La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Met in HD Opens with Das Rheingold

Middle: Rhinemaidens in the opening Scene of Das Rheingold.
Top: Wotan and Loge going down to Nibelheim
Bottom: Poster advertising Met Live in HD Das Rheingold starring Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel as Wotan

Now in its fifth season, the Met Live in HD, the brain child of Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera, is more popular than ever. When advance ticket sales for the 2010-11 season began in late August, the sales were so brisk that choice seats in the more popular venues, such as the Sheppard Grande theatres in North York, were sold in a matter of days. I think when Gelb started the venture in December 2006, even he himself could not have envisioned the incredible public reception, and its popularity continues to grow. This year's opening blockbuster is Das Rheingold, the first installment of Wagner's monumental Ring Cycle, starring celebrated Welsh baritone in his first Wotan. The second part, Die Walkure, will open in April starring Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde. Siegfried and Goetterdammerung will be unveiled as part of the three 2011-12 complete cycles. Any new Ring is special, especially since this is the first new Ring at the Met in almost a quarter century. Canadian opera lovers are particularly interested because this new production is conceived, designed, and directed by Canada's own Robert Lepage, in partnership with his company Ex Machina. Lepage is the creator of two highly successful COC productions - Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung back in the early 90's and Nightingale and Other Short Fables that opened the 2009-10 season.

I attended the transmission at the Scotiabank Theatres in downtown Toronto on Saturday. As expected, the place was totally packed. (It should be noted that no tickets were sold to the first four rows in the huge cinema due to poor sightlines) There were the typical older opera audiences but I also noticed a large number of younger people in attendance - who says opera is a dying art form! The transmission started off rockily- a minute or so into the opening, the picture froze and then both picture and sound disappeared. Fortunately, the sound was restored within a couple of minutes and the picture soon after. The rest of the transmission was trouble-free. I was also impressed with the quality of the high definition picture, which had occasionally been too dark in the past. The sound on this occasion was excellent. The show began with a 15 minutes documentary on the production itself, with interviews of Lepage, Levine and some of the singers. The two and a half hour opera was performed without an intermission, about the longest time an audience can be expected to sit without succumbing to nature's call. Wagner audiences are famous for their stamina and attentions span, and this audience was impressively silent throughout, a testament to the power of Wagner's music, and of course the performers and the production team.

This new Ring replaces the very traditional and immensely popular Otto Schenk Ring that premiered at the Met in the mid to late 80's. Given the enormous cost of mounting a new production of this monumental work, the Met obviously wants to be sure the Lepage vision dovetails with its own - that is, an update that will give this Ring a 21st century look, but not too radical in concept or execution that would alienate the Met's conservative - and wealthy - audience base. Lepage has come up with an eye-catching basic set, weighing a massive 45 tons that required reinforcements of the stage floor. It is made up of 24 aluminum and fibreglass planks hinged in the middle resembling piano keys, allows its individual pieces to move, resulting in interesting configurations. For example, when Wotan and Loge descends into Nibelheim, the planks form something resembling a staircase, enhanced by ingenious lighting effects. The most dramatic formation was the multi-coloured rainbow bridge going to Valhalla at the very end of the opera. It unfortunately failed on opening night, but the machinery worked flawlessly in the satellite transmission.

The set as seen by the close-up cameras is impressive and the colours dazzling. But it also reveals an inherent weakness of the medium of televising operas. Lepage is used to designing for spectacles like Cirque du Soleil that use acrobats and athletes. Unfortunately opera singers are rarely known for their athleticism - if anything, singers are often rather self-conscious of their bodies, a few artists like Simon Keenlyside or Nadja Michael are the exception. Even the singers playing the rhinemaidens, carefully chosen for their physical agility, didn't really have the physical freedom while suspended in midair to make the scene truly believable. The other singers moved around gingerly on a platform of planks in front of a trough, which serves as points for entries and exits. Richard Croft (Loge) had to walk backwards with a wire hooked to his back - He did this so awkwardly that it sort of took the magic away. Equally non-magical was the tarnhelm scene when Alberich changed into a dragon and a toad, not helped by the sharp eyes of the video cameras. Given the technology of today, watching this opera was amazingly like watching a movie, with plenty of closeups and images taken at different vantage points. In the theatre, obviously this isn't possible. But with the newfound intimacy made possible by technology, we also see things that perhaps are better left unseen, as realism has a way of taking away the magic. While there was no scenery malfunction in the performance, it was replaced by a wardrobe malfunction - Donner (Dwayne Croft) came on with his back armour precariously undone. Other than this little bit of drama, expertly fixed by colleague-soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia, the rest of the performance, at least technically, went off without a hitch. The Met Orchestra remains a glory of the opera world. With its long time conductor James Levine back at the helm, the musicians played their hearts out. Levine showed why he is so beloved by audience and singers alike, leading the orchestra in a beautifully shaped, lyrical reading of the magnificent score.

