerung.  Readers may have read that Jonas Kaufmann pulled out of Die Walkure at short notice and that subsequent events made a story in the next days New York Times.  Next weeks Die Walkure will see Australian Stuart Skelton again in the role of Siegmund.  

Andrew Byrne ..

01 May, 2012

Met Manon magnificent

Manon by Massenet 7.30 - 11.30pm Monday 22nd April Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Dear Colleagues,

Notes on performances at the Met seem almost passé these days when one can listen to every performance as well as seeing the HD video transmissions beamed into remote places (even Bowral, New South Wales, where I now live half the week).

However, at the risk of bragging that “I am in New York” as well as possibly giving superfluous information I hope my few words are still amusing and/or informative. I should also describe something about the overall experience of attending this enormous opera barn, the second largest in the world and certainly the busiest. However, the Met is NOT the most expensive by any means - just look up their excellent web site - lots of good opera positions for $100 or less plus standing room for very modest sums.

This Manon outing was splendid with Ms Netrebko being ‘hot’ in every respect. She has a large and beautiful voice, stunning looks and brilliant acting abilities. She is Manon to a tee … and for five action-filled acts, one with two scenes, one being a cloister, not for Manon as originally intended by her family, but her estranged paramour the young Des Grieux.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala sang this challenging role with great aplomb even though as this month’s Opera News points out that the ideal French tenor hardly exists today. In Manon, along with a full dramatic and vocal book, he is required to sing two phenomenally difficult and contrasting arias, ‘En fermant les yeux’ and ‘Ah! Fuyez douce image’. Beczala succeeded with style, emotion and dignity. [I heard that he also sang ‘Leve-toi soleil’ at a concert this week in California which was reported to be rapturously received.]

Pelly’s new co-production with London is quirky and eclectic with skylines of little box houses, church steeple, bridges, etc then strange leaning angles and Escher-type perspectives … very clever and very ‘different’ from the traditional productions. This is the new trend at the Met - to do new ‘takes’ on popular operas without losing the dramatic realism New York audiences seem to want. And these days there always seems to be an eye on the cinematic possibilities as these are beamed to a far wider audience that in the theatre itself.

In a very French way Pelly nearly always does the opposite of what one might expect … for example, instead of a carriage and horses in Act I we have the appearance of a large assortment of luggage. Rather than Des Grieux caressing Manon at the end of the St Suplice scene, it is Manon who practically assaults the cleric, ripping his dog’s collar and shirt half off and pulling him into the tiny bed in the priest’s quarters as the curtain drops.

The other scenes use wide ramps in opposing directions, black and grey contrasting with bright colours. There is an almost archetypical French female ballet scene with 16 immaculate white-frocked dancers in the street for Manon’s benefit (it could be Swan Lake), but she ignores Guillot’s ballet on overhearing the current abode of Des Grieux across Paris. The final scene is just a drab waterfront with some street lamps on the left and a jetty and warehouse on the right and massive expanse of blue beyond, presumably Atlantic gloom.

Baritone Paolo Szot was replaced by Michael Todd Simpson who sang creditably. The latter sang Escamillo in Sydney some years ago. The older Des Grieux was well sung by rich-voiced basso David Pittsinger. The French language seemed passable to me but some French nationals sitting nearby told me that it was often less than comprehensible, ‘fifty-fifty’ they said … except for Guillot de Monfontaine (Christophe Mortagne) who is French himself. Other roles were all acquitted well while Fabio Luisi and his orchestra received a well deserved ovation. This busy maestro will conduct Traviata on Wednesday, Rhinegold on Thursday and Die Walkure on Saturday. Some schedule!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Opera blog: