Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Bostridge, Barbican London

The third and final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s survey of Monteverdi’s operas at the Barbican began and ended in darkness; the red glow of the single candle was an apt visual frame for a performance which was dedicated to the memory of the late Andrew Porter, the music critic and writer whose learned, pertinent and eloquent words did so much to restore Monteverdi, Cavalli and other neglected music-dramatists to the operatic stage.

English Touring Opera - Debussy, Massenet and Offenbach

English Touring Opera’s recent programming has been ambitious and inventive, and the results have been rewarding. We had two little-known Donizetti operas, The Siege of Calais and The Wild Man of the West Indies, in spring 2015, while autumn 2014 saw the company stage comedy by Haydn (Il mondo della luna) and romantic history by Handel (Ottone).

Verismo Double Header in Los Angeles

LA Opera got its season off to an auspicious beginning with starry revivals of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci.

Viva Verdi at Opera Las Vegas

On September 9, 2015, Opera Las Vegas presented James Sohre’s production of Viva Verdi at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz. It was a delightful evening of arias, duets and ensembles by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The program included many of the composer’s blockbuster arias and scenes from famous operas such as Aida, La traviata, and Macbeth.

Barbera Sings a Fascinating Recital in San Diego

On Saturday, September 19, San Diego Opera opened its 2015-2016 season with a recital by tenor René Barbera. This was the first Polly Puterbaugh Emerging Artist Award Recital and no artist could have been more deserving than the immensely talented Barbera.

Sweeney Todd at the San Francisco Opera

Did the iconic “off-beat” and “serious” American musical hold the stage of the War Memorial Opera House? The excited audience (standees three deep) thought so and roared their appreciation.

Wigmore Hall Complete Schubert Song Series begins with Boesch and Johnson

The Wigmore Hall, London, has launched Schubert : The Complete Songs, a 40-concert series to run through the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There have been Schubert marathons before, like BBC Radio 3's all-Schubert week and The Oxford Lieder Festival's Schubert series last year, but the Wigmore Hall series will be a major landmark because the Wigmore Hall is the Wigmore Hall, the epitome of excellence.

Luisa Miller in San Francisco

Luisa Miller sits on the fringes of the repertory, and since its introduction into the modern repertory in the 1970’s it comes around every 15 or so years. Unfortunately this 2015 San Francisco occasion has not bothered to rethink this remarkable opera.

Salieri: La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave)

Demonised by Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, Antonio Salieri lives in the public imagination as the embittered rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — whose genius he lamented and revered in equal measure, and against whom he schemed and plotted at the Emperor Joseph II’s Viennese court.

Chicago Lyric’s Stars Shine at Millennium Park

The annual concert given by Lyric Opera of Chicago as an outdoor event previewing the forthcoming season took place on 11 September 2015 at Millennium Park.

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice

Orpheus — that Greek hero whose songs could enchant both deities and beasts, whose lyre has become a metaphor for the power of music itself, and whose journey to the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, kick-started the art of opera in Mantua in 1607 — has been travelling far and wide around the UK in 2015.

Vaughan Williams and Holst Double Bill

One is a quasi-verbatim rendering of J.M. Synge’s bleak tale of a Donegal family’s fateful dependency on and submission to the deathly power of the sea.

Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall

Is there anything that countertenor Iestyn Davies cannot do with his voice?

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

BBC Proms Youth Choir shines in a performance notable for its magical transparency

Prom 67: Bernstein — Stage and Screen

The John Wilson Orchestra have been annual summer visitors to the Royal Albert Hall since their Proms debut in 2009 and, with their seductive blend of technical precision, buoyant glitziness and relaxed insouciance, their concerts have become a hugely anticipated fixture and a sure highlight of the Promenade season.

Prom 65: Alice Coote sings Handel

Disappointing staging mars Alice Coote’s vibrant if wayward musical performance

Santa Fe: Secondary Mozart in First Rate Staging

Impresario Boris Goldovsky famously referred to La finta giardiniera as The Phony Farmerette.

Regimented Daughter in Santa Fe

At Santa Fe Opera, Donizetti’s effervescent The Daughter of the Regiment can’t quite decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

Santa Fe’s Celebratory Jester

Santa Fe Opera noted a landmark two-thousandth performance in their distinguished history with a stylish new production of Rigoletto.

