Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ein düst'rer Tag dämmert den Göttern

Like a couple of hundred thousand others, and almost everybody in the classical music blogosphere, I spent three hours yesterday morning at the movie theater taking in the high-definition broadcast of the Met's long-awaited new production of Das Rheingold.

How did I feel about it? Well, you could say I'm firmly on the fence.

To start with, the camera direction doesn't do much for the production or for the singers. I now know way too much about Eric Owens's teeth, and I can tell you all about the extent to which Bryn Terfel and Adam Diegel sing out of the sides of their mouths. Even when singers' shoulders or faces weren't filling up a two-story screen, mostly we got tight shots taking in one to three singers and 20 horizontal feet of the Met's enormous stage. And many of those were from the robot camera running on a bar at the lip of the stage, so the perspective was absolutely nothing like anything you'd see in the house unless you were in the back of the pit looking up.

The direction took in the whole stage just a few times: at the beginning of Scene I, during the descent to Nibelheim and on the return trip, briefly at the beginning of the Nibelheim scene, briefly during the two scenes with the giants, and for the rainbow bridge. So I can't speak to the effect the machine, Robert Lepage's giant Cuisineart wood-chipper moving unit set made in the house and just how magical it may have looked. Take everything I say with a giant grain of salt; opera house and movie theater perspective are not the same. For that matter, keep in mind that microphones distort voices and rob us of sonic perspective, and what we heard in the movie theaters probably varied by theater and was surely different from what the in-house audience heard.

Musically, it was all much better than I'd thought it would be based on the netcast of opening night. Levine was more alert, though I still wanted to pinch him a few times, like during the giants' entry. I continue to find his Wagner too glossy and not nearly well-articulated enough. The Met orchestra played like gods - lord, what a sound they make!

By and large, I liked almost everyone. Eric Owens blew me away; I would not have thought, based on a generally excellent Porgy last year in SF, that he had a superb Alberich in him. Maybe German repertory suits him best, maybe Alberich is exactly in his vocal sweet spot. But he sounded great; in fact, he sounded a whole lot better than Bryn Terfel's licht Alberich, aka Wotan. Terfel is in sad shape compared to the last time I heard him live, a decade ago in The Rake's Progress; he sounded worn and his once-tight vibrato is considerably loosened. He shouted a lot less than on the netcast, but still, I found it alarming. I don't see how he'll make it through the Walkuere Wotan. (Personal to Peter Gelb and James Levine: Richard Paul Fink Richard Paul Fink Richard Paul Fink. Got it? He knows a good chunk of the role already and sounded fabulous singing it in Berkeley this summer.)

Stephanie Blythe's Fricka was outstanding, superbly sung; so were the giants of Hans-Peter Konig and Franz-Josef Selig, who sounded related without sounding identical. Similarly, I loved the Rheinmaiden trio of Lisette Oropesa, Jennifer Johnson, and Tamara Mumford, three beautiful but distinctive voices. Dwayne Croft made a mighty impressive Donner. For some reason not apparent in the movie theater, Richard Croft, singing Loge, got some boos; he sounded accurate and musical if occasionally croony. I've read that he sounds disproportionately small-voiced compared to everyone else, which could certainly be so, but he didn't earn boos that I could tell. That said, if you want to hear a stunningly great Loge, come to San Francisco next summer and watch Stefan Margita steal the show.

Adam Diegel is mighty handsome and has a good voice, but he sounded more studied and stiff than anyone else on stage. Gerhard Siegel was a suitably craven Mime. Wendy Bryn Harmer was a lovely and vocally excellent Freia; Patricia Bardon just about perfect as Erda.

Now, back to La Machine. Reportedly, the Met has spent $16 million to date on this Ring cycle, which is as much as the whole Seattle Ring, new in 2001, cost. I will have to see Die Walkuere on screen and maybe see one of these operas in person to be able to tell whether the Met got its money worth. But many of the effects I saw yesterday could be achieved in a more conventional production at a lower cost and make just as much theatrical impact. Yeah, it would also be lots less possible to generate publicity and raise funds with a more conventional production, but I also am afraid, based on what I saw, that the machine itself is getting in the way of interesting direction, both in terms of interactions among the characters and in terms of how the singers are moved around the stage. Both of those seemed utterly conventional, unsubtle, and uninteresting. (Again, repeat after me: it must have looked different in the house.)

