Das Rheingold – The Metropolitan Opera’s New Production

Robert Lepage’s new production of Das Rheingold is a winner! I saw it last night in its third mounting at the Met. While Wagner is not for everyone, I came to enjoy his operas early on. His music is stirring – especially as conducted by the Met’s James Levine – and the Met’s cast, headlined by Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe, gave magnificent performances, as they usually have done. My comments here, then, focus on the new production.

I had been concerned about what Lepage would do in his production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle since seeing his production of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust 2 seasons ago.

For that opera, Lepage created 4 tiers of walkways in large frame for the Met stage, fronted and backed with video projection screens. It was a clever treatment to accommodate the opera, which was written with over 20 scenes (doing that many physical scene changes would have been challenging, even for the Met, and the set costs would have been prohibitive, given the relatively few performances the opera would have over the years). Still, the set didn’t use the entire 54’x54’x54′ space of the Met’s huge stage; I’ve described that set as being more than the 2 dimensions of a video screen, but not fully 3D – more like 2 1/3 dimensions. Would Lepage limit Wagner’s heroic scenes to 2 1/3 dimensions? Horrors!

My concerns were magnified with last season’s Opening Night presentation of the new Luc Bondy production of Tosca, replacing the spectacular and much loved Franco Zeffirelli version. News stories of the event reported the production was loudly booed on opening night. I saw it 3 days after its opening and felt the sets, though somewhat minimal, weren’t so bad.

But it was a tactical mistake to offer replacements of the lavish Zeffirelli sets with miminal Bondy ones on an Opening Night performance, in which patrons are charged a hefty surcharge and forced donation to see so little. How could the Met charge so much and offer so little to see?

The pre-production publicity about the new Ring Cycle production started to allay my fears. The stories of a gargantuan 45 ton machine in a production costing over $20 million certainly suggested there would be something to see. And seeing something is part of what opera at the Met should be all about. I find myself in a fundamental disagreement with NY Times opera critic Anthony Tommasini, who seems to dislike anything other than minimalist productions, often stating that the visual spectacle of grand productions by Franco Zeffirelli and others distract from the singing and the music. I can get minimalist anywhere – including Columbus, Ohio. With the world’s largest opera stage and budget, the Met should mount productions that can be experienced only there!

Well, Lepage’s production of Das Rheingold meets my criterion. And it enhanced the story of the opera instead of distracting from it.

The scene opens with the machine’s 24 planks extended as a slope, then slowly tilting in unison, lifting and revealing 3 Rhinemaidens on cables to dangle before the angled undersides of the planks as if swimming in water. The visual magic continues, as the planks tilt further until the top sections are fairly horizontal – providing the Rhinemaidens a platform on which to rest – and the bottom sections tilt as a giant slide toward the stage.

The visual magic then started, with the sections changing from their blue hue to a field of river stones – stones that reacted to pressure from the Rhinemaidens’ bodies. As the performers’ tails swished or they touched their bodies to the platforms, the river stones slid down the slope, as real rocks would! At first, I thought these were carefully choreographed motions made to synchronize with projected movies on the planks. As I watched transfixed, though, the coordination was too perfect. Could it be the planks were touch-sensitive and the images moved in reaction, just as a computer’s touch screen display would?

At that point, I longed to find an application for my computer that would replicate this magic! I recall seeing something similar in an app for my iPhone when I first got it. A quick Google search failed to locate such an app or website; finding one – if it exits – will take some effort.

For the rest of the 2 hour 35 minute opera – the longest single act in the Met’s repertoire without an intermission (the cognizenti know to go to the bathroom just before the curtain) – the planks transform, becoming backdrop, roof, and stage.

I understood one of my fellow Opera Club member’s comment that having seen the performance on Opening Night, he wished there were more use of video on the planks. Yet, perhaps, more video would have distracted from the performances. There are three more operas to come in the Ring Cycle; I expect Lepage will continue to dazzle even the most jaded Metropolitan Opera goers as his productions develop.

The other aspect of note in the production is the use of the planks as surfaces to be climbed – with the help of cables supporting the performers. Except for the Loge character – who walks backwards up the steeply angled planks (aided by a cable and winch) to sing a few of his arias – the singers are all represented by Cirque du Soleil-like body doubles in the same costumes as the singers when the cable walks are called for. When Wotan and Loge traverse to and from the Nibelung realm deep in the earth, the planks are used as an Escher-like staircase, with the stair treads mounted vertically, like a wall. The characters walk the stairs with their bodies jutting perpendicularly from the stairs, pointing straight out to the audience.

The final scene has the gods ascending the Rainbow Bridge to their Valhalla castle. They do so by walking straight up section of steeply angled and beautifully lit planks, their bodies, again, jutting out almost parallel to the stage floor. As they approached the top of the planks, they rotated to a horizontal position, admitting the gods to Valhalla. Visually and metaphorically, it was very powerful, in keeping with Wagner’s stirring score. I’m glad the bridge worked for my performance; it didn’t on Opening Night. The body doubles did such a good job that I heard some in the audience complain that they would force singers to undertake such strenuous physical activities! It was clear through the Leica binoculars that I use as opera glasses that it wasn’t Stephanie Blythe who was walking up the Rainbow Bridge.