Sibelius Kullervo, BBC Proms, London

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn't allow it to be heard after its initial performance, though he referred to it fondly in private.



Bryn Terfel as Wotan [Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
08 Oct 2010

Das Rheingold, Metropolitan Opera

It will be no surprise to me, a year or five from now, when someone falls to her or his death from the guy-wires that configure so much of Robert Lepage’s new state-of-the-art (ah! But which art?) production of Der Ring des Nibelung.

Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold

Wotan: Bryn Terfel; Fricka: Stephanie Blythe; Freia: Wendy Bryn Harmer; Loge: Richard Croft; Erda: Patricia Bardon; Alberich: Eric Owens; Mime: Gerhard Siegel; Fafnir: Hans-Peter König; Fasolt: Franz-Josef Selig; Rhinemaidens: Lisette Oropesa; Jennifer Johnson; Tamara Mumford. Production by Robert Lepage. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by James Levine. Performance of September 30.

Above: Bryn Terfel as Wotan
br/>All photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera


It is impossible to watch certain scenes of this Das Rheingold without having one’s heart in one’s mouth, and that owes nothing to the vocalism (on the whole pretty good), much less the orchestral playing (a familiar quantity). This set is complicated and dangerous, and no matter how precisely they set the computer programs and check the body harnesses—something will go wrong someday.

And you know? If the music-making continues on this level, and the portrayal of Wagner’s story does too, it will be worth it. Death comes to all; it might as well be a glorious death in full view of a paying audience, just like Ancient Rome in pagan fantasy. At least so long as no major singer is concussed in the accident, it will be worth it. The shenanigans involve plenty of stunt-doubles, and admirable as their work is, this is music-drama: Prosaic throats are expendable.

Owen_Alberich.pngEric Owens as Alberich

These were my first thoughts at the Met’s new Das Rheingold last Thursday, in those rare moments when I could catch my breath to think of other things. Lepage’s staging is busy—things are happening every moment, in the mobile sets and intricate lights when not among the characters. The singers, too, are obliged to hurl themselves about, emoting, slithering, doing magic tricks. The fierce heat of these unpleasant people (who are not people at all, but archetypal figures) makes itself felt, as if this were some through-composed Clifford Odets drama of too many generations cramped in some New York apartment, snarling and grudging and hacking at each other. Perhaps the family will calm down when they move into their grand new digs. That seems to be the plot.

The stars of Lepage’s show are a row of aluminum planks that, aided by wildly creative lighting, portray a flat floor, a rippling river, a cavernous ceiling, a raked rampart, a vertical redoubt, a staircase through the sky. This is the most versatile floor since Jackson Pollock tripped over a few cans of paint and hung the result on his gallery wall. It could probably sing creditably. (Alas, it does squeak at times. Pay no attention—pretend it’s somebody’s cell phone.)

Stunt doubles are used to create many of the effects, and this is obvious if you think about it: First of all, no singer could slide down the steep rake of the stage in a credible imitation of body-surfing the air stream, and then pop up singing as Freia, Froh and Donner do in scene 2. Then, at the end of scene 4, we find ourselves (in the audience) apparently suspended in mid-air over the rainbow bridge, a rippling multi-spectrum light-show, up which the gods (but it’s their doubles; as the Fricka is only about one-third as broad as Stephanie Blythe) march slowly, held by guy wires from above. Got that? We are perpendicular to the stage action, which defies gravity. And when the gods have at last ascended (or crossed the bridge) to Valhalla, the “bridge” is raised like a drawbridge to become the gate in the stone wall of the fortress of the gods. It is the most exciting version of this climactic event that I’ve seen on any stage other than mind’s eye.

RHEINGOLD_Terfel_Harmer_Blythe_1530.pngBryn Terfel as Wotan, Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia

This finale makes up for several things that do not work: the ransom of Freia (here a hammock in which she is far from concealed by a bunch of golden bric-a-brac), the offhand murder of Fasolt, the awkward upside-down shenanigans of the aerial Rhinemaidens. In contrast, the Dragon and the Frog are quite fine, Wotan and Loge’s stroll across the sky to Nibelheim is heart-in-the-throat stuff, and the apparition of Erda is effective. I found it the most successful new production to grace the Met during the tenure of Peter Gelb, and am eager to behold the rest of Lepage’s Ring.

