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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Opera Review: Machine Messiah

The Met's New Das Rheingold. 
by Paul Pelkonen
Stunt doubles make the journey into Nibelheim. Photo © Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Das Rheingold, designed and directed by Robert LePage, has its share of jaw-dropping moments. Monday night's performance featured a virtuoso performance from James Levine and the Met orchestra, supporting a strong (if not quite ideal) cast. But all eyes were on the staging, a multi-million dollar affair that uses high-tech machinery to produce Wagner's mythic world.

Twenty-four computer-controlled planks (dubbed 'The Machine' by the stage crew) rotated and shifted above the Met stage. This recalls the 1970s Bayreuth staging by Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson. (Herr Wagner set the opera on a giant disc, split up into pie-wedges that turned and moved on a mechanism to produce the scenery.) Using modern technical innovations , Mr. LePage has given New York another old-fashioned, somewhat conservative presentation of the opera. This should delight those who revelled in the Otto Schenk production, which ran at the Met for 25 years.

The opening is stunning. Suspended Rhinemaidens float in front of blue bars of light that recall Robert Wilson's 1999 Lohengrin. Digital pebbles cascade on the river-bed in sync with the mermaids' swishing flippers. Alberich (Eric Wilson, in a visceral performance) slides up and down the planks in pursuit of the cold and eventually, the gold. The pebbles glow, and the Rhinemaidens flounder as their treasure is stolen. The transition to the cloudy height is effective, especially as the score only gives the director four minutes to change sets with the curtain up.

Eric Owens rules in Nibelheim. Photo © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
Flaws emerged with the roiling clouds that make up the background for the second scene. Bryn Terfel sang a strong Wotan, although he had one or two ungainly moments. He is at his best when the character sinks into depravity and he can tap all of his experience performing Scarpia, Giovanni and other operatic cads. Stephanie Blythe is an able, motherly Fricka. But the planks and the split-level set make acting difficult. Fasolt and Fafner have their own platforms above the stage, so there is no sense of physical menace from the Giants. Loge (Richard Croft, sounding over-taxed) floats in mid-air engulfed in digital flames. No combat or conflict emerges, so the cast has little to do other than stand and sing.

Wotan and Loge journey to (and from) Nibelheim on a winding, twisting, seemingly infinite staircase high above the stage. Nibelheim is the best set of the opera, a subterranean factory with hot forges, heaps of gold, and Gerhard Siegel turning in the best performance of the night as Alberich's hapless brother Mime. The dwarven brothers are terrific, and this scene, which sometimes lags, remains tense and thrilling throughout. The transformations of Alberich into a dragon, then a toad are shark-jumps in most stagings of the Ring. They work well here, with Julie Taymor-style puppetry wielded with a sense of humor.

When Mr. Terfel's Wotan mugs Alberich for the Ring, he acts with brutal, ungodly force. Mr. Owens delivers a venom-filled curse . Erda's entrance stops the action cold--as it should. Her emergence beneath the stage machinery underlines the Earth goddess' status as an outsider. The best moment is Fafner's cold-blooded murder of his love-lorn brother Fasolt. It takes center stage, and the body is disposed of Sweeney Todd-style, falling off the cliff face after being clubbed to death. Donner (Dwayne Croft, Richard's brother) clears the air with an impressive digitally-rendered lightning strike and a swirl of cloud computing, not to mention some fine baritonal singing accompanied by the full-throated roar of the Wagner tubas.
The Rainbow Bridge. Photo © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
The Rainbow Bridge effect worked at Monday night's performance, with the actors' doubles wall-walking up the shifting patterns of light. It is an impressive visual, although the long, slow trip over the rainbow distracts the eye from Wotan's final oration. The Met brass rang out in thunderous acclaim of the new, self-proclaimed Gods as Loge watched from downstage, with a spark in his eye and the final, all-consuming fire in his brightly glowing hands.

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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.