Feature Review: The Metropolitan Opera – Das Rheingold [“The Met: Live in HD”]

Written by: David M. Rice


Das Rheingold – Preliminary evening of Der Ring des Nibelungen; Music-drama in four scenes [sung in German]

Richard Croft as Loge and Bryn Terfel as Wotan (Das Rheingold, September 2010). Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Wotan – Bryn Terfel

Fricka – Stephanie Blythe

Freia – Wendy Bryn Harmer

Donner – Dwayne Croft

Froh – Adam Diegel

Loge – Richard Croft

Erda – Patricia Bardon

Alberich – Eric Owens

Mime – Gerhard Siegel

Fasolt – Franz-Josef Selig

Fafner – Hans-Peter König

Woglinde – Lisette Oropesa

Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnson

Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford

Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera

James Levine

Robert Lepage – Production

Neilson Vignola – Associate Director

Carl Fillion – Set Designer

François St-Aubin – Costume Designer

Étienne Boucher – Lighting Designer

Réalisations.net – Interactive Projection Artist

Boris Firquet – Video Image Artist

Gary Halvorson – TV Director

Jay David Saks – TV Music Producer

Performed at the The Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York City

Viewed at College Point Multiplex, 2855 Ulmer St, Flushing, NY 11354*

Saturday, October 9, 2010

*As transmitted to cinemas world-wide in “The Met: Live in HD” series, with superimposed English titles

Scene 4 from Das Rheingold of the Met's old production (Metropolitan Opera, 2009). Photograph: Beatriz Schiller

In May 2009, as I watched the Hall of the Gibichungs come crashing down and heard the last strains of the ‘redemption’ motive die away at the end of Götterdämmerung, the Metropolitan Opera’s Otto Schenk-produced Ring cycle had finally run its course, leaving me in a state of despair. Having enjoyed that marvellous production numerous times during its twenty years at the Met (the photograph to the right is a detail from it), I knew that it would be sorely missed. How, I wondered, could that naturalistic production, so true to Wagner’s conception, ever be equalled, much less surpassed? And why, I asked myself, would anyone even try?

My second question is much easier to answer. It is only natural that Peter Gelb, upon taking the helm as General Manager of the Met, would see a new Ring cycle as a signature piece – the ideal opportunity to put his personal stamp most visibly on the company, symbolising its commitment to using new technologies and innovative ideas in the service of operatic art. Gelb stated as much in his brief pre-performance welcome to audiences gathered in cinemas world-wide to view and hear this “Live in HD” matinee performance of Das Rheingold, the first instalment of the Met’s new Robert Lepage-produced Ring cycle. The production’s extensive and effective use of advanced technology, and the very fact that it was being viewed live around the world, attest to Gelb’s considerable progress toward accomplishing these goals.

My first question – whether the new Ring will measure up to or transcend the one it is replacing – cannot, of course, be answered fully until the entire cycle is completed in the spring of 2012. Suffice it to say, however, based on this viewing of the new Rheingold, I regard that question as quite an open one.

Although I have strongly preferred the Met’s past, very traditional, approach to the Ring to other, more innovative, productions, I find myself having much less cause for fear than I anticipated when the Met chose Canadian producer-director Lepage to create its new cycle. Although Lepage uses abstract settings rather than realistic scenery for his Ring he has not sought to impose any external ‘concept’ upon Wagner’s mythological tale. There are no robots, robber barons, crashed aircraft or extraterrestrial visitors here. Lepage never loses sight of Wagner’s narrative whilst using computer-driven technology to create a variety of spaces, images and visual effects.

Das Rheingold, September 2010. Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The most prominent innovation of the Lepage production is its use of an enormous, computer-controlled apparatus (affectionately known as “the machine”) that is manipulated and illuminated to create each of the many locations in which the action of all four Ring music-dramas takes place. This massive set, designed by Carl Fillion, is comprised of twenty-four huge panels that are attached to a central axis around which they can be articulated and rotated, either individually or in combinations, to create vertical, horizontal and slanted surfaces that can remain stationary or move in a variety of ways. Projections and lighting effects created by lighting designer Étienne Boucher and video image artist Boris Firquet are used to change the colours and textures of the panels, as required by the changing settings of the action.

The Met’s introduction of a new Ring production does not constitute a total break in continuity from what had come before. Happily unchanged was the brilliant playing of the Met Orchestra, conducted superbly by James Levine, who has been in the pit for every Met Rheingold but one dating back to 1987. As ever, Levine gave top priority to clarity of articulation and attention to detail, adopting unrushed tempos that brought out the best from both singers and orchestra. There also were excellent performances by six singers who were returning from the last season of the Schenk Ring – Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia, Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt, Gerhard Siegel as Mime, Lisette Oropesa as Woglinde, and Tamara Mumford as Wellgunde.

