Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Das Rheingold - The Metropolitan Opera's New Production

Robert Lepage's new production of Das Rheingold is a winner! I saw it last night in its third mounting at the Met. While Wagner is not for everyone, I came to enjoy his operas early on. His music is stirring – especially as conducted by the Met's James Levine – and the Met's cast, headlined by Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe, gave magnificent performances, as they usually have done. My comments here, then, focus on the new production.

I had been concerned about what Lepage would do in his production of Wagner's Ring Cycle since seeing his production of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust 2 seasons ago.

For that opera, Lepage created 4 tiers of walkways in large frame for the Met stage, fronted and backed with video projection screens. It was a clever treatment to accommodate the opera, which was written with over 20 scenes (doing that many physical scene changes would have been challenging, even for the Met, and the set costs would have been prohibitive, given the relatively few performances the opera would have over the years). Still, the set didn't use the entire 54'x54'x54' space of the Met's huge stage; I've described that set as being more than the 2 dimensions of a video screen, but not fully 3D – more like 2 1/3 dimensions. Would Lepage limit Wagner's heroic scenes to 2 1/3 dimensions? Horrors!

My concerns were magnified with last season's Opening Night presentation of the new Luc Bondy production of Tosca, replacing the spectacular and much loved Franco Zeffirelli version. News stories of the event reported the production was loudly booed on opening night. I saw it 3 days after its opening and felt the sets, though somewhat minimal, weren't so bad.

But it was a tactical mistake to offer replacements of the lavish Zeffirelli sets with miminal Bondy ones on an Opening Night performance, in which patrons are charged a hefty surcharge and forced donation to see so little. How could the Met charge so much and offer so little to see?

The pre-production publicity about the new Ring Cycle production started to allay my fears. The stories of a gargantuan 45 ton machine in a production costing over $20 million certainly suggested there would be something to see. And seeing something is part of what opera at the Met should be all about. I find myself in a fundamental disagreement with NY Times opera critic Anthony Tommasini, who seems to dislike anything other than minimalist productions, often stating that the visual spectacle of grand productions by Franco Zeffirelli and others distract from the singing and the music. I can get minimalist anywhere – including Columbus, Ohio. With the world's largest opera stage and budget, the Met should mount productions that can be experienced only there!

Well, Lepage's production of Das Rheingold meets my criterion. And it enhanced the story of the opera instead of distracting from it.

The scene opens with the machine's 24 planks extended as a slope, then slowly tilting in unison, lifting and revealing 3 Rhinemaidens on cables to dangle before the angled undersides of the planks as if swimming in water. The visual magic continues, as the planks tilt further until the top sections are fairly horizontal – providing the Rhinemaidens a platform on which to rest – and the bottom sections tilt as a giant slide toward the stage.

The visual magic then started, with the sections changing from their blue hue to a field of river stones – stones that reacted to pressure from the Rhinemaidens' bodies. As the performers' tails swished or they touched their bodies to the platforms, the river stones slid down the slope, as real rocks would! At first, I thought these were carefully choreographed motions made to synchronize with projected movies on the planks. As I watched transfixed, though, the coordination was too perfect. Could it be the planks were touch-sensitive and the images moved in reaction, just as a computer's touch screen display would?

At that point, I longed to find an application for my computer that would replicate this magic! I recall seeing something similar in an app for my iPhone when I first got it. A quick Google search failed to locate such an app or website; finding one – if it exits – will take some effort.

For the rest of the 2 hour 35 minute opera – the longest single act in the Met's repertoire without an intermission (the cognizenti know to go to the bathroom just before the curtain) – the planks transform, becoming backdrop, roof, and stage.

I understood one of my fellow Opera Club member's comment that having seen the performance on Opening Night, he wished there were more use of video on the planks. Yet, perhaps, more video would have distracted from the performances. There are three more operas to come in the Ring Cycle; I expect Lepage will continue to dazzle even the most jaded Metropolitan Opera goers as his productions develop.

The other aspect of note in the production is the use of the planks as surfaces to be climbed – with the help of cables supporting the performers. Except for the Loge character – who walks backwards up the steeply angled planks (aided by a cable and winch) to sing a few of his arias – the singers are all represented by Cirque du Soleil-like body doubles in the same costumes as the singers when the cable walks are called for. When Wotan and Loge traverse to and from the Nibelung realm deep in the earth, the planks are used as an Escher-like staircase, with the stair treads mounted vertically, like a wall. The characters walk the stairs with their bodies jutting perpendicularly from the stairs, pointing straight out to the audience.

The final scene has the gods ascending the Rainbow Bridge to their Valhalla castle. They do so by walking straight up section of steeply angled and beautifully lit planks, their bodies, again, jutting out almost parallel to the stage floor. As they approached the top of the planks, they rotated to a horizontal position, admitting the gods to Valhalla. Visually and metaphorically, it was very powerful, in keeping with Wagner's stirring score. I'm glad the bridge worked for my performance; it didn't on Opening Night. The body doubles did such a good job that I heard some in the audience complain that they would force singers to undertake such strenuous physical activities! It was clear through the Leica binoculars that I use as opera glasses that it wasn't Stephanie Blythe who was walking up the Rainbow Bridge.

So my verdict: While I enjoyed the realism of the Otto Shank production of the Ring Cycle, I always felt it was visually rather dark and somber. Lepage's production is exciting, yet for all its theatricality, I didn't find it overly distracting. I'm ready for more! Number 2 in the cycle, Die Walkure, will premiere on April 22nd, then the remaining two come next season. They'll be hard tickets to get!

[Thanks to the Met's website and news stories on the web for the photos I've used here. The Met, of course, does not permit photography in the theater.]


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