It was the best of Lepage, it was the worst of Lepage. Last night’s Das Rheingold, opening the Met’s second Ring cycle, featured a good deal of impressive singing, intermittently exciting conducting, and a production that is the least consistent and yet in some ways also most impressive of his Ring.
Wagner, Das Rheingold. Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle 2, 4/26/12. Production by Robert Lepage, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Eric Owens (Alberich), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Adam Klein (Loge), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt), Hans-Peter König (Fafner), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Patricia Bardon (Erda).
Das Rheingold largely consists of lengthy spans of chatty exposition broken up by major set pieces. Dramatic action and character development are sparser than in the rest of the Ring. Robert Lepage’s theatrical language in this cycle mostly rests on the power of striking, static images, so perhaps it is the installment most suited to him. In addition, this was the first of the operas to be staged, and one gets the feeling that the Machine was built with many of these moments in mind. The big tricks in Rheingold--the descent to Nibelheim, the Rainbow Bridge, the giant snake, the arrival of the giants–feature much more creative use of the set than any of the glorified projection screen of later installments. Some of the effects seem like a lot of effort for relatively little payoff, such as the giant hammock Freia is dumped into to be covered with gold. But I can understand why the Met has been constantly promoting the cycle with the image of the machine forming a descending staircase down to Nibelheim, because it’s the most exciting image of the cycle so far.
But Lepage has real trouble getting in and out of these effects. He starts with the Rhinemaidens up vertically against the wall of the set, swimming like mermaids. So far so good, but to get this he has confined them to mermaid tails, and for the rest of the performance they struggle to move around the set at the speed the music seems to demand, their arms or rather legs literally tied. Elsewhere the work is clumsy: when the Tarnhelm reacquired its laundry basket mid-scene, my first thought was, oh, the toad is going to go in there. And so it did. It’s lazy stagecraft. And the staging of the talkier parts is hopelessly static. In extended solo passages, a spotlight tends to warm up and the other characters are cast into darkness, never listening or reacting (we don’t see Alberich as the Rhinemaidens salute the gold, nor do we see Wotan while Loge goes on). This performance was seemingly free of technical glitches, though the groans and wheezes of the Machine still disturbed throughout.
Lepage has had the nerve to blame the audience for his cycle’s lack of success–apparently we care too much about the music. But he should be reading the score so we don’t have to, and there’s little evidence he has. When the words stop and the orchestra begins to prattle for a bit, as often happens in Wagner, the staging seems to hit a pause button, and no one does anything until they start singing words again. Why not look at a score, then, you aren’t going to be missing anything.
Singing-wise this was an impressive evening. My favorite thing about these performances so far has been Bryn Terfel’s Wotan. He has both the vocal weight and the dramatic understanding to tell the story with his voice alone–which is what he needs to do because the visuals aren’t helping any. (His costume, along with those of all the other gods and to be honest everybody, is heinous plastic-looking armor and 1980’s hair band coiffure. This production recalls the Parton rule: it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.)
Just to note, subtleties may have escaped me because I was standing in the Family Circle.
Stephanie Blythe made mighty sounds as Fricka, but I wish she did more with the words. Eric Owens’s Alberich was somewhere in between Terfel and Blythe in terms of textual specificity, and his powerful bass-baritone makes one of the biggest impressions as Alberich. Hyphen-Ated Namig duo Hans-Peter König and Franz-Josef Selig as Fafner and Fasolt were also monumental, this performance more or less belonged to those on the lower sector of the vocal ranges. Cover Adam Klein went on as Loge (the originally-scheduled and really great Stefan Margita was ill). I’m not sure if Klein’s thick tenor is ideally suited to this role, and he lacked an element of humor, but it was an accurate, confident, and consistent performance.
The Rhinemaidens were fine, particularly Tamara Mumford’s Flosshilde, and Wendy Bryn Harmer did her usual duty as Freia. Like her previous turns as Gutrune, and as Emma in Khovanshchina, it mostly requires crying “Help! Help!” on bright Fs and Gs, and that she can do. When she’s ready to leave the Help Help Fach she’ll be a good Sieglinde someday. I’m not sure if Erda is quite right for Patricia Bardon, whose tangy mezzo (didn’t sound contralto-ish, at least) was a little lightweight.
Fabio Luisi’s conducting, I don’t know. Like the staging, sometimes he would get things cooking, the Wotan-Alberich stuff at the beginning of Scene 4 in particular was great. But for me he’s short on perspective and depth. I never felt like some things are closer while others are further away, nor that the music is a kaleidoscope whose images shift suddenly as it is turned. Luisi is sleek, elegant, and very linear. And ultimately kind of boring and lacking in personality. The orchestra played cleanly (only a few minor bobbles in the Vorspiel), and the brass had a welcome edge, though the strings seemed hesitant to do anything too enthusiastic.
In this production you can see glimmers of what Lepage’s Ring was promised to be: a spectacular literalist staging on an elaborate unit set. But outside a few spectacles the storytelling is so lazily and badly executed that it fails to make us care what those images portray. Does Lepage even care?
Cycle 2’s Die Walküre is on Saturday.
Photos © Ken Howard/Met.