The Metropolitan Opera opened its season last week with Das Rheingold, launching a new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Das Rheingold (which premiered 1869) is the first opera of the four-part series, and it provides a prologue for the other three.
The famously convoluted narrative proceeds when gold from the Rhine River is purloined from its guardians (the Rhine maidens) by an evil dwarf (Alberich) from whom it is confiscated by the king of the gods (Wotan) to ransom his sister-in-law (Freia) who is being held by giants in payment for constructing his castle (Valhalla). Alberich fashions the gold into the eponymous magic ring that empowers its wearer to rule the world, and when it is taken from him he places a death-curse on its possessors. Warned by the Earth god (Erda), Wotan sacrifices the ring in order to regain Freia — she cultivates golden apples that endow the gods with eternal youth, a prize more valuable than gold — and true to Alberich’s curse, one of the giants kills the other fighting over the ring. In the tangled plot of the cycle’s remaining operas Wotan and his ill-fated offspring vie for the ring until the gods are destroyed and the gold is restored to the Rhine maidens.
The music is the main event, but I am not here going to critique the performance of the Met’s new Das Rheingold other than to say that it was a success. The great James Levine — returning after spinal surgery for his 40th season — conducted with characteristic authority, and the veteran cast – which included Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Stephanie Blythe (his wife Fricka) and Eric Owens (Alberich) – performed with vocal precision and dramatic vitality. That’s what we expect at the Met. But opera companies forever put a new spin on the classics, and the current production is no exception. I wish to focus on what I feel are problems with non-musical aspects of the production.
This new “Ring” is directed by Robert Lepage, the Canadian playwright and theater director known for writing, directing, or managing the production of myriad dramatic and operatic events around the world. For Das Reingold he teamed up with set designer Carl Fillion to conceive a 45-ton machine that consists of a palisade of two dozen fiberglass-covered aluminum planks that tilt to form various stage configurations. At the opening they move forward and back to create an undulating effect evocative of the surface of the Rhine. In other scenes they serve as a screen onto which video projections add underwater bubbles and other motifs, some of them interactive, triggered by the performers’ movements. And throughout the opera, they swivel to form horizontal platforms or slanting ground planes. The “Valhalla Machine,” as it has been dubbed, is a clever and versatile mechanical invention (malfunctions notwithstanding), but the resulting visual effect, and other aspects of the production, are a disappointment.
My main objection is to the machine’s anachronism. The “Ring” saga is an amalgam of Norse myths, which is why traditional productions present Viking-like characters in an Icelandic wasteland. Lepage’s set is slick and modern, as though the Vikings had alit on a space station. Their costumes (by François St-Aubin) are more or less traditional, with breastplates and spears, helmets and stringy hair. But the stage seems inspired more by Santiago Calatrava than by Wagner.
There are more prosaic problems, as well. In the first scene the three Rhine maidens are suspended from wires that are all too visible. The wires reappear when harnessed characters moonwalk vertiginously across the tilted planks. And in the most anomalous moments, the gods slide down the inclined set as though entering an amusement park pool.
I am not averse to contemporary interpretations of the classics – last year’s “Ring” in Valencia (directed by Carlus Padrissa with minimalist sets by Roland Olbeter) dared to place each Rhine maiden in her own vitrine of water, and judging by the DVD, to apparently thrilling effect — but the Lepage production left me longing for Teutonic tundra.
*The Met opera is no longer out of reach for impecunious aesthetes. The live high-definition video productions introduced by general manager Peter Gelb are superb, offering excellent sound, optimal view on the stage, close-ups of facial expressions and, of crucial importance to some of us, ample legroom. (Unfortunately, the video may provide a more rewarding and comfortable experience than contorting and ducking at a live performance!) Das Rheingold will be transmitted live this Saturday, October 9, to theaters around the country with tickets priced at $23 for adults, $21 for seniors, and $13 for children. (A Met spokesman says that the three Manhattan venues are sold out, but some may add another screen, and tickets are on sale for rebroadcast on October 27.) Visit the website (difficult to navigate) for theater locations, showtimes and tickets.
Jason Edward Kaufman