Monday, April 9, 2012

Met Opera Review: Machine passes first real test in Rheingold Revival

By David Salazar (For 04.07.12 performance)

For anyone who has followed my past reviews on Robert LePage's underwhelming (for some)/revolutionary (for Peter Gelb) production of Richard Wagner's magnus opus, you know that I am not particularly in love with the production. But now the real test comes for Mr. LePage: Can he get the entire cycle to work cohesively? Saturday night was the first time I actually enjoyed a LePage Ring staging. Yes the very person who stated of LePage's Gotterdammerung:  "A Wagnerian audience wants to be awed, but also treated like an intelligent one as well. LePage certainly doesn't care for the latter, though he certainly thinks he's succeeding in the former.   There isn't much here in the way of interpretation. What does the Ring mean to LePage? The production indicates that it was some nice pages from a coloring book and that the machine was his crayons. What of the profound themes permeating the Ring? You wouldn't think Wagner was a profound philosophical genius by just watching the production onstage," actually enjoyed a LePage Ring performance. 

I never published a review of the first Rheingold I saw, but at the time, I thought that for all the hype the production was rather bland and uninspired. The noise from the planks was a massive turnoff, the images weren't all that varied and the actors looked rather uncomfortable on the set and in their costumes. The production worked well enough, but it seemed more like a trial version that was still working out its kinks. This time around the drama seemed to flow a bit more seemlessly. The characters were more engaged with their environment, the coup d'theatre moments (the hanging Rheinmaidens, the descent into Niebelheim and the rainbow into Valhalla at the opera's climax) seemed to work more fluidly without any visible glitches, and the machine made almost no noise! That's right no audible creaks while the thing rotated into different positions. There was one instance in one of the planks banged the ground rather audibly, but otherwise the machine was seemless throughout. That is a HUGE achievement considering the machine's inopportune ability to make its audible presence felt during some of the Ring's greatest music. Oh and one last note, the machine had no perceptible breakdowns, slowdowns, malfunctions, etc. It worked. You can state that my new perception may be a result of lowered standards, but regardless, I enjoyed Rheingold well enough. 

That isn't saying that I'm putting LePage off the hook. There were still a few moments here and there where actors look uncomfortable moving around the planks. The greatest example would likely be Wendy Bryn Harmer (playing Freia) trying to climb the plank to be captured by Fasolt. Harmer looked pretty scared climbing up the planks to get on top and I was scared that she might fall on the way up. Which brings me to my next point, some staging choices are pretty odd and clumsy. The aforementioned Freia climbing the plank to be taken away by the giants was one example. Throughout the act, Freia seems to be attracted to Fasolt somehow, but the moment where she is taken away is supposed to be violent in order to be dramatic. After all, if she goes of her own will then what does it matter what Wotan does from here on out to repay the giants; they already have what they want. Because it was impossible for the giants to actually grab her, Freia has to climb the plank on her own with some assistance at the end from Fasolt. Instead of it looking like a violent moment, it looked like an uncomfortable actress trying to get up the plank, scared out of her mind, and the giant helping her so that she won't fall. The only drama that came of this moment was hoping that she wouldn't fall. Fault here: Production. Then there's Fasolt's demise. The choreography of Fafner stabbing his brother Fasolt looked ridiculous and the ensuing moment in which Fasolt's corpse rolls down the blanks like garbage down the chute elicited laughter from the audience where it shouldn't have. In Niebelheim, Alberich's transformation into a frog was rather silly. Most of the environments were rather bland (as became the norm in the productions), particularly the clouds on which the God's rest. It gets rather tiresome to see the same clouds for what amounts to 45 minutes long with the only other visual contrast being a digital flame around a character (Loge) that becomes just as uninteresting after a few minutes. 

One the other hand some staging choices were interesting. During the opera's first scene LePage has Alberich slide down slowly toward the Rheingold as the Rhinemaidens sing about noone being able to reject love. Alberich comes from behind them and subtly moves toward the gold, each movement so minuscule that it seems as if he's being pulled in by it. The moment was helped all the more by Eric Owens' incredible portrayal, but a lot of props to stage direction for creating a strong visual reference. There was a sort of elegance to the rocks rolling down the planks on the seafloor in the opera's first scene, and lighting effect of the gold in the same scene was also nice. Same goes for the descent in Niebelheim and the ascent into Valhalla, all visually brilliant. 

