Superb singing triumphs over the machine in Met’s “Das Rheingold”

Sun Mar 10, 2019 at 1:32 pm
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Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich and Greer Grimsley as Wotan in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

The most heralded event of the Metropolitan Opera’s season began Saturday afternoon, as a matinee of Das Rheingold kicked off the first of four complete cycles of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. 

The Met has assembled an enormous amount of talent for this cycle, and Saturday’s Rheingold was buoyed by excellent vocal performances. Yet on the whole, this was a disappointing start to this spring Ring festival, failing to achieve the sense of complete immersion that makes the experience of Wagner so thrilling.

The biggest problem is one there’s no getting around, at least for the moment: the massive, mechanical staging created by Robert Lepage, first rolled out in four installments from 2010 to 2012. To be sure, there are moments when Lepage’s unconventional approach seems inspired: the portrayal of Loge and Wotan’s journey to Nibelheim is breathtaking, showing body doubles climbing a massive, twisting staircase created by the segments of the machine.

Unfortunately, it remains as loud as ever, contributing creaks and clanks to the score, which were especially disruptive in the unearthly quiet of the Prelude. And while certain adjustments have been made since the last outing in 2013—Erda no longer blinds the audience with a dress made of mirrors—time has not been kind to the production. The dynamic digital projections, which respond in real time to the movements of the actors, no longer seem quite so technologically impressive as they did at the premiere, making it clear that most of the opera is essentially being played on a bare stage. Lepage’s production relies too heavily on a few stunning magical effects, and then lets us see too much of the mechanics behind them, like a magician tipping his hand.

Saturday was not a fine opener for the Met orchestra led by Philippe Jordan. The horns had a rough day, which was especially glaring in the prelude; what ought to have been a seamless cascade of building waves turned into a jumble. Jordan’s pacing was effective enough, but his balancing never felt right, bringing out the individual voices that needed to be emphasized and defining character clearly, while letting the rest of the composition dissolve into a general blur. He often seemed overly cautious about covering the singers, and his tight leash on the orchestra meant the size and imagination of the score never had a chance to come through.

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Photo: Ken Howard

In the end, it was the vocal performances that carried the day. Most impressive was the stunning debut of Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich, who showed a complete vocal and dramatic transformation in his character over the course of the afternoon. Beginning as a sickly, awkward creature with a barky sound as he tried to woo the Rhinemaidens, he became a terrifying villain after forging the ring, with a robust, crackling bass-baritone. Konieczny’s booming proclamation of Alberich’s curse was harrowing.

Jamie Barton’s rich, powerful mezzo-soprano made her a superb Fricka, with a meaty quality in her chest voice and burning vitality throughout. Her characterization was a perfect mix of pride, grief, and exasperation, betraying her frustration at her husband Wotan through the ferociousness of her singing.

Greer Grimsley projected a rough nobility in his portrayal of Wotan. There’s a drawn-out quality to his voice, which shows a viscous tone but lacks the thunderous quality that helps to give the character real authority. 

As Loge, Norbert Ernst brought a meaty tenor in an impressive company debut. Ernst’s voice is not especially flexible, but his impish character, adding a bit of vinegar to his sound in the monologue, was perfect for the trickster.

Günther Groissböck’s cavernous, rich sound was thrilling to hear as Fasolt, and he found surprising lyricism as the lovesick giant. His brother Fafner isn’t featured prominently in Das Rheingold, but one looks forward to hearing more of Dmitry Belosselskiy’s booming, colorful bass later in the cycle.

Adam Diegel’s heroic, ringing tenor and martial bearing made him an ideal Froh. Michael Todd Simpson’s baritone felt a little light for the role of the thunder-god Donner, but he compensated with tremendous energy, bellowing his cries of “Heda! Hedo!” It’s hard to do much better than Karen Cargill’s ravishing mezzo-soprano as Erda, the voice of eternity, though her position under the machine during her one appearance sapped some of her vocal power.

Wendy Bryn Harmer offered bright power as Freia, and Gerhard Siegel gave a sympathetic portrayal of Mime, even finding a little firmness of tone among his character’s pleading whines. Amanda Woodbury, Samantha Hankey, and Tamara Mumford all sparkled as the three Rhinemaidens, Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde.

Das Rheingold runs through May 6 at the Metropolitan Opera. Die Walküre, the second part of the Ring cycle, opens on March 25. metopera.org


One Response to “Superb singing triumphs over the machine in Met’s “Das Rheingold””

  1. Posted Mar 12, 2019 at 8:51 am by Martin Goldstein

    Was at Saturday’s debut of Das Rheingold, sitting in the 12th row orchestra. My hearing is decent and I was specifically listening for any mechanical defects from the machine. I heard one or two minor scratches, nothing to write home about. Admittedly, the machine will come into much more prominence in the last three operas of the Ring.

    I am in total agreement with your critic’s review of the singers, who were sublime, and (except for some minor slippages in the brass section) the overall lustrous playing of the orchestra.

    I eagerly look forward to Die Valkyrie and especially to hearing Christine Goerke.

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