Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rheingold! Rheingold!

(c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Leuchtende Lust!  Robert Lepage's Rheingold design may not deserve to be labeled as an artistic triumph, but I do think it can be called a success.  It doesn't read against the libretto; the action is clear, and Lepage seems to be more interested in showing off Wagner's drama (and, sometimes, his own technical imagination in doing so) than imposing a heavy-handed interpretation on it.  This is not to say that it was devoid of ideas.  The use of space was creative, placing singers in arresting tableaux and dramatic interactions.  He wasn't afraid of the opera's moments of humor, but let them happen.  And we got a Riesenwurm with thrashing tail menacing Wotan from one side of the stage and fossil-like head, with malicious tongue and deadly jaws, entering from the other: es wand sich ringelnd!  There were moments where the interaction between realism and abstraction didn't sit perfectly easily, but overall it worked well.  There was, occasionally, an audible, unsettling creaking as the enormous mechanism shifted; I imagine, and hope, that something may be done to silence it.  Update: a Met gallery of production photos may be found here.

The "interactive video" and light projections were representative; there were several moments where I thought the changes, e.g. the reflection of the Tarnhelm on the overhanging wall of Nibelheim, could have been cheesy if not responsive to the singers' movements in the moment, but worked well as they were.  Waves of the Rhine in blue light reflecting the orchestra?  Lovely.  A projection of pebbles being moved by the sporting of the Rheintöchter and Alberich's attempts to catch them?  Perhaps slightly gimmicky, but not really obtrusive.  The schwüles Gedünst responding directly, visibly to Donner's (Dwayne Croft's) hammer, schwebend herbei like anything, gathering together to a dark cloud dispersed with a giant, sky-splitting bolt of lightning as he brought his hammer ringing onto the stage, following Wagner's directions with gloriously theatrical exactitude?  I suspect the expression on my face may have been similar to that when I watched the Nutcracker Christmas tree grow for the first time when I was seven.  And the lighting followed the unfolding of that one fateful day when Wotan wins Walhall "nicht wonnig."  My greatest disappointment, intellectual as well as sentimental, was the absence of a rainbow bridge.  What had seemed to be a gradual progression to more detailed staging was interrupted; the set's steep slope was topped by a prism with an apparent bridge, itself of shifting colors, in the center... and then the gods just walked off into the wings.  I thought: all right, morally ambivalent power, foreshadowed decline and all that... but what about the music?  And furthermore, couldn't I have a nice rainbow bridge for Bryn Terfel to pace majestically over, just because?  According to the New York Times, however, this was a technical glitch; apparently it was supposed to look more like this.  Alas.

The costumes have been panned elsewhere, but I'll put in a good word for nineteenth-century with a touch of punk rock.  What is wrong with a well-executed shiny breastplate?  I feared that Loge shooting fire from his palms could have a comic-book-gimmick effect, but it actually enabled him to "become" fire in darkened scenes.  An interesting note: the men were all in metallic colors, while the women were in soft natural tones (blue shot with gold for the Rheintöchter, green with brown for Fricka) except for poor Freia, who was in a gown reminiscent of nineteenth-century peasant wear from central Germany, in a symphony of golds.  Stephanie Blythe looked splendidly regal in her low-cut, trailing green dress; opera costume designers of the world, take note: you too can avoid shapeless caftans!

The staging helped the differentiation of the Rheintöchters' characters, and brought them floating up out of the deeps (and eventually descending into them again) in a lovely way.  They sang and disported themselves with convincing charm.  The Rheingold itself was not visible from the beginning, as it is in the Schenk Ring; rather, the sunlight strikes it so that you see only its radiance, mysterious and beautiful, until Alberich hauls it up, a glowing lump, to tuck under his arm and trundle away with it, an ominous silhouette against a suddenly angry sky.  There was often this useful gap between the front of the stage and the towering mechanism of what I really must not call the Picket Fence of Symbolism; I think the gap consistently represented the Kluft leading to Nibelheim.  Eric Owens started out sounding less comfortable than I've heard him elsewhere, but soon settled into singing with the power and expression which I had been hoping for from him.  And his was a nuanced Alberich, not a caricature of a slimy dwarf, but credible in desire, anger, and wounded pride.  His Nibelheim is a geometrically stylized weapons workshop, where rows of forges create piles of war-ready arms and armor; when he is dragged out of this lair where he is lord, the scene where he is bound and taunted by Wotan and Loge is uneasily close to schoolyard bullying.  (And as if the identification of the ring with his own flesh and blood weren't unsettling enough, Wotan cuts off his finger with the spear to get it.)

