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terfel_avatarGreat expectations awaited the Met Opera’s new production of Das Rheingold, staged by the ambitious Canadian director Robert Lepage, and rightly so. With a 45-ton set carrying a $16 million price tag, a world-renowned cast, and maestro James Levine celebrating his 40th anniversary on the podium, who wouldn’t be on the edge of his seat as the lights dimmed and the chandeliers rose?   And the verdict after 2 1/2 intermissionless hours of Wagner: It seems that James Cameron has invaded the Metropolitan Opera House, for not since the advent of the film director’s 2009 sci-fi opus Avatar has anything simultaneously so splendid and silly been seen by a New York audience.

Like a big, expensive Hollywood extravaganza, Lepage’s production relies on state of the art technology to create some stunning visuals. The main characteristic of the much-publicized set are 24 gigantic beams that twist and turn on a central axis to provide the setting for each scene. Some are breathtaking, particularly the resplendent opening image of the mermaid-like Rheinmaidens floating upward from the sea and emerging on a pebble beach, or a striking sequence in which Wotan and Loge descend into the Nibelheim that defies the laws of physics. Pristine video projections and other impressive lighting effects add to the richness of the atmosphere.

But despite the modern mechanical conception that defines this staging, much of the production remains pat, and, at times, embarrassingly simplistic in its literal-minded interpretation of the text. The biggest missteps in this regard include the costumes, which look plucked from an oversized children’s fairytale book, Freia splayed out at the bottom of a net covered in a heap of gold-painted plastic armor, and Alberich’s transformation into a giant, rubbery serpent, which puts one in mind of effects used in the 1956 Japanese cult horror film Rodan.

rodanWhatever the ooh and ahh-inducing highs and giggle-provoking lows Lepage and his team have created, he errs most seriously in failing to provide a personal reading of the drama at the core of the story. Nothing elucidating or revelatory do we encounter here. The visual pyrotechnics, remarkable as they frequently are, rarely contribute to an emotional involvement or deeper understanding of the text. It’s a problem that extends to the performances, which are sadly lost, dulled and yes, dwarfed by their surroundings. Even the singers’ movement seems an uncomfortable afterthought.

The singing is not particularly remarkable either. Bryn Terfel is terribly miscast as Wotan, never rousing a commanding enough vocal or physical presence for the king of the gods. Stephanie Blythe, a notably rich vocalist, provided a vocally decent but colorless interpretation of Fricka. The biggest ovation for a cast member deservedly went to Eric Owens, who delivered an energetic and heartfelt performance as Alberich and expertly tracked the character’s journey from wounded outcast to power-obsessed tyrant.

But the true king of the night was Levine, who despite his health problems over the last year guided the orchestra with spirit and determination. Greeted by a warm ovation both pre- and post-performance, he remains, both in stature and in practice, the untouchable element of the production. Lepage, on the other hand, was received at curtain call with a characteristic opening-night smattering of cheers and jeers. You may sympathize with both.

13 comments

  • Conchita says:

    Thank you for a coherent and thoughtful review.

    • mblim says:

      Listening to the broadcast, I was stunned at how bad Terfel was relative to other work in the past. Though I have never read anything about his choice, it confirms my sense that Rene Pape who has been singing the role in Europe was THE CHOICE all along.

  • Jay says:

    Fairly similar to Martin Bernheimer’s FT review at http://tinyurl.com/2fptd76

  • Constantine A. Papas says:

    Levine acted as a ringmaster. He tamed the beastly orchestral score to perfection, the orchestra responded with many colors, and he blended in the voices so well. The quality of the sound on Sirius was amazing. The Ring is not my cup of tea, but I’m looking forward to the HD telecast.

  • davehs23 says:

    I request that John Cleese be nominated to play Bryn Terfel’s double as Wotan -- and perhaps we could also have Eric Idle double Dick Croft -- for the supertitles to say to accompany furtive glance toward king of the Gods -- ‘that walk isn’t silly enough.’

    It goes without saying then that Bryn especially would not have to worry about much except for the singing from here on out.

    As an aside, who is to believe -- Tommasini or Bernheimer -- as to how much time singers are spending on the front or upstage planks to assist in advancing, applying meaning to the drama of Das Rheingold? Given the tokenism I witnessed during Damnation de Faust for similar consideration -- Damnation after all an opera at the Met -- this appears perhaps a no-brainer.

  • wenarto says:

    for once, this is no singing, my staging of Rheingold final journey to Valhalla

  • La Valkyrietta says:

    Everyone has been talking about the production of Rheingold, but no one about the story. To help those very young people new to the Ring, here is a concise account of the story and music.

  • La Valkyrietta says:

    Continuation of my educational effort on behalf of the Ring.

  • LittleMasterMiles says:

    Sorry, Octavian, I take your point, but it’s not much what’s wanted around here at the moment.

  • willym says:

    Thank you Octavian for a well-balanced and thoughtful review. Tend to agree with LitteMaster on his comment.

    I am wondering what the obsession is with reviewers -- JJ mentioned it in an early article in the Post and now Bernheimer in the FT -- with Lepage and the Cirque de Soleil. He did one production for them in Las Vegas punto. But for some reason that seems to override his Internationally known works and successes -- the Royal National Theatre’s Midsummer’s Night Dream, Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung for the COC, Tectonic Plates, Dream Play at the Royal Theatre Stockholm, The Far Side of the Moon et al. Oh but wait a minute they were all created in Europe or Canada.

    • LittleMasterMiles says:

      Well, Lepage has been fairly well represented at BAM. They’ve presented his Elsinore, Seven Streams, and Lipsynch (just last year). So the only reason to emphasize Ka (the Cirque du soleil show) is if one:

      A) believes Las Vegas is more culturally important than Brooklyn.

      or

      B) has already decided to dislike the production, and so has willfully ignored the director’s best work.

      • La Cieca says:

        Yes, these are precisely the editorial decisions that go into choosing which details will be included in a newspaper with a broad and (generally) non-arts oriented readership: nothing about finding a possible point of reference for the reader, and everything about advancing an agenda.

        How clever of you reject such bourgeois conventions as Occam’s Razor!

  • operatweets says:

    Wonderful review, thank you very much! How was Richard Croft as Loge?