Wagner v. the Machine


For all its much-hyped and massively expensive high-tech stage machinery, the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold seems surprisingly underpowered, as if so much money and mental power went into the behemoth contraption dominating the stage throughout that not much was left over for the details of scenery, costume, and action.

On opening night at the end of September the twenty-four rotating and independently adjustable planks of the set obediently remade themselves into formations ranging from the steep underwater banks of the Rhine’s riverbed to an off-kilter stairway leading from earth down to the subterranean sweatshop of Nibelheim, where the Ring is forged. But at the last moment “the machine,” as it has been nicknamed by stage director Robert LePage and his crew, rebelled against its computer overloads, and refuse to form the bridge to the newly built castle of the gods, Valhalla. Loge the God Fire, sung by Robert Croft, was left standing on stage, while the other gods had no choice but wander off into the wings, all dressed in Wagnerian rig up a nowhere to go.

Things had been technologically ironed out by the time of the live simulcast on a Saturday afternoon three weeks ago. The Met simulcast series allows opera lovers around the world to enjoy the glitz and glamour of the Met from the comfort of their local multiplex. I missed the live simulcast, so snuck out on this Wednesday evening for the 6:30 pm rebroadcast. It was my first “encore” broadcast—a late show, rather than the usual matinee. You might think that darkness ameliorates the devastating effect of mall parking as the entrance to an evening of opera. The opposite is true.  The bleakness of the sea of asphalt and cars under fluorescent lights spread out on the desolate backside of a mall building is enough to make you think that you have arrived after the end of the last Ring opera not the beginning of the first, and that the apocalypse of Götterdämmerung has already taken place.  But no theater-maker requires greater powers in suspending the disbelief than Wagner, so I bucked up my courage and headed towards the multi-colored neon crown or Regal Cinemas Ithaca—the Rainbow Bridge to Malhalla.

The Met simulcasts adds value to these outings by offering some things that you can’t get at the opera house itself, such as pre-game and halftime commentary and interviews.  Rheingold has no intermission, so the bonus material comes before the curtain. One is able to marvel at the sangfroid of the big stars, like that of Bryn Terfel, who sings Wotan in the cycle, flirting at the door to his dressing room with interviewer Deborah Voigt, who will be heard as Brünnhilde in the Met’s Die Walküre in the Spring. Terfel talked up the golf game of his partner in Rheingold robbery, Robert Croft and his brother Dwayne as Donner. To close his interview, Terfel uttered a broad greeting in Welsh back to his fans at home—all this while the Met orchestra was heard tuning up out in the pit within minutes of curtain time.

Given the trumpeted expense of this production, running somewhere towards $20 million for all four operas, there was the inevitable pitch for donations. Voigt looked the camera square in the lens, and informed her audience out in all those malls, ringed by developments ravaged by foreclosure, that ticket sales cover less than half of the expenses of mounting these productions.  By a certain operatic logic it even makes sense: the enterprise is so expensive, why not make it more so, and pour your own money into the 45-ton plank-a-tron.

This first installment of the Met’s Ring cycle—all the four operas will be ready to be presented as a set in the spring of 2012—serves as parable for Wagner’s own monomaniacal stagecraft and the predicament of his gods, who in Das Rheingold have built their castle, Valhalla, without the money to pay for it. Wagner, his characters, and his epigones suffer from an obsessive desire for the newest extravagance. In the opera it’s that glowing Ring and the big castle in a gated Nordic cul-de-sac; on stage it’s the faulty premise that bigger and more complicated means better and more dramatic.

Director LePage is known for among other things, his creation of the Cirque du Soleil show, Kà still running at the MGM in Las Vegas.  Given that level of high-concept set making and the couple of hundred million dollars in production money, the Met undertaking begins to sound even tame. The wedding of a fantastical circus with Wagnerian opera would doubtless have pleased the Bard of Bayreuth, but one of the main problems at the Met was the earthbound actors and LePage’s unexpectedly leaden direction. The machine was asked to carry too much of the show.

The Rhinemaidens made their entrance top-roped in harnesses , but after they fluttered their fins a bit, they quickly sought refuge at the top of the vertically-inclined planks as if scared of singing from midair. Rather than swim and dart in the water, they simply shimmied around the planks when the greedy dwarf Alberich, sung with spitting menace and plastic dreadlocks by Eric Owens, arrived on the scene to steal the gold. Bubbles activated by the nymphs’ singing ascended the planks for a watery effect, but the action could not give a sense of aquatic hijinx giving way to catastrophic robbery.

The Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb says this production will revolutionize our conception of the Ring. Alas, there are so many cut corners and quick-fixes in this Rheingold that one might even begin to suspect ironizing self-mockery, rather than an impoverished imagination and checkbook. It’s like the strapped owner of one of those McMansions who kits his bathroom the size of a squash court with gaudy fixtures and acres of marble only to be reduced to one-ply where it really matters, just to let his guests know where his priority are.

Take for example, the Giants, Fafner and Fasolt ready to foreclose on gods when they can’t pay up. The roles were powerfully sung with lecherous ponderousness by Franz-Jose Selig and Hans-Peter König, but they had their sleeves stuffed with what looked like socks to give them the muscle necessary to build Valhalla and then demand payment in the form of the Rhine’s gold.

To pay off these hulking creditors, Wotan and Loge make their way in faux-slo-mo down to the heat of Nibelheim, where Alberich has stashed the gold and forged the Ring and had his sweating minions make some armor and a shape-shifting helmet to boot. Yet what the pair of gods found down their was nothing but a load of dime store bits of plastic. And it was a puny load: a couple of shields and other flimsy military trinkets, that could barely convince the Giants and certainly not the audience.  It must be one of the most pathetic hordes in the history of the Ring, and it seemed all the more puny given the dollar signs that seemed to flash each time the planks set themselves in computer-aided motion.

LePage’s direction of the stage action often seemed equally  impoverished. As when the curse of the Ring kicks in near the opera’s end and Fafner kills his brother so he can keep the gold to himself. LePage had Fafner club his brother down with some very unconvincing stage-fighting manueuvers, then do the old spear-under-the-armpit routine to off his prone giant brother. Under the scrutiny of the simulcast cameras that lethal staff, as well as Wotan’s spear and Donner’s hammer all looked like they’d been snagged from the Halloween bin at WalMart. Nibelheim’s work has apparently been outsourced to China.

The worst of it though came in the midsection— a perennial site of fascination when it comes to opera singers. Breastplates are a cliché of the Ring, with the abundant breasts of many a behelmeted Brünhhilde having been encased in fear-inducing funnels. At the Met’s Rheingold it was the manly gods who got the chest protectors. One was never under the illusion that behind Wotan’s over-defined plastic torso, Terfel boasted an abdomen of sculpted Welsh granite.  His radioactive six-pack abs looked like extruded internal organs, and in HD the grotesque distortions of anatomy were hard to take over the two-and-a-half hours of the opera. One could try to drift northward with one’s attention and examine Wotan’s long curls, arranged so that his left eye was covered by his locks rather than the usual eye patch. For his bow, Terfel coyly pulled back to reveal that he did indeed have another good eye. But in the end the breastplates nearly ruined everything.

Perhaps in a distant Met balcony all would have been convincing, but in the end the big screen was unforgiving to the onstage action, props and costumes.

On the musical side of the ledger, the singing and even the Met orchestra, by turns  darkly turbulent and radiantly expansive, came through the theater speakers with clarity and just enough heft.  Often a bit aimless in his characterization of Wotan, Terfel sang with an expansive authority that let in the worry that presages the end of the gods. As Loge, Robert Croft gave a performance marked by its comic lightness of voice and action. A great singer of 18th-century opera, Croft’s dramatic and vocal range is remarkable, yet he took a barrage of boos, gamely facing them with the twinkle still in his eye. He had had to sing most of his best material roped up and facing out from the planks, which were positioned at a downward angle. This was apparently done so he could be bathed in red, fiery light. Yet in the Met itself his voice was apparently drowned out by the massive Wagernian orchestra below, hence the battering at bow-time. Stefanie Blythe sang with the broad expressive compass she is rightly celebrated for, yet her troubled Fricka, eager to have her husband Wotan’s one good, but wandering, eye directed at her and their new palace, was undefined, aimlessly nagging even though her demeanor often seemed above it all.

In the end one could always just focus on contortions of “the machine,” and let the music alone tell you what to think about the big issues the opera confronts in all its magnificent Wagernian hyberbole: duty, fate, lust, love, and how to pay the bills.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu



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