Metropolitan Opera’s New ‘Das Rheingold’

A scene from the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ with Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt, Dwayne Croft as Donner, Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia, Richard Croft as Loge, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Hans-Peter Konig as Fafner.(Photo: Ken Howard)
A scene from the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ with Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt, Dwayne Croft as Donner, Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia, Richard Croft as Loge, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Hans-Peter Konig as Fafner.(Photo: Ken Howard)

If you are an opera lover, you might have motored to your local movie theater and caught the Metropolitan Opera’s live HD transmission of its brand-new production of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. You might have done so just because you like opera and wanted to see the first installment in the first new Ring production the Met has mounted in three decades. Or you might have gone because you heard that the Met’s multi-million dollar new production, the fruit of a five-year labor — and, evidently, the apple of Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb’s eye — is a controversial one and you wanted to see it for yourself.

So if you did attend Saturday afternoon’s live HD transmission of the Met’s newDas Rheingold, as I did, you might have experienced a rather different Das Rheingold than did the folks who either then or on opening night a week ago experienced from their seats in the Metropolitan Opera House. At least, that’s what published reviews, written by several critics who saw the performance in the flesh, suggest. I thought it might add texture to the discussion about Robert Lepage’s high-tech baby to chime in with my own thoughts, as formulated from Row 10 of the Crosswoods Cinema in Columbus, Ohio.

First, a few details about the production itself: The centerpiece of Lepage’s production is a 45-ton stage apparatus — which the cast and crew have christened “the machine” — that resembles the white keys of a piano and, like Alberich beneath the tarnhelm, can assume, seemingly, any shape. (Lepage created the high-tech production of last season’s La Damnation de Faust, Hector Berlioz’s “dramatic legend,” which was never intended to be staged except in one’s own head.) As the Met’s Peter Gelb told his HD audiences Saturday afternoon, he wanted the Met to have a new Ring production after so many years of allegiance to Otto Schenk’s ultra traditional production, and so recruited Lepage to do the honors.

Now, five years after Gelb and Lepage locked hands on the deal, we are seeing the results. And the reviews of those results have been mixed. In his review of the Met’s 2010-11 season opening night gala performance of Das Rhenigold, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times wrote more or less favorably of Lepage’s production, noting that, despite “one serious glitch at the end [of the performance],” the stage machinery worked smoothly.

Tommasini also said Lepage’s technical wizardry did little to obscure what is, at its essence, a traditional production of Das Rheingold. Tommasini gave favorable reviews to the Met Orchestra (which he said played “brilliantly”) and the soloists (“as strong a lineup of vocal artists for a Wagner opera as I have heard in years”), calling bass-baritone Bryn Terfel “formidable” and “chilling, brutal” in the role of Wotan, labeling mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe a “powerhouse,” declaring tenor Richard Croft’s performance as Loge “suave and sly” and noting that baritone Eric Owens “had a triumphant night as Alberich.”

Compare Tommasini’s opening night review with the review The Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette penned of last Saturday’s performance, which she viewed at the Met while those of us in the provinces watched it on the silver screen. Far from offering up accolades like those Tommasini gave the cast, Midgette complains of pretty, but barely audible voices — her list of culprits includes virtually all the principals except for Stephanie Blythe (on the power of whose voice she is in agreement with Tommasini; that makes three of us), Eric Owens (Alberich), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Freia) and Gerhard Siegel (Mime).  Midgette even hypothesizes that this production of Das Rheingold was “at least in part, cast for the simulcast, which evens out vocal size, and favors smaller voices that are easier to record — and, of course, attractive looks.

In a comment on Midgette’s review, Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb denied the accusation.

On the subject of vocal size, she (again) hypothesizes why tenor Richard Croft got booed at his curtain call that day: “I could barely hear him, even from prime orchestra seats.” Midgette also lambastes Lapage’s production, writing that neither the gargantuan machine, which she said twisted and turned “with many a creak and a clank,” nor any other aspects of the production did anything to bring true dramatic depth to the performance. Perhaps her most damning comment, though, was about the staging of the scene during which the gods and demigods ransom Freia from the giants Fafner and Fasolt. Midgette describes Lapage’s decision to stick Freia in a hammock and cover her with plastic gold armor as “awfully provincial for a state-of-the-art production.”

I agree with Tommasini’s assertion of the Met orchestra’s phenomenal playing. I agree with his and Migette’s assessments of Stephanie Blythe’s stupendous voice. (I heard her a few years ago at the Met in the role of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) and her voice and commanding presence had no difficulty reaching me in my far away seat.) Midgette was correct to give a nod to Gerhard Siegel, whose Mime was both well sung and convincingly acted.

I found myself marveling at some of the visual effects that the “machine” produced on stage: the undulating Rhine River; the helix staircase to Nibelheim; the richly illuminating “ceiling” of Nibelheim; and the marble walls of Walhalla; and the rainbow bridge. All were visually interesting and used the apparatus in imaginative ways. But, I also found myself agreeing with his and Midgette’s assessments of the infelicities the stage set imposed on the action.

