Das Rheingold: Under the Boardwalk

Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
March 31, 2011
Starring Bryn Terfel, Richard Paul Fink, Stephanie Blythe, Arnold Bezuyen, Dwayne Croft, Franz-Josef Selig, Patricia Bardon, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Fabio Luisi cond.

I finally saw Robert Lepage's highly discussed new production of Wagner's Das Rheingold at the Met -- somehow, fall tickets to the new production were nearly impossible to snag, but I managed a cheap orchestra seat last night. The performance was supposed to have started at 8:00, but there was an announcement of a delay, and finally the performance started at 8:30. The "machine" started moving up and down along with Wagner's up and down chords. I don't know what exactly I expected. Magic? Transformation?

It's been discussed a million times by now, but the unit set of LePage's Ring (dubbed The Machine) is two series of metallic planks. One lines the apron of the stage, and is basically immobile throughout the night. It's also the place most of the singers plant themselves for 99% of the performance. The other set of planks twists and turns and there are lighting projections of pebbles, fire, water, and other images to set the scene. When the "characters" are directed to move across the top series of planks, the work is done by body doubles attached to very visible ropes. I could not help but think that basically, the set looks like a boardwalk.

The boardwalk
There are some nifty effects, like the way the plank twists into a vertical staircase for the descent into Nibelheilm, and the way the plank creates a "bridge" with a rainbow projection for the walk across the rainbow to Valhalla that ends the opera. I also like the Rheinmaidens being suspended on ropes in the opening scene. But basically, the setup of the planks ensures that most of the "stage directions," if they can even be called that, is park and bark to a degree that would embarrass even Melchior and Flagstad. Many of them entered by a body double sliding down the vertical plank, disappearing into the gap between the bottom plank and the top plank, and magic! The actual singer popped up and made his entrance. It was a sight gag that got old quickly. The singers planted themselves on a favorite bottom plank and stayed there, and there was almost no interaction between the singers, and little sense that they were even singing to each other. Das Rheingold is unique among Wagnerian works in that it's a real ensemble piece, and, despite the characters being deities and dwarves, essentially a domestic drama. So watching the singers basically finding a sweet spot and standing there all night long was a discouraging thing to see in a Ring that was supposed to be edgier and more thoughtful than Otto Schenk's styrofoam trees and rocks production. LePage has been open about saying that he did not want a "Regie" production, that he wanted to stay "true" to Wagner's original intentions, but the result is an extremely safe, sterile approach that doesn't really illuminate the story in any way.

The dragon in Das Rheingold

The costumes (by François St-Aubin) and props did not enhance the drama. The gods were dressed in old-fashioned breastplates, ratty mullet wigs, and raggedy skirts that look like they could have fit in Wagner's first-ever Ring production. The Nibelung dwarves and the giants Fasolt and Fafner were absurdly all dressed in dreadlocks and MC Hammer-like baggy pants. Besides being borderline offensive, they undermined the drama, because at the heart of Das Rheingold is the equally greedy, bad behavior of both the gods and the dwarves. To have the Nibelungs look like wannabe rappers and the gods like cartoon book heroes, they erased the nuance Wagner built into the libretto. Everyone looked hokey and cartoonish. The transformation into monsters was laughable -- what looked like huge rubber toys were pushed onto either side of the stage. Another unintentionally hilarious scene was when the gods were instructed by Fasolt and Fafner to "cover Freia in gold" and they proceeded to lower her onto a hammock, and cover her in toy gold pieces that look like something you'd win in a midway.

This is the best costume design you could come up with?

The singers were professional but not really memorable, like the production itself. Bryn Terfel is a bear of a man, maybe 6'6" and a very commanding presence onstage. Unfortunately, this commanding stature is not matched by an equally commanding voice -- his baritone is basically a lyric one, and lies too high for the part of Wotan. Das Rheingold is a much shorter role for Wotan than Die Walkure -- I will be curious to see how he manages the marathon Walkure Wotan. Richard Paul Fink was the Alberich -- a dark, nappy baritone that had little beauty but is acceptable for a role like Alberich, who is a mean nasty little fellow after all. I was sorry I caught the performance without Eric Owens, who was so critically acclaimed in the role in the fall. Stephanie Blythe has developed a big cult following among hardcore opera lovers, and she certainly does have a big ripe contralto voice. But ... it has to be one of the chilliest voices I've ever heard. It's deep, plummy, but distinctly icy in timbre. Fricka is a naggy, cold character, and last year I saw her as Zia Principessa where the cold, cutting voice was somehow appropriate. She is a singer I admire more than love. Also, I hate to mention it but she is now so large that she has difficulty negotiating even the most minimal movement onstage.