Bryn Terfel did not seem to have the rich, effortless resonance of his Scarpia of last April, but he never strained, and he did create a vocally and dramatically exciting Wotan, an ambitious and active, virile and violent Wotan.  I shall confess myself a German Language Nerd and say also that his consonants made me very, very happy.  Stephanie Blythe, as his consort, similarly transcended stereotype, not a nagging shrew, but a warm and loving wife who sees the perils of Wotan's ambition.  Revelation of the night: her voice is huge, rich and expressive even over a Wagnerian orchestra in an insanely large opera house. Loge, although also dramatically nuanced, was regularly drowned by the orchestra, most unfortunately.  Hans-Peter König made an emotionally gripping Fasolt; when he and Fafner entered, the entire terrain was dramatically reshaped, as they seemed to knock through passageways in the mountains, remaining separated both from each other and from the gods below them.  The staging of Freia being covered by the Nibelungs' gold was decried by Tommasini, but I thought it was brilliant: suspended between the giants' outcroppings, in the net used by the Nibelungs to bring up the hoard (here a true medieval hoard, forged into vambraces, greaves, and shields) she is gradually covered by the weapons; the effect was stiflingly claustrophobic, truly a Schmach, a graphic depiction of her commodification.  Wendy Bryn Harmer sang her with piercing persuasiveness.  From my perspective, the emotional intensity of this Rheingold never slackened.

And this, of course, is primarily due to the music.  It was good--more than good--to hear the Met orchestra again, in splendid form, managing to bring out a multitude of details in the overwhelming tapestry of sound.  Oh, the sound of that brass and the strumming of the harps!  Brought onto the stage for bows at the end, Maestro Levine appeared distressingly aged and fragile, but on the podium his insight was sharp and his energy tremendous.  Long may he flourish to draw such performances from his orchestra.


  1. Interesting to learn, Lucy, that you are a 'German Language Nerd'. Although I studied French myself (some time ago now), I can see why you would love the german language. I also do. There are few languages I know of that can express so much in so little words. There are a lot of german (single) words that would take multiple words in other languages to express the same. For Wagner, as a poet, it must have been the ideal language. I'm impressed with his poetry throughout The Ring. And some words are delicious of course, 'Riesenwurm' being just one of them. Oh, nice review by the way.

  2. A slightly belated thanks for the great review! I'm so glad it has rewarding parts even though it sounds uneven.... I'm a bit worried about the seeming lack of a directorial point of view, but it's impossible to judge any Ring by its Rheingold, after all, most of the serious stuff is still to come.

  3. @Rob: Thanks! I do indeed love the language. (Although I've also studied French, I've never connected with it in quite the same way.) And Wagnerian German is particularly interesting, with all the ways he plays with vocabulary and the texture of sound for his Gesamtkunstwerk.

    @Zerbinetta: I too would be easier in my mind if there were a clearer impetus behind Lepage's choices. I would not be too surprised to see a feminist twist, or some version of the Nature/flawed human social structures conflict developing, but... who knows. I'll be waiting for "Die Walküre" with bated breath. And possibly chewed nails.

  4. Speaking for myself, I cannot really say of course that I do not connect with French or that I would connect less with it, having this Masters degree, but I can say from experience that it is quite different from German. I do have this (highly recommended) Aix-en-Provence Walkure DVD and it is interesting to compare all these different language subtitles. Often these translations from German sung text are inadequate or sort of 'second hand'. The main reason being this particular thing about German (previous post). I think, as you noted yourself, Wagner was very creative with vocabulary, but I doubt he could have been this creative in any other language. So, Cheers to the German language.

  5. Seconded for Terfel's German diction. A lot of people in the blogosphere are snarking on him right now, but I found his 2005 Proms Walkuere pretty much revelatory, not only for his diction (upside: you can understand every word; downside: you can tell when he forgets his lines) but for the lyricism that goes with it. After 50-odd years of recorded Wotans, you could finally tell what every note was supposed to be.

    I was afraid Richard Croft would get lost behind the orchestra and in that huge a space. For the record, he did sound fabulous at 128k.

  6. S.: Lovely to hear. I do love Terfel's tone and am eager for the Walküre Wotan. Thanks for the word on Richard Croft, as well.


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