But here is where my experience of the Met’s Das Rheingold parts ways with Tommasini’s and Midgette’s. While both writers pay heavy attention to the specifics of the singers’ voices, neither pays much attention (or finds fault with) the quality of the acting. While acting very often is the last thing even a great singer really checks off on his operatic to-do list (if you’ve ever seen Pavarotti or Hvorostovsky perform, to name just two world-class operatic singers, then you know what I mean), having dramatic chops is nevertheless extremely important when you’re trying to convince thousands of people that you’re really, say, a tired Norse god in the throes of a midlife crisis and not a twenty-first-century Welshman in the throes of an operatic career.

The only singer in the cast who, to my manner of thinking, did much real acting was Gerhard Siegel. His Mime was a dwarf, not a tenor singing all dressed up in a dwarf costume. Blythe also acted well the part of the somewhat milk toast Fricka, though one must admit that it’s not a tremendous role to act. But Bryn Terfel failed to become Wotan. Here I must confess to being haunted by visions of James Morris’ tired-of-the-world Wotan lumbering across the Met’s stage of yore. In fairness, Morris didn’t act, either; his commanding and sizeable presence was simply custom-made for the role in a way that Terfel’s was not. But they don’t call it acting for nothing, and it’s something that any singer who wishes to occupy the heights of Parnassus with the likes of Domingo had better take seriously. After all, great voices these days are a dime a dozen.

Along these (and other) lines, I also must part company with Tommasini and Midgette (and, it would seem, with the rest of the operatti) about Eric Owens’ portrayal of Alberich. Owens had not yet fully embodied this evil dwarf – adopting a waddle might be a start, but I found myself longing for Owens to find other ways of moving in order to send Alberich’s creepiness under my skin. Nor did I find his vocal embodiment of Alberich especially convincing. Tommasini wrote that “Mr Owens’s Alberich was no sniveling dwarf, but a barrel-chested, intimidating foe, singing with stentorian vigor, looking dangerous in his dreadlocks and crazed in his fantasy of ruling the universe.” Forgive me, but Alberich is a sniveling dwarf; shouldn’t he sound like one? Owens has a marvelous voice, to be sure, but to my ear it was a tad too marvelous for Alberich. Admittedly, it’s a nice problem to have, and it wasn’t an obstacle to Owens’ being able to sing the role, but it was an obstacle to his being able to convince me that he was the character the program led me to believe he was.

The issue of vocal quality brings me to Richard Croft and Midgette’s remarks that he sang prettily but was booed because he couldn’t be heard in the hall. An interesting insight. Croft’s audibility was not a problem for me in HD Land, presumably because he and the other singers were close miked specifically for the HD transmission. I did wonder on a couple of Croft’s sweet high notes whether his voice was both that supple and powerful enough to project in the barn that is the Met. Midgette was correct, however, that I wondered why he got booed at the end.

And as for the “machine,” the centerpiece of the production, I heard no clanking of it Saturday afternoon from my vantage point in the movie theater 400 miles from Lincoln Center. But other problems with the stage set did come through. There were instances (much of the opening scene with Alberich and the Rhinemaidens, for example) when this stage apparatus seemed to restrict the singers from moving in ways that might have enabled them to develop their characters more fully into three dimensions. And while I sympathize with Midgette’s general assertion that Lepage’s penchant for having people (body doubles or not) walk up vertical planks with the help of guy-wires is something of a cheap trick, it’s still an idea that no other Ring designer has tried. Does that mean it should be done? Not necessarily. But was there any harm done to Wagner’s music drama in doing it? I don’t think so.

So what does all this boil down to? That even though a squillion dollars has been spent in an effort to wow the world with a new Ring, The Met’s new Das Rheingold production isn’t perfect. We might not expect perfection from a squillion dollars (though in this economy, something that costs that much had better come pretty darn close), but however unrealistic it may be, we have come to expect perfection from the Met. Whatever may have caused the infelicities in casting, costume design, set design and dramatic execution, this Das Rheingold was in some ways very satisfying, and in other ways, far less so. Nevertheless, I’m sure we’ll all still go to see the three remaining installments of this new production, either at the Met, or at the movies. It’s the Met’s new Ring, after all.

  • Thomas P

    A fine review, and you needn’t be diffident about your perspective from the provinces. The music scene in Washington, D.C. couldn’t be more provincial in its current state. And I’m writing as a frequent visitor from Toronto.

    • Jennifer Hambrick

      Thank you for writing in. I’m glad you enjoyed the review. You must have mistaken my subtle irony for diffidence – or stated in a more graciously Midwestern way, my irony must have been too subtle to have been effective. Nevertheless, your point is extremely well taken. The implication that culture – and people in the know about it – ends somewhere west of the Catskills and north of the Mason-Dixon Line is an old canard too tired and mean to die. And never fear – I apologize not a jot for my own perspective on the arts, nor for Columbus’ actually rather vibrant and exceedingly informed cultural scene in general, as evidenced in reports like the comment you submitted.
      - Jennifer Hambrick

  • DaylilyFan

    I was in the Pickerington theater for the HD performance and had exactly the same reaction to the voices and acting. I was expecting more innovative staging but it was downhill after the Rhinemaidens, except for the entrance to Valhalla. On a brighter note, I was pleased to notice a few 20-somethings in the audience!

