Mark Delavan as Wotan and Eric Owens as Alberich in Wagner's "Das Rheingold."
(Photo : Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
This review is for the performance on Saturday, April 6, 2013.
Robert Lepage's "Rheingold" production at the Metropolitan Opera, like the work's castle Valhalla, is still under construction. However, unlike the famous castle, which eventually gets completed to perfection by the end of the work, this production continues to show problems and major shortcomings.
For the uninitiated Lepage's production created a great deal of controversy during its first two seasons. The production, which features twenty-four 90,000 pound planks (with an estimated price tag of $15 million) that rotate and project diverse images, has been the subject of scathing criticism and ridicule from critics and even created a short falling-out between the opera company and the publication Opera News.
Why? The question is actually an excellent one. In the world of modern opera theater where new concepts and radical departures from libretti have become the norm, a traditional Ring set in the "period and time" with costumes that Wagner presumably intended are looked down upon. Where is the philosophical insight? Where is the ground breaking interpretation of the production? These are questions constantly posed by critics and analysts alike regarding Lepage's take. While there is certainly legitimacy to the questioning, it poses an interesting paradox. Many criticize opera for being institutionalized by traditionalists and even refer to it as a "mausoleum" in some instances. However, the modern world also seems to created a regimented thinking in which simplified approaches (such as Lepage's) to operatic works are rejected, even if in those instances might actually provide clarity to the ideas behind the story; if it isn't modern or pretentious, then it doesn't belong in the world of modern opera.
Lepage's production surely aims to simplify the story telling and it surely aims to be faithful to Wagner's printed word. Those seeking new philosophical insight will have to settle for Wagner's text (which may actually be the best direction to take regardless of the production) but there is some visual spectacle on hand. The rainbow effect at the end of the work, which features the Gods walking up a 90 degree plank into Valhalla, is surely a stunning visual display. The rock projections move about as the Rhinemaidens swing their fins about. As the first scene comes to an end, the "machine" rises and starts to rotate. As it moves, the rock projections fall forward, almost as if being dumped off the planks; it is a potent and realistic moment.
Despite these moments of wizardry, the production is far from perfect. One of the common problems associated with the machine over its two years is its propensity for technical failures. The machine infamously failed to work on opening night in 2011 and the Microsoft logo also flashed during another performance. In its third year, the technical breakdowns continue. On Saturday afternoon, the machine seemed to stop for a few seconds during the prelude and one wondered if the Rhinemaidens would even show up. However, the biggest failure took place between the second and third scene when Wotan and Loge descend into Nibelheim. Usually this sequence features two acrobats descending the planks, but as the planks rotated into position an audible crash resounded through the auditorium. The machine stopped rotating and moments later, Alberich and Mime entered the stage with the clouds still being projecting. As they sang, a stagehand was seen swiveling individual planks back into position. When the third scene ended, the planks swiveled back into the appropriate position, but the acrobats did not appear to walk them. It was unclear whether there was another malfunction or the actors simply felt cautious about mounting the unstable machine. The biggest problem that arose from these issues is that it created a sense of dread throughout the rest of the afternoon. Instead of being able to focus on the evening, this writer found himself a bit nervous every time the machine had to move into a different position in hopes that it might not injury anyone or malfunction yet again. The intermittent creaking throughout the performance certainly did not help matters.(Metropolitan Opera Statement Update: During this afternoon's performance of Das Rheingold, there was a technical problem with the track and trolley system used to guide the acrobat doubles in the transitions to and from the Nibelheim scene. The performance continued uninterrupted, although without the participation of the acrobats. The beginning of the Nibelheim scene was improvised on the apron of the stage, since the Ring's scenic Machine was paused by our technical team when the track and trolley system failed. The Machine was reset during the Nibelheim scene, and continued to work smoothly throughout the performance.)
From a staging standpoint, there were some strong points, particularly Alberich's gradual descent toward the gold; it almost looked as if he was being sucked in by the gold. The depiction of Alberich's transformations into a giant snake and frog were received with tremendous laughter from the audience. While many may object to ridicule poked at the monster, Alberich has always been a character that Wagner looked down upon and the fact that production is able to inspire jeering at the villain is commendable. There is one moment that inspired laughter that was surely unintentionally and ill-conceived. After Fasolt gets killed by Fafner, the planks rotate forward and the lifeless corpse slides down, almost like a bag of garbage going down a chute. There is nothing humorous about the moment and the giggles it elicited expressed the absurdity of the execution.
The production's shortcomings are easy to overlook when the singing is as top-rate as it was on Saturday. Leading the charge as the head God Wotan was Mark Delavan. The baritone possesses a potent and confident voice that seemed at ease with Wotan's difficult passages. Mark Delavan, who appeared earlier this season as the lame Gianciotto in Zandonai's "Francesca da Rimini," was the polar opposite of his prior performance. While he walked about with a limp and looked like a monster in "Francesca," his Wotan had elegant stage presence that matched his singing. Delavan actually sang with subdued volume throughout the early scenes giving the character a more cerebral, controlled aura. Even as the other God's begged for him to save Freia, he remained calm and collected. However, during his initial confrontation with Alberich he let his guard down and almost erupted; his voice's potency was finally unearthed. When he took control of the ring, Delavan's Wotan became completely possessed. He could not take his eyes off the ring and even when he tried to look away, his contorted eyes made it seem as if he was being pulled back toward it. He had nothing to sing during these moments, but his obsession with the ring was so strong that it was almost impossible to look away from him even though equally compelling performances were being given by his colleagues simultaneously. During the ensuing scene, he hid the ring behind his back clearly attempting to avoid losing it. However, as he sang to Freia about winning her freedom (the moment he finally concedes the ring), there was anguish and even sorrow in the singing; far from the valedictory statement in the words. The virile Wotan from earlier never reappeared for the remainder of the performance.
