"If music be the food of love", then Metropolitan Opera audiences may be in for a stern diet of bread and water throughout the new production of Wagner's Ring, which opened the season with Das Rheingold on September 27, 2010. Expectations for the Robert Lepage production (he has previously done a Damnation of Faust here which is eye-popping, if not entirely coherent) were high - the set required expensive undergirding of the Met stage to support the modern technical equipment, and with the cancellation of the dress rehearsal a few days earlier, rumors flew thick and fast about reverting to the Otto Schenk productions (we'd had the same rumors about the replacement of the Bondy Tosca this year with the Zeffirelli production, and you can begin to understand how the Aztecs believed that Hernando Cortes was really a god returned to earth), as well as of the possible demise of Peter Gelb, the general director of the Met that audiences seem to love to hate. In the event, the season can be said to have begun, if neither with a bang nor a whimper, then certainly with an element of understatement in both production and performances that may end identifying this as the Nancy Reagan Ring - safe sets, and a production that just says ‘no’ to any dramatic point of view.
While the Ring is a logistical challenge for any large house, that is much more the case at major American venues, where productions are usually not supported by governmental funds, but by private contributions that flow less quickly nowadays. Few American houses are likely to risk a scarce donor investment on a production which won't survive more than a season or two, and if Mr. Gelb has been willing to provoke audiences with productions that run from the sophomoric (the Sonnambula) to the inept (the recent Attila), still it's one thing to place a week's salary on a wild bet, and another to mortgage the entire house. If it is perilous to review an entire Ring on Wagner's pendant opera, still this Rheingold can best be described as high tech and low concept. The overall effect is of a handful of impressive stage pictures drawing some mild gasps from the audience, but overall a sense of boredom and repetition sets in with over two and a half hours of a design, much in the style of outdated Swedish moderne, which resembles nothing so much as a large picnic table spread across the stage. Most of the action, if you will, is played on one of the 'benches' of the picnic table, which brings the characters close to the audience, but tends to restrict their movement upstage; the 'table' of the picnic apparatus moves alternately up and down and twists around, so that at times, on an incline, it forms a shallow backdrop to the action, stage front, and at other points it rises in the air to represent the path between the upper reaches and Nibelheim, or the Rhine. Generally a cement-gray in color, it occasionally supports impressive projections, not least the home of the Rhinemaidens, who enter suspended on guy wires in one of the few real coups de theâtre of the evening. Lepage, however, for whatever reason is unable to sustain this illusion after Alberich enters, and the Rhinemaidens sit on the top of the 'table', still attached by guy wires and with Alberich having scrambled up and sitting within inches of them, which destroys any sense of tension in his efforts to capture them. Where the large flat surface is titled at angles approaching 45 off the horizontal, some of the characters stand on it for extended periods (most notably Loge); at least once the audience tittered, when Fasolt, after his murder, was disposed of by sliding him down the ramp. However impressive the technology (not quite everything worked on opening night, but more than enough did to give the production team full marks), the ultimate effect, with little in the way of props or stage scenery otherwise, was of not much more than a concert performance, relieved only by the exquisite and highly characterful costumes of designer François St.-Aubin.
More surprisingly, neither the conducting nor most of the singing was on a much more highly characterized level, although it is likely that everyone concerned was so preoccupied with mechanics that perhaps more of a sense of individual character will emerge as the production settles in. Although the opening night audience - dressed to the nines, and seemingly oblivious of any Götterdämmerung outside the doors of the Met - was respectful, with only a few boos at the end of the production for Mr. Lepage and his team, it can't be said that there was any particularly great enthusiasm for the production, or for that matter any of the performers. James Levine, who moved tentatively in the orchestra pit and on stage, was given a warm welcome by the house when he first appeared - his health problems have caused a great deal of concern, as, among the cognoscenti, has the somewhat deteriorating quality of the orchestral playing when he was on the podium last year - but the applause accorded him and the cast at the end of the evening could not be charitably described as much more than well-mannered. Levine's Rheingold seemed to have been damned by the Nibelung Corps of Engineers and might have been mistaken for the Moldau, muted sonically, lacking passion or sweep, and with volume levels generally kept so low that it seemed at moments that more than just consideration for the singers was involved. If Levine himself has an editorial 'take' on this Rheingold - a sense of what it may 'mean', and of its cultural context and overlay - little or none came across, and one felt not a sense of mysticism in the opening minutes, any sense of hell in the descent to Nibelheim, or for that matter, the ominous grandeur of the entry into Valhalla.
