Welcome to the 3-D "Siegfried" — and we're not just talking about the dwarfs, the dragon and Deborah Voigt.
Sure, all of them were onstage Thursday night as the Metropolitan Opera premiered the third installment of Robert Lepage's production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle.
But the Canadian director has found a new technological trick to make this latest effort unique: computerized projections that interact with the set and create an optical illusion that we are watching the singers against a living, three-dimensional backdrop.
The basic set remains the same as in "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walkuere" — a 45-ton "Machine" composed of two dozen giant planks that rotate (still too noisily!) on a single axis and move up and down to form various shapes: a stand of trees, a mountainside, the roof of a cave.
Now the 3-D projections can lend this metallic surface an appearance of depth and movement. Thus, in the brooding opening measures of Acts 1 and 2, snakes and other creepy-crawly creatures really seem to be writhing through a thickly wooded terrain. Later, the rocks that form the dragon's lair appear to jut out in front of us. And — most magically of all — the forest bird who sings to Siegfried flies through the air and lands on the branches of trees.
All this with no glasses required!
Lepage has been criticized in previous installments for allowing his massive set to circumscribe the movements of the singers. That's still true to some extent, though he may be learning from his mistakes.
The Act 1 forest cave where Mime the dwarf has reared the young hero Siegfried is scrunched back on one side into a trough behind the apron (similar to Hunding's hut in Act 1 of "Die Walkuere"). It lessens the impact of the climactic sword-forging scene and means that to move between the cave and a hillside, the singers have to keep climbing up and down an awkward set of steps.
But in Acts 2 and 3, Lepage opens up the apron, giving room for more natural interplay among the characters. As a result, the final scene — in which Siegfried climbs through a ring of magic fire to awaken the sleeping Bruennhilde on a mountaintop — is both visually stunning and dramatically engrossing, even without any 3-D.
Musically, by far the most noteworthy ingredient of the night was the astonishing playing by the orchestra as led by Fabio Luisi, the Met's new principal conductor.
In the first two acts, Luisi wove an elegant, chamber music-like texture with brisk tempos that made clear how closely this opera resembles the scherzo of a symphony. In the final act, when Wagner's orchestration thickens, Luisi elicited magnificent waves of sound without sacrificing individual detail.
Luisi took over conducting duties for ailing music director James Levine, who has done so much to build the orchestra into one of the finest in the world. Levine still hopes to conduct three complete "Ring" cycles in the spring, but if he cannot, it's now clear the project will be in terrific hands.
Another late replacement was the singer cast in the title role — and here the news was almost as good. American tenor Jay Hunter Morris does not possess the lung power of a true Wagnerian heldentenor, but his bright, lyrical voice and winning stage presence made him a most appealing young Siegfried. To say that he got through the long evening with little sign of vocal fatigue is high praise indeed.
As his newly awakened bride, Voigt did not fare as well. The role of Bruennhilde in "Siegfried" is brief but unforgiving: She appears only in the last scene, but then is immediately called upon to pour out waves of sound, much of it in the upper range of the soprano voice.
Voigt approached her assignment earnestly but with noticeable caution, and she struggled to reach those high Cs.
Repeating his role as Wotan (now renamed the Wanderer), bass-baritone Bryn Terfel brought a world-weary majesty to the role and successfully punched through the heavy orchestration in Act 3, though he seemed at the limit of his powers and once or twice resorted to a kind of bluster.
Tenor Gerhard Siegel was a Mime to treasure, his performance full of little grace notes (such as his turning tongue-tied when he tries to ask the Wanderer the final question in their riddle game.)
In smaller roles, bass-baritone Eric Owens reprised his incisive portrayal of Alberich, Mime's brother; bass Hans-Peter Koenig sang imposingly as Fafner, the giant-turned-dragon; and soprano Mojca Erdmann was a bright-sounding forest bird.
Mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon struggled at both ends of her register in Erda's brief scene, theatrically the weakest of the night. Lepage seemed uncertain what to make of the mystical earth goddess, and it didn't help that her metallic dress reflected blinding flashes of light into the audience.
With only one more piece to come — "Goetterdaemmerung" premieres in January — it's clear that Lepage has given the Met a technological marvel. What remains to be seen is whether he can end on a high note and, perhaps by some retooling of the earlier installments, shape this "Ring" into vibrant music drama as well.