This wasn’t a cinema; it was a ‘screening lounge’. The Everyman Cinema, Hampstead (well, Belsize Park anyway) is a rather luxurious affair. Hugely wide lounge chairs, acres of legroom, and drinks service in intervals. In some ways perfect for 5 hours of Wagner, except I can’t quite adjust to lying back and having the opera brought up close to me. Somehow I miss leaning on a balcony ledge peering down at it. That may be to do with the rather artificial soundstage of the Met transmission, of which more anon.
This was a fantastic performance of the second instalment of the Ring Cycle. Always the most engaging, immediately emotional of the four parts, it certainly packed its punch. The cast were superb without exception, and truly exceptional in two particular instances. Bryn Terfel’s Wotan, familiar from the London staging of a couple of years’ back, acted everyone else off the stage, all the conflicted rage and anguish of the character projected finely. In strong voice, he brought myriad shades of vocal colour to bear. Jonas Kaufmann scaled similar heights, his baritonal tenor plumbing rich… ummm… depths of emotion and bringing a real thrill to his cries of “Wälse!” He even managed to look heroic despite the most god-awful silver chainmail vest.
Starting off a little subdued, by Act 3 Eva-Maria Westbroek was hitting similar strides. It’s difficult not to compare her (or anyone!) to Waltraud Meier in this role (last seen by me in the HD transmission of the La Scala opening night), and I just wanted that last bit of abandon in the ecstatic passages that comes from Meier’s more expressive acting and brighter tone (O hehrstes Wunder!, being an example). But Westbroek can command the stage, and brings a wealth of detail to her interpretation, underpinned by an assured and unfailingly attractive voice. Stephanie Blythe’s Fricka was a goddess not to be trifled with, but conveyed some real heartbreak at how her role as moral compass came at the expense of her role as loving wife. Hans-Peter König’s Hunding brought out irascible grumpiness where incipient violence should have been: more Hans Sachs on a bad Monday morning than a warrior hero from the wrong side of the tracks, but he did imbue his dark mutterings with the requisite vocal heft.
And which brings us to Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde… Vocally, she delivered with a remarkable authority, a rich middle voice carrying much of the thrust of the role, and with a bright top that cut through effectively. Her characterisation was committed, and she was clearly always alert to her own and others’ text. Something didn’t quite work for me, though, and I guess it’s a matter of personal taste. From the start, something about her girlish Valkyrie brought to mind a modern, sassy woman, rather than something more ‘archetypal’, and I can’t manage to put it better than that! At the end of her opening Hojotoho!, there was a little giggle, sounding somehow more appropriate to Offenbach than Wagner. There was a hip- and shoulder-swing that, coupled with her bright, round eyes, made me think of Bette Davis playing Brünnhilde… But she did rise to a fine finale with Terfel, convincing in her flashing anger and creeping desperation, and had preceded it with a remarkable scene with Kaufmann where she makes her fatal decision to change the battle outcome.
The set is called, by the company, the ‘machine’; and a machine it is. It looks a terrifying moving set of slopes, hydraulically powered great big piano keys, either slowly twisting into stepped landscapes or (for the Ride of the Valkyries), see-sawing violently, with poor old Valkyries, hanging on to the top vainly trying to ride them with reins, looking like they’re on an unsafe fairground ride. Some of the projections onto the set were fabulous, from the molten lava trickling down the rocky slopes in the Act 2 opening, to the final scene, where the planks raised up to form a huge mountain with white-topped slopes. Little additions, like a silent avalanche rolling down the hill as Wotan and Brünnhilde’s confrontation reached the heights, were very moving. Act 1 was a bit more disappointing, the planks going nearly-vertical and having wood-effect projected on to them: the result of this was that Siegmund and Sieglinde kept getting in front of the projection and became wood-coloured… I left the performance unconvinced that all of this technical gubbins, the risks inherent, the frankly absurd money spent on it, the work to underpin the stage, had really delivered anything that a more conventional production technique couldn’t have done. To get on and off, people were raised up on lifts at the back in a very ordinary sort of way. Most of the action ended up on a space at the front of the stage – particularly unconvincing in Act 1 – so the ‘machine’ spent a lot of its time as a fancy sort of backdrop. Well, if that’s what you want to spend your money on, fine. But I think the projections were far more interesting than what they were projected on to. Oh, and I couldn’t shake this sense of an accident about to happen: it’s the wrong type of tension, particularly as the performance started half an hour late because of a technical glitch with the onboard computer of one of the planks. Ooof, you wouldn’t get me on it!
Much has been made recently of Levine’s withdrawal from Met and Boston Symphony performances for a period of recuperation, this telecast excepted. Looking frail as he carefully mounted the podium into his tall chair, he can still certainly whip up the drama when it hits a stormy period, but he is a very expansive interpreter in some of the intimate moments. And, for me, too expansive. I do like it that sometimes a performance can almost come to a stop, held in suspense by the intense dramatic and musical tension. However, on a few too many occasions in this performance, those periods of stillness slightly outstayed their welcome for me and simply became slow. A particular disappoint was Fricka’s Prayer at the end of her big scene, which stayed very slow and subdued, not reaching the sort of overwhelming power that Pappano drove it to. All of that said, the score’s details were lively, and even if I would have liked a different interpretation, it displayed Levine’s customary mastery and coherence. The Met Orchestra played with their usual sheen and gloss.
Whether it was the Everyman’s sound system, or the sound-picture of the transmission, the orchestra seemed a bit two-dimensional compared to some very up-front and ‘present’ vocal projection. Given that the voices didn’t come and go depending on where they were placed on the stage or the direction they were singing, I can only guess that they had personal mics catching each of their voices: certainly, Sieglinde resting her head against a post changed the resonance, as did two of them singing in close proximity, which suggested something of that order going on. This meant incredibly bright projection of voice, over a rather more backward orchestra. It was like being shouted at, I have to say, and I would have liked a little more space and bloom around the voices, a richer and more expansive orchestra, and a more natural balance. The same goes for the camerawork which was so damned clever, but was restless and unstinting in its roving, angle-changing pursuit of every bit of spittle and sweat. It became quite tiring to watch by half way through. And I’ve never wanted those Valkyries off the stage so much in Act 3 – it was inducing a headache, all that über-loud Hojotoho‘ing… Anna Russell’s description of them as Siegfried’s ‘noisy aunts’ has never seemed so apposite.
So, high-points: Wotan’s Farewell; the contributions that the projections made to the stage picture; Kaufmann’s heroic Act 1 and intense Act 2. Not sure the machine lifts it much above Keith Warner’s Covent Garden effort, though, problematic as that is…
(And I still haven’t decided whether we should applaud at the cinema at the end…!)