by Angela Sutton
And...we're off, into the murk of the Rhine and Robert LePage's new vision of Richard Wagner's massive saga The Ring of the Niebelungs, which will be presented in three complete cycles at the Met over the next five weeks. The Ring is a difficult proposition at best, and in this new staging the cast must not only sing and act, but also scale cliffs and hang from moving harnesses.
Fabio Luisi conducted Saturday night's performance of the first opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold, and while he supported the singers well, he was too careful with the orchestra's sound. It was somewhat lacking bass, and inexplicably steered away from the necessary savagery, particularly in the scenes with the giants Fasolt and Fafner, or during Alberich's curse.
Stefan Margita's Loge served as the acid-tongued conscience of the opera, and though his enunciation left something to be desired, he crackled in every scene, by turns cajoling and crafty. Bryn Terfel, as Wotan, gave a rich vocal performance, showing some acting chops during the capture of Alberich. Another standout in this scene, Gerhard Siegel, convincingly delivered Mime's cries of pain while conveying the character's sense of betrayal. Stephanie Blythe portrayed Wotan's wounded wife Fricka in a melting vocal, though unfortunately the set did not give her (or Terfel) much to work with in their scenes together. And Eric Owen's dark bass-baritone worked well for Alberich the tyrant, though I had a harder time believing him as a would-be lover in the opening scene.
The most conspicuous aspect of this new production, however, is the set: namely, the twenty-four fiberglass fingers of doom, otherwise known as The Machine. To be sure, The Machine has its flaws. For one thing, it clunks. For another, its division into fixed front and movable rear sections creates a trench partway up the stage. This artificial division makes for awkward entrances. For example, when the Nibelungs' arrive with Alberich's ransom, they are forced to clamber on and off through it like a lumpen chorus line. After Fasolt's murder, a giant "hand" formed by The Machine dumps his body into the trench like a sack of potatoes, prompting giggles from the audience at what is supposed to be a dark and dramatic moment.
At other times, however, the Machine was far more effective. During the opening scene, it rotates, by turns water and riverbed, as the Rhinemaidens sink down in grief. Erda (Patricia Bardon) enters as the fingers ripple upwards, lifting the cast around her in a 3-dimensional, dramatically-lit ring as she delivers her warning. And, in the greatest set piece of the night, during the descent into Nibelheim, Wotan and Loge scale a staircase that twists as they move, revealing the hellish, maggot-like Nibelung's forge below.
If all of the scenes were as good as these, the Met would have a winner. We'll see how things go this Friday at Die Walkure.