Met Opera season kicks off with Lepage's Rheingold

Robert Lepage's Ring cycle has arrived at the Metropolitan Opera, all 90,000 pounds of it. And, for the most part, it's worth its weight in gold.
Robert Lepage's staging of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Monday night. ((Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera/Associated Press))
The Ring has arrived, all 40 tonnes of it. And, for the most part, it's worth its weight in gold. 

The object in question is the most talked-about set in years at the Metropolitan Opera, a high-tech machine designed by Canadian director Robert Lepage for his new production of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle.

After years of construction and months of rehearsal, it finally went on public display Monday night as the company opened its season before an enthusiastic gala audience with the first instalment in the four-part work, Das Rheingold.

If not yet a complete triumph, the production has the ingredients to become one, with enough awe-inspiring effects and haunting images to create wonderment that befits Wagner's mythological epic. At present, the effect is marred by a few glitches and head-scratching moments — but this is, after all, a Ring in progress.

Lepage's "machine" consists of 24 aluminum planks attached to a central spine like so many parallel see-saws. They can rotate together, bend in the middle or move independently to take on almost any shape, from the banks of the Rhine River to a spiral staircase to an underground cave. Computerized projections and lighting do the rest.

Impressive set dazzles

The magic begins before a word is sung, as the orchestral prelude conjures up the beginnings of the world at the bottom of the Rhine. The planks, stretched flat on the stage floor, begin to undulate gently, mimicking the music. Suddenly, the planks rise up to reveal the three Rhinemaidens swimming upward in harness, exhaling bubbles as they sing.

After they have taunted the dwarf Alberich and he steals their gold to make into a magic ring, the first scene ends with an indelible image: the three of them lying almost motionless in despair atop the set. Then, during the musical transition to the next scene, the set slowly rotates to drop the Rhinemaidens out of sight while a new configuration takes shape — an upward-sloping hillside in the land of the gods.

The hefty new Das Rheingold set has an undulating 'machine' consisting of 24 aluminum planks attached to a central spine. Cast members in the revived opera include, from left, Eric Owens as Alberich, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Richard Croft as Loge. ((Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera/Associated Press))
Another breathtaking effect comes after the second scene, when Wotan, king of the gods, and Loge, half-god of fire, descend to the underground world of Nibelheim to steal the ring from Alberich. As the music swells, the planks contort themselves into a steeply slanted staircase where stunt men doubling for the singers gingerly make their way.

There are lots of felicitous small touches, such as the platforms that open up for the giants, thrusting out toward the audience like the menacing fingers on a hand. Or the way Loge scampers backward up a steep slope, a ring of fire dancing around his feet.

Among the bugs that need to be ironed out: The set creaks a lot when it moves, Loge's shoes squeak when he walks backward and at one point a stagehand had to emerge from beneath the set to free a wire that apparently became tangled.

A more serious disappointment is the anticlimactic ending, when the gods are supposed to cross a rainbow bridge to reach their new home, Valhalla. Strips of shifting coloured lights move up the centre of the stage and patches of colour light the back, but they look more like a test pattern than a real rainbow. And instead of walking on the bridge, the gods simply exit to the side of the stage, leaving it bare during the final triumphal measures.

Outstanding performances

If some matters still need tending to on the technical side, musically it's hard to imagine a better performance.

The Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel was riveting as Wotan, playing him as a vigorous, hot-tempered god, full of youthful pride and daring. Vocally, he was overpowering, ringing top notes alternating with gently modulated phrases.

Quebec director and actor Robert Lepage, shown in Toronto in 2009, is revamping the Met Opera's entire Ring Cycle. Die Walkuere will follow in the spring. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)
Matching him in quality was American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as his wary but devoted wife, Fricka. The unforced amplitude of her voice throughout its range was thrilling and her tone never less than gorgeous.

Among many others in the ensemble cast, bass-baritone Eric Owens made Alberich into a memorable villain, his face contorted into a malignant grin as he cursed Wotan and all who may possess the ring. Basses Franz-Josef Selig and Hans-Peter Koenig were a strong pair of giants, and tenor Richard Croft made for a lively Loge, perhaps lacking quite enough volume to rise over some of Wagner's orchestration.

Back in the pit for the first time since February, music director James Levine produced magnificent sounds from the orchestra in a somewhat leisurely performance of the score. Still recovering from back surgery, he walked slowly and with extreme caution when he came out on stage for a bow.

New Ring a massive investment

Lepage and his production crew were greeted mostly with cheers when they took their bows. There were some boos, but nothing like opening night a year ago, when a new production of Tosca was practically hooted off the stage.

Like any new Ring production, the Lepage project represents a huge investment. For the Metropolitan Opera, the stakes are even higher than the $16 million US price tag, because the previous production, by Otto Schenk, was beloved for having sets that were deliberately old-fashioned.

With Die Walkuere to come this spring, and the final two instalments in 2011-12, there's plenty of time for Lepage to build on his most promising start.

Robert Lepage's Das Rheingold set is unlike any ever seen on an opera stage. ((Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera/Associated Press))