I wrote a preview of the Opera Roanoke season and the Met Live in HD broadcasts last week, and now that I've seen Das Rheingold for myself, I'll write a bit about what audience members can expect when they attend the broadcast in Roanoke at Virginia Western on Oct 10. I will start with a brief "listener's guide" and then offer a brief review of the performance and production.
(For a detailed synopsis, you can go to the Met website or any number of other online sources).
The opening of Das Rheingold is pure genius. It represents the Rhine river in a long unfolding over one basic chord (E-flat, a key associated with the the divine in Bach and the heroic in Beethoven). As the Met playbill puts it "there is nothing in all of opera like this miraculous beginning." Wagner's description of its origin may be apocryphal, but is nonetheless colorful as the music itself.
"I awoke from my half-sleep in terror, feeling as though the waves were now rushing high above my head...I quickly understood the very essence of my own nature: the stream of life was not to flow to me from without, but from within."
And from that "stream of life" a 2 1/2 hour "prologue" in four seamless scenes emerges from the depths of the Rhine and ascends to Valhalla, the castle of the gods.
Out of the these watery origins emerge three Rhine Maidens, mermaids who guard the opera's eponymous subject, the gold of the Rhine. Space does not allow for the volume that could be written on Wagner's use of leitmotiven ("leading motives"). Risking oversimplification, consider these motives as aural clues. Musical signs and symbols. Character traits manifest through music. The Rhine Maidens effervescence (and their dangerous coyness) is reflected in the music they sing and the orchestrations that accompany them. The lord of the Nibelungs, Alberich, is characterized by dark and brooding music before he sings a note. Listen for the subtle but significant shift in tone in the lower strings that heralds Alberich's appearance. Listening to Wagner is like reading with your ears. And one of the measures of a good stage production--of any opera in any style--is how it complements and partners the music. I think this new production is a resounding success in that regard.
Each of the scenes in Das Rheingold has a pivotal dramatic point. In the first scene it comes when Alberich renounces love and steals the gold. Like so much of Wagner, the drama is writ large in the music, allowing the ear to trace the narrative.
One of many felicities of this opera is the musical arch Wagner traces between the scenes. These orchestral interludes function on two levels by serving the musical drama and facilitating the changes of scene. The transition into the second scene introduces us to Wotan, lord of the gods and his wife Fricka in music of noble breadth (richly scored wind and brass orchestrations) that informs us through the ears who these characters are.
The second scene pivots around Wotan's contract (one of several areas over which he presides) with the giants who have built the castle, Valhalla. After the marital dialogue that allows us to literally listen in on two complex people in a complicated relationship, we hear the drama accelerate. Freia enters in music out of the romantic German tradition of sturm und drang ("storm and stress"), pursued by the twin giants, coming to collect her as wages for their labor.
The second scene introduces us to the gods and giants and the scheming demigod Loge, lord of fire. This mercurial character (the adjective is literal) has music that hums and buzzes and busies about like the intriguer Loge is. Whenever his music sounds in the trilling upper voices of the orchestra, you know something is afoot.
The second interlude descends into the nether regions of the Nibelheim and the music shifts accordingly into the arrestingly industrial sound of 18 anvils pounding away behind the scenes of Alberich's sweatshop. The confrontation between Wotan, Loge and Alberich results in Alberich's capture. When Alberich proves his powers of sorcery by turning into a giant snake, the music reveals the source of virtually every film score written since. You can hear when trouble is eminent and/or when these characters are up to no good! One fleeting moment of humor is orchestrated near the end of this scene when Loge tricks Alberich into transforming himself into a small toad. Listen for the "ribbit" in the clarinets, and do not accuse Wagner of lacking any sense of humor!