The heroes of the night were taken by the smaller roles, who are in Das Rheingold extremely important, as they always are in an ensemble opera. As the witty and mischevious Loge, Arnold Bezuyen made his Met debut and showed a light, pure tenor voice. Loge is one of the few well-developed characters in LePage's staging -- he always has a glow of orange about him, and serves as the wily voice of reason. Part Cupid, part Puck, part Devil. Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia, despite being dressed in the most unflattering breastplate/skirt/mullet wig costumes imaginable, showed with her strong pure soprano why Fasolt and Fafner would be so gaga for her. Gerhard Siegel as Mime also brought some comic relief to the opera. I also liked Lisette Oropesa as one of the Rheinmaidens. Dwayne Croft as Donner, Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt, Hans-Peter Konig as Fafner, all sounded good, even if the production didn't have them do much of anything. One disappointment was Patricia Bardon as Erda, whose voice way too light and mezzo-ish for this real contralto, mother-of-the-earth (literally) role. One longed for a voice like Ernestine Schumann-Heink.

Fabio Luisi subbed for an ailing James Levine in the pit, and it's times like this I miss Levine. The opening up-and-down chords were barely audible under Luisi, as the metal moved. Levine was always able to make the Met orchestra sound great. Luisi made the orchestra sound very routine, and sometimes barely audible under the clank clank of The Machine.

One positive about this production -- I bet the singers love it. It requires practically no movement or blocking on their part, other than not cramping another singer's favorite plank. The singers are pushed to the front of the stage, and the metal planks sound like great acoustic bouncers. After so much money and so much publicity, we seem to be left with a Ring production even more old-fashioned and static than the last one, if that's even possible. The Schenk production had a postcard prettiness if you fancied that sort of thing. LePage's production is just ... blah. Of course, Rheingold is justly thought of as an appetizer to the heart of the cycle, so maybe the production will get more exciting as the cycle progresses. One can hope.


  1. Why is virtually no-one talking about how ghastly the LePage production is? Is it because they're grateful it's not Eurotrash, i.e., no Wotan in wifebeater with a beer instead of a spear in hand, no Fricka washing dishes in an RV kitchenette? On its own terms, that is, working in the abstract, proto-mythical mode pioneered by Wieland Wagner in the 1950s, this staging is a horror, a "hideola," to use Auden's favorite insult. The stage floor looks like a lumber yard, with the oppressive, multi-million dollar "machine" upstaging, in all senses, the performers while curtailing their range of movement. Ludicrous effects abound. In the descent to Nibelheim, Wotan and Loge (their body doubles, not the singers) walk down the "steps" of the machine toward a lighted archway, then double around and come back the way they came. Huh? Fasolt and Fafner, no longer giants on stilts, are isolated on cantilevered platforms from which they cannot move; when, in scene 4, the giants demand that the Nibelung's gold be piled up to Freiea's height ("nach Freieas Gestalt"), Frieia lies down so that her "Gestalt" is the tip of her nose; then those god-awful platforms tilt, slipping her into a net that becomes a hammock, into which the gods start piling golden greaves and shields. She looks like Dorothy Lamour in Road to Bali, being pelted by monkeys with coconuts. When Fafner kills Fasolt a few minutes later, the planks of the "machine" tilt to dump the dead giant unceremoniously into the trough beneath the stage, eliciting (I suspect) unintended laughter from the audience, many of whom may have been reminded, as I was, of Sweeney Todd and his fatal barber's chair.

    LePage and Gelb must be called to account for their perpetration of this fiasco, for their criminal mismanagement in having spent so much of the Met's capital on it, and for forcing us look at it over the entire range of the Ring cycle and for many years to come.

  2. Well I'm an optimist at heart and hope the cycle gets better as it progresses. I mean, in the end, Das Rheingold is maybe the most expendable opera in the cycle.

  3. What a difference the house makes-- when I heard him sing Bacchus last month in the Euro-sized Grand Theatre de Bordeaux, Bezuyen (Loge) sounded loud and verging on leathery rather than light and pure. Not a bad singer, though.

  4. He sounded good in Loge. Not that sour edgy sound of so many "Wagnerian" tenors.


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