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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

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