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Important years in Richard Wagner's life

1813 born in Leipzig
1834 Die Feen completed
1843 Holländer premiere
1845 Tannhäuser premiere
1850 Lohengrin premiere
1852 text of Rheingold and Walküre
1854 Das Rheingold completed
1856 Die Walküre completed
1859 Tristan completed
1865 Tristan premiere in Munich
1868 Meistersinger premiere
1869 Das Rheingold premiere
1870 Die Walküre premiere
1871 Siegfried completed
1874 Götterdämmerung completed
1876 First Festival in Bayreuth
1882 Parsifal premiere
1883 Wagner dies in Venice


Das Rheingold: Metropolitan Opera. Robert Lepage & James Levine

Going for the Gold

Eric Owens impressed as Alberich. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Review based on the Metropolitan Opera’s Das Rheingold High Definition (HD) telecast on October 9, 2010.

As Alberich, bass-baritone Eric Owens stole the Rhinemaiden’s gold and nearly stole the show in the Metropolitan Opera’s Das Rheingold High Definition (HD) telecast on October 9, 2010. Coincidentally, the HD transmission to hundreds of cinemas in 40 countries took place exactly 23 years after the Met’s previous Rheingold production premiered on October 9, 1987.

Cuddly as a teddy bear when he first encountered the Rhinemaidens, Owens evolved into a bitter, malevolent character whose coruscating curse of the ring provided a dramatically pallid performance with a much-needed spark. Vocally resplendent, Owens justifiably earned the loudest ovation by the Met audience after the performance ended.

There was also hearty applause for Owens from the capacity crowd at the Washington, DC cinema where I saw the HD telecast. (The audience at this movie theatre included soprano Evelyn Lear, whose late husband, Thomas Stewart, sang Wotan in the premiere of an even older Met Rheingold, in 1968.)

Rainbow Metropolitan

The gods, portrayed by stunt doubles, crossing the rainbow bridge. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The Met’s sterling orchestra was gloriously led by conductor James Levine, returning to the podium after a long hiatus for surgery.  Even though the onstage action was often muted, the orchestra never faltered and although his gait is more measured that before, Levine remains one of our greatest Wagner conductors.

This new Rheingold production opened the Met’s 2010-11 season on September 27, 2010 and will be reprised twice next spring, shortly before the company unveils Die Walküre.

 A complete Ring is planned in 2012 and a “Become a Ring Leader” brochure requesting a contribution of upwards of $25,000 US for the 2012 cycle was in my mailbox when I returned home from the HD telecast.

Rhinemaidens Metropolitan

The Rheinmaidens appear to swim, atop the production's massive unit set. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The mailing was probably no coincidence. With costs for the new Ring estimated to range from $20-$40 million US (including nearly $5 million to reinforce the stage floor), the Met is understandably seeking funds to help underwrite the cycle.

Right now, however, Rheingold is more about technical wizardry than delineating the saga’s interpersonal conflicts, including the simmering tension between Wotan and Fricka. The lack of sharp direction results in a lumbering Rheingold, which is even less dramatically effective than the hoary Otto Schenk/Gunther Schneider-Siemssen production that preceded it.

At the conclusion of the opening night performance some boos were aimed at director Robert Lepage, whose production team designed the expensive 45-ton unit set, dubbed “the machine”. Two towers on either side of the stage support 24 planks that are turned and twisted into a variety of shapes, including a staircase leading to Nibelheim. 

High-tech projections, complex computer programs, and aerial work, sometimes with acrobatic doubles, are other production components, and the same set will be used throughout the Met’s Ring.

However technically advanced and acrobatic it may be, this Rheingold, at least, has a long way to go before it delivers the impact of the Valencia Ring staged by La Fura dels Baus. In the latter production, Valhalla is depicted by a group of suspended acrobats whose gyrations gradually enclose the gods. In Lepage’s production, acrobatic doubles, rather than the singers portraying the gods, pretend to walk across the steeply slanted rainbow bridge.

