On Saturday afternoon, the movie multiplex is usually filled with noisy kids running all over the place. How odd, then, to see a gaggle of middle-aged to elderly folks streaming in. The reason: Opera!
Indeed, the first of new season of the Live from the Met HD broadcasts to local movie theaters opened on Saturday with the new and controversial production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. This is the first of the composer’s four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, about how greed and the lust for power can bring down even the Gods. Robert Lepage is the creative energy behind this production, and Metropolitan Opera Music Director James Levine conducted this first Ring presentation.
The opera musical world was holding it collective breath to see if Levine would be able to conduct at all. He is in poor physical condition and has recently had back surgery. This past year has seen him cancel most performances and a relieved audience gave him an ovation as he appeared to start the opera. And not just the audience that was at the Met. The audience at the AMC Northpark 15 also cheered and clapped, as surely did audiences in movie houses all over the world.
Movie audiences got an extra benefit: A short film on Carl Fillion’s unit set, which will serve for all of the operas in the Ring. All this attention to the set, if you can call it that, is because it is highly unusual. It is 45-ton collection of 24 metal planks the pivot on a crossbeam, much like a seesaw. The cast and crew ominously call it the "Machine." These planks move throughout the production form various levels, stairs, a wall on which there are projections, and define the various locations demanded by Wagner.
It is hard, seeing it on the movie screen, to assess how this great Kafka-esque monstrosity works if you experience it in the opera house. Movie audiences see it up close and in sections, whereas the opera house audience always see it as a whole, dominating the stage. For me, it worked best when it was the Rhine River at the beginning and the magical rainbow bridge to Valhalla at the end. Other times, its movements were distracting and its unrelenting gray, only occasionally relieved by high tech projections, is a far cry from the mountaintops, forests and the sulfurous underground envisioned by the composer. If we tire of it in this first, and shortest, opera of the cycle, it does not bode well for when the whole 24-hour long operatic extravaganza is presented. Time will tell.
By comparison, the costumes by François St-Aubin are fairly standard. They would not be out of place in any Ring production from any era. Some work better than others. Loge is covered by straps and buckles that bring a straight jacket to mind, but his glowing hands are a nice touch for the fire demigod. The puffed-up and padded muscle suits for the giants looked clownish up close in the movie. They probably worked better in the opera house. Fricka was a vision of organza, which was obviously designed to help minimize Stephanie Blythe’s Wagnerian heft.
The staging was minimal and static. Part of this is Wagner’s fault; the opera is mostly a series of narratives, conversations and verbal confrontations. One piece of stage business that didn’t work at all was Freia’s ransom, which is supposed to be a wall of gold that completely hides her from the love-struck giant’s gaze. Bizarrely, she was hung in a hammock and a few miscellaneous shields stuck here and there hardly did the trick. However, the suspended Rhine maidens and the final scene where the gods ascend a vertical wall, blindingly lit as a rainbow, was as memorable a stage trick as you will ever see. Combined with Wagner’s glorious music, it brought chills and gasps from everyone.
Musically, Das Rheingold is a dream come true. Levine was flawless despite his infirmity. No one brings a bigger vision, combined with an attention to the smallest details, to the Ring. Bryn Terfel, singing his first Wotan, was a God-like presence. His shaggy hair covered his missing eye and his menacing bearing was enough to make the brave quail. Vocally, he is perfect for the role. From the softest whisper to the most stentorian pronouncements, his vocal portrayal did as much as his expressions to bring his characterization to life.
Wendy Bryn Harmer brought a clear and bright soprano voice to Freia. Stephanie Blythe was a more sympathetic Fricka than the shrew we usually get. Her voice is amazing and she is a fine actor. Her size harks back to a past era when opera casting was based on vocal ability alone.
Richard Croft’s light tenor served him well as Loge. Gerhard Siegel was a sympathetic Mime. Franz-Josef Selig and Hans-Peter König were convincing as the two giants, despite their overstuffed costumes. Adam Diegel, in his Met debut as Froh, displayed a terrific and bright tenor voice that will surely guarantee him return engagements in leading roles. As his brother, Donner, the Met went the other way by casting the veteran baritone Dwayne Croft. Eric Owens was an outstanding Alberich. Usually depicted as a repulsive dwarf, Owens played him as a worthy opponent in his challenge to the King of the Gods.
Everyone in the movie theater applauded and cheered at the end and during the curtain calls as if the cast could here them. The biggest ovation came for a frail Maestro Levine as he shakily made his way onstage.
►There will be an encore of Das Rheingold at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 27, at the following local theaters: AMC Northpark Center 15 (Dallas), Cinemark 17 (Dallas), Galaxy Theatre (Dallas), AMC Mesquite 30, Cinemark 14 Cedar Hill, AMC Parks At Arlington 18, Vista Ridge Mall (Lewisville), Tinseltown Movies 17 (Grapevine), Cinemark West Plano, Cinemark 12 Town Center (Mansfield), Cinemark 12 Rockwall, Cinemark 24 (The Legacy, Plano), Fossil Creek (ForT Worth), AMC Palace 9 (Fort Worth), Cinemark Allen 16, Movies 14 (Burleson) and Cinemark 14 (Denton). Call your local theater ahead for tickets as these screening sometimes sell out.
►The rest of Live at the Met HD season is:
- Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (noon Oct. 23; 6:30pm Nov. 10) Expected runtime: 5 hours
- Donizetti's Don Pasquale (1pm Nov. 13, 6:30 p.m. Dec. 1) 3 and a half hours
- Verdi's Don Carlo (12:30pm Dec. 11, 6:30pm Jan. 5) 5 hours
- Puccini's La Faniculla del West (1pm Jan. 8, 6:30pm Jan. 26) 3 and a half hours
- Adams' Nixon in China (1pm Feb. 12, 6:30pom March 2) 4 hours
- Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride (1pm Feb. 26, 6:30pm March 16) 2 and a half hours
- Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (1pm March 19, 6:30pm April 6) 4 hours
- Rossini's Le Comte Ory (1pm April 9, 6:30pm April 27) 3 hours
- Strauss' Capriccio (1pm April 23, 6:30pm May 11) 3 hours
- Verdi's Il Trovatore (1pm April 30, 6:30pm May 18) 3 hours
- Wagner's Die Walküre (noon May 14, 6:30pm June 1) 5 and a half hours