Eric Owens rose to prominence after his debut as Alberich a few years ago and continues to prove himself as one of the best in the world as the spiteful gnome. In some ways, Owens' arc was the complete opposite of Delavan's. As he attempted to flirt with the Rhinemaidens, Owen's Alberich continually slipped on the planks and fell. As he walked about, there was an awkward almost lame gait and adolescent quality to his movements. As he flirted with the third maiden, his legs rocked back and forth like a child being given candy; it was a silly moment, but Owens' execution made it feel honest. However, when Alberich reappeared in the third scene, he was a different character. The awkward walk was gone and replaced by one of confidence and potency. The voice followed a similar arc. He had an arid quality in the first scene with the maidens that expressed his undesirability. During his second appearance, the voice had a brilliance and strength that had not been present earlier and as he cursed Wotan in his final scene, his voice exploded with fury. During the final notes of the curse, an unpleasant sound materialized in the tone; Owens used it to his advantage and ended the phrase with unbridled passion.
Stefan Margita gave a defining portrayal of Loge. Despite his constant joking, Margita's Loge was the most controlled and calculating character; at times he looked like the most dominant figure on stage. Every move seemed calculated and there was never more exertion than necessary. One particularly powerful moment was in the fourth scene during Alberich's curse. As Owens let out his anger and Delavan obsessively ogled the ring, Margita stood in the center completely concentrated on Delavan's Wotan. He did not move an inch, almost studying the head god with interest and subdued disgust. Margita possesses a bright, sweet colored voice that he utilized to the full advantage of the character. He kept the diction very clear and the consonants very sharp and pointed; it emphasized his controlling nature.
Stephanie Blythe continued to prove why she is one of the top singers on the Met roster with another brilliant performance as Fricka. She possesses the brilliant heft that almost made her an adversary to Wotan in their first scene together. However, her standout moment was during the passage in which she explains to Wotan that she wanted the castle so that her husband would stay with her. She sang the phrase with delicate line that revealed Fricka's vulnerability and honest love; while Fricka is a goddess, Blythe's breathtaking singing in this moment reminded the viewer of the human qualities of these super beings.
Hans-Peter König and Franz-Josef Selig returned as the giants Fafner and Fasolt and continued to show why they are the ideal duo for these roles. Selig sang with vibrant legato while König showcased a more harsh quality in his voice; an ideal counterpoint between these two characters that emphasized their conflicted relationship. Fasolt gets a lot more to sing here and even opportunities to win the audience's sympathies; Selig certainly achieved the feat. As he sang of losing Freia, Selig's voice gushed with intensity that reminded one of the earlier Alberich. Both meet tragic ends due to failed love, but Selig added a romantic edge to the giant with his lush sound and singing.
A word must also go out to Gerhard Siegel for his excellent Mime who despite being a rather pathetic character brought a conniving quality with his pointed phrasing; Siegel is certain to further develop this quality in his next appearance in "Siegfried."
The remainder of the Gods all gave solid performances. Wendy Bryn Harmer brought a powerful, pleading account of Freia; her voice has tremendous heft and yearned in every phrase. Richard Cox sang with a suave legato as he remarked on Freia returning to their possession. Dwayne Croft was a hot-headed Donner, but brought a reserved quality to his singing as he prepared to deliver the blow to the climactic storm. Meredith Arwady brought dark hues and earth tones in her brief appearance as Erda.
The three Rhinemaidens Disella Làrusdóttir, Jennifer Johnson Cano and Renee Tatum sounded comfortable as they sang suspended in the air. They were energetic maidens, constantly swiveling about on the rocks and even jeering amongst themselves at Alberich. During their big "Rheingold" moment, they sang with abandon but their voices melded into a single instrument. They brought that same precision and passion at the end of the work as they lamented the disappearance of their precious gold.
Fabio Luisi provided yet another of his trademark polished performances of the score. The swift tempi that he generally prefers were in abundance, particularly during the journeys to and from Nibelheim, but he gave a slow and rhapsodic rendition of the famous opening prelude. The low E flat in the basses was barely audible at the beginning; in fact it seemed to come out of nowhere, like magic. The introductions of each instrument in the buildup were equally surprising and allowed the music to evolve organically. The final bombastic moments of the work were reigned in a bit from a volume standpoint, but had a propulsive nature that added to the majestic quality.
The production is likely to continue dividing viewers and while it never feels ground breaking, it almost forces greater emphasis on the singers. Fortunately, this is a major positive as there is nothing more one could want than the splendid cast and conductor compiled by the Met. Even if the machine fails to deliver any new insight on Wagner's legendary works, the performers make up for it with their own nuanced displays. What more could the legendary composer want on his 200th birthday celebration?