Opera Review: Das Rheingold

When the Metropolitan Opera (and now other opera companies as well) first started broadcasting their operas in cinemas, the idea that I was most excited about was one day being able to see a complete Ring Cycle broadcast on a cinema screen. The benefit? For about $100, you’d be able to see all four operas compared to the thousands of dollars this would normally cost. And with the release of this Das Rheingold HD broadcast from the Met, that day has arrived.

A quick recap for those of you who are new – Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) is the first of four operas composed by Richard Wagner that make up Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which is really the 1800s opera answer to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s huge, it’s epic, it’s long, and crowds go nuts over it. When all four operas are presented in a festival setting where you can watch them in a week, hundreds of Wagner fans – or Wagnerians, to use the proper term – flock from around the world to get the best seats. There is no other opera that has this kind of cult following.

Rheingold is the first of the four operas and is intended by Wagner to be the “prelude evening”, in his words, of the Festival. In other words, folks, of the four Ring operas – this is the short one. And by Wagner standards, it is short – only 2 ½ hours with no interval at all. (The other three are monstrous 5 or 6 hour things, though still well worth watching.) This opera tells the tale of Alberich the dwarf, who steals the Rhinegold from the Rhinemaidens, forges it into a ring of power and sets out to rule the world – until he is foiled by Wotan, king of the gods. OK, there’s a lot more plot than that but it’s so long and convoluted that short version will do – what people really go to the Ring for is not the plot but the spectacular orchestrations and singing.

Wagnerians especially get excited when it’s a new production, which was the case with this Rheingold, being directed by the legendary theatre craftsman, Robert Lepage. The set – dubbed “the machine”, as we learned in the half hour or so of documentary material that screened before the opera started, consists of a number of long planks, that can move in all sorts of ways and have all manner of lights and images projected on them. This was especially striking in the opening. The planks were lying flat, lit only by a pale blue light, but as the overture – a spectacular piece of music starting with one low note – started to move and pulse like the Rhine river, so too did the planks rise up and down. And from what I saw in the documentary, they were run by a whole bunch of backstage guys turning cranks like galley slaves back in the Roman era, so I hope someone bought them all a beer afterwards.

But set design alone does not make a successful opera. To get a truly perfect Rheingold, you want a combination of spectacular sets, good acting and great singers. We got about two out of three. For the most part, the singing was pretty good, with standouts being Eric Owens as Alberich the dwarf, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Richard Croft as Loge, the fire god. (Though for some reason, poor old Croft got booed when he came out on stage at the end – I’m thinking it was because he was the only character in the opera that tried throwing a bit of acting in there …)

I don’t know if Owens was cast for this reason, but it was an interesting touch making Alberich African-American – it immediately set him apart from the other characters and made you realise how badly treated he was by the Rhinemaidens – which sets him on his path of forsaking love and chasing power. His voice also was perfect – ringing out with a beautifully malevolent sound in all his scenes.

The main let-down with all of this was the acting. No one is expecting Oscar-worthy performances, but there’s an awful lot of “stand-and-sing” with the odd cheesy gesture thrown in. This made it especially difficult to sit through the second scene of the opera, which is mainly a lot of exposition and characters arguing with one another. On top of that, it’s clear that a lot of the stunts and wire-work – as characters move up and down the machine planks – are being done by extras, reinforcing that we can’t expect much more than singing from this particular cast.

But still, the last ten minutes of Das Rheingold are all but indestructible, as the gods summon up a storm, create a rainbow bridge and march triumphantly into Valhalla, with the Rhinemaidens singing plaintively below, begging for the return of their gold. It’s in this section, that Lepage’s sets, the orchestra under the baton of James Levine and the great voices all come together in an ending which is truly as spectacular as Wagner’s music. In this day and age of Ring productions, where directors hijack the story to make political points or insert ugly imagery, to see a beautiful production like this one is a great thing.

4 out of 5.