Wookiee Hut Theatre Reviews presents:
Das Rheingold
Review by Diana, Snorrlax, GornPod

Composer: Richard Wagner

Libretto: Epic Poem by Richard Wagner

Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Conductor: James Levine

Director: Robert LePage

Production Manager: Bernard Gilbert

Sets: Carl Fillion

Lighting: Étienne Boucher

Costumes: François St-Aubin

Video Images: boris Firquet

Cast: Wotan: Bryn Terfel; Fricka: Stephanie Blythe; Alberich: Eric Owen; Freia: Wendy Bryn Harmer; Lodge: Richard Croft; Froh: Adam Diegel; Donner: Dwayne Croft; Fafner: Hans Peter König; Fasolt: Franz-Josef Selig; Mime: Gerhard Siegel; Erda: Patricia Bardon; Rhinemaidens: Lisette Oropesa, Jennifer Johnson, Tamara Mumford;

Rating: Super Star Destroyer — intimidates and pleases!

If you aren't into it, anything can appear silly. Take opera in general, for instance — and the Ring of the Nibelung in particular: a fantastical epic about that interface in time when the world of humans replaced the world of gods, dwarves, giants, dragons, and mermaids. It's often mistaken for J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings; in fact, Tolkien hated being compared to Wagner's magnum opus, saying that, "other than the fact that both rings are round, that's where the resemblance ends." They do share the same Norse, Germanic, and Icelandic source materials.

The Wagner operas were revolutionary in their day, and very, very popular. But over time, they tended to get mired in tradition and memories of a generation's "glory days," and thus become reviled by the rebellious subsequent generations (a major theme in the story arc). Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, decided that the story should never change, but how to tell it could be modernized and improved.

People howled that this would be "eurotrash / regietheatre," where the story would be taken so far out of its context or the authors' intent as to not be palatable at all. Gelb's press released indicated his choice to re-do the Ring — to replace the elegantly done, 25 year-old Otto Schenk productions — is Robert Lepage and his Ex Machina crew, because Lepage respects the story, and will remain faithful to it. He's quoted as saying he is serving the story and the music, most of all.

Wagner himself wanted the latest mod-cons to tell his story, and if Ex Machina had been available in his time, they probably would have been seriously considered for the job!

At the core of the staging is "the Machine," a moving, almost-breathing / -living platform that changes shape and purpose, depending on the needs of the production. It also takes a video projection equipped with sensors so that the images change with the music and with how the actors touch it. For instance, Lodge, the fire demigod, is surrounded by flames as he walks around the platform, and the fire follows him. Donner's hammer bangs down,and lightning sparks out from exactly that point in the swirling, moving clouds.

It also changes shape, and formed into the fortress built by the giants for the gods, into the banks and waters of the Rhine, the staircase leading down to the Nibelung mines, and in one controversional sequence, into a boogy-boarding slope where Freia and her brothers break into the stage. Some people found this last bit "undigified," but Freia and her brothers are gods of youth, springtime, temper, etc., and we found it refreshingly appropriate for them to come crashing in like many a teen wishes he or she might!

Because of some of the risky moves, Met house policy requires the use of body doubles. This is a big relief to me — the idea of Stephanie Blythe possibly becoming injured as she walks vertically across the Valhalla rainbow bridge is enough to make me afraid to watch the show! So when Wotan and Lodge walk perpendicularly (tethered) on the Machine, breath easy that it's not a couple of expensive, irreplaceable opera singers!

Still, it's a worthwhile thing to do — the visual impact was stunning, and gasp-inducing, and worth the use of stunt doubles. But honestly, it was the quality of the music that was so outstanding, and the tricks and magic didn't detract from any of it. Maestro James Levine has conducted the Ring Cycle many times before, and this time was both more intense and more subtle. Obviously as he's grown and his life has changed and new experiences acquired and others put into perspective, the music will change, too. It's a living, growing thing, and we are the beneficiaries for its beautiful upbringing.

Das Rheingold is the short (two-and-a-half hours) prelude to the meat of the story, and tells the story of how the events over the four operas started. In brief, it's the events that lead up to the destruction of the world, and starts with a gnome named Alberich, who because he cannot find love, eschews it and gains infinite power through the forging of a ring from the magical Rheingold (gold from the river). The ring is demanded as ransom by Wotan, the lord of the gods, and he in turn loses it to ransom his wife's sister Freia, from giants, who have built Valhalla for Wotan. The fee for their services is Freia, but accepting gold instead when it becomes obvious that the gods cannot live without the fruit the goddess of youth and love grows for them.

Because Alberich the Nibelung is the only one who can weild the power of the ring, Wotan lives in fear of him regaining it, and the four-part opera follows the progress of Wotan's folly and the eventual destruction of their world.

Of note was the outstanding surprise voice was Eric Own as Alberich the gnome who eschews love in exchange for power. We saw him as the commanding officer in Doctor Atomic, sadly explaining his food diary to keep his weight down, and how as a young child his mother and aunts were concerned of his love of sweets. In a way, Alberich is an extension of that character, but twisted and determined to find happiness in power instead of the love that always eludes him.

Stephanie Blythe's powerful mezzo-soprano is startling and weilded with skill against Fricka's husband, arguing against using Freia as payment for Valhalla, and the state of affairs between men and women as a whole. Richard Croft plays Lodge, the demigod of fire who is not really included in the circle of gods, but is needed by them. He is the one Wotan charges to find a substitute payment acceptable to the giants; Lodge explains that in all the world, there is nothing more valuable than a woman's worth. However, he also discovers the story of Alberich's abandonment of love for gold, and he's responsible for suggesting Wotan steal the Nibelung's gold to ransom Freia. He's persuasive and has the dubious honor of having to sing and act on a steep slope on the Machine for most of his performance. It was an effective way to show his outsider status, yet also his enviable freedom.

Bryn Terfel, the superstar bass-baritone, was surprisingly weak ... after some thought, we realized this depiction showed Wotan's lack of experience in the world, and his arrogance at assuming the world would kneel to him. He's already showing that he cannot control things, and needs the help of others to fulfill his intentions — a startlingly human god. Even so, his voice is thrilling to hear, but surrounded by the Blythe, Croft, and Owen, he was a god being taken down several levels. (Note: his voice was stronger and more emotive in Walküre, thus we feel that his performance might have been deliberate in Das Rheingold.)

This was a wonderful introduction to Wagner, for those of us who didn't know much about about these operas, or deigned to pre-judge them without experiencing them. It's not the 5.5 hour leviathans the others are, and gave a taste of what we'd be missing if we — like Wotan — continued in our arrogance!

Production images from www.nytimes.com and www.metopera.org

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