So my verdict: While I enjoyed the realism of the Otto Shank production of the Ring Cycle, I always felt it was visually rather dark and somber. Lepage’s production is exciting, yet for all its theatricality, I didn’t find it overly distracting. I’m ready for more! Number 2 in the cycle, Die Walkure, will premiere on April 22nd, then the remaining two come next season. They’ll be hard tickets to get!

[Thanks to the Met’s website and news stories on the web for the photos I’ve used here. The Met, of course, does not permit photography in the theater.]

Renée Fleming at the Opera Club

What an absolutely delightful evening we had with Renée Fleming at the Metropolitan Opera Club on March 19th! Renée was the honored guest artist for cocktails and dinner at our Club (on the Dress Circle level at the Met). She was tremendously gracious and generous with her time, mingling and warmly chatting with members and our guests and agreeing to our photo requests. While it’s hard not to fawn over a performer of Renée’s accomplishment, she made us each feel very comfortable to be with her.

The magic of the evening continued after dinner, when Renée spoke to us about her career and life in an interview format conducted by Sarah Billinghurst, Assistant Artistic Director of the Met, and took our questions before we broke for the evening’s performance of Cavaleria Rusticana & Pagliacci. I took some notes of Renée’s comments that gave us wonderful insights into the life of one of the world’s greatest opera stars.

My first note was of Renée’s recollection of a chat she had after singing to a small audience several years ago. Someone came up to her after her performance and told her: “You have an amazing voice! You should take some lessons!” With that bit of self-deprecating humor, Renée – the child of voice teacher parents, with voice degrees from SUNY Potsdam and Julliard -­ noted that the general public doesn’t understand the difference in education required to sing on American Idol vs. at the Metropolitan Opera.

She has sung 51 roles in opera, and would still love to do a Strauss, Wagner, and world premiere opera role. As a lyric soprano, she has a broad range and could sing in any language.

Renée recalled that she learned something after giving birth to one of her children: that women who have just had a baby have no memory. Alas, she didn’t know that at the time and was very frustrated with her inability just then to learn a new role.

She believes firmly in maintaining the health of the voice; the voice is such a fragile instrument. Renée noted that unlike many other singers, her voice has not “gained weight” over the years (just as Plácido Domingo’s also has not).

Sarah mentioned that 1 1/2 million viewers around the world have watched the Metropolitan Opera HDTV broadcasts at their local movie theaters, dramatically expanding the numbers of those who have had the opportunity to see and hear Renée perform.

As to how many years Renée might continue to perform in operatic roles, she replied she doesn’t have a particular target, but will take it one year a time. This year, of course, has been a remarkable one for Renée at the Met, featuring her on Opening Night and in Thaïs, Rusalka, and the 125th Anniversary Gala.

Renée finds that the Met, acoustically from the stage, is her most comfortable house. Despite its size [I believe it’s the largest opera house in the world today, with just under 4000 seats], Renée says when she just sings well, it carries; she doesn’t worry about her voice filling the house.

She noted that she learned a lesson early in her career about singing with ease. She found a piece she sung from Rusalka (in the Czech language of her family heritage) was almost “too easy” to sing. It took a while for her to recognize that it was easy because the piece was a good fit for her voice – an important lesson for singers: They need to audition with pieces that fit!

In working with conductors, she looks to be inspired by a conductor – one who encourages her to take risks. The conductor makes or breaks a performance – especially if the conducting is poorly paced. She can’t take tyrants, but has had the good fortune of working at length in this house and city she loves [and, I daresay, loves her!].

Renée continues to share her gifts and knowledge by offering master classes to singers and discovering and encouraging young talent. Among those discoveries is Shenyang, a bass baritone she heard in a master class she conducted in Shanghai. She introduced him to the Met’s Young Artist Program where he as been developing while attending Julliard. Shenyang will have his Met premiere on April 13th as Masetto in Don Giovanni.

Now that Renée’s Met season is over, she will be taking one of her daughters to visit colleges. I’ve sent Renée my blog piece on Getting Admitted to a Good College. I hope she and her daughter find it helpful! Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing the pictures the photographer took of Renée and me and using it in my holiday letter!

Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met

I had the pleasure of being at last Saturday’s matinee performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera, starring Anna Netrebko. This is the first performance I’ve seen her in; the almost 4000 of us there gave her a warm ovation when she stepped out on stage.

I thought Netrebko’s performance was thrilling – if merely for her star power. Friends who saw the performance in a Columbus theater’s HDTV broadcast also thought it was terrific. Netrebko belted out her high notes with high volume, but I noticed a little inconsistency in her singing (her voice missed the start of a few notes and her midrange volume was low). Not at all bad for her having just returned from having her baby.

Netrebko is the 3rd Lucia I’ve seen in this production. I thought Natalie Dessay’s acting in the mad scene was the most compelling, and the best all around combination of acting and singing was Diana Damrau’s. Yet Damrau was the least heralded of the three. Ah, the magic of good publicists!

BTW, I also had the pleasure of meeting Zinta Lundberg, Bloomberg’s arts & culture writer, at the Opera Club again during my visit this weekend. She wrote up the Jan. 27th performance of Lucia, with ailing Rolando Villazon. Fortunately, we heard Piotr Beczala as Edgardo and he sang very well. Marco Armiliato conducted with his characteristic verve, as he did in Friday night’s Adriana Lecourvreur, sung powerfully and beautifully by Maria Guleghina, Placido Domingo, and Olga Borodina.