Das Rheingold, Wagner
The Metropolitan Opera
4th April, 2012
Wagner’s music does not always sell itself. We who love his music tend to remember the glorious moments and can take for granted that it requires just the right alchemical mixture of breath, pacing, and intensity to fully come alive and to sustain our interest over lengthy passages of contrived verbosity. Although Robert Lepage’s production at the Met provided moments of vertiginous spectacle and astounding singing, the staging was mostly routine and heavy-handed, and often undermined by the physical awkwardness of the set. The choppy pacing of Maestro Luisi in the pit did not help matters, as he never seemed to find a groove and elicited one of the most casually sloppy and uninspired performances I have heard from the usually excellent Met orchestra.
The set’s potential as an expressive tool was promising in the overture: a battleship-grey plane of multiple levered beams that can move independently or in unison, it began to ripple very subtly with the ringing of the French horns, as a mystical blue light pulsed across the back wall. It evoked not just “the Rhine”, but something more universal: the physics of a sound wave, the Light of Creation.
The Rhinemaidens have to be commended for their ability to sing while suspended at all angles from wires. Though sometimes overbalanced by the orchestra, I enjoyed their seal-like, watery playfulness. Tamara Mumford (unusual among Maidens, both the lowest and the loudest voice) stood out for her vocal beauty and projection, as well as her graceful, expressive diction.
She was the first of three extraordinary mezzos one had the pleasure of hearing in this cast. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, (whose majestic voice reliably renders me giddy with awe) presented this long-suffering wife, often portrayed as shrewish, with vulnerability and knowingness.
Patricia Bardon, as Erda, had a sound that evoked everything one wants this ancient earth-goddess to be: at once sensual, mature, and melancholy. Her simple, witchy costume, of flowing black sheath dress and a wig of white-blonde locks flowing down past her waist, gave her the aura of a glamorous, aging beauty.
François St-Aubin’s costuming overall was intriguing: most of the characters were clothed in high-traditional style (lots of greenish golds, a Pre-Raphaelite faux-medievalness). It was as if they had fallen out of an old opera trunk or a book of fairy tales and had stumbled down the sluice of the set to land on an empty stage, a flat nowhere. (Several of them actually did this repeatedly in the show, to diminishing comic effect).
Although the set did allow for the occasional spectacular moment (the descent into Nibelheim on a twisting, suspended staircase), it also seemed clunky, noisy, and dangerous. Perhaps because of its perilousness, the singers frequently looked restricted by it: left singing long passages from a trench, or awkwardly checking their steps. And although the lighting, designed by Etienne Boucher, was often sublime - capturing the aura of a sunrise through murky water, for example - the video art by Boris Firquet was less creative, relying on what are quickly becoming tired clichés in opera productions (swirling clouds; Loge surrounded by projected “flames”). The magic tricks in the show were also designed and executed with remarkably amateurish predictability.
One was reminded that even the most expensive set and high-tech computer art are no substitute for the excitement that fresh, delving interpretation and brilliant stagecraft can bring to the theater, sorely lacking in the direction here.
Bryn Terfel’s Wotan, however, did bring something refreshing to the role. With his legendary easy, natural tone, he was a feistier, younger Wotan, unselfconscious and unstylized. I am curious to see if he ages his character accordingly as the cycle transpires.
Eric Owens, in his cockroach-like costume as Alberich, possesses a voice almost too gorgeous for the role. One misses something of the gnomish ugliness one expects, though hearing such a voice is a pleasure and perhaps humanizes the character.
Owens’ and Terfel’s German diction was good but not exceptional; it is perhaps no surprise that the Germans in the cast, especially the Giants (Hans-Peter König and Franz-Josef Selig) most fully exploited the colors of the language, achieving that classic Wagner style of exaggerated near-speech. Maestro Luisi did not always help, however, in these speech-like sections. Many of them dragged, while other, more expansive or heavier moments, felt rushed. In short, Luisi avoided extremes of tempo and dynamics, in interpreting one of the most extreme composers who ever lived.
Stefan Margita, as Loge, sang with a disconcertingly strange accent (Slovakian, one assumes) and also chose to articulate almost every note staccato. One can only bear so much of this. His choice or inability to never sing through a line, in addition to veering significantly out of tune at times, made him the weakest link in an otherwise exceptional cast.
The smaller roles of Donner and Froh, by contrast, were luxury-cast with Dwayne Croft and Adam Diegel, respectively. Both had solid, healthy sounds and strong stage presences, and Diegel’s top range soared impressively. His Froh was an unusually virile rainbow-maker.
The show ended for me unsatisfyingly. The promise of the overture, that the set might be used as an expressive, living sculpture, felt mostly unfulfilled, and the final projection of the starry sky, while pretty, was hardly novel.
Seeing an actor suspended perpendicularly from a wire makes us gasp at the risk; if only the director and conductor had risked more themselves, the transcendence of the characters at the end of the opera might have been something more than a literal one: a slow climb from one flat plane up into another.
Bottom line: Some great singing, but the cantilevers can’t deliver.
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Conductor - Fabio Luisi
Production - Robert Lepage
Assoc. Director - Neilson Vignola
Set Designer - Carl Fillion
Costumes - François St-Aubin
Lighting - Etienne Boucher
Video Artist - Boris Firquet
Woglinde - Erin Morley
Wellgunde - Jennifer Johnson Cano
Flosshilde - Tamara Mumford
Alberich - Eric Owens
Fricka - Stephanie Blythe
Wotan - Bryn Terfel
Freia - Wendy Bryn Harmer
Fasolt - Franz-Josef Selig
Fafner - Hans-Peter König
Froh - Adam Diegel
Donner - Dwayne Croft
Loge - Stefan Margita
Mime - Gerhard Siegel
Erda - Patricia Bardon