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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 3 November 2010

Met in HD Opens with Das Rheingold

by Joseph So / November 1, 2010

Flash version here.

This year's opening blockbuster of the Met Live in HD was the first installment of Wagner's monumental Ring Cycle Das Rheingold, starring celebrated Welsh baritone in his first Wotan. The second part, Die Walkure, starring Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde, opens in April. Siegfried and Goetterdammerung will be unveiled as part of the three 2011-12 complete cycles. Any new Ring is special, and this one particularly so at the Met, as it is the first new Ring in almost a quarter century. Canadian opera lovers are particularly interested because this new production is conceived, designed, and directed by Robert Lepage, in partnership with his company Ex Machina. Lepage is the creator of two highly successful COC productions—Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung back in the early 90s and Nightingale and Other Short Fables, which opened the 2009-10 season.

I attended the transmission at the Scotiabank Theatres in downtown Toronto on Saturday. As expected, the place was packed. (It should be noted that no tickets were sold for the first four rows, due to poor sightlines). There were the typical older opera followers but I also noticed a large number of younger people in attendance—who says opera is a dying art form? The transmission started off rockily—shortly after the opening, the picture froze and then both picture and sound disappeared for a couple of minutes. The rest of the transmission was trouble-free. I was impressed with the quality of the high definition picture, which had occasionally been too dark in the past. The sound on this occasion was excellent. The show began with a 15-minute documentary on the production itself, with interviews with Lepage, Levine and some of the singers. The two-and-a-half-hour opera was performed without an intermission, about the longest time an audience can be expected to sit without succumbing to nature's call. Wagner audiences are famous for their stamina and attention span, and this audience was impressively silent throughout, a testament to the power of Wagner's music and of course the performers and the production team.

This new Ring replaces the very traditional and immensely popular Otto Schenk Ring that premiered at the Met in the mid 80s. Given the enormous cost of mounting a new production, the Met obviously wanted to be sure the Lepage vision dovetailed with its own—an update giving this Ring a 21st century look, but not so radical a concept as to risk alienating the Met's conservative (and wealthy) audience base. Lepage has come up with an eye-catching basic set, weighing a massive 45 tonnes requiring reinforcement of the stage floor. It is made up of 24 aluminum and fibreglass planks hinged in the middle resembling piano keys, allowing its individual pieces to move, resulting in interesting configurations. For example, when Wotan and Loge descend into Nibelheim, the planks form something resembling a staircase, enhanced by ingenious lighting effects. The most dramatic formation was the multi-coloured rainbow bridge going to Valhalla at the very end of the opera. It unfortunately failed on opening night, but the machinery worked flawlessly in the satellite transmission.

The set, as seen by the close-up cameras, is impressive and the colours dazzling. But it also reveals an inherent weakness of the medium of televising operas. Lepage is used to designing for spectacles, like Cirque du Soleil, which use acrobats and athletes. Unfortunately opera singers are rarely known for their athleticism—if anything, singers are often rather self-conscious. Even the singers playing the Rhinemaidens, carefully chosen for their physical agility, didn't really have the physical freedom while suspended in midair to make the scene truly believable. The other singers moved around gingerly on a platform of planks in front of a trough, which served as points of entry and exit. Richard Croft (Loge) had to walk backwards with a wire hooked to his back, doing this so awkwardly as to take the magic away. Equally non-magical was the tarnhelm scene, when Alberich changed into a dragon and a toad, not helped by the sharp eyes of the video cameras. Given today’s technology, watching this opera resembled watching a movie, with plenty of close-ups and images taken from different vantage points. But with the newfound intimacy, we also see things that perhaps are better left unseen. While there was no scenery malfunction, there was a wardrobe malfunction; Donner (Dwayne Croft) came on with his back armour precariously undone. Other than this little bit of drama, the rest of the performance, at least technically, went off without a hitch. The Met Orchestra remains a glory of the opera world. With their long-time conductor James Levine back at the helm, the musicians played their hearts out. Levine showed why he is so beloved by audience and singers alike, leading the orchestra in a beautifully shaped, lyrical reading of the magnificent score.

The Met audience gave the cast and crew a roar of approval and repeated ovations. The biggest ones were reserved for the outstanding Alberich of Eric Owens, the vocally resplendent Fricka of Stephanie Blythe, and Bryn Terfel in his first outing as the head-god Wotan. Owens' bass-baritone was so exceptional that he would be perfect as Wotan. To my ears he outsang the Welsh baritone. Surprisingly, there were a few boos for tenor Richard Croft (Loge), who handled it with grace. A notable Mozart tenor, he brought elegance, beauty of tone and subtle acting to the role, but also only modest volume. He is not a natural Wagnerian, lacking the cutting edge to his tone that would allow a modest-sized voice to reach the upper galleries, a trait the Met's previous Loge, British tenor Graham Clark, possessed in spades. Extremely well received was conductor James Levine, a beloved figure at the Met. This production marked his return to the house after his being sidelined by illness since last February—he looked frail at the curtain call.

Given that this is only the first installment of a four-part cycle, one has to reserve judgment at this time. For now, it is safe to say that Lepage has created a technologically updated Das Rheingold, one that is abstract yet visually pleasing. But it is also interpretively neutral and singularly lacking in a "concept" that is so de rigueur in European productions. My guess is this non-Regietheater approach was a decision made by Gelb and the Met, a company known for its conservatism. Only time will tell if future installments will be a continuation of the interpretive blandness of the first segment. For now, this spanking new Rheingold augurs well for the future.

www.metopera.org, www.cineplex.com

Live Opera From Europe Begins Screening in North America
Wah Keung Chan

Right on the heels of the opening of the Met’s Live in HD series on October 9 with Robert Lepage’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, other live opera in the cinema came to Canada. On October 13, Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu’s performance of Bizet’s Carmen was screened live in Toronto (AMC Yonge and Dundas) and Montreal (AMC Forum), as well as in American cities and around the world. In North America, Emerging Pictures had been screening prerecorded HD European opera for the last three years.

This year, after a one-year absence in Quebec, it has partnered with D Films in Canada to distribute both live and encore opera, theatre and ballet. The October 13th showing was the first of 12 works, including the Liceu’s Queen of Spades and Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci (live), La Scala’s Das Rheingold and Die Walkure (live) and Royal Opera House’s Macbeth (live). Many of the live presentations will subsequently be repeated as encores.

Strangely, all of the Live presentations are shown on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoons, limiting the North American market mostly to seniors, which does make sense, given the demographics of the Met Live in HD.

» See operaincinema.com

(c) La Scena Musicale