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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 25, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 21
Reflections on the Met's Ring at the cinema
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Reflections on the Met's Ring at the cinema

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

With its recent encores of each of the operas in Wagner's Ring cycle in movie theaters around the world, the Metropolitan Opera gave untold numbers of people their first chance to experience The Ring of the Nibelung at a price they could afford. Even if you have seen each of the four operas individually, there is nothing to match seeing them as a cycle within, in this case, 11 days. (Make that 13 days, if you include the excellent documentary, shown two days before, about the making of this extraordinary production.)

Having seen five different Ring cycles live (and many more on video), I would like to comment on this unique excursion.

The musical values of both singers and orchestra could hardly have been higher, and I will come back to those in a minute. But first I must berate the Met for the abomination its engineers committed on the sound of these encores. Wagner used immense forces to create big sounds, even requiring an unprecedented level of vocal strength from his singers. He used these big sounds to contrast with extremely quiet moments (as in the very first moments of the cycle) to create dramatic musical effects. This difference between the loudest and the softest moments is called dynamic range. The Met squashed this element mercilessly, so that there were no soft moments - only loud and louder, thus robbing the music of much of its power. Each time the music became soft at the opera house, cinema audiences heard a solo clarinet, for instance, become a monstrously loud thing surrounded by suddenly audible sounds from the New York audience in the background. These solo moments that were supposed to be quiet were nearly as loud as the famous 'Ride of the Valkyries,' with orchestra and many singers at full volume.

To ears accustomed to the thrill of live performances, this was like hearing Wagner castrated!

Such squashing of dynamic range is standard procedure for many radio stations, to avoid having someone tune in to such a soft passage that they mistake it for silence and move on to another station. Seattle's KING-FM uses this technique, but in a much more subtle and professional way. The Met's engineers disregarded all the great talent of its musicians and treated their product with the subtlety of Donner's hammer! I hasten to add that this does not happen to the sound of the truly live-by-satellite telecasts from the Met on Saturday mornings at the cinema, at least not to such a damaging degree. But these were encores of earlier telecasts. Their sound was unnatural and unmusical. (I double-checked with theater management to confirm that none of their equipment was to blame.)

Moving on to the performances themselves, I found little to complain about. The Met's new production has been famously criticized. I don't have room to go into the visual details, but I will say that I did not find it nearly so terrible as, say, Alex Ross, who, writing in The New Yorker, called it a 'catastrophically vapid spectacle.' Mind you, I have not seen the production live and am writing only from my experience at the excellent Thornton Place Cinemas in Seattle. This new production, with its now-famous 'machine,' is a one-set-fits-all affair with almost no other scenery for the whole 15 hours of the cycle. Various scenes are suggested by better-than-average projections upon the 'machine,' which moves whenever given the chance. Nonetheless, the visuals are not especially pleasing and in no way approach the beauty of the Seattle Opera production, which will appear for one last time in August 2013. For a visually arresting, as well as musically satisfying, Ring, I recommend the recent production from Valencia, Spain, available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Met Ring is not to be faulted in its orchestra, under Fabio Luisi, or its singers. Deborah Voigt does not have the vocal heft that I would like in a Brünnhilde, but she delivers far better than in recent years and has very easy tops. I would love to detail each major role, but space allows only a broad sweep to say that all are top-notch and in great form. Newcomer heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris is a hunk with a voice and personality perfectly suited to Siegfried. He makes Siegfried the highlight opera of the cycle.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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