The Met's 'Das Rheingold': Cast for the simulcast?

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010

If you watched "Das Rheingold" from the Metropolitan Opera in a movie theater via live simulcast Saturday afternoon, I'd be willing to bet that you heard some very pretty singing. You might even have been puzzled at the end about why Loge, the god of fire, got booed, since the singer who played him, Richard Croft, sang particularly prettily.

Let's forget, for a moment, the question of whether "pretty" singing has any place in a Wagner opera -- Wagner, after all, advocated bel canto technique. Let's talk about what the opera sounded like when you attended live. I was in the opera house for the performance, and I can tell you why Croft got booed: I could barely hear him, even from prime orchestra seats.

He wasn't alone. The three Rhinemaidens were lovely, and small. The god-brothers Froh (Adam Diegel) and Donner (Dwayne Croft, Richard's brother) tried to pump out as much sound as possible, with varying degrees of success; as Erda, Patricia Bardon forced a hoot into her voice by trying to turn a midsize instrument into the stentorian voice of prophecy. Even Bryn Terfel, the star bass-baritone who is finally taking what would seem to be a natural step into the role of the head god Wotan, sounded at times almost pedestrian (though I bet he was plenty impressive in the movie theater).

My theory: This "Rheingold" was, at least in part, cast for the simulcast, which evens out vocal size and favors smaller voices that are easier to record -- and, of course, attractive looks. There were, to be sure, a couple of real Wagner voices onstage -- Stephanie Blythe, a force of nature, as Fricka, and Eric Owens in a show-stealing turn as an Alberich who sounded more like Wotan than Wotan often did. Wendy Bryn Harmer was also very good as Freia, and Gerhard Siegel made a strong Mime. They carried the afternoon -- for those who heard them live.

This wasn't supposed to be the story of this "Rheingold," the opening salvo in the Met's new "Ring" cycle by the Canadian director Robert Lepage that opened the company's season on Sept. 27. Before the opening, the focus was on the multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art, high-tech set, involving projections and other forms of stage wizardry that would bring this mythical story of gods and dwarves and a magical golden Ring to life: the definitive artistic statement of the "new Met" of the Peter Gelb administration. Alas, the biggest story to arise from Lepage's production so far is the fact that the rainbow bridge, across which the gods walk into their new castle of Valhalla at the end of the opera, didn't work on opening night. It worked on Saturday, but, like most of Lepage's other effects, it was a mountain moving to give birth to a mouse.

Put aside, again, the question of whether you were impressed by the lumbering set, made up of sets of panels like piano keys, twisting and turning, with many a creak and a clank, to represent now the undulating surface of the river Rhine, now a flight of stairs descending into Nibelheim, now the forbidding exterior of Valhalla, while body doubles appear, time and again, to walk straight up vertical walls (evidently Lepage's favorite stage effect). The real question is what came across dramatically -- and in the house, at least, the answer was stale white bread.

Lepage's "Ring" is utterly traditional: All the characters are taken at face value, with little effort to delve beneath the surface. All of the creative energy went into the set.

The three Rhinemaidens are mermaids, swimming underwater (with projections of bubbles) before settling on the pebbly riverbed (with projections of pebbles); but their interaction with Alberich is restricted to sitting calmly, sometimes flipping at him with their tails, and making unhappy, ineffectual noises when he steals their gold by walking offstage with it in a shopping bag.

For all the wonders of high-tech, Lepage's giants, Fasolt (the woofy Franz-Josef Selig) and Fafner (the more authoritative Hans-Peter König) looked like a cross between the Geico cavemen and the Vikings in that ad for the Capital One credit card (are these references to TV a blow for pop culture?). Nor, when the goddess Freia is ransomed for a hoard of gold meant to cover her entirely, could Lepage think of anything better to do than sticking her in a hammock and covering her with plastic gold armor. This looks awfully provincial for a state-of-the-art production.

Among the saddest wastes of resources is Terfel, who showed, at some moments, that he has the seeds of a great Wotan in him. Lepage just didn't help him find it. Terfel does best when he has something clear to play; and when he knew what Wotan wanted, he burst out with the best of them, demanding that Erda stay and reveal the meaning of her prophecy, or formally, regally escorting his wife, Fricka, into their new home. But for long stretches, he was left alone onstage, looking, in François St.-Aubin's costumes, much like the singer Meat Loaf (a resemblance frequently commented on after opening night), and his singing reflected his lack of direction.

The telecast began around 15 minutes late as a result of transmission issues related to sunspots that threatened to interfere with the live broadcast. This only made things more difficult for James Levine, though he conducted with assurance and his wonted beauty. Levine, 67, who has been plagued with health woes for the last few years and looked physically tottery at the curtain call, has resumed active duty this fall both at the Met and at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he is music director. He led a concert on Friday afternoon in Boston, came to New York on Saturday to conduct "Rheingold" at 1 p.m. and was back in Boston in time for an 8 p.m. performance. It's unfortunate that this physical feat drew more attention, speculation and interest than anything Lepage, with his flashy, expensive set, accomplished.

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