NEW YORK — Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle is the most expensive, ambitious undertaking for any normal opera house: four operas about gods, heroes, supernatural beings and the end of the world. It’s also about failure and redemption, which is the part of the story that most concerns the Metropolitan Opera at the moment.
The Met “Ring,” by Robert Lepage, is a multimillion-dollar white elephant that received a sound critical drubbing when it was rolled out between 2010 and 2012. Now, the company has brought it back. The first two of the four operas, “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre,” opened this month; the next two return in April, followed by two performances of the complete cycle in May. And to the extent that it succeeds, it’s for old-
fashioned reasons: because of the singing, despite the set.
Lepage’s concept focused on a huge unit set with 24 rotating bar elements, such as piano keys, mounted on a central spindle; the contraption has become widely known as “the Machine.” The bars can act as a surface for state-of-the-art, interactive projections: The pebbles under the Rhine River in “Das Rheingold” shift and cascade at every movement of the Rheinmaidens’ mermaid tails. They can be isolated as individual set elements, as when eight of them stand in for the Valkyries’ bucking horses. Dominating the stage — which had to be specially reinforced to accommodate it — the set creaked and groaned and visibly constrained the movements of the singers, both in 2010 and on March 13, the second performance of “Das Rheingold,” when the singers moved as gingerly as ever, and the set functioned mainly as a purveyor of special effects between scenes.
Most frustratingly, this remains a production without a point of view: Since the Machine is supposed to do all the work, the characters’ actions become a cartoonish afterthought. In “Das Rheingold,” the prelude to the cycle, the cast was unable to make much headway against the production’s limitations. It was largely a different cast from the 2010 premiere — with a few exceptions such as Wendy Bryn Harmer, who still stands out in the small role of Freia, the goddess of youth — and it included some standouts: Günther Groissböck singing sensitively and richly as Fasolt, one of the two giant brothers who build a castle for the gods and is promised Freia as payment; Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich, the dwarf who steals the Rheinmaidens’ gold and forges from it the titular ring; Gerhard Siegel, vocally resonant as Mime, Alberich’s brother; and Jamie Barton as Fricka, wife of the chief god Wotan, showing that she’s gained considerable purchase on the whole idea of Wagnerian singing since her appearance as one of the Norns in Washington’s magnificent “Ring” cycle in 2016.
But Greer Grimsley, a veteran Wotan, offered no more than a good “B” house performance, stalking around the stage with stock gestures of his spear and singing with a voice generic and slightly worn. And all of the Machine’s effects, most of which involve body doubles suspended high above the stage — the rainbow bridge into Valhalla involved god figures walking straight up the sides of the set in flickering rainbow light — were more suspenseful for creating anxiety about the actors’ well-being than stage magic. Often, at moments when something dramatic is supposed to be happening onstage — like Freia’s panicked departure with the giants — the singers simply walk offstage and leave dead space as everyone prepares for the Machine’s next tableau.
Fortunately, the “Ring” isn’t only about the sets, particularly once Brünnhilde, that enduring operatic archetype, enters the picture. This production was originally built around Deborah Voigt, who failed to make much of a mark in the role. For the revival, Christine Goerke, another homegrown American, is stepping in and, appropriately enough for this character, making everything right.
She didn’t do it entirely alone. The twins and lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde, in Act I, have some of the most beautiful and beloved music in the cycle; Eva-Maria Westbroek, returning as Sieglinde, showed a powerful clear voice; and Stuart Skelton, a bearlike Siegmund, brought heroic ardor to the part, though he grew audibly tired by the end of the night. Marvelous, too, was Barton’s Fricka, appearing in Act II to remind her philandering husband that having twins commit adultery and incest is not okay. Despite the fact that Fricka’s arguments are completely sound, audiences tend to regard her as a shrew and side with the no-good Wotan; Barton not only sang well but also brought out the poignancy of a character standing up to a husband whom, despite everything, she continues to love.
As for Goerke, she bounded onto the stage with the likable, ferocious girlishness familiar to Washington audiences who saw her in the same role as a last-minute substitute in 2016. You could argue that her top notes did not have the sheer ringing power that one associates with this role. You could also, though, argue that her performance transcended any one element, singing and acting bound in a nuanced portrayal of a young woman struggling to make her own decisions and stand up to her father, to be heartbroken at his retaliatory punishment. The Machine did little to support her — the poor Valkyries looked more nervous than ever at their entrance, gingerly sliding down their set units — but Grimsley unbent a bit from his woodenness in reacting to her, and their struggle and reconciliation, bitterness and love and loss in Act III was tremendously, resonantly poignant.
“Rings” are also imprinted by their conductors, and this one is a huge opportunity for the 44-year-old Swiss-born Philippe Jordan. He is somewhat puzzling to me. At times, he didn’t sound entirely in control of the material, the music emerging helter-skelter, with balances skewed. Yet at other times, the orchestra produced some powerful playing. There have been odd infelicities throughout the first two operas, particularly from the brass at exposed moments, but the effect of the last act of “Walküre” was supported and enhanced by the sounds from the pit. Jordan is not single-handedly salvaging this misguided production, or offering the same profile as the weakened James Levine showed in his decent but lauded last outings with the piece, but he may be part of some progress toward its emerging from this outing with something to show for itself.
Die Walküre will be broadcast live in HD on Saturday afternoon at movie theaters across the country. The run time is 5 hours 20 minutes. wapo.st/diewalkureinhd. The complete “Ring” cycle can be seen twice at the Met in May. metopera.org.