Stephanie Blythe as Fricka & Bryn Terfel as Wotan (Das Rheingold, September 2010). Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The Met is using the striking image of Bryn Terfel as Wotan – replete with ravens, breastplate and long hair hanging over his missing eye – to promote Das Rheingold, presumably hoping that he will come to symbolise the Ring as did his predecessor, James Morris, who portrayed Wotan in all but a few Met performances for nearly twenty years. The versatile Terfel, in his second Wagnerian role at the Met (the first was Wolfram von Eschenbach in Tannhäuser), was in excellent voice and gave a vocally nuanced performance – firm but gentle when interacting with his fellow deities; full of bravado when trying to bluff the giants whilst realising that he would ultimately have to honor his contract with them; and exploding with fury as he struggled for power with Alberich. This Wotan is a young, power-hungry god who has not yet been worn-down by the burdens of maintaining world order, paying deference to his dominating wife, and trying to control his headstrong daughter – all of which Terfel will have to incorporate into his portrayal of the Die Walküre Wotan next spring.

This “Rheingold” is dominated by the power struggle between Wotan and Alberich, in large measure owing to the brilliant portrayal of the Nibelung by Eric Owens in his first Wagnerian role. Vocally, as well as through gesture and expression, Owens ably depicted each phase of Alberich’s evolution from amorous to lecherous (as he wooed the Rhinemaidens), then to bitter (as he renounced love and stole the gold), tyrannical (as he terrorised Mime and the Nibelungs), and finally to vengeful (as he cursed the ring). Every aspect of Owens’s performance – richness of tone, dramatic expression and textual articulation – was virtually perfect, and he was breathtakingly menacing when viewed larger-than-life on the huge HD screen, especially as he pronounced his curse.

Adam Diegel as Froh, Dwayne Croft as Donner, Bryn Terfel as Wotan & Stephanie Blythe as Fricka (Das Rheingold, September 2010). Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The rest of the cast was also quite strong. Stephanie Blythe aptly portrayed Fricka as still encouraging Wotan’s quest for power rather than trying to rein him in (as her character will in Die Walküre). With a penetrating voice that can be sweet or chilling as the moment demands, Blythe stood out both vocally and dramatically. Wendy Bryn Harmer, a Met regular, was an appealing Freia, with an endearing yet powerful soprano.

In an unusual bit of casting, Loge and Donner were portrayed by brothers. Richard Croft’s Loge was a fairly agreeable character, singing rather sweetly and without too much of a sarcastic bite. Dwayne Croft gave an outstanding performance as Donner. His resonant evocation of a thunderstorm in the final scene was quite thrilling. All the more so for the HD audience, which was engulfed by the sound of the orchestral brass and could view Donner in close-up as he spun around, hammer extended, in the midst of a vortex of light projected on the panels underfoot that turned into lightning flashes as his hammer struck the stage. Joining his godly brethren as Froh, Adam Diegel, making his Met debut, performed admirably.

Gerhard Siegel as Mime & Richard Croft as Loge (Das Rheingold, September 2010).
Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The giants were portrayed by two German basses: Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt and Hans-Peter König as Fafner. Both sang extremely well with booming, resonant voices, with Selig’s having just the right touch of sentimentality in expressing his attraction to Freia and his reluctance to give her up. Gerhard Siegel, who has portrayed Mime in recent years in Bayreuth, London and Valencia as well as at the Met, demonstrated why he is so popular with casting directors, giving a masterful account of this mistreated character through voice and gesture. His acrobatic manoeuvres as the invisible Alberich supposedly manhandled him were particularly impressive.

The role of Erda was sung beautifully and with a sense of gravity and foreboding by Patricia Bardon. The three Rhinemaidens – Lisette Oropesa as Woglinde, Jennifer Johnson as Wellgunde, and Tamara Mumford as Flosshilde – sang marvellously and managed well in coping with the bulky harnesses built into their mermaid-like costumes.

The stage was dark as the Prelude began, but soon the dimly-lit panels of the “machine” began an undulating motion that mirrored the music in depicting the waters of the Rhine, starting at stage level and gradually rising to represent a descent from the surface to the river-bottom where the Rhinemaidens dwell and where Alberich would soon emerge from his subterranean homeland. As the lighting brightened, projections on the panels represented water flowing above the river-bottom’s shifting sands and rocks on which Alberich slipped repeatedly. The maidens were suspended on wires and at times ‘flew’ in front of the panels on which, as they sang, computer-generated images of rising bubbles were projected.

