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Monday, April 8, 2013

Opera Review: The Ghost in the Machine

With a clank and a clatter, the Met revives Das Rheingold.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"Whaddya mean it's busted?" Wotan (Mark Delavan, standing) assaults
Alberich (Eric Owens) in Scene Four of Das Rheingold.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Robert Lepage production of Wagner's Ring has returned to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Yes, the "Machine" is back, that multi-million dollar unit set with 24 rotating planks that serve as acting area and projection surface for Mr. Lepage's digital scenery. And for the first half of Das Rheingold on Saturday afternoon, things were going pretty well. Mr. Lepage's high-tech story-book approach proved surprisingly engrossing, carried along by the brisk conducting of Fabio Luisi.

Then the Machine malfunctioned.

At the end of Scene Two, one of the rotating planks that make up the acting and projection surface of the 45-ton set) appeared to jam. (A statement from the Met press department said that the stop was ordered.) This interrupted an elaborate maneuver where the device rises from the stage, forming a sideways helix that (acrobats pretending to be) Wotan and Loge traverse on their way to visit the underground realm of  Nibelheim.

With that underground realm rendered invisible, it was the task of baritone Eric Owens (as Alberich) and tenor Gerhard Siegel (as Mime) to improvise   their brotherly spat, brawling on the stage apron as the planks were slowly tugged back into "re-set" position by an all-too-visible stagehand. (Eventually, the machine re-set, the projections resumed, and a cadre of stagehands pushed the gold and forges of Nibelheim into position.)

Unlike most operas, the two-and-a-half hours of Das Rheingold do not have any rest stops. There are no intermissions. Hell, there are no pauses. The four scenes must be transitioned on the fly, preferably with the curtain up. It is a credit to Mr. Owens, Mr. Siegel, and conductor Fabio Luisi for keeping a cool head and allowing the opera to continue. (In fact, in a quick straw poll taken in the Family Circle, half the audience members asked didn't notice the missing special effects.)

The rest of the performance went relatively smoothly, helped by the hard work of associate director Neilson Vignola and some new blood in the cast. Their efforts were already visible in the opening scene, as the Rhinemaidens flirted with Mr. Owens' Alberich, whacking him with their tails as they swished through the digital river. This opening stage picture remains spectacular and almost justifies the expense and headaches of this troubled production.

Mark Delavan proved an almost likeable Wotan, with a burry baritone that caressed the vocal line. He was helped by a costume change: this Wotan has an eye-patch replacing the moussed wig that hid half of the god's face. The result: a more expressive performance. He struck sparks with Stephanie Blythe's redoubtable Fricka, and engaged in hammer-and-spear play with Dwayne Croft's Donner. Although Mr. Delavan had to occasionally battle to be heard over Mr. Luisi's unsubtle conducting, he acquitted himself in his final address to Valhalla, delivered with ringing tone.

Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt) and Hans-Peter König (Fafner) were an engaging pair of giants, although the menace of these hard-working brothers is hampered by the fact that they remain high up on the Machine, and thus no danger to the gods down below. Mr. Selig molded his vocal line with great beauty in his short ode to Freia (Wendy Bryn Harmer) the goddess promised as payment for the building of Valhalla. Mr. König was a resonant, firm Fafner. Mezzo Meredith Arwady was a memorable Erda.

Stefan Margita provided vocal fireworks as the trickster god Loge. This character tenor demonstrated a full upper and lower range, using the latter to inject meaning into the long Scene II narration. This was a fully engaged performance, and he looked completely secure standing on the Machine, his feet in digital flames and a safety line attached at the back of his costume. He looked to be the only singer on that contraption who wasn't worried about its safety.

Safety. That, in a word is the problem with the Lepage Ring. Instead of getting drawn into the story, one sits waiting for an accident to happen with the giant set, for a plank to slip or for a grinding creak and crash that signifies something worse. When Wagner conceived Der Ring des Nibelungen, he pushed the edge of what opera houses were expected to achieve. However, the great composer might  have blanched at the idea of opera singers working without a net, or of scenery that, despite the best efforts of the Met's technical crew, always manages to steal the show.
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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.