Yesterday I attended my first Met Live in HD
broadcast because I just had to see what the new "Das Rheingold" looked like. It doesn't disappoint. On the other hand, while this production establishes a new level of stagecraft for the opera world, the other elements involved are pretty traditional. The Met and Lepage are trying to have it both ways- satisfy the codgers who want horned helmets and those who are aware it's 2010- and I think they've succeeded in coming up with a production that should satisfy both, though probably won't leave the latter group ecstatic.
The broadcast began with some behind the scenes footage of the Rheinmaidens being introduced to "the Machine" and learning how to perform upon it in harnesses. During this sequence, the expression on Lisette Oropesa's face is the definition of apprehension while Tamara Mumford looks really excited. The pay off is when the Rheinmaidens make their entrance and you see how much hard work went into their efforts and it paid off so handsomely. I can only imagine that these Rheinmaidens were what Wagner was envisioning. Mermaids, swimming in water, bubbles billowing behind them, it's a beautiful scene. Mumford, Oropesa and Jennifer Johnson are excellent and Lepage does some choreography here that really makes the scene work incredibly well- it just flows.
Eric Owens' Alberich- dreadlocked and sporting a codpiece that looks stolen from a Mad Max sequel, plays his initial attempts to have his way with one of the Rheinmaidens in the manner we've come to expect except for one key component in his characterization that eventually profoundly impacts the entire production. Owens' Alberich may be a dwarf, but he's not the lecherous, petty, grubby Nibelung usually found in this role. This Alberich is smart, angry and determined. He's also the most fully-realized character onstage in this production. When he steals the gold, it's with a sense of coming retribution. This is a star turn for Owens, who easily makes the largest impact in this superbly cast production with his fantastic singing and indelible stage presence. And to think David Gockley over at San Francisco Opera decided to cast Owens as Ramfis instead of Amonasro in that company's upcoming Aida. Boob-of-month award winner-Gockley wins again!
As Scene 1 ends, the Rheinmaidens forlornly lie on the bottom of the Rhine in a beautiful tableau, complete with shifting sands beneath them. It's scenes like this which make the production such a visual success. The transition scenes are where Lapage's Machine has the most impact (at least until the spectacular ending). As the planks rise they create a visual where the audience feels like it too is rising from the river, leaving the Rheinmaidens in the river below. The thing about the Machine is it takes the audience with it into every scene in an uncanny way.
There are a couple of problems with this production and they become apparent pretty quickly in Scene 2. Bryn Terfel's Wotan is sung with strong technique but his character conveys no authority at all. His Wotan is a thug, not a god and with his long greasy hair covering his missing eye and gold breastplate covering his gut he looks like a Comic-Con attendee in line to get the most recent edition of Thor autographed. Even worse, Stephanie Blythe's superbly sung Fricka comes across as Wotan's mother, not his wife. Looking at the costumes, you can't reconcile these two are appearing in the same opera, much less that they are supposed to be husband and wife.
This is a lesser problem with Donner and Froh because in the second scene they have little to do, not an issue at all with Freia, and the giants Fasolt and Fafner are positioned on the machine to create a formidable presence though their physiques are not enhanced beyond parts of a fat suit being placed on them here and there.
Richard Croft's Loge however, is serious problem. He looks like Liberace in a straitjacket. One of the most effective and rewarding choices Achim Freyer made for his Ring cycle at LA Opera was making Loge the center of Rheingold and it worked brilliantly. Of course that was Freyer's choice and it's just fine to make Wotan the center as usual, but it really only works well if Wotan is authoritative and Loge is the instrument to carry out his machinations- here, what should be the most scheming character onstage is little more that just a toady who somehow wandered into Valhalla via a Vegas psyche ward.
Franz-Josef Selig's Fasolt is superbly sung and performed. His isn't the usual dumb, love-struck giant, but a being whose obsession has the better of him. I don't think I've ever heard anyone sing or perform this role with as much intelligence as Selig brings to it. Hans-Peter Konig's Fafner is also well sung.
The transition to Scene 3's Nibelheim is another set-piece of stunningly well-executed stagecraft via the Machine as we actually watch Wotan and Loge descend down Alberich's lair. The anvils were gorgeous and what is usually handled as an awkward "hmm, how do we this moment?" became a central moment both visually and aurally.
This scene is always the most problematic in Rheingold because of the dragon/frog silliness and it wasn't done this time in a manner that's going to set a new standard for how to handle this awkward bit in a convincing way and save it from being unintended camp- which is how it always turns out. In this production that silliness if magnified because of Owens' Alberich- he simply isn't gullible enough to fall for this trap- and yet he must, because that's what Alberich does. Gerhard Siegel's Mime was superb. I certainly hope he'll be back in the role for Siegfried. His was another Nibelung who possessed an intelligence not typically portrayed in the role and his was a standout among the strong cast.
Going back to Valhalla's threshold for Scene 4, Owens delivers his best moments as he expresses his shame at being bound and shackled before his slaves. I haven't seen this discussed in anyone else's reviews or commentary, but I have to add my own thought that this scene has a heightened power and poignancy because Owens is black and Terfel looks like a redneck straight out of a horror movie. We've seen this scene in many other guises, but here, especially in the current political climate in this country, I can't get say there's no meta commentary to be found here if you want to look for it. Patrica Bardon's Erda, the most unthankful role in all of opera, was spot on from her first note through her last, though in HD the weird red/pink make-up around her eyes made me wonder why they wanted to make Erda a blonde Morticia Addams.
I found the only moment where James Levine's conducting let me down was the conclusion of Alberich's curse on whomever wears the ring- oddly, here the orchestra lacked enough power to make those terrifying bars sound as terrifying as they ought. Otherwise, I'd have to say Levine (who looked terrific) and the orchestra were fantastic from start to finish with Levine usually opting for faster tempos than he's chosen in the past which never sounded rushed, an bringing everything in Wagner's score to a shimmering glow through the entire afternoon.
Dwayne Croft's Donner was certainly a bit of luxury casting and having a mature singer of his caliber in this smaller role brought a depth to it not usually seen in Rheingold. He too, was superb, and if his hammer blow wasn't as thrilling a moment as one could have hoped from a dramatic point, he sung his part with a confidence and conviction the role never gets when filled by younger singers as is the usual.
By now everyone who cares about these things already knows that on opening night there was a glitch which prevented the Machine to work as planned, thus the gods' entry into Valhalla via the Rainbow Bridge was aborted or abandoned. It's hard to have any sympathy for the opening night crowd ,but in this case I actually do because they didn't get to experience what was in my mind the finest bit of stagecraft I've ever seen. Like the Rhine scene, I can't imagine Wagner himself thinking it could be done better than this. It was beautiful, breathtaking, and the most thrilling execution of the myriad challenges posed in adhering to the Ring's crazy stage demands. The final ten minutes alone was well worth the price of admission, but I found the entire production on the whole to be greatly satisfying, though not earth-shaking. It represents the cutting of what can be done on the opera stage, even if it doesn't have the intelligence or depth of the Freyer Ring nor the brilliant imagination on display in Lepage's own debut production for the Met, La Damnation de Faust.
One last comment. The schedule for the remaining broadcasts doesn't include a dud in the bunch. I was apprehensive about the whole idea of attending these screenings, but having now done so, the quality of the sound, the staggeringly brilliant camerawork and the immediacy of watching a live performance as it takes place make this method of presentation well worthwhile. I'll be seeing many more of these broadcasts this season.