‘Das Rheingold’ Glitters as Met Unveils 45 Ton Set: Review

Richard Croft as Loge and Bryn Terfel as Wotan confront the serpent in the new production of "Das Rheingold" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It runs through Oct. 9, returning in the spring. Photographer: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera via Bloomberg

The prospect of a new “Ring” at the Metropolitan Opera has sent opera nuts into a state of hyper-excitement for months on end.

This may be the first production in opera history generating a stream of bulletins on the weight of the set.

Yes, the set, not the soprano.

For this unusual obsession, we thank Canadian director Robert Lepage. The multimedia wizard, best-known for his Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas, was hired to give Wagner’s four-opera epic (full title: “Der Ring des Nibelungen”), a new dimension of edgy fabulousness.

Weighing in at 45 tons, the set was finally unveiled last night as patrons squeezed into the theater, paying as much as $5,500 a seat (this did include a champagne dinner ending with ‘Smores) for “Das Rheingold.”

More frugal brothers and sisters braved the drizzle and settled into free seats in front of the Met and down a few blocks at Times Square for a live transmission.

With gold at record heights and Gordon Gekko back at the trough, what could be more entertaining than this story of boundless ambition and greed in the pursuit of power and wealth -- including the acquisition of one large and unaffordable mansion called Valhalla.

Auf Wiedersehen

Rejected by the three Rhinemaidens, gnome Alberich, the Nibelung of the title, steals their gold, setting in motion events that will culminate, almost 17 hours later, in “Goetterdaemmerung,” when Valhalla is destroyed as the world burns to a crisp.

The Met’s retired production, first seen in 1986, reflected Wagner’s stage directions to the last musty leaf and painted boulder. It looked as if Bruennhilde had galloped into a diorama of the wildebeest at the American Museum of Natural History.

The old-fashioned production made the Met a magnet for battered Wagnerian world wanderers seeking to escape concept productions by avant-garde directors in chic operatic enclaves of Europe where it’s verboten to stage Wagner without referencing the Fuhrer, who was such a fan.

Lepage’s “Ring” is abstract, weighty and costly, though we await a truth-telling Norn to reveal the actual budget. The Met has suggested something in the range of $16 million for the production. Another $4.5 million was spent replacing the wagons that roll sets to the footlights. Reinforcing the main stage to support the set cost $100,000.

I guess no one thought of suggesting plastic to Lepage or set designer Carl Fillion.

Flying Maidens

The thing is so heavy it slumbers on its own wagon on a side stage between shows. Normally, stage hands pack sets into trucks.

When rolled out in front of the prompter’s box, it takes on a life of its own, albeit slowly and sometimes sullenly. The computer programmers supervising the thing must have sweated bullets all night long.

In the front, is a strip where the singers take their place. Behind that, a trough, which facilitates magic tricks and at one point turns into a garbage chute when the gnome needs to disappear. Beyond that, is the shape-changing thing, whose elements fold and open into all kinds of unusual forms: battlements, a wing, a sheltering keyboard.

The most startling effect came right at the start, when the Rhine, after hesitating, flowed into view.

As those somber E flat chords drifted up from the pit, the set began to move, undulating like a wave. Then the Rhinemaiden trio floated up, attached to cables and harnesses, blowing bubbles as they dangled 30 feet above the stage.

Scary Serpent

It was spellbinding. So was the visit to Nibelheim, where Alberich turns himself into a serpent. As the gnome disappeared into the trough, an amusingly horrible skeletal head stuck out its tongue from one side of the stage, while lashing the opposite side with its tail. Doubles for Wotan and Loge pick their way up a scary staircase.

The real Wotan (Bryn Terfel) tended to hover near the prompt box with wife Fricka (Stephanie Blythe). Both sang magnificently, though Lepage doesn’t provide much space for conflict and drama.

Wotan’s family shuttles along a narrow platform, though Loge, god of fire, gets to walk backward up an incline.

Everyone sang exceedingly well, urged on to ever greater glory by James Levine, celebrating 40 years at the Met. He didn’t conduct like someone who has recently endured back surgery and serious ailments. Perhaps he has access to Freia’s magic apples?

Eric Owens

The keeper of the rejuvenating fruit was brightly sung by Wendy Bryn Harmer. Richard Croft was charming as Loge, god of fire. Adam Diegel brought a first-rate tenor and paisley skirt to the effete Froh. The giants, Franz-Josef Selig and Hans-Peter Koenig, rumbled impressively. Gerhard Siegel was an especially vivid Mime. Eric Owens, now one of the greatest bass-baritones in the world, was sublime as crazy Alberich.

Still, as time went on, I was thankful the set was so active, since it did get boring watching the singers walk on and off. Then the set let me down.

What happened to the rainbow bridge? You know, the rainbow bridge which spans the valley and brings the gods to Valhalla? Wotan and his family just stood around staring at a multicolored airstrip. Did one of the elves working the computers keel over?

But by then a spell had been cast by Lepage and his team. “Rheingold” is just the beginning of a long journey.

Some in the audience did not seem pleased by the prospect, judging by the curtain calls. While deafening cheers greeted the cast and Levine, Lepage’s reception was mixed with boos.

“Das Rheingold” continues in repertory at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, through April 2, 2011. Information: http://www.metopera.org.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

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