Stephanie Blythe as Fricka & Bryn Terfel as Wotan (Das Rheingold, September 2010). Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The land of the gods was much less interesting visually, with no depiction of the just-completed Valhalla until the final moment of the opera, and then only as a huge, unadorned wall. The “machine” was manipulated as the giants arrived, providing a pair of elevated platforms on which they stood, looking down on the gods assembled below. This was a more pleasing and effective way of representing the giants’ stature than using such artificial means as stilts or inanimate constructions to increase their height. Between these platforms was a steeply slanted wall down which Freia and Loge (or their acrobatic body-doubles) made sliding entrances. Loge, supported by a wire attached to the back of his costume, was required repeatedly to walk backwards up that wall and never seemed quite comfortable in doing so. Loge was lit in flickering reds to represent his position as ‘god of fire’, and he was able to make his fingertips glow by blowing on them, which proved a useful way to burn through the rope that bound the captured Alberich.

By far the most striking visual effects came during Wotan and Loge’s descent to, and return from, Nibelheim, and also in the depiction of that cavernous realm. As the two made their way to confront Alberich, the moveable planks were arranged and lighted to create the appearance of a steep, twisting stairway leading to a portal through which a strong beam of light streamed to light the actors’ (body-doubles for the singers) path. The effect was repeated as they ascended bringing the captive Nibelung to the surface. This spectacular bit of stagecraft was a superb way to accompany the music Wagner composed to cover the changes of scenery.

The dark, igneous atmosphere of Nibelheim was created by having a large group of planks, lit in fiery tones, overhang the singers whilst the horde of Nibelungs toiled over pots of molten metal strung across the stage. This was as effectively atmospheric as any attempt at realism could be. When Alberich transformed into a dragon, the beast’s head and tail appeared from opposite sides of the stage, and the lighting of the overhanging planks was changed to turn them into the dragon’s enormous rib-cage – a brilliant effect that invites speculation as to how Lepage will depict Fafner in Act Two of Siegfried.

The final visual effect, which failed on opening night and in the ensuing performance, but which came off properly in this one, was the Rainbow Bridge, formed by a central group of planks over which the gods cross to enter Valhalla as the work comes to a close. As the gods filed off the stage, their doubles appeared on the slanted bridge, facing away from the audience and walking upward at first as the front of the bridge began to rise, and then downward and out of sight as the bridge continued its motion, finally merging with the remaining panels to form a solid wall just as the final notes were played. This was less than spectacular, but quite effective.

The Rheinmaidens (Jennifer Johnson, Lisette Oropesa, and Tamara Mumford) (Das Rheingold, September 2010). Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

A few bits of staging also came across as mismanaged. One was in the opening scene when Alberich, who had just been rudely rejected by the Rhinemaidens, sat holding hands with them as the gold from the Rhine appeared. If they were being that nice to him, what would motivate him to steal the bullion? Still worse was the covering of Freia with gold in the final scene. She was hung in a sort of hammock, and gold disks were placed in front of her, but they barely covered her body and certainly did not envelop her head at all, so the giants’ complaints at the inadequacy of the piling of the gold became completely disconnected from the stage business.

The only major disappointment in the production was the unattractiveness of François St-Aubin’s costumes. None was memorable, many were just passable, and one or two were awful, most notably Loge’s red hairdo and matching outfit – perhaps because the costume also had to function as a sort of high-wire artist’s harness.

One very salutary effect of the new Ring set is that it thrusts forward the area of the stage on which the action – and hence the singing – takes place, which should enhance the Met’s already excellent acoustics. Of course, one can’t really judge the hall’s acoustics from the vantage point of a cinema, where the audience was immersed in almost overwhelming high-fidelity sound, brilliantly engineered for the HD telecast under the supervision of Jay David Saks. This added considerable force to such moments as Alberich’s curse and Donner’s thunderstorm.

The HD telecast was an excellent experience visually as well. TV director Gary Halvorson’s use of close-ups and multiple-camera angles gave immediacy, intimacy and power to the performance. Seeing the performers’ facial expressions not only as they sang, but also as they reacted to the other characters, was something that few if any in the opera-house could do, (On the other hand, the close-up view occasionally interfered with the proper appreciation of special effects, such as by making the wires attached to the Rhinemaidens and Loge all-too visible.) As were the other operas I have seen in the ongoing The Met: Live in HD series, this telecast was well worth attending. These broadcasts should by no means be regarded as second-rate substitutes for attending performances in the flesh, but rather as complementary, each different from the other, but both being of tremendous quality.

As the singers appeared for curtain calls, the audience in my local New York cinema was restrained at first – not surprisingly, since we could not be heard by the artists – but then burst into vigorous applause for Eric Owens. When Richard Croft took his first call, some booing from the opera-house audience could be heard, but the reason for this remains a mystery, as Croft’s singing seemed fine. When James Levine finally appeared for a bow, his gaunt appearance was shocking. He remained at the side of the stage and advanced only a step or two whilst supported by a cast member on either side. It is nothing short of amazing that Levine was then able to conduct a performance of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, literally just a few hours later (link below).

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