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Going for the Rheingold

Coming In Monday's Washington Post:

Met Rheingold offers small voices, big set
by Anne Midgette
(read full review here after the jump)

Other views: Jerry Floyd on Wagneropera.net.
Gregory Isaacs on Theaterjones.com.

And I already posted links to an assortment of other "Rheingold" reviews in an earlier blog post.

If you watched “Das Rheingold” from the Metropolitan Opera in a movie theater via live simulcast on 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 Rheinmaidens 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 mid-sized 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 on stage -- 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 September 27. Before the opening, the focus was on the multi-million 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 “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 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 Rhein, 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 Rheinmaidens 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 bank Capitol Capital One credit card (are these references to TV a blow for pop culture?). Nor, when the goddess Freia is ransomed for a horde 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 on stage, 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 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; rehearsed on Friday in Boston and led a concert that night; 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 million-dollar-set, accomplished.

By Anne Midgette  | October 10, 2010; 2:39 PM ET
Categories:  national, opera  
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Comments

Good article. My one negative comment is that I'd be happy if critics stopped using the term "force of nature."

Posted by: ilbelsogno | October 10, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I reserve the term exclusively for Stephanie Blythe. And Ewa Podles. But I hear your point.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | October 10, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Very insightful, Ms Midgette. I attended the second performance of Rheingold, and was scratching my head why Richard Croft was cast as Loge. The last time I heard him sing, he was the Prince in La Cenerentola, which is more suited to his voice. I was in the Family Circle standing room, and I was able to hear him. I wonder what happened between then and now that he is almost inaudible.

For the record, Maestro Levine did an open rehearsal of Mahler No.2 with the BSO on Thursday morning, then led a concert on Thursday night. On Friday, he led the 1:30pm concert which I was in attendance. BSO does not have Friday night concerts. You were correct that he returned to Boston on Saturday for an evening concert after the Rheingold matinee in NYC. I listened to the Sat night BSO concert on the radio and it sounded as good as the Friday afternoon concert.

Posted by: ariadne1 | October 10, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

You've alluded to this point before -- that casting is taking an unfortunate direction where the vocal art is being pushed down the ledger in favor of other considerations. Thanks for reminding us that despite the gadgetry and technology, it's still the singers and musicianship that matter most.

By the way....it's Capital One. I guess the ads only made a modest impression on you.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | October 10, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, ariadne1 and newcriticalcritic, for the comments and the corrections - we were able to fix both mistakes for the print edition. Capital One will be grateful.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | October 10, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

I attended the simulcast in a theater and - wow! - this review brought up issues of which I was completely unaware... There was no 'creak' or 'clank' of the set, and yes, the voices sounded much better than this review states. Also, the set appeared incredible - it was all amazingly immersive and seemed to suit the world of Wagner better than anything I've yet seen (although that's not actually saying much.) Too bad the actual performace was not so thrilling.

Posted by: cosifan | October 10, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Ms Midgette, I made a mistake in my comment above. The Boston Symphony does offer Friday eve concerts, though infrequently (7 weeks out of a 25-week schedule). But on October 8, it was an afternoon concert.

Posted by: ariadne1 | October 10, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Having been in the theater (on opening night), all I can say is that this review is spot on, and more than that: it's the only brillant review I've seen of this mediocre production. Such a non-interpretation by the - supposed - stage director wouldn't be accepted anywhere in Europe except, perhaps, in Bucharest, I'm sorry I have to say that. What a waste of money!
There's but one point I don't entirely agree with Ms. Midgette: I didn't and don't entertain any hope that Terfel might become an acceptable Wotan. He lost his voice too many years ago - ten or so. In his - deplorably short - prime, I adored him, and would have thought he was to become a great Wotan one day. But for so many years already, his voice has been to weak now for much, much lighter parts...

Posted by: r_sch | October 10, 2010 7:04 PM | Report abuse


HD telecast 10/9/10

Met orchestra and voices as usual superb.
Bryn Terfel - wotan- epressioness, should stick to recordings. Stephanie Blythe - Frika and Richrd Croft - Loge- excellent. ?Name- Donner- less tha perfunctory; Freia sqirmded andstruggk=led to stay on tilted stage and was completeltly lost in netting diring gold piling scene, a cmplete fiasco.
Performers struggled and stumbled to stay on stage despite noticeable ropes and harnesses. Rhine maidens pulled selves around like seals. It is unbelievable that this mess was allowed to be shown,' Met should allow Lepage to collect unemployment and stick to previous production for rest of cycle.

