A Personal Review of Das Rheingold – I’m Not Completely Impressed
In the world of opera, no event is more anticipated than a new Ring production. The Met has been planning their new cycle for years and Part One, Das Rheingold, has already opened. The rest will unfold over the next couple of years before we’ll be able to see all four operas as Wagner intended – within a single week.
The Ring is so massive and, let’s face it, so important, and Wagner’s vision was so sweeping and so completely impossible that any production, anytime, anywhere, will ultimately fail to meet expectations, but that’s part of the fun. Even so, this new Das Rheingold fails on a number of levels, most importantly in its most touted feature, the production design by Robert Lepage.
First, I owe you a confession. Unlike the previous Met production which was the first of many I’ve seen live, I caught this one on an HD broadcast at a local movie house. That’s not the right way to see any opera but for those of us far from Manhattan, I live near Seattle, it’s a wonderful service. Last year’s Doctor Atomic is an opera I may never get to see live so HD is the next best thing. Opera is designed to be seen on a stage and, while the close ups and odd camera angles are interesting and necessary to compensate for the elements that are missing in the personal in-house experience, they make the art form seem even more artificial. We’re not meant to see the globs of stage makeup or the visible set rigging. We want to believe that Rheinmaidens can swim but seeing the terror in their eyes as they get hoisted skyward dampens the effect.
The HD production has logistical problems for the audience as well. Any Wagner opera, and the Ring in particular, requires careful bladder management. Rheingold is two and a half hours long without an intermission. (It gets tougher. That’s just the first act of Götterdämmerung.) The HD experience increases the degree of difficulty. Before the opera starts, there is a half-hour behind-the-scenes presentation that, unfortunately, gives away far too many moments that would have been nice surprises, without contributing anything useful. So, show up a half-hour late, right? Sorry, no. Even with ticket in hand, these events are so popular that you need to arrive at least a half hour before that so you’re not stuck in the front row, an hour if you want a decent seat. Don’t drink even a drop of water for at least 72 hours before curtain time. That’s the only possible strategy.
Finally, the lights dim and Maestro Levine sneaks onto the podium. There’s a downbeat, and that famous low E-flat rises out of the darkness. Unlike in the previous production that began at such a lethargic tempo (I liked it, actually) this Rhine music bubbles right along, and we’re off. And then we see it. The set. Oooh. Ahhh.
I can imagine exactly what happened. It started in the first production meeting. The creative team is sitting around a table tossing around suggestions. “There are no bad ideas in brainstorming,” someone cheerfully says. Sometimes there are. “Imagine a stage full of silver plank thingies that undulate up and down to make waves or assemble themselves into mountaintops or twist and turn to become underground caverns. Wouldn't that be cool?” It would, if the laws of physics didn’t intercede. In order to carry the weight of all that scenery, not to mention singers, the planks became huge and the effect is more like a giant Dr. Seuss piano keyboard or a bad science-fiction starship than any sort of magical transformation. The result is that every set looks approximately the same and no single set looks remotely right. It’s beautiful, in a weird Metropolis kind of way, but it makes no sense.
Back to that fateful meeting. Here’s the next great notion: “You know, out in Seattle, the Rheinmaidens fly around the stage while they sing and, I don’t know how they do it, but they really look like they’re swimming. Let’s show them how we do things here in New York. Everyone will fly!” (A round of cheers.) “And if not fly, then they can walk up walls like Spiderman!” Yes, they walk up walls. As Anna Russell famously said, “I’m not making this up.”
This one magic trick is cute in the opening scene, but turning Loge into a Marvel superhero is painful to watch. Richard Croft spends so much time wall walking that he has to play the whole opera in what looks like a giant iron diaper. The costume designers do their best to disguise it by making all the Houdini-like straps appear to be decorative, but if you’re hoping for a mischievous Loge leaping around flame-like, you’re out of luck. He sure does walk up and down walls, though. Very. Very. Slowly. I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t trust that apparatus either. Here he is standing behind Gerhard Siegel who is absolutely delightful as Mime. They look equally uncomfortable, and one is a miserable slave while the other is a semi-god, supposedly with a sense of humor.
None of this is important for Wagner purists, though. Only three questions matter: How is the singing? Is the orchestra any good? And is the dragon scary?
The good news is that the Metropolitan Orchestra is magnificent and the singing is splendid. I never thought I’d see a Wotan who could compare with James Morris. Bryn Terfel is rougher, far less regal, but with a powerful, compelling voice that still make his foibles believable. Here’s another example where the HD experience detracts, though. Rather than wearing a patch over his missing eye, a lock of curly black hair seems plastered to one side of his face. It seems wrong to me and, up close, it’s very distracting.
Anyway, he seems promising. Much of the success of the story will hinge on whether we believe the complex relationship between Mr.Terfel’s Wotan and Deborah Voigt's Brünnhilde, but we have to wait for Die Walküre to know how well that works.
The other voices are fine as well. Eric Owens makes a creepy Alberich, although I wonder if the fact that he’s called Black Alberich at times in the libretto affected the casting choice. Stephanie Blythe is imposing as Mrs. Fricka Wotan – clearly not a force to be taken lightly. (The big question next opera might well by why it takes Wotan so long to accede to her demands.) The gods are godly and the giants are giant.
Speaking of the giants, they and Freia are involved in the loveliest moment of the production, and the goofiest. Wendy Bryn Harmer is perfect as the Girl of the Golden Apples who gets traded to the Giants to pay for the construction of Valhalla. Fafner and Fasolt are kin but they don’t see eye to eye on the value of the pretty blonde. For Fafner, she’s the key to robbing power from the gods, but Fasolt is a gentler soul. When it looks like he might be losing Freia, Fasolt sings of his rough giant love for this girl who is, let’s face it, way out of his league. In a beautiful piece of stage direction, Freia, who has probably never heard such a pure declaration of love, turns to him and, for just a brief moment, sympathizes. More than that, she’s visibly affected by this show of affection, and even takes a step towards him. It choked me up.
All that is forgotten during the piling-up-the-gold scene, though. This is always problematic in any production. The treasure has to be piled high enough to cover Freia’s beauty. Her hair is visible over the top so the magic helmet must be tossed into the bargain. Finally, only her eye is still visible to love-struck Fasolt through a small chink in the heap, and the Ring is pried from Wotan’s finger to fill that final gap. It’s a nice metaphor but staging is a nightmare. The Metropolitan solution is to throw Freia into a hammock and pile gold on top of her. It looks ridiculous.
Finally, what about the monster? Is it a realio-trulio dragon? Wagner’s stage direction calls it only a serpent so many productions simply give us a big snake, saving the real fire-breathing dragon for Siegfried to battle later on in the cycle.
This one is somewhere in between. It has a big dragon head but it’s more stylized (like the set) than realistic (like the costumes.) In fact, it looks more like a float on Chinese New Year. It wraps around the back of the stage, supposedly, which is a nice touch, but it’s not remotely frightening. They should just show us the machinery that operates the set. That’s got to be terrorizing.
So, that’s it. I’m not completely impressed but, I hope I’m making this clear; I loved every moment of it. I can’t wait for the sequel, and I’ll be there, standing in line with my print-at-home Fandango ticket. I hope I can see the production live before it shuts down. The previous one lasted 20 years, so perhaps I have a little time.