The final scene pivots on Alberich's curse of the magic ring he is forced to relinquish to Wotan. As in Tolkien's famous epic, the ensuing drama unfolds around a ring cursed for its power. That curse comes in the first section of the final scene, and it is the last we hear of Alberich for some time. Another character who appears infrequently--but is always pivotal--has one of the best entrances in all of opera. Erda emerges from beneath the earth's surface to warn Wotan of the ring's evil power. The curse is fulfilled for the first time just minutes later when the giants fight over the ring Wotan has reluctantly given them. You could close your eyes and hear exactly when, where and how Fafner kills his twin brother Fasolt over the ring.
After all this grim drama, some supernatural wonder is called for, and Wagner delivers with short "arias" for the brothers of thunder and lightning, Donner and Froh. Donner's hammer clears away the clouds and Froh builds a magic rainbow bridge to carry the gods into their new castle of a home, Valhalla. Even if you've never seen or heard Das Rheingold, this music should sound familiar, like an old friend whose acquaintance we know even if we can't place its origins. The triumphal ascent into the castle completes the musical arch begun in the Rhine in the richest "prologue" to opera's greatest epic.
The big news of the Met's new production is Robert Lepage's 21st century production involving a 45-ton set dubbed "the machine" with interactive technology that responds to the singers' movements and voices. It's simply brilliant. And a beautiful example of technology in the service of art.
The video projections on the set work on multivalent levels like the music. The machine's transformation from scene to scene mirrors the music. It is a beautiful use of space and design. It is a "unit set" (that is, one primary set piece that serves every scene, varied through lights and props) for the 21st century that only a multi-million dollar production could support.
Watching the machine transform from the deep-hued water of the Rhine (in the prelude) to a virtual shell-bed upon which the Rhine Maidens play (in the first scene) was thrilling. As was each of its transitions throughout the evening. The Met and the NY Times have videos and photo galleries linked (and we have linked some of those on the Opera Roanoke Facebook page). The move to and from Nibelheim was the most dramatic and was literally a sight to behold. The lighting was perfect. The range of gold, copper and bronze (burnished with chiaroscuro shadings) to depict Alberich's realm evoked both the gold's lustrous allure and the uncomfortable darkness of slaves' quarters.
The visual claustrophobia of Nibelheim was relieved by the brilliant laser-light rainbows at the conclusion. It is one of the most visually striking productions I've seen. And it was innovative without being indulgent. It was also traditional and faithful to Wagner. It was servant and collaborator to and with the score.
And how well was the score served! For starters and closers, Wagner couldn't have a better collaborator than James Levine. I bravoed when he first appeared in the pit; the ovation that greeted his arrival was worthy of the stature of one of the most treasured maestros in operatic history.
And the Met has assembled a cast to deliver the goods. From supporting roles like the Rhine maidens (who are alluring vocally and visually) to the key players of Wotan and Alberich, this is a well-sung Rheingold. Eric Owens was the best sounding "bad guy" I've heard in the often thankless role of Alberich. I heard singing that would make him a formidable Wotan. The star of the Met's new cycle is the great Welsh bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel, and he lived up to his hype (the Met's expensive PR campaign features life-size posters on bus stops with Terfel's Wotan and the tagline "mingle with the gods"). Stephanie Blythe was Terfel's partner, and her rich mezzo is as compelling as any singer in her class. Patricia Bardon's Erda was memorably sung, and other supporting roles like Dwayne Croft's Donner and Adam Diegel's Froh commanded attention with their ardent vocalism. I was particularly happy to hear Adam's Met debut, as we shared a memorable fall together in Tulsa several seasons ago. It is always a thrill to share a friend's success.
More than any other opera composer, Wagner rises or falls with the orchestra and conductor recreating his musical dramas. The Met Orchestra's playing under Maestro Levine was simply superb. They sounded magnificent--incisive and finely etched in executing the motivic details and beautifully shaped in the sweeping grandeur of Wagner's vision. I was thrilled and cannot wait for Die Walküre next spring!
Get your Met in HD tickets online from Opera Roanoke or Virginia Western Community College, or at the door Sunday, October 10 at 1 pm.