The Met audience gave the cast and crew a roar of approval and repeated ovations that lasted many minutes. The biggest ovations were reserved for the outstanding Alberich of Eric Owens, the vocally resplendent Fricka of Stephanie Blythe, and Bryn Terfel in his first outing as the head-god Wotan. Owens' bass-baritone was so exceptional that he would be perfect as Wotan. Frankly, to my ears he out-sang the Welsh baritone. Surprisingly, there were a few boos for tenor Richard Croft (Loge) who handled it with grace. A notable Mozart tenor, he brought elegance, beauty of tone and subtle acting to the role, but given my experience of having heard him in Santa Fe and Toronto, likely also modest volume. To be sure, Richard Croft is not a natural Wagnerian, lacking the cutting edge to his tone that would allow a modest sized voice to reach the upper galleries, a trait the Met's previous Loge, British tenor Graham Clark, possessed in spades. Also extremely well received was conductor James Levine, a beloved figure at the Met and this production marks his return to the house after sidelined by illness since last February. He looked frail at the curtain call - let's hope he will have a full recovery.

Given that this is only the first installment of a four-part cycle, one has to reserve judgement at this time. For now, it is safe to say that Lepage has created a technologically updated Das Rheingold, one that is abstract yet visually pleasing. But it is also interpretively neutral and singularly lacking in a "concept" that is so de rigueur in European productions. My guess is this non-Regietheater approach was a decision made by Gelb and the Met, a company known for its conservatism. Only time will tell if future installments will be a continuation of the interpretive blandness of the first segment. For now, this spanking new Rheingold augers well for the future.

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  • Overall, an accurate account of the broadcast, but I'd like your opinion on a couple of matters that bothered me about the production. First of all, the costumes - I thought they were totally amateurish. The gods wore rather obviously ersatz armour (top half only) that was conspicuously ill-matched to the set insofar as it looked really conservative. Fricka wore a sort of evening gown whose bearing on her divinity escaped me entirely, and as for Loge and Freia, well, I still can't figure out what the concept was there. Also, the snake and toad props were lame, and the minor gods' entry, sliding down the set like some kind of Teutonic Lugers actually made me laugh out loud. And as an aside, I'm sad to say that there was nobody nder 40 in the audience where I saw it - I'd say the average age was about 75.

    By Anonymous pete from the hammer, At 13 October 2010 at 21:11  

  • About the conservative-looking costumes: my guess is that Gelb and the Met didn't want anything too controversial or "far out" that would offend their conservative audience base. Unfortunately the costumes ended up looking totally incongruous with the modern sets. It would have been much better if the designs were more abstract and stylized. Fricka's costume is particularly unappealing - however I don't think it would be easy to dress the large-bodied Ms. Blythe to make her look good. Your comments about the lack of magic involving the dragon, toad, and the movements of the gods (particularly Loge) really underscore the near impossibility of trying to make mortals (ie. opera singers) look like gods! Perhaps more liberal use of film footages in a Ring production would help transcend this...

    By Blogger Joseph So, At 13 October 2010 at 22:16  

  • Hi to Canada,
    I am from Germany and studying the reports from the Met's Rheingold. In August we were in Bayreuth (the "Wagnerian Valhalla" - haha)and had the opportunity to watch the Walkuere as open HD broadcasting on the fairground in Bayreuth. Apart from the nice summer weather it was a special pleasure to watch the opera without best clothes in an easy atmosphere . 40,000 viewers were there! Not only older people, a lot of families with their children and many younths.
    I think, it is a good way, to change the stiff image of the opera. The Met's Rheingold was broadcasted to some German cinemas, too. Unfortunately not in my town!

    By Blogger Juergen D., At 14 October 2010 at 03:59  

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