As far as I could see yesterday, in some cases the set hinders the action and directorial possibilities, and results in less magic than I've seen elsewhere. Take the opening Rheinmaiden scene. I found the flying/swimming Rheinmaidens in the Seattle Ring are more magical, because they fly for the whole scene. At the Met, they initially swim against the backdrop of the vertical machine, then the machine folds up and they are plopped down on top of it. They can slither around a little, but because their costumes have tails, they can't more around all that much. I have no idea how this looked in the house; on screen, flying them for the whole scene would have been better.

The first scene with the giants is played with the two giants located on some planks that are above the plinth level, which is where the gods are. This seriously limited how much the two groups could interact, and there are all sorts of dramatic possibilities there. When the gold is being measure out against Freia, she's suspended horizontally in netting that is hung from two sets of planks. The netting is put up by D. Croft and on of the other gods, which is pathetic. They're gods, for crying out loud, not stagehands! It looked seriously half-baked, and possibly a workaround for the fact that the giants are up there and the gods and gold are down here. I also spent the whole scene worrying that the damn net would fail in some way and drop Wendy Bryn Harmer on her head. That's not good.

Then there's the business of the sideways staircase to and from Nibelheim. The doubles move slowly, so it's not at all exciting and doesn't match the music. It felt to me as though they did it because they could, and it's not better than what I imagine during the music covering the scene change.

And then there's the sledding effect: there are several places where a character slides down an inclined plane of planks, or slithers up and down them, and....I can see that this will get old pretty fast over the length of the full Ring.

Finally, the costumes. Holy moly, they are bad bad bad. I'm sure they would have looked bad in the house through my binoculars, too. Stephanie Blythe's dress looks like something off-the-rack from Macy Woman, and Fricka can absolutely afford something better. The male gods are all wearing godawful breastplates evidently intended to make them look manly and muscular. Unfortunately, that's not the effect they achieve. The giants look like cavemen, and where did Alberich get that lace-up wet suit? A fetish shop??

Ah, well. We'll see how the next three installments go, and if I'm lucky I'll get to see one of them in house.


Sarah said...

Is this Adam Diegel's Met debut? Could be why he was a bit stiff. I saw him in St. Paul and Madison last year and he was great.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Don't know - it's possible!

Alex said...

Great rundown of the problem moments. There's just no getting around the fact that a production aiming to thrill with beauty and stagecraft shouldn't suffer through this many clumsy moments. Too many of the potentially memorable elements were hamstrung by one thing or another. The rhinemaidens bit you call out is a great example. I don't know how clear this was from the moviecast, but the position the machine assumed for the bulk of the scene bore an uncanny resemblance to that bunker they are trying to break into at the end of Return of the Jedi. Sure, the moving rocks thing is neat, but is it going to make you forget that the entire stage is dominated by this huge characterless object? I'm afraid its pretty clear that at some point they were focused more on making individual elements work than on making sure the stage picture they were presenting worked as a whole and supported the momentum of the drama.

Here's hoping they get their priorities back in line for Walkure...

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, man. Yeah, a bunker is exactly what I want to look at for two and a half hours. That's not good.

I've got one more problem moment: Alberich's transformations are less exciting when the tight focus lets you see Eric Owens ducking under the stage. I don't know how much is visible from the audience, but....in Seattle this is done using old, inexpensive, easy technology. Alberich is standing on the set right in front of the opening in a dark curtain, and there's a bright spotlight on him. They kill the spotlight, he takes one step backward and he's gone. Simple and extremely effective: I had no idea how it was done until I attended a tech talk where they discussed some of the stage magic.

Alex said...

YES...the Alberich duck n' cover routine was totally painful. It just boggles the mind--how do you sit down to design a Rheingold with the understanding you are going to throw millions of dollars of technical fanciness at it and not make target #1 getting the Alberich transormation to not look dumb? Were they in tech later on and Owens was all "uh, what should I do for this snake part" and they were all "oh snap forgot about that...um...what happens if you crouch behind the lip of that thing?" Tarnhelm FAIL.

Alex said...

YES...the Alberich duck n' cover routine was totally painful. It just boggles the mind--how do you sit down to design a Rheingold with the understanding you are going to throw millions of dollars of technical fanciness at it and not make target #1 getting the Alberich transormation to not look dumb? Were they in tech later on and Owens was all "uh, what should I do for this snake part" and they were all "oh snap forgot about that...um...what happens if you crouch behind the lip of that thing?" Tarnhelm FAIL.