Thursday, September 30, 2010

New Das Rheingold at the Met, You Guys

…The entire proscenium
Is covered with a rippling azure scrim.
The three sopranos dart hither and yon

On invisible strings. Cold lights
Cling to bare arms, fair tresses. Flat
And natural aglitter like paillettes
Upon the great green sonorous depths float

Until with pulsing wealth the house is filled,
No one believing, everybody thrilled.

from "Matinées" by James Merrill

THE RING CYCLE. It is so hard to stage! Can we disentangle the deadly vines of poisonous German nationalism from the ash-tree of Wagner's Nordic iconography, or are they in fact joined at the root (METAPHOR!); can we interpret his narrative coherently (complete with gold-grubbing subhumans and inbred purebred Nordic supermen) without echoing his noxious social values; can we even realize his special effects–heavy stage directions convincingly for an audience to whom 19th-century stage technology—and indeed, to a certain extent, any stage spectacle—is something quaint and alienating?

Let's not forget, people, this is an artist who routinely symbolizes divine power with swans, doves, rainbows and flying horses. So if you think that Wagner MUST be staged "literally," that is if you really think this imagery will resonate with contemporary audiences just as it did with his contemporaries, then congrats on having managed to avoid all contact with the past half-century's most revolting kitsch. I mean,

So what do you do! You can go High-Concept, and try to supplant Wagner's elaborate mythological order with another that challenges the composer's Nordic nostalgia directly, or at least to translate it into a rather less cobwebby set of cultural signifiers (e.g., make Wotan a powerful businessman instead of a king, since nowadays "king" = "tyrant" or "figurehead," never "wise but too-proud leader." And you can try and shed some of the kitschy overtones in favor of something with just a bit of a modern edge to it (e.g., make the rainbow bridge a contraption of neon or lasers or something, instead of a greeting-card rainbow).

The design of Robert LePage's production leans towards the latter of these two approaches. Aside from the much-publicized, high-tech unit set, LePage's designs are largely conservative. He's claimed to have drawn inspiration from Wagner's original costumes, but he's updated them in canny ways—three gods wear muscly breastplates reminiscent of the "dark," "edgy" Hollywood reboot of some superhero franchise ("Well, what would you prefer? Yellow spandex?"), and the special effects are interactive CGI projections.

And LePage's use of the technology is impressive. Loge, god of fire, appears surrounded by flame; when the Rhinemaidens sing, bubbles come out; the gods' movements in Valhalla stir the clouds around them. You've probably heard by now about the glitch that screwed up the rainbow bridge, so that instead of entering Valhalla like they had been spending THE ENTIRE OPERA PLANNING TO DO, AT TERRIBLE COST, AND WITH DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCES YET TO COME, they all just kind of peaced out. Anybody who'd seen the pre-production photos of that scene was probably all, "Whoops," and anybody who hadn't was probably a little confused and disappointed. So it was a letdown, and one which slightly overshadowed the amazing coups de theatre the set had made possible earlier—but which, on reflection, were a good deal more interesting than anything that the Met's last production had to offer, visually speaking. Wotan and Loge's descent to Nibelheim dazzled the crowd, and when Donner did his stormclouds-and-lightning thing at the end, it was a fucking thrill. And then the little things: small, brilliant LEDs illuminating the Rhinegold, Loge's fiery fingertips, Alberich's helm, and of course his Ring conveyed Magic Power simply and effectively.

But what he didn't use the technology for was also pretty impressive. Once you've got the stage filled with video screens, you can literally do ANYTHING. "Oh, let's put the Vatican behind them, but it's made out of candy and also there's a mushroom cloud." "I can literally do that!" But if you can do anything, it's worth nothing. We might as well be watching it on TV. Another thing LePage said before this Ring debuted was that he wanted to avoid turning it into Avatar, which I wondered if it might be a subtle dig at the Ring put on by Fura dels baus, an unremitting spectacle of constantly shifting video imagery, stage contraptions and acrobatics: LePage is often content to keep the stage still during the moments when the human drama is supposed to be at the fore; the gods stomp around Valhalla and sing, and the drama is communicated with good old-fashioned blocking—at any given moment in this staging, you can read a character's relationships to everyone else in how and where they're standing—and, yes, singing. (I'll get to the singing in a bit, I promise.)

