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28 October, 2010

Das Rheingold live from the Met (delayed in Australia and Japan). Eurotrash is OUT, Lepage is IN.

Richard Wagner – First Ring Opera in new ‘cycle’ directed by Robert Lepage at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Telecast third performance early October 2010, shown in Australasia Sunday 24th October.

This Rheingold Met telecast shown at cinemas around the world was glorious vocally and spectacular visually. I would recommend it to anyone, especially the Wagner neophyte. With subtitles, an excellent cast and coherent staging, this is a user-friendly, 21st century extravaganza without a ‘dead patch’ in it. The 2½ hours flashed by in what seemed like minutes. Apparently the Met demanded a concept which was novel, yet which followed Wagner’s instructions.

To do this, the stage settings are all provided by a 40 tonne machine with 24 rotating ‘gang planks’. These can form a vertical, horizontal, angled surface or even a series of lateral steps going almost the full width of the Metropolitan stage. By some clever device they can also be illuminated with any colour, texture or shimmering effect. Bubbles going up, river stones rolling down … marble effects, nothing is too difficult for the ‘machine’. The initial effect was of the Rhine river bank at dawn with an almost imperceptible wave motion as the introductory music led into the Rhine Maidens who were apparently (and actually) floating in mid-air (or mid-water).

A narrow trench in front of the palisaded planks served for Alberich’s arrival and Erda’s appearance. It may also provide a home for Norns, a launching pad for Walkiries and possibly a dragon lair, etcetera, in the later operas. The final exit of the gods to Valhalla took them through centre-stage between what looked like technicolour hologram stripes to walk seemingly vertically half way up the stage and then to level out towards the out of sight sky-castle in the sunset. A rainbow passed behind while a scheming and yet quizzical Loge looked on as the curtain finally came down to thunderous applause [Loge got booed for some reason in his curtain call]. This applause came from both the live audience at the Met as well as appreciative cinema attendees.

Bryn Terfel did a fine job of Wotan. He did not tire. His portrayal of the vacillating wanderer god was consistent and strong. His weaknesses were also well exposed. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka the goddess of marriage (and ‘Mrs Wotan’) was magnificent. Her enormous velvety voice pervaded the whole opera with an emotional and romantic side to a story which when it is all said and done is basically about imminent foreclosure on a sub-prime castle mortgage, bail-outs and penalty clauses. If the piece were classified by a criminal lawyer we would start with sexual harassment followed by breach of promise and then grand larceny as the gold is stolen under the eyes of the ‘nice but naughty’ Rhine Maidens. The litany goes downhill from there, ending in ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’ as Valhalla is occupied by its immortal miscreants.

By the end of Rhinegold, and all due the possession of the ring, there has been one murder, a kidnapping and a ransom demand. The philosopher might observe Lord Acton’s thesis exemplified here, or at least some of it, as power and money corrupt so very totally. Yet the good Lord was wrong about one thing at least: beautiful things don’t always make money (vide Wagner whose works are more likely to bankrupt an opera company than make money for it! The Met may be the exception.).

The male star of the night for me was Eric Owens as Alberich. An imposing African-American man with a glorious rich baritone voice, he reigned dramatically and vocally through numerous scenes in the opera. His most challenging portrayal was perhaps after he was turned into a frog and had to face capture in a terrine and then humiliation in front of his slaves, having been lord of the world (or underworld). At this point in her humorous spoof on the Ring, Anna Russell said: “I am not making this up, you know!”

Other supporting soloists were Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia, Patricia Bardon as Erda, Richard Croft as Loge, Dwayne Croft as Donner, Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt and Hans-Peter Konig as Fafner. Each was chosen for being an exemplary Wagnerian - and none disappointed. Froh was played by a tall, handsome young American, Adam Diegel who has a natural and almost perfectly produced tenor voice. Lengthy close-up camera encounters were not so kind for all of the others who, while all perfectly suited to Wagner, were not necessarily headlines for Hollywood.

In contrast to the Tardis-like timeless settings, the costumes by Francois St-Aubin were traditional theatrical ‘dress-up’ with even a shade of fantasy-land which is not inappropriate. The giants had enormous deltoid padding as in a school play and Wotan had a big plastic breast plate. Erda was in black and white while others had lavish amounts of rich fabrics and adornments in no particular earthly tradition.

James Levine and his orchestra were exemplary, taking the piece at a measured pace and never dominating the vocal side. I was disappointed that we did not have more shots of the orchestra … some of the long stretches of stage close-ups detracted from the telecast as one sometimes could lose track of what was happening on the stage as a whole, something which cannot happen in the live theatre.

Robert Lepage and his team have indeed succeeded in transforming this epic work into a new and enjoyable production for their Manhattan audience. It is a privilege to be able to join the Rhine journey in cinemas across the world.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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