The long-awaited revival of Robert Lepage’s staging of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera is in full swing, capping off the Met’s 2018–19 season. Lepage’s production design is unforgettable, and the giant machine that serves as its centerpiece is distinctive enough to seem like its own character — a protean behemoth that moves and changes form with slow but inexorable energy.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Das Rheingold is the first of four operas in Wagner’s epic about the gods and heroes of Norse and Germanic mythology. Wagner draws on much of the same source material as Tolkien does for The Lord of the Rings. The plot centers on Wotan, ruler of the gods — who, despite wielding tremendous power, seems unsure of himself and makes almost comically shortsighted deals. There’s a magic ring that can control the world, which soon falls into the wrong hands, and Wotan must retrieve it in order to pay ransom for his sister-in-law, Freia, to the giants Fasolt and Fafner.
Lepage’s staging is truly impressive. The featured machine serves at various times as a backdrop for projections, a platform on which singers walk, and a staircase turned on its side from which characters are suspended. A comparison to cinematic cuts is easy but warranted; watching the stage warp to fit the scenes was like watching the world shift and realize itself, building its geography slowly at first and then more extravagantly. It was refreshing, in an era of jaded effects and predictable projections, to be unable to believe our eyes at times. Particularly thrilling were the descent into Nibelheim (in which Wotan and the demigod Loge cross that sideways staircase, walking parallel to the stage) and the gods’ entry into Valhalla (in which the protagonists march straight up a vertical bridge). The combination of death-defying wire acts and gorgeous lighting design by Etienne Boucher made for an awe-inspiring spectacle.
Other moments were less acrobatic but just as delightful. For example, when the three Rhinemaidens sit atop the pile of eponymous gold, the projection reacts to their movements, causing the gold pieces to appear to tumble beneath them. The dwarf Alberich, intoxicated by the gold, soon wallows in it, swimming over the top of the hoard like Scrooge McDuck. A few elements were less successful, such as Loge’s staging; though he was played with Puckish humor by Norbert Ernst, the choice to have him static for long periods, suspended on a slope with a fiery projection behind him, felt directionless compared to the dazzling style of the rest of the production. As a result, he didn’t quite fit into the staging, which otherwise worked to separate the characters into different types — gods and giants, dwarves and nymphs. Though most of the staging mirrors the music, creating visual leitmotifs to reflect different characters and situations, Loge’s stasis and college-tour-guide backwards walking didn’t reflect the mercurial, volatile character of a demigod who needs to carry such dramatic weight.
Musically, this is the Met at its best. One can tell when the orchestra is excited to be playing a piece like this, a tour-de-force that tests their mettle and lets them show off their skill. (They must be aching to let loose after so many performances of La Bohème.) The opera calls for an enormous orchestra that fills the Met’s large room with vibrant sound. All the singers were well suited to their demanding roles. Particularly outstanding vocals were delivered by Jamie Barton (Fricka) and Adam Diegel (Froh). Greer Grimsley (Wotan) effectively walked a challenging line that balanced vocal strength — conveying the god’s power — with an almost diffident uncertainty — revealing his self-doubt. Tomasz Konieczny (Alberich) stole the show as he sniveled with delightful greed and menace, all while communicating his character’s depth and drive.
In the past, the creaking machinery of Lepage’s Ring has garnered a lot of attention, not all of it positive. The machinery can certainly be distracting; at the beginning of the opera, we were crossing our fingers, hoping there wouldn’t be an injury. And yet, by the second scene, we lost track of the machinery. We could still hear it at times, but its creaking became part of the messy, noisy mechanics of the world itself. When Wotan and Loge descend into Nibelheim and the machine’s planks shift into the bird’s-eye-view staircase, it felt as though they were carving the stairs out of the rock as they went, digging up the ground between them and Nibelheim with each step. The subterranean world of Nibelheim appeared more real, more physical, more sweaty than that of the gods, seemingly by design; in contrast, the gods and their world occasionally seemed park-and-barky. By the end, when the gods ascend into Valhalla, it felt like the actors were leaving behind all the creaking machinery and harnesses, walking out of our hall filled with coughing viewers and creaking girders, and into their hall whose heavenly floors presumably don’t creak underfoot.
It is sometimes hard to believe that a piece of such staggering scope and sweeping energy was composed in the 19th century, long before heavy-metal concerts and Hollywood scores. In fact, Wagner defined much of what we expect from a movie soundtrack: leitmotifs, emotional resonance with the story, and the interplay of music and visuals. Wagner is, of course, a subject of historical controversy (in many of his prose writings he was a vicious anti-Semite, though there is no anti-Semitic material in his operas, and he was touted as one of Hitler’s favorite composers), but after leaving the opera we were both struck by how modern his work still feels. The concept he pioneered — the total work of art, the Gesamtkunstwerk — is embedded in our collective consciousness. It’s a concept that has been imitated innumerable times, but to see this opera in such an innovative staging was to see how revolutionary Wagner’s concept remains.
Das Rheingold continues at the Metropolitan Opera (30 Lincoln Center Plaza, Lincoln Center, Manhattan) through May 6.