In some ways, this was the Rheingold of my dreams. In a word, the opera is "elemental": it takes place in the heavens, underwater, and underground; it's about fire and gold and rainbows, pure and intense colors of light. LePage's set emphasizes the vertical strata on which the drama unfolds—divine, human, and subhuman planes of existence—and the "sky" behind it is colored by a single horizontal band of light, glowing behind a scrim, so that (for instance) in the first scene, when the Rhinemaidens sing about their gold's awakening in the morning sun, the blue above them transforms to a golden glow.

One advantage of working from Wagner's costume designs and all of these vertical levels is that the giants didn't end up looking completely retarded, as they do in just about every other production of the Ring ever. Somebody ends up putting Fafner and Fasolt on platform boots with giant latex hands and coneheads and TA DAH, you're looking at John Travolta and Forest Whitaker in Battlefield Earth.
(THEY ALWAYS LOOK LIKE THIS. WHY DO THEY ALWAYS LOOK LIKE THIS.) Instead, LePage gave us giants in slightly chunky costumes standing above and behind the rest of the cast at every appearance, so that a sort of false perspective made them seem Huge and Looming.

I am a total snob, of giants, and this production passed the test. I was a little dismayed when the death of Fasolt earned an unintentional laugh from the crowd; this is one of the trickiest bits of business in the opera. It's so oddly timed—the brothers get the Ring, Fafner kills Fasolt for it, Wotan says "oh snap," and then life goes on. Considering that this Cain & Abel moment (or should I say Sméagol & Déagol moment?) is the greatest act of violence in the entire opera, it's strangely underplayed. It was satisfyingly brutal here: when Fafner hit him with his spear, I thought, "That wasn't hard enough to kill him! That's lousy fight choreography"; then Fasolt moved a little and I was like "Oh whoops he's not dead," and then Fafner beat him some more and finally impaled him, and it was horrifying. Great! Then, as if to reflect the way Wagner and his characters shrug off the murder, the giant robo-set moved in such a way as to unceremoniously dump the body offstage, and he slid down kind of like this. Hmm. Well, It was an ingenious gesture, and I'm sorry it didn't come off as dramatically as it should've.

There were also laughs during Alberich's transformation into a dragon, which I was a little uncomfortable with at first, even though this actually is supposed to be a funny scene. Again, the laughs come from Wagner's own timing, and I probably shouldn't have worried about it—it's not a bad dragon. (The toad is even more low-tech—it's not even a puppet; it just "hops" onstage and is captured.)

I guess part of the reason I was uncomfortable is that Alberich, in this production, is not the stupid little clown we're used to seeing; in fact, he's fucking terrifying. I didn't want to read any reviews of this performance before writing this, but I couldn't help running across this one:
and, yup. You'll recall that I last saw Eric Owens threatening to destroy the world in Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at the New York Phil; he was pretty scary then, and he was even scarier this time. He was funny when he had to be—scrambling up the pebbly CGI shoal to chase the Rhinemaidens—but his humiliation was also painful to watch, and when he promised to take his revenge upon the Earth, it was all too believable. (It helped that the boiling intensity of James Levine's brass section seethed up out of the pit straight up to the back row of the Family Circle and SCALDED MY FACE OFF at this point.) He is my new favorite Alberich, I think. He and LePage created a really terrific villain.

All of the singers were champs, really. Bryn Terfel, sharping and hollering a little in the lower register, is maybe not a born Wotan, but as my friend Maury pointed out afterwards, who is nowadays (COME BACK JAMES MORRIS), and whatever the condition of the low notes, all of the high notes were magnificent blasts from the Terfel Trombone. The Croft brothers, Sid and Marty Dwayne and Richard, were superb as Donner and Loge respectively—especially Richard Croft, whose voice has a far sweeter sound than the role requires. Freia's distress, as sung by Wendy Bryn Harmer, was affecting, and the star of the evening (for me) (and, from the sound of the applause, for a lot of people) was Stephanie Blythe as Fricka—her huge, well-controlled sound was all one could ask for.

What else. Anything else? I mentioned James Levine was fantastic. But he seemed so frail, going up to get his applause! I still can't think too hard about what will happen to the Met when he's gone. Somebody get him some more golden apples, STAT. We need him back in godlike health. Receiving applause mixed with a boo or two, or a few, Robert LePage—that's the way it goes, I guess, when you chuck the most beautiful set at the Metropolitan Opera and replace it with a malfunctioning wall. Well, whatever, HATERS.

