Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Das Rheingold

I am determined not to become a Wagnerite. It's not that I don't like Wagner - or The Ring; but there is so much more music to hear and enjoy. George Bernard Shaw wrote:

It is generally understood, however, that there is an inner ring of superior persons to whom the whole work has a most urgent and searching philosophic and social significance.

That was in 1898 and they are still around, only now they take to the air themselves and congregate on rocky outcrops wherever a Ring cycle is performed. I have no wish to join them.

But I have bought a ticket to the Met's new Das Rheingold on 2 April 2011 ( as well tickets to all kinds of other things ). And at the risk of seeming obsessive, I am approaching this occasion by stages. First, I was able to hear the opening night of Rheingold streamed on the Internet. And before long I will see it in the cinema - though not live in my time zone.

The Met has invested large sums in the technology required by Robert Le Page's production. An early version of it was deployed in his Damnation of Faust, which I saw in the theatre in 2008 and 2009. When I first saw it I wasn't much taken with the visual effects and thought that the strength of the production was the playing of the Met Orchestra. But on seeing it again, I changed my mind and found the staging to be very effective. The physical part of that staging was a scaffolding like structure at the front of the stage. The structure for the Ring is much more complicated. Some of it didn't work on opening night.

I live in a critical desert where inane and decaying newspapers sometimes manage to print 250 words about a show. The Met is more fortunate and the piece I heard streamed attracted many writers, most of whom were given the space to say something of interest.

There are more but I have seen:

The New York Times
The New York Post
The Washington Post (Associated Press)
The Times
The Financial Times
The Daily Telegraph
The Guardian &
Daniel Stephen Johnson

though some of the links my die with time.

As heard on line, it sounded wonderful. Even at a distance and though medium fidelity speakers the orchestral sound was overwhelming. No explanation is required for the reception the audience gave to James Levine.

As a dedicated non Wagnerite, I was a little disappointed to find how familiar the music was - even after a long break. The singing seemed uniformly excellent and I did not feel at all deprived in not being part of the magic on stage.

The critics confirmed my hearing of the orchestra at a distance:

The true star of the night though was James Levine, who stood through his first full performance at the conductor's podium for seven months due to a serious back complaint. As he has done so often over the past 40 years at the Met, he inspired a great orchestra to give of its best, culminating in a mesmerising climax. The Guardian

Almost as if determined to prove something, he conducted the score with exceptional vigor, sweep and uncommon textural clarity. New York Times

But what chiefly galvanises the drama — as so often at the Met — is the quality and power of the orchestral playing under James Levine's painstaking direction. The Times

The production worked for some ...

Lepage treated the audience to a mesmerising display of virtual magic, giving them plenty to feast their eyes on in the intimate scenes between the coups de théâtre. Telegraph

...keeping the gadgetry low-key and respectful and intelligently enhancing Wagner's mood rather than imposing his own. Guardian

but there were also mixed feelings  ...

For the most part it was an impressive success: an inventive, fluid staging and a feat of technological wizardry that employs sophisticated video elements without turning into a video show. Wagner buffs tend to be a fanatical sort, and no doubt there will be debate about Mr. Lepage’s work. Here he received a mostly enthusiastic ovation with scattered boos. I had mixed feelings. New York Times

and a craving for Eurotrash which I find hard to fathom:

Forget meaningful symbols or sociopolitical undertones. In New York, a tree looked like a carefully painted tree in a canvas forest. The principals struck traditional poses, modelled quaint breastplates and winged helmets. This was no thinking-person’s Wagner, but it made a lot of conservatives happy. Financial Times

But what's already depressingly clear is that Lepage has virtually nothing to say about the political, social, moral or ecological subtexts of The Ring. You might have thought that, in this of all cities — and after everything that has happened in the past two years — a tale about the corrupting lust for gold would be staged with a modicum of irony, if not outright satirical venom. The Times

Until converted, my opinion is that productions should by and large be faithful to the composers' intentions and that the universal appeal of myth isn't enhanced by narrowing its scope.

I remembered Wotan as a overbearing figure declaiming about this and that in a way which relied on the subtlety of the orchestral accompaniment for texture. I have heard Bryn Terfel's powerful voice but unlike some critics have not been impressed by his acting. On both counts I was surprised to get the impression of a conversational, domestic Wotan with excellent variation in his tone and delivery. The critics were divided:

The formidable bass-baritone Bryn Terfel sang his first Wotan at the Met, a chilling, brutal portrayal New York Times

Bryn Terfel, making his US debut in his celebrated role of Wotan, the lord of the gods, was brooding and dark. Guardian
The Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel was riveting as Wotan, playing him as a vigorous, hot-tempered god, full of youthful pride and daring. Vocally, he was overpowering, ringing top notes alternating with gently modulated phrases. Washington Post

Not even Bryn Terfel, who hurls out Wotan's lines with customary verve (though edging nervously sharp on some big notes) but musters only a fraction of his usual charisma. For once the big Welshman seems overawed.  The Times

More problematic was bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in the central role of Wotan, king of the gods. He deployed his world-class voice with skill, but when the score called for rich, flowing sound, he tended to yell and go sharp. A stringy wig concealing half his face blunted his usually razor-sharp acting. New York Post

Eric Owens' Alberich was amazing. My memory of Alberich was of a cringing and unattractive dwarf, a typical bully, tormenting Mime as an outlet for his own rage. Again there were two surprises: the audio stream revealed an Alberich as powerful as Wotan, their dialog resembling a prize fight. And having heard Eric Owens as General Groves in John Adams' Doctor Atomic, I didn't expect such a strong performance. The portrayal of General Groves as a figure of fun, probably done to give some variety between the characters, was about the only thing that annoyed me about Doctor Atomic and this may have affected my appreciation of his singing.

Everyone loved him:

And the bass-baritone Eric Owens had a triumphant night as Alberich...Mr. Owens’s Alberich was no sniveling dwarf, but a barrel-chested, intimidating foe, singing with stentorian vigor, looking dangerous in his dreadlocks and crazed in his fantasy of ruling the universe. New York Times

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. Johnson

A vocal standout was Eric Owens, whose bass-baritone retained its essential beauty and heft even in Alberich’s moments of rage. New York Post

Another distinctive feature of the audio was the Loge of Richard Croft. My memory is of Loge sung by a wispy high tenor; and I enjoyed the much richer sound I heard here. Loge was only mentioned in passing by the critics and perhaps my strong impression came from the broadcast medium: he may not have sounded as strong in the theatre:

...tenor Richard Croft made for a lively Loge, perhaps lacking quite enough volume to rise over some of Wagner's orchestration. Washington Post

I also enjoyed the creamy mezzo soprano of Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, and so did the New York Times:

the powerhouse mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was a vocally sumptuous, magisterial yet movingly vulnerable Fricka.

Watch this space for Das Rheingold parts 2 and 3.

Metropolitan Opera New York Internet stream Das Rheingold heard Tuesday 28 September 2010 (local time).