9 October 2010: Wagner, Das Rheingold

Metropolitan Opera, broadcasting live in HD. James Levine, conductor; James Lepage, production; Freia, Wendy Bryn Harmer; Fricka, Stephanie Blythe; Loge, Richard Croft; Mime, Gerhardt Siegel; Wotan, Bryn Terfel; Alberich, Eric Owens; et al. In collaboration with Ex Machina. Seen at West Springfield multiplex

We are back for another season of Metropolitan Opera broadcasts live in HD at hundreds of local cinemas coast-to-coast and more abroad. Again this year, more than ever before: twelve broadcasts from the Met between 9 October and 14 May, representing, I believe, some five new productions and the rest revivals. The Met is off to a marvellous start. This production of Das Rheingold is the first of four operas by Wagner to be mounted at the Met this season, together comprising a new production of the Ring cycle, designed by Robert Lepage.

A brief word from the General Manager of the Met at the beginning explained that the Lepage production has strained the resources of the Metropolitan Opera to the limit, exploiting the vast capabilities of the Met stage and making new demands. In the course of this production of Rheingold one could see how this could well be. The Rhine maidens guarding the gold at the bottom of the river are wearing underneath their mermaid-like, dark chain-mail-like costumes stiff harnesses connected to cables that fix them to a steeply raked series of planks (one might call them) which have the capacity to rotate forward and back individually on a central axis and so, by turns, make for a vertical wall or a stage floor, or anything in between. These harnesses are fastened in between the “planks” in such a way that the maidens can seem to swim up and down as they sing. Lighting as much as anything else gives shape and color, light and shadow, to this seemingly infinitely flexible wall. And so, at the end, when it is time for most of the assembled cast of gods to retreat upwards to Valhalla, the planks retreat back, seem to rise up and to form a rainbow bridge carrying them over the chasm of the nether world into the godly chambers where all is light, love, and peace.

This mechanical concept, invented by Lepage, is a very powerful and comprehensive one, so flexible and adaptable that any setting can be established by it and then characterized for location and atmosphere through its manipulation and wonderfully inventive lighting (the credit for the lighting design is to Etienne Boucher).

(As I reflected on this amazing contraption, it suddenly struck me that Lepage has been looking at that mastermind of the scenic art Adolphe Appia, who almost single-handedly effected a revolution in nineteenth-century scenic art. In Appia’s high blank walls and straight, unmitigated ascending staircases one can see the ancestry of Lepage’s planks; it is almost as if Lepage has anatomized Appia’s concepts, split them up into parallel boards, and then made them individually manipulable. And of course Lepage has access to vastly improved lighting over what was at the end of the nineteenth century itself vastly improved lighting. It is a handy lesson in technical theater history, just to view Lepage’s ingenious analytical invention.)

This is the first time I have ever seen a production of Wagner’s Rheingold. I have to acknowledge that I am not the biggest fan of Wagner. I remember some years ago, however, watching a “small-screen” production of Parsifal. I almost decided not to watch it, but then I thought that I would give it a fair chance. At the end of thirty minutes I was so utterly taken with it that I saw it to the end of its four-hour duration. Something similar happened to me in watching this production of Rheingold. I still think that the first scene with the Rhine maidens is considerably too long; if it had not been for the novelty of the Lepage mounting, I would have lost my attention (notwithstanding the excellent supertitles). What saves that over-long first scene, at least in this production, is the presence of Eric Owens as Alberich. Owens is a marvellous presence and has one of the best, most resonant and superbly articulate bass voices I have ever heard. And he is a superbly energetic actor. Although not at his best having to climb a nearly vertical wall representing a kind of cross section of the deep Rhine River, he surmounted the difficulty — literally. And through the rest of the opera he was completely in his element.

As that first scene ended, Alberich having stolen the Rhine gold by its end, we move to the stage floor, where Wotan, Lord of the gods, has an unpleasant scene with his wife Fricka. I will not stop to explain or summarize the involved Wagnerian plot of Rheingold. Suffice it to say that Wotan and Loge depart to the subterranean stronghold of the Nibelungens to steal back the gold and claim the golden ring out of which it has been made. We are now transported to the Nibelung nether reaches, represented by a large gap in the stage floor that runs fully across the stage, like a trap door gaping from one side of the stage to the other, where the enslaved Nibelungens are doing Alberich’s bidding by fashioning the gold into trinkets and tchotchkes galore.

Attention rises considerably in what I believe must be the third act, and stays high through the rest of the opera. Lepage affords us such uncommon delights as a serpent that looks more like the skeleton of an ancient dinosaur, practically filling the stage and delighting the audience considerably. This is followed by a toad twenty times as large as life and seemingly inflated: it was batted about like a beach ball. Wotan and Loge have succeeded in taking back the gold ring from Alberich, who sings a memorable curse, which comes as close to an aria as anything Wagner might ever have written. Eric Owens does complete justice to this wonderfully intense and serious piece of music. The gist of it is that whoever possesses and wears the ring will encounter ceaseless worry and death as his destiny.