Posted by: gsbenj | October 10, 2010 7:41 PM | Report abuse

Four of us from Bethesda also saw Das Rheingold's second performance from Premium Orchestra or Grand Tier. None of us had troubles hearing anyone. Poor Loge (Richard Croft) had the worst job of anyone, having to SING while struggling to stay upright on the 45° angled stage monstrosity using a rope on the back of his belt as he backed up the steep incline. He could be excused for problems projecting, we think.
However, we can agree with most comments from Ms. Midgette and the other bloggers. We hope, however, that Bryn Terfel's still lovely voice (our first opportunity to hear him live) will be used in a more magisterial manner in Die Walkuere as an older, and wiser Wotan.
Two friends reported seeing the HD theater projection and loved it all. They did not find the creaking, lumbering stage machinery as distracting as I had warned that they might.
The four of us LOVED the evening's music, more in spite of the production than thanks to it. We left feeling that ALL voices were strong and excellent.
Levine is still amazing in the pit, if very shaky on stage...and with such a schedule!

Posted by: jm8p | October 11, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Thank you Anne for your clarifications. I was puzzled as to why Croft was booed. Now I have a very good reason. I was also in disbelief when I saw Stephanie Blythe walk up that vertical wall. You cleared that mystery as well for me. Honestly, it was a pretty good show in the Germantown Cineplex where we saw it, but I trust you and will not go to see it live. A few years ago we saw some of the Cirque du Soleil techniques applied to Das Rheingold in Chicago and we liked that show better than this production, not to mention a Lisbon production that is still our favorite!

Posted by: Mike-Klein | October 11, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Anne Midgette's theory about the Met's casting decisions is incorrect. We cast solely for our stage performances.
--Peter Gelb, General Manager, Metropolitan Opera

Posted by: metpress | October 11, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Midgette. Thank you for your review of this. Spot on with the Capital One reference. As much as I am intrigued to see this production 'in house', I think it would be wise if I used my funds for additional lessons and coachings.

Posted by: dramatic_countertenor | October 11, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

@ Mr. Gelb: In this case, it's all the worse. If you're unable to engage a really good cast (and stage director), don't stage Der Ring des Nibelungen, it's that simple. This is one of the most difficult tasks for any opera house, and if you need to "star" a worn voice like Terfel's and a non-voice like Richard Croft's, don't even think about it (particularly not at a famous theater like the Met, that's a shame). Stage Adam's Le Chalet instead, both singers would have been much happier there, and so would have been the audience.

Posted by: r_sch | October 11, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Regarding Richard Croft's voice, I doubt it has diminished in size at all; the difference between hearing him in Rossini and Wagner would be the size of the orchestra.

Since I've said this in about five place already, I'll say it again: if you'd like to hear a great Loge, come to San Francisco next June and hear Stefan Margita completely steal the show.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | October 12, 2010 12:34 AM | Report abuse

r_sch, your comments about the implied unsophistication of Romanian audiences show your ignorance of matter. I used to work for the World Bank and in the 1990s I worked regularly in that country. This is how I learned to love the music of Enescu, and discovered the art of Constantin Silvestri, one of the very great conductors of the last century, and this is why I often write about them here and anywhere else I can.

Another thing that I discovered in Romania was theater. I was surprised of how much you can get out of a show even if you don't understand the language. And trust me, I have seen some really immaginative productions there. There is talk about regieoper, but what I have seen in Romania could be well called regietheater; one show that I remember vividly is Ubu Rex with scenes from Macbeth.

And have you heard about a fellow called Andrei Serban, you know, the one who directed something called Turandot around here (that Turandot is btw the longest running production of the Royal Opera.) That Turandot is nothing to to be ashamed about, but Serban's best work is actually the one he did at La MaMa in NY. And do the names of Petrika Ionescu and Silviu Purcarete (hope I spelled them right) tell you anything? Didn't think so.

It is true that the Opera in Bucharest is far from world class (or at least it was when I visited), although my friends tell me that it did have its glory days. But there is an obvious reason for that: that the best Romanian singers can be heard virtually everywhere except in Bucharest, and I am not talking just about Angela Gheorghiu (not a fan btw; I am angry because she could have been a great singer, but she prefered to be a star.)

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 18, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

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