Croft_Loge.pngRichard Croft as Loge

But a problem with this dizzying staging—for this Wagnerian—is that the technological wizardry has gone to the director’s head. He shows a predilection for “MTV” opera direction—for new events at each new chord, every syllable, every new motif. We cannot relax into Wagner’s stately rhythms; there is too much action. This is opera as five-minute video or even a videogame (which seems to be the inspiration for the superhero-styled costumes). After five minutes of it, one feels energized. After an hour or two, the eyes are glazed, the attention worn thin. Can’t we just listen to them sing for a while?

The singing for this Rheingold was of an impressive caliber. True, nearly all of it is performed from the stage apron, and is therefore likelier to fill the house than the same voices would do from deeper within the proscenium. But there’s no place for singers in the proscenium, because Lepage’s planks are floating in mid-air or something. The vocal standouts on Opening Night, as heard on the radio, were Stephanie Blythe’s authoritative Fricka and Richard Croft’s sensuous Loge.

In the house on the second night, though both singers produced sound superbly, and Croft won an ovation for his ability to sing much of his part while walking backwards up walls, both forfeited a degree of intimacy in the enormous space. Blythe has Fricka’s changeable moods down, from kittenish hypocrite to vigorous shrew and for my money she has owned the part since she first sang it in Seattle; I am eager to see how she develops in it. But Croft, better known for his superb Handel performances and the golden Gandhi he sang in Satyagraha, though he brought astonishing power to this essay in Wagnerism, sang this most ironic and human of Rheingold’s roles with an unvaried and uninteresting solidity. Where were those subtle shadings of double-meaning that we heard on the radio? Perhaps walking backwards up walls undermined the singer’s focus on vocal acting.

RHEINGOLD_Johnson_Mumford_Oropesa5063a.pngLisette Oropesa, Jennifer Johnson and Tamara Mumford as the Rhinemaidens

Bryn Terfel’s Wotan has been fondly anticipated and he looked good, piggy heroic, but I found him vocally underpowered. I missed the regal ease and bel canto polish of James Morris’s king of the gods, but this was a well-acted, carefully devised performance. Wotan may simply be too much for Terfel: In the final scenes, his throat dried and pitch failed him. He may figure out how to last through an entire Rheingold, but his showing made one fear for his Walküre.

A pleasant surprise was the Freia of Wendy Bryn Harmer, new to me, whose bright, clear, metallic soprano expressed the character’s hysteria without ever becoming shrill: a Brunnhilde-in-waiting, I’d say, and not bad looking in a short skirt either. Too, the staging calls for Freia to hop up on walls and race up and down hills, which she handled with aplomb. Patricia Bardon made agreeable sounds as Erda if not quite plumbing the primordial depths. I liked Tamara Mumford’s healthy vibrato as Flosshilde, but otherwise the Rhinemaidens sounded undistinguished, a fact one might not notice while they swing over vertiginous parapets in constricting costumes.

Eric Owens, who sang the destructive Nekrotzar in Le Grand Macabre last June, showed signs of frustration as yet another nefarious plot to conquer the world met comeuppance. Indeed, one has seldom seen so unpleasant an Alberich in Nibelheim, rather justifying the gods’ ill-treatment of him. Vocally, he was gruffly exciting—a smooth Alberich would be inappropriate—and the wild demands of the staging did not, in this case, undermine vocal acting: his curses were chilling; one felt the misanthrope’s internalized hatred of the persecuting world and his persecuting self. Indeed, I overheard those who would have liked to have him singing Wotan and Terfel Alberich, but I’m not sure the timbres quite overlap.

Siegel_Mime.pngGerhard Siegel as Mime

Gerhard Siegel made a winning, whining Mime, Franz-Josef Selig a distinguished Fasolt and Hans-Peter König a thrilling Fafnir, making one eager to hear him as König Marke and Gurnemanz in the not-too-distant future. Adam Diegel and Dwayne Croft sang Froh and Donner honorably, but Croft needs to time that hammer blow with more precision.

James Levine’s return to health put him in charge of the orchestra, and though the prevailing tempi were on the slow side and there were moments of bombast that could have done with a subtler touch—as I grow older I find myself preferring a cleaner, brisker sort of Wagner—this was the well-known Levine style with no falling-off, and the Met audience lapped it up. Gaunter and grayer than before, he is still beloved, not least by the orchestra he transformed into a wonder of the operatic world.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):