Kids today just aren't that into Wagner. I suppose that fact is self-evident to most people, but for some reason, I was genuinely surprised to arrive at the Metropolitan Opera's “Live in HD” broadcast of “Das Rheingold” at the Regal Hollywood-24 this Saturday to find that the audience was primarily old. Where are all the young people, I wondered? Why aren't 15-hour German opera cycles about the cataclysmic, self-inflicted extinction of Nordic gods reaching them? As I took my seat, I couldn't really come up with an answer. Fortunately, the entire audience managed to survive long enough to enjoy “Das Rheingold,” the first opera in Wagner's “Ring.” The production was stellar, but not without its serious flaws.
Most of the anticipation about this production of Wagner's “Ring” has revolved around the machine, the $16 million piece of stagecraft that's meant to add 21st century special effects to Wagner's elaborate story of heroes, gods and goddesses. All productions of the “Ring” at the Met this year are sold out, so the Live in HD screenings are your only remaining chance to get a glimpse of it this season. (The Greatest Generation is onto this, why aren't you?)
From the beginning, I had mixed feelings about “the machine." Some of the effects were impressive. The Rhinemaidens' entrance, dressed as mermaids, suspended from cables, rising upwards as the opening prelude's chords swelled, was pretty breathtaking. One of the evening's cleverest effects—Wotan and Loge descending into the underworld—was achieved by the machine turning on its side as two stunt doubles suspended by cables “descended” a staircase horizontally, as if we the audience were looking down on them from above. The finale with the gods walking over a rainbow (which tech-failed on opening night, leaving the cast of gods to shuffle off-stage disconsolately instead of crossing triumphantly into Valhalla) succeeded at Saturday's matinee spectacularly.
But, surprisingly, in the end, the set seemed at its most effective when it was at its plainest and stillest, doing nothing but looking planky and minimalist and blank. Wagner's music does so much—if not all—of the work of creating these worlds, and the set often did nothing more than provide a surprisingly plain, but effective backdrop..
Recently, many opera directors have begun to seek out a more realistic, cinema-like, glamorous, and convincing look for their operas (Read: Fatties need not apply.) Madame Butterfly, they seem to be saying, should look like a pretty, young geisha girl, not someone you're likely to run into at the buffet at Piccadilly. But does this trend come at the expense of the music? Have talented singers been passed over for Mimis and Violettas who can fit into slinky black Versace dresses? Many fans—including myself—would argue yes. The most famous example: the splendid soprano Deborah Voigt was fired from a production at the London Royal Opera House for being too fat about six years ago, making headlines worldwide. (Interestingly, Voigt will play Brunnhilde in later installments of the Met's “Ring.” She hosted and introduced “Rheingold” on Saturday, showing off a new, slim body: She's lost a lot of weight and looked very glam and pretty, proving once and for all it ain't over til the rail-thin runway model sings).
Anyway, I think the machine adds another layer to this conundrum. I'll illustrate this way: At one point, my partner turned and gave me a look that said “Did I really just see someone make their entrance onto the Met stage by sliding down a giant machine on their belly?” (He can actually say all that with just a look. I think he must practice.) And, yes, a singer did actually slide onto the Met stage belly down, head first. It took a moment for it to sink in. Something historic had occurred.
One wonders: Will the future job requirements of opera singers include having a splendid voice, a luscious bod AND all the skills of a Cirque du Soleil aerialist on top of it? If so, I here dissent. I call on all directors and performers to begin asking themselves: What would Montserrat Caballe do? Would she slide onto the stage of the Met on her belly or whiz above the audiences' heads like Peter Pan or scale a vertical wall suspended by cables while wearing a black mini-skirt and singing “Casta Diva”? No? Then don't do it.
In all seriousness, asking someone to sing Wagner while suspended 30 feet above the stage by ropes (and showing off a bit of leg) may be asking too much. It was amazing to look at, but I hope it's not a trend. If so... Fricka, you in danger, girl.
In spite of the machine's great sturm-and-drang, the absolute show-stealer of the afternoon was inarguably Eric Owens as Alberich. His voice was solid but agile, possessing effortless heft and clarity: it really was an amazing effect all its own. Even Bryn Terfel as Wotan—whose voice and performance I admired very much—could sound a little light next to him. James Levine's conducting was another star turn. Wagner's music has an unearthly trippiness (ya hear that, millenials?) and an overwhelmingly immersive you-are-there quality. James Levine never failed to bring this out of his singers and his orchestra. His profound and experienced understanding of the score's many moods was always front and center.
Was this $16 million well spent? Maybe, maybe not. The costumes were colorless and unimaginative. I didn't like the hyper-stylized, monolithic, computer, clip-art look of what was projected onto the machine either: water, rocks, leaves, stars. If anything, I found myself longing for some real fake shrubbery and real fake boulders, if you know what I mean. In the end, perhaps nothing, no amount of live stagecraft, will ever quite be able to match Wagner's vision or music. People don't fly or change into toads, you can't convincingly show an underwater scene on a stage, and so on. Maybe it will always remain out of reach of stagecraft, no matter how advanced we become. Perhaps the most impressive way to experience Wagner is to listen to a recording and picture the outrageous happenings yourself.
Towards the end of the show, it occurred to me that THAT'S probably where all the kids are: they're probably at home getting stoned and listening to the Solti recordings of the “Ring” on headphones!
Next week's five-and-a-half hour production of “Boris Godunov,” about an aging, 16th century emperor's slow descent into madness—in Russian— will no doubt draw them back to the theater in droves.
An encore of "Das Rheingold" will screen on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010 at 6:30 p.m. "Boris Godunov" premieres live October 23, 2010 at 12:00 pm. For more information and locations visit The Met.
Seventy rounds fired? I'm surprised that Ghetto Gobins can even perform a magazine change.
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