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06 April, 2011

Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera

Wed 30th March 2011. See also: Andrew’s review of HD telecast

This performance was an artistic and vocal success - yet somehow there was still something missing. The company has had teething problems with their novel 24-plank stage “machine” … and for this performance there was a 25 minute delay. An announcement was made at ten past the hour although no explanation was given. This is particularly awkward for a continuous work of just over 2½ hours. It does not augur well for the Die Walkure opening in a few short weeks based on the same concept and using the same ‘machine’. Little wonder that the dress rehearsal has been closed to the public.

I had seen the opera in the cinema in high definition back in December but this was very different, especially as I was sitting slightly to the side (and quite close). The main difference was that one noticed the intensity of the voices in the theater where there is no amplification, enhancement, balancing, etc. None of the voices needed the slightest enhancement and from where I sat in row J we were engulfed in a vast vocalism which is rare indeed. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka has a voice which may compete with the legendary Clara Butt who allegedly could be heard in France when singing at Dover. At times it was hard to believe that Ms Blythe was not amplified, yet she never sounds forced or harsh in the slightest. And Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia was not far behind in the decibels department. Bryn Terfel did not tire in his portrayal of Wotan yet neither did he seem to impart the contrasting elements of resolve and confusion of this complex character in the theater.

There were two cast changes from the version broadcast to cinemas around the world last year. Alberich was played by Richard Paul Fink on this occasion rather than Eric Owens (they were both outstanding) and Loge by Dutch singer Arnold Bezuyen rather than Richard Croft (equally impressive performances). Mr Levine was replaced by Fabio Luisi owing to ill health. Otherwise the cast remained the same with Dwayne Croft playing Donner, Gerhard Seigel as Mime, Hans-Peter Konig as Fafner, Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt, Adam Diegel as Froh (a new and substantial tenor talent to watch) and Patricia Bardon as Erda. None let the side down, despite some criticisms of the original performances.

The drama unfolded with one splendid visual vista after another, starting with the blue Rhine River at dawn and its suspended (literally) Rhine Maidens singing as they approached the sandy banks from which Alberich approached with his unwanted advances. The opening scene was more subtle and effective in the cinema since it was seen ‘head on’ by everyone with a gently increasing wave motion. The clunking Nibelheim scene was cleverly done but most impressive perhaps was the denouement which saw the central planks rotate to create a steep multicoloured bridge which each character (or their double) mounted as it levelled out, leaving only Loge on stage, being a mere demi-god, while the angled wall turned from fine grained black and white marble tones to stars in the last seconds of the opera as the curtain was lowered. There was much beauty in this avant-garde production, despite its mechanical limitations.

Two things made me realise for the first time that some of the action (and perhaps much more) was done by stand-in actors. I was baffled at the rapidity with which Wotan and Loge were able to exit stage left after the second scene to then reappear high above on the brilliantly synthesised lateral staircase across which they ‘langloffed’ towards Nibelheim. The use of stuntmen and women was also obvious using trapeze wires in the final scene. This was most evident for Ms Blythe whose imposing physical frame was not consistent with the similarly dressed ‘double’ joining the party of gods mounting the (initially) near vertical rainbow bridge as they marched slowly first up and then across towards Valhalla.

It may seem stupid, but after ‘seeing and believing’ in the cinema, I somehow felt cheated by this. We are led to believe that the named characters perform the stated roles and yet now it appears otherwise (same in the current Met Tosca in two instances at least). No names of stunt subs were given in the program from what I could see. Naturally, it made me wonder just how many such actions were performed by others taking non-singing roles. “Would Wagner have approved”? … and while complete speculation, this is the question I always ask myself about modern productions. After all, Wagner gave quite detailed instructions on what he wanted of his performers in the drama. And yet he also wanted his operas to be accessible to the wider public. Comparison with the Otto Schenk production would be odious and unnecessary.

In a discussion after the opera with some like minded friends we decided that if the staging does not distract either performers or audience from the drama then it is probably fine. I am still equivocal on that and may have to see the opera again to decide. Because I had no idea that there were doubles when watching in the cinema it could not have been distracting by definition - indeed I recommended it ‘to anyone’ at the time.

The 40 tonne machine with 24 rotating ‘gang planks’ was described by Mr LePage on the radio broadcast. These angled, fangled flaps can form a myriad of varied surfaces. By containing surface LED-like illumination they can become any colour, texture or shimmering effect. Bubbles going up, river stones rolling down … marble effects, stars on black … even a remarkable flashing lightning effect when struck by Donner in the last minutes of the opera … nothing is too difficult for the ‘machine’!

A narrow trench in front of the palisaded planks served for many entrances and exits including Alberich’s arrival early on as well as Erda’s appearance near the end. It may have served for quick swaps for stunt people too as they bobbed up and down.

The costumes deserve comment. Despite an ultramodern setting, the characters’ dress was from mythic history, breast-plates, leather belts, fur sleeves, scarves, capes and cuff laces. The two giants were particularly effective with mock-steroid deltoid and chest bulges, creating a singular impression. They were almost twin like in other respects as well. There were no horns, helmets or other head gear, probably because of the gravity defying necessities of the action (Tarnhelm notwithstanding).

The orchestra was exemplary, taking the piece at a measured pace and never dominating the vocal side. Robert Lepage and his team have indeed succeeded in transforming this epic work into a new and enjoyable production for their Manhattan audience and it is a bonus that we can all now join the Rhine journey in cinemas across the world. Die Walkure opens on Good Friday and the full ring in a year’s time.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..