The cast, which was all star and should have provided greater things, appeared to respond in a way more calibrated for HD television and soap-opera acting than for highly characterized and nuanced singing. Bryn Terfel, in his first Met Wotan, was vocally uncomfortable and seems not to have the vocal weight or color for the role, at least in a house the size of the Met. Perhaps opening simply caught him on a bad day, the voice insecure in intonation early in the evening, and increasingly raw in the middle and underpowered in the low notes as Wotan returned from the land of the dwarves to the home of the free. Less acceptable was an interpretation which seemed nothing so much as a walk-through; Terfel can be, in the right mood and the right role, a skillful, nuanced and gleefully dangerous actor, but he has as well the gift and the liability of getting by on his charm and general power of personality when he wants to, and underplayed most of the role until his renunciation of the Ring itself, which came across as strong emotion, but without being anchored to the specific character at all.
Eric Owens, our Alberich, is a young bass beginning to garner plum assignments in America, and he handled the upper reaches of Alberich's range, to a high G flat, without any strain. But if his sound was in fact deeper than Wotan's - a peculiar turn of events in itself - Owens was content to do nothing at all with the role in respect of vocal point, and his roly-poly physique and somewhat avuncular stage presence, without an iota of calculation, threat or even self-torture, put one in mind of no character as much as Monastatos. Perhaps the most interesting male singer was Richard Croft, an American tenor of relatively small voice (he would seem to be better cast as a Pedrillo or perhaps Tamino) but one who made something of the character, who in this production is more of an outsider than one normally sees. This Loge rarely interacts closely on stage with his fellows - one is always reminded that he is indeed a demi-god - and with his lighter color, 'space-age' costume and full shock of hair en brosse, Croft seemed nothing as much as a Peter Sellars trickster, the one interesting interpretive choice of the evening. Croft's brother, Dwayne, who has been better known to Met theater goers, was a stolid but vocally telling Donner, and Adam Diegel's brief outings as Froh make one eager to hear him again. The two giants were perhaps the most even casting of the evening, Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt and the always professional but almost consistently underappreciated Hans-Peter König as Fafner.
If it is by now a given that our Fricka, Stephanie Blythe, will almost always gather the most applause of the evening, she remains a variable performer, and often more impressive among current Met female singers in her embonpoint (at curtain calls, she was not much smaller in girth than the giants) than in her insights. Indeed, one wonders if she has inherited the Jessye Norma mantle: “If she is so large, she must be important.” Blythe in fact managed this relatively unchallenging role with ease and a pleasant enough tone, but seemed little more than a hausfrau, and showed to best advantage in rather generalized sympathy for Wotan and Freia. One wonders how she will handle Walküre. Perhaps the best singing of the evening came from the Freia of Wendy Bryn Harmer (a Lindermann artist), as a clear voiced and passionate goddess, and from Patricia Bardon as Erda, who, if less a deep contralto than a mezzo soprano, sang securely and gave her few words a sense of weight and restraint that would have been welcome elsewhere in the evening. The Rhine maidens, Lisette Oropesa, Jennifer Johnson and Tamara Mumford, all sang clearly and cleanly, and seemed to prosper from Levine's low-key approach to the score.
This Ring has begun in a manner far too low-key to excite much anticipation about the Walküre in the spring. For better and worse, this was an evening which was homogeneous in its almost generic approach to one of the greatest cultural achievements of European civilization. It may, indeed, be wrong to put ketchup on filet mignon, but it surely is an equal error not to dare to season it at all. Lepage may have tricks up his sleeve, and the production may show much better with performers who need to think less about their whereabouts, and can rely more on a musically perfervid conductor, but however laudatory the Met has been in staying away from glib glosses of this great work, the initial impression of the evening was that safe was not better than sorry.
Photographs (c) Ken Howard