Lepage wasn’t seen at the conclusion of the HD telecast. But as tenor Richard Croft, Loge, took his curtain call some booing could be heard from inside the Met’s auditorium. Best known for his Mozart roles, Croft’s voice is too lightweight for Loge. But given his conscientious singing and nimble acting, including backpedalling up a ramp, the booing was churlish.

Bryn Terfel as Wotan

Adam Diegel as Froh, Dwayne Croft as Donner, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka in Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold". Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Other miscast singers included bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel, a dramatically impassive and vocally underpowered Wotan. The microphones used for the HD telecasts make it difficult to determine how effectively a voice projects, but the role’s length, the Walküre Wotan may be even be more challenging. Terfel’s characterization wasn’t help by the unattractive breast-plate and stringy, grungy wig he wore. Though he is attractive offstage, in this Rheingold, Terfel looks more like the rock singer Meat Loaf than the leader of the gods.

Gerhard Siegel Gerhard Siegel, an appropriately comic Mime.

Though mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon is an exquisite Handel interpreter, her timbre is too soft-grained for Erda’s doom-laden prophecy. Compared to, say, the other-worldly Erda in Patrice Chéreau’s Bayreuth Rheingold, Bardon’s Erda hardly seemed spectral or mysterious in what should be one of the opera’s most riveting scenes.

Fortunately, there were some Wagnerian-sized voices in the Met’s production, including mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, a regal Fricka, whose vocal opulence transcended her frumpish costume. Two vocally sturdy German giants, Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt) and Hans-Peter König (Fafner) and German tenor Gerhard Siegel were all effective vocally and Siegel was an appropriately comic Mime. 

Fasolt und Fafner

Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt) and Hans-Peter König (Fafner) are waiting to be paid for building Valhalla. Stephanie Blythe (Fricka) is trying to protect Wendy Bryn Harmer (Freia), while Bryn Terfel (Wotan) contemplates. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Other cast members included Wendy Bryn Harmer (Freia), Adam Diegel (Froh), and Dwayne Croft (Donner, also Richard Croft’s brother). The three Rhinemaidens, Lisette Oropesa, Tamara Mumford, and Jennifer Johnson sang alluringly while perched 30 feet above the stage.

Rhinemaidens Metropolitan

The Rhinemaidens. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

When they aren’t singing, the Rhinemaidens are dangling from the flies in body harnesses as the pretend to swim about the depths of the Rhine. “This is f-ing freaky!” one of them exclaimed during a videotaped tech rehearsal. The sequence is part of planned documentary about the production. The excerpts preceded the HD telecast and presumably will accompany a DVD release.

According to a Bayreuth press spokesman in the late 1970s, the aforementioned Chéreau Ring cost $100,000, roughly equivalent to $400,000 today. Production and labor costs have skyrocketed since the historic Bayreuth cycle debuted in 1976. But even if the Met’s Ring isn’t as expensive as rumored, the new Rheingold falls well short of the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk ideal.

Additional tinkering is also needed with camera angles before the Walküre HD telecast next May. Static angles reinforced Rheingold’s dramatic ennui and fewer close-ups of perspiring faces and those unattractive wigs donned by some cast members would result in a more visually appealing telecast.

Soprano Deborah Voigt interviewed Terfel backstage shortly before the performance began. Currently appearing as Salome with the Washington National Opera, Voigt is scheduled to sing Brünnhilde in the upcoming Walküre and in the complete Met cycle in 2012. Hopefully, both the production and camera teams will sharpen the cycle’s focus before Voigt’s “Ho-jo-to-hos” ring out next spring.

Bryn Terfel

Ihrem Ende eilen sie zu, die so stark im Bestehen sich wähnen. Wotan and his wife Fricka in Robert Lepage's production of Das Rheingold. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Robert Lepage and the design team have started working on this project since the fall of 2006, through workshops, research, creation and development held mainly at La Caserne in Quebec City. Ex Machina’s Ring for the Metropolitan Opera will be presented during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, with presentation of the complete cycle in the spring of 2012.

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