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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Opera Review: The Return of Robot Monster

The Met brings back the Ring, and the "Machine."
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Striking it rich: Tomasz Konieczny had a strong Met debut as Alberich in Das Rheingold.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2019 The Metropolitan Opera.
Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Which might account for why the Metropolitan Opera chose this spring to revive its huge, hideously expensive and critically pounded Robert Lepage staging of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. There are three cycles this season, and a few extra performances of the opera. Saturday afternoon marked the start of Cycle I, a sold-out Das Rheingold that, unaccountably still had a few empty seats.

For better or worse, Mr. Lepage's production is known as the "Machine" Ring. The nickname comes from the enormous high-tech stage set upon which most of the action takes place. There are two enormous elevator towers offstage. Between them on a horizontal axis hang twenty-four computer-controlled reversible gray planks, which can be positioned and repositioned to recreate anything from the craggy mountain-tops near Valhalla to an enormous twisting stairway leading "down" to the bowels of the world. The 2010 premiere of Rheingold ended in a technical glitch, and this whole production has seemed jinxed ever since.

What hasn’t changed though is the aesthetic for this production. The costuming and minimal props draw on the fanciful comic-book Asgard of Jack Kirby, with Wotan in a fake-muscles breastplate and Donner carrying a hammer that looks as if he's planning on a round of croquet once he gets to Valhalla. The minimal sets are adorned with a series of projected digital images that interact with the foot positions of the singers. (After a while, these look like high-tech screen savers.) The rolling pebbles on the bed of the Rhine River and the eddying clouds around Valhalla are pretty cool at first, but the repetition eventually wears out its welcome.

Any Wagnerian would tell you that it’s not the stage set, costumes or prohections that makes or breaks a Ring, but the voices. Thus cast, featuring two Met debuts, had a fresh and youthful thrust. The best of the new blood was Tomasz Konieczny’s Alberich. His fierce presence and full-sized baritone made a towering, sympathetic figure out of the villain of the piece: a misshapen dwarf whose bad luck with three swimming Rhinemaidens touches off the opera’s series of unfortunate events. The other notable debut was Norbert Ernst’s fey, sarcastic portrait of Loge, the opera’s biggest tenor part. Sly and smirking, this pointed character tenor made the fire god a dangerous figure, more in keeping with the Norse concept of Loki as a trickster god.

Greer Grimsley was Wotan. His pliant, dry-toned baritone was imbued with plenty of macho swagger. However, he sounded badly outgunned in his scenes with Mr. Konieczny. He was well matched with Jamie Barton’s sensitive, feminist Fricka. Ms. Barton sang with a bottomless reservoir of tone. She balanced tenderness and the frustration of being Wotan’s wife, who probably wishes her husband had never gone into politics. In the minor parts of Donner and Froh, Adam Diegel and Michael Todd Simpson showed voices that may be headed for bigger and better roles.

Gunther Gröissbock and Dmitri Belosselskiy were a sonorous, impressive pair as Fasolt and Fafner (respectively) though Mr. Lepage's choice to isolate the two giants high above the stage floor remains inexplicable. It removes any sense of menace from these hulking brutes and thus makes the second scene of the opera into dull oratorio. As Freia, Wendy Bryn Harmer had some lovely music to sing but very little to do, other than look scared of the giants and be suspended from a hammock hanging off the Machine. The minor role of Erda (she becomes the mother of Brunnhilde in the next opera) was sung by Karen Cargill, with round and menacing tones.  The three high-flying Rhinemaidens were led by Tamara Mumford’s Flosshilde, though each singer looked like they were still getting used to “ swimming” high above the safety of the Met stage.

Conductor Philippe Jordan led a brisk performance of the score, drawing clear, beautiful textures (a la Pierre Boulez) in the opening Prelude. You could actually hear the woodwind lines that are initially only apparent to one who has studied the score, and the relentless rhythm that becomes the Nibelung motif later in the opera. The Met orchestra played magnificently, with firm, resonant brass, detailed winds and an assaultive Entry of the Gods into Valhalla. If there is any objection at this performance it was to the squeaky shoes worn by Mr. Konieczny’s Alberich. However, in the high-risk world of the Robert Lepage Ring, somebody has to be putting safety first.

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