The machine succeeded well enough, but what really brought this performance to life (as has been the norm thoughout this Ring) was... the singers. In fact, I don't think I've seen more committed portrayals in any of the Ring performances as the ones I witnessed on this evening. Leading the way was Bryn Terfel who was unflappable as the head God Wotan. Terfel played this Wotan in a reserved manner, his voice very economical, adding strength and dignity. Because of this, during the few moments of strength and might that were required saw Terfel in the best voice I've heard him in a while. After Freia is taken away and the Gods lose their power, Terfel really looked like he had lost his power. He used his spear as support to walk around.  His singing matched this  as well, as he sang with a lighter sound throughout the ensuing section. It added another dimension to his first confrontation with Alberich. It is often difficult to really believe that Wotan really needs Loge's help in defeating Alberich as most Wotan's remain robust and agile; why would a fully powered Wotan need anyone's help to defeat Alberich? Terfel created a Wotan that was no omipotent superpower, but a flawed one and possibly even a treacherous one. 

Eric Owens was the breakout star of last year's Rheingold and throughout the subsequent installments has only backed this initial perception with continued success. This Rheingold was one of those continued successes. Owens was both an obscene and at the same time a tragic Alberich. As he attempted to seduce the Rheinmaidens, there was a clumsiness and innocence to his step. As aforementioned, the moment in which he is attracted to the Ring and descends toward it was extremely magnetic. You could feel the attraction as you saw him slide ever slowly toward the literal/symbolic precipice. As he proclaims his power over the other Niebelungs, his voice had tremendous potency that was not revealed earlier on in the performacne. Finally as he placed the famous curse, a sense of pain and suffering could be heard in his lines: the realization that he was still as mediocre and pathetic as he was to start the opera. 

Stefan Margita was a revelation as Loge and garnered the loudest applause of the evening. He wove delicate, confident, calculated phrases to match Loge's sly and calculated thought process. Like the character he always seemed in complete control both vocally and physically. No notable strains or discomfort in the voice; and no signs of fear or trepidation at having to climb up and down an inclined plank often times backward AND singing all the way up and down. 

Met favorite Stephanie Blythe gave her fans and supporters more reasons to cheer with a fortuitous portrayal of Fricka. Her voice never fails to mystify in this repertoire. Potent, confident, elegant are only a few ways to characterize Blythe's singing. Add in the rich expressiveness and you have that "golden age" voice people constantly clamor about. With her intensity, it was impossible for any Wotan to deny her anything. But her Fricka also made one think that she did not trust her husband Wotan. She would nag, but she would also shoot him looks of mistrust even when he reassured her. 

Franz-Josef Selig and Hans-Peter Konig were tremendous giants, each with his own booming voice and presence. In my opinion this is Fasolt's show more than it is Fafner's; Fasolt gets more singing to do and he is also the more complex character. Selig imbued his Fasolt with tenderness, particulary as he sings of the hope to bring a woman to brighten their home. He sang this phrase with a seductive mezzavoce that clearly had Freia interested, but also brought the audience to his side. His caressing looks toward Freia made one think that he really only wanted love. Konig was far less charming, but then again he is the murderer in this story. Nonetheless he was imposing as Fafner. 

Wendy Bryn Harmer brought a beautifully delicate and potent soprano to Freia. As aforementioned, her portryaal made the character seem as if she could be attracted to Fasolt and many times she would move toward him as if she wanted to be taken away. As a result, it seemed many times that she might be a prisoner of the Gods who just wants some freedom in a new world with new people. 

Gerard Siegel was in strong voice as Mime, despite not really providing much of the expected humor. Adam Diegel brought a nice youthful timbre to Froh while Dwayne Croft (Donner) scored a strong highlight as he cleared the clouds with Lightening and thunder. Erin Morley, Jennifer Johnson Cano, and Tamara Mumford were perfectly unified as the Rhinemaidens. Patricia Bardon was another standout as Erda bringing a mysterious earthy tone to her singing as she warned Wotan against keeping the Ring. 

Maestro Fabio Luisi has been either the luckiest man in the world or the complete opposite for the last few weeks. He has a Ring Cycle to conduct, Manon, and Traviata on his plate at the same time. He had just conducted Manon a few hours before conducting this performance and early on, it was clear he was tired. The famous prelude was far from the climactic moment one expects. The entrance of the horns was a bit foggy in its execution with the chord's arpeggiations feeling a bit off. I am aware that this prelude is not supposed to be characterized as possessing complete clarity until its climax, but this interpretation seemed the slightest bit messy. The climax in which the entire orchestra creates the Rhine River never seemed to peak by the time the Rhinemaidens made their entrance. However as the opera progressed, Luisi was in complete control. The entrance of the Giants thundered throughout the theater like a big clash of titans. The orchestra was hushed in its accompaniment to Erda's monologue, but gave the moment not only mystery, but suspense. The final ascent into Valhalla contained all the pomp and majesty the moment required. 

This presentation was a very strong one on all fronts, production included. I don't know if the success is to the production or the actors' ability to finally interact with it in a comfortable manner, but the ingredients finally seemed to click in a satisfactory manner. It remains to be seen whether or not this can continue for another three operas, but I am more than content with the results from the first true test of LePage's Ring. 

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