Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New Rheingold

To start with a caveat, it's not very fair to judge a Ring production on its Rheingold. Perhaps in a high-konzept outing you can glean some good information about whether the gimmick has some basic validity or not, but in a traditional interpretation, you don't get to audit any of the climactic moments which tell whether a staging is capable of complementing and enhancing the emotions at the Ring's heart. Because it is Rheingold. And Rheingold is kind of boring. Wagner is probably rolling in his grave at the thought that opera companies' routinely produce his "teaser nite" on its own and then make audiences wait months or years to get to any of the red meat.

Jumbotron LePage, as yet unbooed. Turn back Robert!

That in mind, I think the jury is still out on the new Ring staging on the evidence of last night's Rheingold. It's not bad or offensive by any means (the booing, at least according to my booing philosophy was totally unwarranted), but the dearth of coherent ideas should raise concerns that the staging is gambling on isolated visual ideas that don't add up to much. A selected list of my quibbles:

1. The "character" of the set machine is unclear. The set works best when it successfully mimics a setting, particularly in the Nibelheim scene, in which it is heavily disguised by a projection, and the much advertised "stairway to Nibelheim" setting. During the long sequences in front of Valhalla, however, the machine is constantly adjusting to accommodate different entrances and such, including a needlessly busy Freia-burying sequence. Is the moutain side moving around on its own or what? There needs to be SOME discipline imposed on the set elements for visual coherence, here it just seems like they felt the twisty business wasn't getting enough of a workout.

2. The set machine is ugly. While there are sequences where the "moveable blank set + amazing projections" really comes together, like the afore-mentioned Nibelheim scene, without these disguises it looks like a bunch of big pointy grey shapes. It reminds one of nothing so much as the kind of "mountains" a high school would build that didn't have the wherewithal to make papier mache mountains happen. If a major selling point of this Ring is technical wizardry and beauty, it needs to be said that long stretches are pretty dismal to look at.

3. The production makes odd choices about the stagecraft problems it wants to solve. The floating staircase descent to Nibelheim scene, for instance, while cool, is not something you're really dying to see acted out. Wagner pretty much tells you what he wants the focus to be in the incidental music by including all those cool anvil sounds. Why go to town on a boffo piece of stagecraft that can only end up competing with what's there? And then, in the following Nibelheim scene, instead of coming up with some great solution for the always-problematic Alberich transformations, they just default to having Alberich duck under the stage and trotting out a big snake tail prop, a bit of jokeiness totally out of character with the rest of the production.

So I'm going with a provisional conclusion that, while the production team has created some innovative stage elements that are both impressive and tasteful, they haven't been able to bring them together in the service of a seamless vision. Nor have they been able to sufficiently refine those elements to the point where they complement the opera rather than draw attention to themselves.

The Ring deserves boffo stagecraft, to be sure, but it also deserves a degree of consistency that allows the viewer to focus on the presentation as a whole. This Ring is erratic in doling out the inspiration, leaving some stretches over-nourished and others starved.

We'll see how Walkure goes.

Some of these people are famous.

Anyhow, onto the actual sangin'.

Bryn Terfel had some strong moments as Wotan, but I'm questioning how good of a fit this is for his voice. I certainly thought it was a good idea on paper. Everyone likes Bryn Terfel singing those nice English art songs, who wouldn't want that swell voice singing "Der augen leuchtendes paar"? But daydreaming about Wotan's five minutes of ballad makes one forget about the other 8 hours of heftier fare. Maybe the other shows will treat him better but I suspect Terfel's instrument is at the limit of how light of a baritone can legally carry the Wotan label. And it showed--Terfel frequently sounded like he was pushing the sound out. It didn't sound UNpretty, but you were constantly aware of his agitating to be heard.

This bolstered the general impression his Wotan made, which is way far out on the smarmy jerk end of the spectrum. With those long greasy locks covering his face and a sort of hunched, ambling gait that underplays his height, he cuts a decidedly swarthy figure for a deity. It will be interesting to see where he goes with it in Walkure, but the base note definitely seems to be Wotan as frustrated, desperate, none-too-bright, thug.

Stephanie Blythe was awesome, as usual, and the house went crazy for her at the curtain calls. Silver lining of sitting in Fam Circ row ZZ: the beautiful acoustics up there transport Blythe's voice with thrilling immediacy. I feel like maybe we're friends now.

If anyone dominated the proceedings, though, it was Eric Owens' masterful Alberich. This was the most memorable characterization of the evening. If the default Alberich interpretation flows from the slapstick business in the opening scene, Owens' performance flowed from the curse scene. Which is as it should be, I think. Watching a performance like Owens' leaves no doubt Alberich is the most interesting character in Rheingold--while Wotan and the rest are still dominated by simplistic motives of greed and fear, Alberich makes choices, displays real self-awareness, and serves as our window into the rich mutli-faceted characters that emerge in the later operas.

Levine performed to a rapturous reception. When was the last time an opera conductor anywhere in the world has achieved a relationship of such boundless love and loyalty from his audience? Anne Midgette wrote something a little while back wondering if we should lament the shortened tenures of today's maestros. I was skeptical, thinking that classical music organizations are simply reflecting the general trends in executive leaderhip, and how can we really gauge the extra value that tenure adds anyhow? But you can't deny what a remarkable thing Levine and the Met Orchestra are, nor that they make the most exciting big-time music in New York, hands down. The pit did not disappoint this evening, at times putting to shame the mixed-bag stage business above, at times gently cajoling "hey there friends, we're playing THE MF'ING RING CYCLE DOWN HERE just so's you don't forget." Levine and this orchestra manufacture awe like its their freakin' job.

Sigh. Back to work.



Anonymous said...

I go next week. I am excited to hear Rheingold, see the new production, and if I get annoyed with the staging, I can always watch the orchestra as it works its magic.

Alex said...

True that...I find it unsuccessful in interesting ways, as opposed to boring/offensive ways. And anyhow I suspect the Walkure is going to be a lot better.

And just to reiterate, Eric Owens is really worth hearing. Not that I've seen THAT many Rheingolds, but he made me excited about Alberich in a new way. And that's money.

Anonymous said...

I'm a closet Alberich fan. I know he's supposed to be evil and all, but the only character I have ever felt any sympathy with in Rheingold was Alberich in Scene 1.

He loses me a bit when he opens his mining company, but I'm from Pennsylvania, and we have a long tradition of being suspicious of greedy coal barons.

I can't wait to hear (and see) Stephanie Blythe, even if she wears a Mamie Eisenhower dress. I've been obsessed with her since she stole the show in Rodelinda a few years ago.


Alex said...

She was so amazing in that Rodelinda...I seriously don't think I've ever liked watching a Handel opera more than watching her utter domination in that. Was talking with Maury D. recently about how we'd much rather get her in some other Handel at the Met than the Amneris on the schedule...

Anonymous said...

I was so smitten with Blythe in Rodelinda (and I am not a big Handel fan) that I begged my brother to name his daughter Eduige.

I'm kida looking forward to her Amneris. I love Blythe's Verdi. Her Mistress Quickly was a force of nature. And she sang a Requiem at Carnegie a few years ago that was so powerful and transporting that I've largely been able to repress the horrid flashbacks that emerge of Andrea Gruber's Libera Me.

Will Blythe ever sing Adalgisa?