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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Opera Review: Another Crack at the Rainbow Bridge

The Return of the Lepage Das Rheingold.
Scene Two of Rheingold with Bryn Terfel (center) as Wotan.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.
Wednesday night at the Met featured the return of the Robert Lepage production of Das Rheingold, with a few changes in the cast and in the orchestra pit. Principal guest conductor Fabio Luisi subbed in for an ailing James Levine.

It also brought some fresh perspectives on the staging, seen this time from the back row of the orchestra standing room. From eye level, Mr. Lepage's "Machine" set--24 computer-controlled planks that form the many landscapes of Wagner's imagination, remains curiously featureless.

The underwater opening still successful, helped this time by the presence of baritone Richard Paul Fink as Alberich. Mr. Fink played the dwarf with cunning, humor, and full baritone voice, managing to cope with sliding up and down the computer-generated riverbed as he chased the Rhinemaidens about.

The "rocks" configuration (used for Scenes Two and Four) is more problematic. Wagner calls for a mountain height, but this looks more like an aircraft carrier, with battleship gray Machine-planks looming like tank cannons aimed at the audience. The split-level staging ensures  distance between the gods and giants, removing the giants' ability to threaten the gods. There are also balance problems, with the basses Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt) and Hans-Peter König (Fafner) rendered inaudible at times.  On the bright side, a steep tilt of the set makes it easy to get Fasolt's corpse off the stage. (James Bond villains, take note.)


Despite the production issues, things are getting better on the road to Valhalla. Bryn Terfel seemed more secure of tone as Wotan. An experienced villain actor, the burly Welshman improves as Wotan gets meaner, culminating in a completely bloodless theft of the glowing Ring. Stephanie Blythe had a great night as Fricka, singing with ample, rounded tone. The tension between them was palpable, a portrayal of the classic bad marriage.

The best addition to this cast is Arnold Bezuyen, making his company debut as a pointed, sarcastic Loge. He brought interest and involvement to the fire god's Narrative, something lacking in October's performance. It's too bad the costume department made him look like the Baron Harkonnen from David Lynch's movie version of Dune.

On the podium, Mr. Luisi drew out some interesting textures. The bass trumpet was accented at the end of the Prelude. The anvil-driven Nibelung rhythms had punch. The conductor's best moment was in the Erda scene. At that point, all the hype about the cast, the Met and the Machine went away and you were drawn deeply into Wagner's mythological story. But that didn't come until two hours in.

The production continues to boast some innovative visual ideas--the descent into Nibelheim, the Gods' climb up the face of the machine to Valhalla. Unfortunately, like many Met stagings, the best visuals are well above the stage, and hard to see from under the overhang of the parterre boxes. But they probably looked great from the parterre seats.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.