By this time the action of the opera has long since taken on a characteristic mythological dimension. There is a certain quality of openness to myth: it is a kind of organic shell (organic because it is fundamentally alive) that can be filled full of human meaning and experience. It is this quality that renders the Wagnerian plot not only bearable but meaningful, despite its seeming risible absurdity. I have sometimes thought that on one of the upper circles of hell the punishment might well be an incessant reading of plot summaries of Wagnerian operas, with no music; just the stories. This is not just a flippant joke; I think it contains a useful truth. Although not by any means a dedicated Wagnerian, I can see that the story of Das Rheingold is a tale of human acquisitiveness, of an unbridled yearning for money and power — and most of all, power. If you bear the history of the twentieth century in mind, you will sense that the history of the Third Reich is uncomfortably well reflected in the story of this mythic saga set to music by a magisterial nineteenth-century composer. It would appear to be no coincidence that Wotan’s hairstyle mimics that of Adolf Hitler — a severe over-the-brow “comb-aside” that completely covers Bryn Terfel’s left eye. This touch of history seemed, on the one hand, gratuitous, because unaccompanied by other such references to the horrors of modern war, and on the other, apt, because of its sheer insidious appropriateness.

At the same time, the application of myth to history seems to have its limits. Those of us living on the far side of World War II know fully well what its outcome was, an outcome that offered us survivors opportunity for sober reflection on the wages of lust for power, racial purity, national invincibility, and other kindred fantasies. At the end of Das Rheingold, however, what we see is the traversal of a rainbow bridge to high rewards. All of the gods pass over that bridge, to the ultimate felicity that lies in store for them. But there is one exception. The character called Loge, who at his first entrance pointedly informs us that he is half-human, is left behind on the stage floor, that’s to say, on earth. He stands motionless, looking up at the bridge and its occupants as they disappear into the gathering dark ethereal night. The light on him is extinguished only at the last moment, as the darkness swallows up the gods above. It is a brilliant last sequence, not only for its technical magnificence, but because there is much more to this than technical wizardry.

What this ending tells us is that the representative of us, the audience, on stage is this character, who has operated in some respects like the villain of the piece. He has an affinity for the kind of character that one often sees in plays written for various European theaters in the years during and after Wagner was composing his operas: plays by Ibsen and Strindberg and other dramatists who bring onto their stages the wise outsider, an onlooker with penetrating eyes who sees things that the other characters miss and who passes on his insights to the other, more benighted personages (including those in the audience). The presence of uncomfortable truths inserted into the action causes greater reflection by the audience on the action overall. That character is something of a stand-in for us, who at our best can bring these kinds of knowledge to bear on persons, also very much like us, who stand in need of help. In dramatic criticism this character is called a raissoneur, a reasoner, someone with a more rational point of view, an analyst. Someone like that, introduced into the midst of an action, can often have a disruptive force and so can seem to be someone who wishes these people ill; and so is a villain. But not so. As Wagner’s character Loge, very clearly and effectively played by Richard Croft, took his bow at the end, he was affectionately booed by the audience in recognition of his official role. He accepted it as praise.

But, in truth, we knew what he was there for. His was the best and most cunning mind on stage, a good bit better than the mind occupying the skull of the lord of the gods, Wotan, played in a rather wooden way by Bryn Terfel (I was disappointed to realize that Terfel is just not much of an actor, at least not in this rather dull, single-minded Wagnerian role). And Loge, without contradicting other people too openly, gave the best advice and so shaped the action in meaningful ways.

But there is a deep irony here, namely, that while Loge helps to shape the action, he does not finally reverse the lust for power and its consequences; and for his reward he is merely left alone, like us, perhaps to contemplate further what those consequences may be. This is not rationality at its best. It is something else more complex, less accessible, a quality that, at least in my case, stayed with me along with rich aural memories of the magnificent singing first to last that made this Metropolitan Opera production memorable. Huge resources have been expended in favor of this phenomenal production. It makes one wonder what Lepage’s breathtaking invention can be molded into by the time we get to the very last production of the HD season, Die Walküre. We will wait and see, and meanwhile will be regaled by the signal talents of Verdi, Puccini, Gluck, Strauss, and other stalwart composers who will live this season on the Met stage.

And now that I do think further, I recall the critical moment when Wotan must decide whether or not to give up the gigantic gold ring on his finger that he has stolen from Alberich, as the chief and most magical of the trophies manufactured by the Nibelungs. This of course is what confers the greatest, the most unlimited power on its possessor. We understand that Alberich’s curse still resonates with him; he is not very imaginative but also not really dumb. Another mythological character appears at this point: Erda, an old woman in a magnificent long white wig who tells Wotan that if he wants peace and love he must give up power, in the shape of that ring. After a terrific inner struggle, suitably portrayed by Wagnerian strings, he agrees to give it up. The ring is given to the giants (who, under Lepage’s direction, have been noticeably humanized and seem full of emotion and radically unsure that this is what they want).

And so the first sequence in the long mythological story that fills out the Ring cycle comes to an end. One can see that Wagner intends this as a necessary preliminary to access to the grand halls of Valhalla. Nonetheless, the half human, half god Loge has done his share to bring the action to this critical point. And, as we have observed, he has only his loneliness to show for it.

Is this a kind of wry, post-modern comment, as Lepage stages it, a kind of negation of viable, coherent meaning? Or does this have the same meaningful modernist skepticism that invests the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg and the quasi-anonymous scenic art of their revolutionary younger contemporary Appia? Another thing that Lepage and Appia have in common is the sheer scale of their enterprise: they both demand oversize stages, where the human figures tend to be perceived as small and insignificant when placed against the vastness of the setting. In Wagner’s case, the heroic nature of the action and the musical stature of the protagonists and antagonists work against what might otherwise seem almost puny. But the scale is in any case crucial. I will have to devote some further pondering to this point.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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