I saw all your favorite movie stars in the lobby: Patrick Stewart, Anjelica Huston. That's all of your favorite celebrities, right? I think that's all you need. Just two. And of course your favorite critics—James Jorden, Alex Ross, Seth Colter Walls, Zachary Woolfe. Oh and poet/librettist J.D. McClatchy was there, with his partner, superstar book designer Chip Kidd! McClatchy's translations of Mozart libretti are actually coming out in a single volume shortly, and I sent away for a review copy, so with any luck I'll be reviewin' it for you very soon, and I promise to be BRUTAL, because that's the highest compliment, right? (The second highest compliment is that I didn't quote any more of the above Merrill poem, since I think McClatchy is Merrill's literary executor and so if I quoted the whole thing without permission he could come to the record shop where I work and slap the discs out of my mouth.)

AND FINALLY, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to learn that I have finally acquiesced to the urgings of my friends and added a NEW T-SHIRT DESIGN, designed to piss off (a) the people who tell you you're not allowed to enjoy Wagner's music because he hated Jews and (b) the old worm-eaten bigot himself, whatever afterlife he's gazing up at us from:

That's funny, right?  I'm not in trouble, right?  Anyway it's also the perfect shirt to wear next time you tell this guy to KNOCK IT OFF.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dead on. Well done and thoughtful, especially regarding his restraint. Saw it night 2, figuring it would all work a little better (and the seats would be a little cheaper), and the rainbow bridge worked and was awesome. Trippy without overdoing it--much like the whole evening. And the climb made you realize that getting into a castle in the clouds really does require going straight up. Nice review.

October 5, 2010 at 5:45 PM  
Blogger Will said...

A delightful and refreshingly level-headed review, Dan. All around, a nice piece of work.

October 5, 2010 at 6:53 PM  
Blogger David said...

Loved the review, which of course got prime time on Parterre (frankly outstrips most of the others of this ilk on there).

Eine frage: if I linked to your site, could I use the image of the 'Jews love Wagner' T shirt (with whatever text you want included) in an Arts Desk piece about the Israel Chamber Orchestra playing in Bayreuth next year?

Best as ever,


October 7, 2010 at 3:16 PM  
Blogger Opera Rocks said...

Fan-frickin-tastic review. And yer right: Eric rawks.

October 8, 2010 at 12:05 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

loved your review, very well rounded and perceptive. I am a bit less enthusiastic, but let us see the entire Ring and I hope Lapage will then return to the Rheingold characters. Musically its superlatives at the Met.
Freat blog, Daniel.
Thanks, David

October 9, 2010 at 7:22 PM  
Anonymous Anthony said...

Great review Daniel, but yesterday I saw the live HDTV broadcast from here in Lima (in deepest, darkest Peru, the land of Paddington bear!). It was fantastic, but just one detail disappointed me: it lacked the long and mysterious beginning with an almost inaudible pianissimo that very slowly builds up into a bursting crescendo of Rheinmaiden singing. Is this an artefact of the HD broadcast, or is it Levine´s interpretation? Have seen Seattle and Adelaide rings, plus have Boulez Bayreuth DVDs and Solti CDs, and I always bask in the mystery of the Rheingold opening ...

October 10, 2010 at 8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anthony said:
"... just one detail disappointed me: it lacked the long and mysterious beginning with an almost inaudible pianissimo that very slowly builds up into a bursting crescendo of Rheinmaiden singing. Is this an artefact of the HD broadcast, or is it Levine´s interpretation?"

I don't know the answer, but I share the disappointment. I was startled by the volume at which the bass line started, and I don't recall it ever getting much louder.

October 11, 2010 at 11:09 AM  
Blogger David said...

Couldn't search for the answer to that question, which has rather gone off the boil anyway, but if I shout again, can you just give me a yes or no, please?

October 21, 2010 at 12:56 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Yes! Sorry about that, David. Certainly, as long as you're not planning to use it for any sinister hateful purposes (of course you're not!), feel free to post the image however you like. I guess a link to this post, or this blog, or straight to would be nice too, if it doesn't screw up your HTML feng shui or whatever.

Apologies again for not getting back to you!


October 21, 2010 at 1:28 PM  
Blogger David said...

Ta - I can see that it might be commandeered for 'sinister, hateful' purposes but I like to think I am a spreader of light and love and crusader against 'fucking Brits' sentiment.

October 22, 2010 at 7:27 AM  

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