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The Metropolitan Opera
10/09/2010 -  
Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
Wendy Bryn Harmer (Freia), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Patricia Bardon (Erda), Lisette Oropesa (Woglinde), Jennnifer Johnson (Wellgunde), Tamara Mumford (Flosshilde), Richard Croft (Loge), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Adam Diegel (Froh), Dwayne Croft (Donner), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Eric Owens (Alberich), Fasolt (Franz-Josef Selig), Hans-Peter Konig (Fafner)
Metropolitan Opera, Orchestra, James Levine (Conductor)
Robert Lepage (Production), Neilson Vignola (Associate Director), Carl Fillion (Set Designer), Francois St-Aubin (Costume Designer), Etienne Bocher (Lighting Designer), Realisations.net (Interactive Projection artist), Boris Firquet (Video Image Artist)

(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

It is hard to over-estimate the importance to the Metropolitan Opera of its first new Ring in a generation. I will offer five reasons for this heightened level of interest. First: This production of the first part of Wagner’s mythological marathon opened the Met’s 127th season, with all of the visibility and publicity such an event entails.

Second: Opening night saw the American debut as Wotan of Bryn Terfel, a role he has sung in the UK to great acclaim. And a role many have envisioned for him since his appearance in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition twenty-one years ago. James Levine has been an admirer and a colleague for many years. The prospect of these two doing their first Ring together was indeed exciting.

Third: This year marks Levine’s 40th season at the Met; indeed, it’s become impossible to think of the Met without him. But many have been thinking precisely these thoughts. Because health problems caused Levine to cancel many performances last season, there was pervasive concern for his welfare and much speculation that he might not be able to conduct this Ring at all.

Fourth: This is the Met’s first new Ring in almost a quarter of a century. It replaces the much beloved (at least on the Met’s side of the Atlantic) traditional version by Otto Schenk – a very literal take on the story, with its charming fairy tale sets.

Fifth: There the high cost of mounting Robert Lepage’s vision - $16 million. Of course, the expenditure for the unit set will cover all four operas. And pound for pound (or should I say 90,000 pounds, the weight of the set), it could be rather a bargain.

Robert Lepage – although perhaps best known for his Cirque du Soleil productions -- also has a track record in opera. At the Met, he directed a visually beautiful Le Damnation de Faust, The Met’s new Das Rheingold opened on September 27th. It’s fourth performance was broadcast in HD to 1,500 theaters in 46 countries on October 9th.  Clearly, there is enormous worldwide interest in the Met’s HD transmissions, Now people on six continents can share in one experience, many of them simultaneously, which is extraordinary in itself. Most viewers were able to see this performance live (there are also encores). But in some countries, the broadcast was delayed to accommodate the time difference. Enthusiastic opera lovers (even Wagnerians) might not be terribly keen on opera in the middle of the night! I saw the opera live at the Curzon Chelsea Cinema in London. The HD broadcasts are wildly popular In the UK. Just this year, thirty new venues were added. The audience in my venue was mixed in age – with many considerably younger than their counterparts with whom I have shared the Met HD experience in New York. They paid very close attention and applauded with great enthusiasm at the curtain calls. There was also a buzz of excitement as they left the theater.

So what did all of us see and hear? The music making was extraordinary. Levine drew a marvelous performance from the orchestra he has done so much to mold into the superb ensemble it is. The texture was rich yet almost transparent with Wagner’s interplay of leitmotifs sensitively and clearly articulated. The dynamics were beautifully controlled and highly nuanced, nowhere more so than in the beginning as that magisterial E flat major chord unpacks itself to signal the beginning of the world. 

The singers were quite strong vocally with standout performances from Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Eric Owens as Alberich, Gerhard Siegel as Mime and Hans-Peter Konig as Fafner.

Blythe sang with gorgeous tone and power to spare. Owens was rather a revelation – with his strong sonorous bass baritone and terrific characterization of the evil yet tormented Alberich. Siegel was a convincingly downtrodden and abused Mime. Bryn Terfel’s performance was a bit of a puzzle. He sang beautifully with his richly colored vocal palette, perfect diction, and phrasing to drive home the sense of the words. I have seen him recently deeply in character – his Scarpia at the Met and his Hans Sachs in Cardiff and then in London. Of course the Rheingold Wotan is rather one dimensional compared to the older, wiser, more conflicted god of Die Walküre. This surely makes up a small part of the explanation for the relative flatness of this portrayal. But I think the greater responsibility lies with the director. And it was not just Terfel’s performance which suffered from Lepage's neglect of strictly directorial duties. Richard Croft’s Loge, although beautifully sung, had utterly lacked the characterization of the trickster/troublemaker that is Loge’s very essence. The rather over-the-top personalities of Alberich, Mime, and the two giants had an easier time of it because of their appearance and because there was so much about them that was inherently dramatic.

Lepage's contribution, it seems to me, was more in the realm of stage design than in directing. Some scenes were rather perplexing. Alberich and the Rhinemaidens spent quite a bit of time sitting around right near each other, which made no dramatic sense at all. Aside from wondrous feats bound up with the staging (such as Loge walking backwards up a steep incline and the best scenic effect of the performance, the descent of Wotan and Loge – actually their stunt doubles – into Nibelheim), there was a lot of standing around. Add to this the close-up views made possible by the cameras and we beheld opera singers who seemed rather uncomfortable on the set. They moved carefully. Wires for the Rhinemaidens and Loge, for example, were clearly visible. In some marvelous moments, the production was at one with the music (such as the opening orchestral prelude), But I found the obviously complex and indeed impressively orchestrated hi-tech effects to be distracting as they called attention to themselves rather than formed a part of the integrated whole that Wagner was so keen to create in his music dramas.

The unique unit set designed by Lepage and his team consists of twenty-four moving fiberglass-covered aluminum planks that rotate on a mobile steel axis. The planks are suspended between two large elevator towers. Interactive video projections (activated by sound and movement) and imaginative use of lighting cause these planks to metamorphose into radically different incarnations. Clearly, there is a huge degree of complexity and correspondingly great logistical requirements just to get all of it to work. This is, after all, the first outing for a set that will be with us for a long time to come. It will next appear in the house in the spring for additional performances of Das Rheingold followed by Die Walküre. There is plenty of time for Lepage's conception to grow and deepen and to utilize the tremendous potential his technology offers to create the unity of music and drama that was Wagner's dream.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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