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At the Metroplitan Opera, some boos for a new 'Rheingold' and cheers for James Levine

September 28, 2010 |  1:00 pm
  Rheingold
NEW YORK -- Director Robert Lepage’s new, multimillion-dollar production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” at the Metropolitan Opera was designed to take an audience’s breath away. Monday evening, the opening night crowd did indeed seem to have the air knocked out of them — but the sudden, palpable astonishment was not due to Lepage’s directorial wizardry, but rather the sight of musical director James Levine trying to make his way onto the stage for a bow.

Equal to the suspense surrounding Lepage’s production (which required a rebuilt stage and was rumored to have problems in rehearsal), the return of Levine — who has conducted all but one performance of “Rheingold” at the Met since 1981 — to the podium after an absence of seven months due to major back surgery was also in doubt.

But just before the opera began, Levine’s signature tuft of gray hair popped up in the orchestra pit and the audience gave the conductor (whose appearance last night marked 40 years with the company) a triumphant hand. The Met’s longtime artistic director proceeded to lead his band in a lucid and surprisingly brisk rendition of Wagner’s score. A few horn problems in the final scene notwithstanding, the opening night patrons heard a sterling orchestral performance.

Because of this the audience was primed to give Levine another rousing ovation at curtain call; but when the maestro appeared at the side of the stage, needing to be assisted out for his bow — not dressed in his customary white tie and tux and looking a fraction of the size he was at last season’s opening night — the air suddenly seemed to be sucked out of the hall.  The applause quickly returned, but in that moment everyone at the Met was forced to confront the toll that the 67-year-old Levine’s health problems have taken on the formerly indefatigable conductor.

As unsteady as he looked while taking his bows, Levine at least delivered the goods musically — which is more than can be said for Lepage’s ambitious staging.  Admittedly dazzling at times, Lepage’s giant, rotating staircase set malfunctioned at the most critical point on opening night, making it impossible for the Gods to enter Valhalla (instead, the opera ended with Richard Croft’s Loge simply staring at a flickering rainbow light on an almost empty stage.

Lepage and his $16-million “Ring” might ultimately win over Met audiences, but after the first installment, the Canadian director was met at his curtain calls with a swirl of applause, boos and even hisses.  Some of the disapproval from the Met crowd might simply be an issue of scale. Unlike the previous Otto Schenk “Ring,” which was hyper-realistic and filled Met’s large proscenium, Lepage’s sets, even when they dazzle (as with the ravishing Rheinmaidens and shifting pebbles on the river floor or Wotan and Loge’s gravity-defying march into Nibelheim) often leave large swathes of the stage in blackness. 

Angelenos who saw Lepage’s “The Blue Dragon” when presented by UCLA Live two years ago won’t be surprised to hear that his take on Wagner’s myths is that of a chamber drama set against sleek video projections.  In contrast to Achim Freyer’s recent L.A. Opera "Ring," which presented the tetralogy as a big expressionist circus, Lepage clearly wants the audience to focus on the characters as individuals, not Brechtian archetypes. Lepage’s gods wear old-fashioned gowns and breastplates instead of elaborate (and distancing) masks and surreal costumes.

TerfrelThe leader of Wagner’s Gods, Wotan, was performed by Bryn Terfel, who was performing the role for the first time in the U.S.  (He will appear in recital at Disney Concert Hall in November. ) The Welsh bass-baritone was less commanding than his Wotan at London’s Covent Gardens seen in seasons past.  On Monday night, his voice and breath control were indeed impressive, but he seemed tentative at times — perhaps due to the staging problems. The rest of the cast was strong, especially Stephanie Blythe’s domineering Fricka and Eric Owens’ richly sung Albrecht. Owens, last heard at L.A. Opera as Grendel, delivered a strong characterization as the antagonist, despite heavy dreadlocks and leather that called to mind John Travolta in the movie “Battlefield Earth.”

(Speaking of gowns and surreal costumes, the Met’s opening night audience included both — along with plenty of boldfaced names: Patricia Clarkson, Christine Baranski, Mark Rylance, Barbara Walters, Vogue’s André Leon Talley, in this writer’s direct line of vision alone.)

There will be much debate about Lepage’s “Ring” in the weeks ahead.  The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote that he had mixed feelings about the production. 

L.A. based Ring-nuts — and the rest of the world — will get a chance to see this “Rheingold” on Oct. 9 when it screens in local cinemas as the first installment of the Met’s “Live in HD” season. Ultimately though, “Das Rheingold” is a curtain-raiser (even if it is a two-plus-hour one) and like any good overture or trailer, it should leave you wanting more.

After the first performance of L.A. Opera’s “Das Rheingold,” after the Gods (successfully) ascended to Valhalla, I wanted to experience the next installment immediately.  In the wake of the first night of this new “Ring,” I think I can wait a while. The next opera, “Die Walküre,” won’t be seen until the spring, which gives the Met plenty of time to work out the kinks in Lepage’s machinery.  With luck it will also give Maestro Levine time to heal, so that his next bow will be as assured as his baton.

-- James C. Taylor

Photos: Top, "Das Rheingold" and, below, Stephanie Blythe and Bryn Terfel. Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

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