HD broadcast of the Met’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold

October 17, 2010 at 8:35 pm (Film and television, Music, opera)

 

Bryn Terfel as Wotan in Das Rheingold

 

In between learning that I was a grandmother and jetting out to meet the delightful cause of this transformation, I went to a live in HD broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner. As I waited for my friend in the lobby, I saw folks coming in with serious looking Wagner tomes clutched in their hands and equally serious expressions on their faces. I knew then that  some in the audience would be true believers, worshiping at the shrine…

By the time we entered the theater, almost every seat was taken!

Few composers elicit such single-minded devotion as does Richard Wagner. That devotion usually centers on the cycle of four operas called The Ring of the Nibelungs. Wagner not only composed the music, he also wrote the entire libretto, drawing for his source material from the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda of Iceland, the Volsung Saga, and the Nibelungenlied.

 

Richard Wagner 1813 - 1883

 

Numerous books have been written on this subject, so I’m not going to attempt to tackle it here in any detail. Das Rheingold is the first of the Ring operas; in it, Wagner sets the scene  for what is to come. It is short – about two and a half hours – compared to the three monumental works that follow it.

The Met’s new production of Rheingold has been highly anticipated, mainly because of Robert LePage’s audacious set design. This consists primarily of a 45-ton edifice, reportedly costing in the neighborhood of $16 million and referred to as “the machine.” Click here for a harrowing account of how one of the Rhine Maidens nearly fell afoul of this Leviathan of a stage device!

Here’s a brief glimpse of the preparations involved in mounting this production:

There has also been plenty of excitement over Bryn Terfel’s taking the role of Wotan. The publicity stills, with their sinister aura, gave me goosebumps. I knew I wanted to see this production of Rheingold. (And granddaughter Etta Lin, with her quirky sense of  timing, made it just barely possible!) Terfel was great – when is he not – but in my opinion, Eric Owens as Alberich pretty much stole the show. (Alex Ross of the New Yorker is of the same opinion.)

Alberich is  the dwarf who lusts after the Rhinemaidens. After they mock and reject him, he decides to steal the gold which they are  charged with  guarding. The gold is heavily freighted with symbolism: whoever possesses it must renounce love It is this theft, with all that it portends, that sets in motion the events that play out in the next three operas: Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung.

My older brother is a fervent admirer of Wagner’s music. He and my sister-in-law were watching the matinée  live in California (where curtain time was 10 AM!) while I was watching it here in Maryland. Naturally we had to compare notes afterward. I was somewhat hesitant to voice my reservations about this production to my brother, the ardent and deeply knowledgeable Wagnerite. And so I was surprised that we actually agreed on several points

Although both the singers and the orchestra were positively transcendent, the opera itself (or ‘music drama,’ as Wagner preferred to call it) was not – at least not consistently, all the way through. There were some slack moments when I felt impatient. The music was less than riveting, or the drama stalled – or both. The following observation, from a synopsis on the site Music with Ease, sums up my chief frustration not only with Rheingold but with the subsequent operas as well:

The chief faults of dramatic construction of which Wagner was guilty in “The Ring of the Nibelung” are certain unduly prolonged scenes which are merely episodical — that is, unnecessary to the development of the plot so that they delay the action and weary the audience to a point which endangers the success of the really sublime portions of the score.

And as for the production itself, I felt insufficiently awed by “the machine.” For what was  basically an ingenious (and inordinately expensive) piece of stage craft, I didn’t think it added much to the work as a whole. Actually, I was relieved that at least it wasn’t more of a distraction. There has been a great deal of innovative staging in the Met’s new productions of late. This is all well and good and has generated plenty of attention-grabbing buzz, but IMHO, nothing – but nothing – should distract, or detract, from the music.

Finally, I had a problem with the characters themselves. Not a single one of them engaged my sympathies. Their status as gods, or at least beings with supernatural qualities, seemed to remove them from the sphere of ordinary emotion and feeling. At times, I found my self yearning for someone like Mimi in La Boheme – a real and vulnerable human being whom you effortlessly take to your heart. (As I was writing this, I felt a need to hear “Mi chiamano Mimi.” I found a video with one of my favorite sopranos, Angela Gheorgiu. I watched it with tears streaming down my face. No chance of that happening during Rheingold!)

I knew that I needed to remain patient. I knew that at the opera’s conclusion, I would be treated to an explosion of orchestral splendor rarely equaled in the operatic or symphonic repertoire: The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla.

I had difficulty locating a sound file that was free of distortion and that captures this music in all its glory. After much fruitless searching, I settled on this version by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (1961!):

I strongly suggest that you seek out the CD or DVD version of the opera and play it on the best sound system you can find. Then be prepared to have your music-loving socks knocked off!

I can’t say enough about the fantastic playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In his nearly forty years with the Met, James Levine has transformed this orchestra into one of the world’s greatest. In his incisive (and delightfully witty) review of this performance, Dr. Neil Kurtzman declares: “The star of the occasion was the Met’s spectacular orchestra brilliantly conducted by James Levine.”

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This clip focuses on the “glitterati” who attended the opening night performance of Rheingold. At its conclusion, you’ll see some live footage of the opera.

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Plenty has been written about this production. I cited Neil Kurtzman above; I also very much enjoyed Lord of the Internet Rings by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. She draws an interesting parallel between Das Rheingold and The Social Network, the new film about the founding of Facebook. Both, she says, address a question “…that I cover every day in politics: What happens when the powerless become powerful and the powerful become powerless?”

Dowd was wowed by Rheingold; others were more reserved in their assessment. Anne Midgette of the Washington Post calls much of the singing “pretty,” apparently using the word as a term of disparagement. She also advances the theory that the opera was “cast for the simulcast, which evens out vocal size and favors smaller voices that are easier to record–and of course, attractive looks.” The “cast for the simulcast” allegation has gained a certain amount of traction in the media, to the extent that Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, felt called upon to refute it. In a brief  letter to the Post, Gelb asserts: “Ms. Midgette was incorrect. We cast solely for our stage performances.”

For Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the production is “astonishing.”

It was gratifying to learn of the excitement generated in Europe by the Met’s HD broadcasts.

For another deeply informed review of Das Rheingold, followed by links to additional commentary and analysis, go to Wagneropera.net.

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Most people are familiar with UNESCO’s designation of certain places and structures as World Heritage Sites. While reading up on the Nibelungenlied, I discovered that UNESCO has another project called Memory of the World, whose stated purpose is “….to guard against collective amnesia.” The Nibelungenlied has been made part of this registered heritage. Other entities that have been registered are the Bayeux Tapestry (France),  the diaries of Anne Frank (the Netherlands),  the Magna Carta (United Kingdom), and the film The Wizard of Oz (U.S.).

2 Comments

  1. Yvette said,

    What a wonderful post! Thank you, THANK YOU from those of us, like me, who long to see this opera in person but will never get the chance. Thank you for all the links! Thank you for all the info on the production, etc. All I can say is: WOW!!!

    I got all misty when you mentioned UNESCO’s Memory of the World project. What a gorgeously brilliant idea!!! I’m going to read up more about this.

  2. The Met’s new production of Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky, broadcast in HD and playing at a theater near you! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] with Das Rheingold, the theater was packed on Saturday, giving me hope for my fellow “culture vultures.” […]

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