There was much to praise and much to question about Robert Lepage’s highly anticipated production of Das Rheingold, the first opera in Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, which opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 127th season last night and marked the return of music director James Levine to the podium. If you want a single catty line about the performance for your upcoming cocktail party, it might be something like: “I can’t believe the rainbow bridge at the end didn’t work! Millions of dollars for shoddy machinery?”
But the truth is, the production was more complex, and more problematic, than a dismissive observation.
The central element of the production is something the Met and the press have taken to calling “the machine”-a long row of loosely L-shaped planks, which can see-saw individually and also rise and fall as a unit, creating many possible configurations. Moreover, the entire structure functions as a projection screen, particularly for the interactive, digital projections in which Mr. Lepage and his team specialize, like a hill of pebbles that gently roll down as Alberich climbs up and a small circle of flames that accompanies the fire god Loge when he walks. There are times when Mr. Lepage’s vision is elegantly realized: The opera opens with the machine undulating mesmerizingly as the River Rhine, and the gods’ journey down a treacherous staircase to the mines of Niebelheim has epic scope.
But while elaborate scenic effects are integral to any Ring, Mr. Lepage’s often feel decorative and detached from the characters and story. Those pebbles are fine, but when done over, and over, and over, the trick feels self-congratulatory. The similar, if rather more impressive, projections in Mr. Lepage’s Met production of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust evoked a similar reaction: We get that it’s possible. But is that it?
Curiously, for all its innovations, the production is timid, deploying a select few effects a few too many times, perhaps because Ring lovers can be brutal towards directors who take too many liberties.
The timidity extended to the singers, who sounded good but acted tentative, as though they weren’t quite sure where to stand. Overshadowed by swirling dark clouds, their relationships never came fully into focus. Bryn Terfel had some magisterial moments as Wotan, the king of the gods, but he seemed vocally ill at ease; Stephanie Blythe was characteristically powerful but uncharacteristically unsubtle as his wife, Fricka. Eric Owens, as Alberich, has a rich voice but was occasionally overpowered by the full orchestra, which proved to be a more serious problem for Richard Croft, as Loge, and Dwayne Croft, as Donner, both of whom have sweet voices too small for their roles.
Mr. Lepage’s “machine,” which looks in several of its shapes much like a dam, seems designed to pay homage to another massive set, one from the most influential Ring production of the past 50 years: Patrice Chéreau’s 1977 version, which marked the cycle’s centenary.
Mr. Chéreau wrote in the program notes for that production, “At the beginning of Rheingold, there is this object on stage which could perhaps be a dam but which could also be many other things. It is a menacing construction, a theatrical machine to produce a river, and an allegorical shape which today generates energy. It is perhaps a mythological presence, the mythology of our time.”
Throughout the Ring‘s first century, directors had been basically confined to one of two options: either hyperrealism-forests, breastplates, and horned helmets, like in the Met’s previous production-or, after World War II, a purifying, spare abstraction. Mr. Chéreau’s production changed everything. His conception was realistic, but there were no breastplates in sight. He saw the work as a grand depiction of the transition from the 18th to the 19th century-the fall of the gods was the fall of the aristocracy and the rise of industrial labor capitalism. Though his work has given rise to too many half-baked “concept” productions, Mr. Chéreau conveyed the story perfectly and created a framework for tremendous psychological subtlety.
And his Rheingold began with the dam-machine, a symbol of the industrial revolution. The Met’s new set, while evoking Mr. Chéreau’s, is post-industrial and digitized. Mr. Lepage’s vision, despite the traditional Nordic costumes, proves to be more bytes than iron.
We arrive from Mr. Chéreau’s world, in which the characters (and audience) are thrown immediately into implacable opposition to technology, to Mr. Lepage’s, in which humans are immersed in technology as they seem to shape it, relating to it in ways that were once unimaginable. From a 19th- and 20th-century vision of machines and factories taking up space, we are now in the 21st century, in which Mr. Lepage’s “machine,” all 45 tons of it, goes out of its way to seem as invisible as possible, with projections that make you feel that it’s ashamed to be as dominating as it is. With those little air bubbles and pebbles, it’s even cute.
Both “dams” describe the same fantasy, which is the fantasy of any technology: control. Chéreau, and Wagner, bitterly critiques this illusion of control and power-in the cycle, it’s what brings down the gods-but Robert Lepage celebrates it: Surely something so responsive to us, so interactive, so blandly pretty, can’t be bad. Like Mr. Chéreau, Mr. Lepage is interested in creating a stage world very much like our own, but the 2010 Rheingold seems much more seduced than menaced by technology.
Live by technology, die by technology: The shocking malfunction at the end of last night’s performance, which kept the gods from entering Valhalla, recalled the technical mishap during the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics in February, when a column didn’t rise to light the Olympic flame. On both occasions, as awkward seconds became uneasy minutes, we were left wondering if technology had fully betrayed us-staring, last night, at slowly morphing colored bars that recalled nothing so much as a screensaver.
It was a sobering but oddly appropriate conclusion to a spectacle that Wagner wouldn’t have recognized, not only because of advances in set design, but because in both stagecraft and morality, he believed above all that nothing should exist solely for its own sake-power for the sake of power, technology for the sake of technology. Mr. Lepage’s production demonstrates many of the the cool things we can do, but not their larger moral or aesthetic purpose. In our digital world, we assume that technology can effortlessly bridge distances, but as the end of this Rheingold showed, however unintentionally, there are limitations to that worldview. Technology couldn’t get us to Valhalla. Wagner, I think, would have been pleased to have us discover that.