    • Jennifer Hambrick

      Thank you for joining the conversation! Your comment suggests that you enjoyed the Rhinemaidens. I did too. There were some nice voices there, and I was intrigued to read that they didn’t come off as strongly at Lincoln Center as they did at Crosswoods Theater. (On the other hand, the Met Orchestra, as phenomenal as it routinely is, may have played just a wee bit rowdy at the Saturday matinee. Let’s not forget that the orchestra pit at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which Wagner had designed specifically as a venue for the Ring and his other later operas, is beneath the stage and also has a “lid”! Far less sound for the larynx to contend with.) But as spectacular as “the machine” and the projections onto it were in the first scene, I do think the apparatus hindered, rather than helped, the acting. So maybe the acting would have been better in the first scene and at other places were it not for the restrictions the stage set imposed on the singers.

      Glad to hear about the 2–somethings! Opera really is cool – all that intrigue, betrayal, love, heartache. If you want to find your nerve endings, you’ll do no better than to go to the opera.

      Thanks again for writing in!
      - Jennifer Hambrick

  • Roger Chase

    With my wife, I watched Das Rheingold in HD at the Georgesville theater. I thought the production, staged with the machine, came off well, contrary to my expectations. Supported by excellent lighting and camera work, the opera (in HD) transcended the “machine” and succeeded in spite of it, but it was a close competition.

    I agree with your criticism that the acting was not up to the Met’s high standard. I submit that is difficult to produce the subtle changes in posture and nuanced gestures that are essential components of fine acting, when you are hanging from a wire or backing up a steep incline. To this may be added acrophobia and worry about accidentally stepping into a pit. Sure, there is a net there to catch you, but this would be a disaster. Taken together, these difficulties may have put acting at a lower priority than usual for this production.

    Operas are historically about spectacle as much as music. Lavish costumes, sets, lighting, fireworks, acrobats and live animals have added to the excitement and delight we experience while enjoying great music and high drama skillfully presented on the stage. The machine is one more spectacle. A daring and unique concept that was ridiculously expensive to realize and operate, it was an engineering success but an artistic failure. Instead of supporting and enhancing this classic opera, it complicated, competed with, and upstaged it.

    • Jennifer Hambrick

      Thank you for your thoughts. You’re absolutely right that spectacle has always been a central ingredient of opera. But the balance of spectacle, music and word in opera (or music drama) has always been an issue among composers, among whom there have been historically many, many critics of exploitative spectacle. Berlioz (not a name we automatically associate with opera but a composer with very clear views about how music can most effectively convey drama) openly railed against burdening the stage with spectacle for the sake of spectacle – in other words, visual effects that were not dramatically motivated and that did nothing to convey the dramatic meaning of the opera at hand. Wagner himself railed against various aspects of the Italian and French opera traditions, in no small part because he disliked and envied Meyerbeer, but also because he found many of the musical and poetic formulas and much of the tradition of overabundant clap trap on stage also to fail to reach the dramatic depths that he believed a well integrated Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) could do. So for Wagner’s Das Rheingold the question of a machine’s impeding the singers from reaching the dramatic depths of their characters and in other ways impeding the overall production from reaching the dramatic depths of the music drama at hand is a truly significant issue. I wonder what Wagner would have said about Lepage’s production.

      I have a feeling, though, that Wagner probably would not have balked at the question of the expense of the production. He was a man who borrowed his way through life and seems to have given little thought to budgets when bringing off the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. And someone who would write what is essentially a 15-hour opera (The Ring) was evidently not troubled with the issue of continence.

      Finally, I like your point about cutting some slack for the singers, whose jobs as actors are sometimes made more difficult by impediments of stage sets and costumes. But here we come back to the spectacle’s taking center stage over the task of communicating through some delicately balanced synthesis of music (vocal and instrumental), acting, stage sets, costumes, lighting, and the word (i.e., the libretto). My heart goes out to the singer/actors who struggled to reach the dramatic depths of their characters because their minds were preoccupied with not falling between the slats of the machine, or some such. Still, I can’t blame the machine for certain singers’ portrayals of their roles in the Met’s Rheingold. And I also must wonder what Wagner would have thought of your (quite possibly accurate) assessment that the difficulties of dealing with the machine “may have put acting at a lower priority than usual for this production.”

      Thank you for writing in!
      - Jennifer Hambrick

  • Matthew Hodge

    Thanks for that, Jennifer. I just saw the HD broadcast today in Sydney, Australia and was wondering why they were booing Loge. If it’s the case that they’d just had a hard time hearing the cast for the last 2 1/2 hours, I can understand why they’d be a bit cranky…

    • Jennifer Hambrick

      Thank you for writing in from down under. I, too, was perplexed about the boos Richard Croft received. It was Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette’s surmise, not mine, that they happened because Croft’s voice wasn’t robust enough. But Croft’s is a lovely voice and came across as such in the HD transmission.
      Thank you again for joining the conversation on WOSU’s Classical eNotes blog.
      - Jennifer Hambrick

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