Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Farewell to the Gold Rush

April 28, 2009

Richard Paul Fink and the Rhinemaidens
Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Met Opera 2009

The focus of my New York trip this week is a visit to the Metropolitan Opera, which is wrapping up their 125th season over the next two weeks with the 6th and reportedly final revival of Otto Schenk’s production of Der Ring Des Nibelungen. It’s been a busy and tough season here, as it has been everywhere for arts organizations. But the company is continuing to gain ground in finding new ways to connect with potential audiences. This weekend, in fact, the house will offer up a free trial of their online Met Player service, which means you can watch one of several dozen videotaped performances from either the company’s HD series or historic broadcast archives as well as many more audio broadcasts, all for free. (Parterre Box is taking a poll of the best of these for those of you who might be interested, but there’s no contest – it’s the Karita Mattila Salome performance from last fall.) If you've missed any of these great performances, this is an excellent chance to catch them online at no cost between Friday at 5pm eastern time and midnight Sunday.

But a filmed performance and a live performance are very different animals. And, while I'm here, there’s a lot of live Wagner to attend to, which I started on Monday with Das Rheingold. The casting has been super slippery around here lately with various and sundry illnesses, so I was quite surprised how well sung the whole evening was with the cast that did show up in the end. Albert Dohmen appeared as a stentorian Wotan in a house that has had virtually no one besides James Morris sing this part in the past two decades. Morris may be a crowd favorite here, but Dohmen provided some needed new energy to the part. Kim Begley was Loge and Richard Paul Fink continued his very well received run as Alberich. Both were exemplary. René Pape made a warmly welcomed Fasolt, of all things, to John Tomlinson’s Fafner. Yvonne Naef sounded much less brittle as Fricka than I remember, based on my last couple of brushes with her. All in all a good showing considering that outside of the singing, there was little else for this cast to do.

The conclusion of Das Rheingold
Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Met Opera 2009

Then of course there’s that James Levine touch. Despite his slower than molasses Wagner idiosyncrasies, he does deliver remarkable performances from this world-class orchestra. Granted, this pacing plays out better in Tristan and Parsifal, but it's not completely unreasonable here. In fact its amazing how things don’t sound more plodding than they could given this deliberate pace. And following Levine's sick day last week, there continues to be a lot of love flowing towards the stage. But how do you solve a problem like that horrendous Otto Schenk staging. It’s almost the steam-punk equivalent of an opera – except less cool. The amount of technical wizardry that goes into something that looks as drab and out-of-date as this is astounding. It's clearly time to move on, and wisely the Met appears to be doing so. No matter what the Robert Lepage staging looks like when it is first rolled out this fall, it will certainly be better than this.

Das Rheingold did get me to thinking a lot about this whole notion of what makes a “static” production, however. Following the premieres of Achim Freyer’s take on Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in Los Angeles recently, I heard a lot of people complain that parts of the productions were “too static.” And while it’s true that his scenes can be marked by little person-to-person interaction, I think there’s little static about them. There is almost constant motion from one of a variety of elements on stage, even if it’s not the primary vocalizing characters in the scene. This activity is nearly always either furthering the narrative or commenting on it in some way. Sort of Freyer's own leitmotif system. In almost direct contrast is the Schenk production, where a very ornate and beautiful room is set for a scene that the cast is placed in. There is plenty of interpersonal contact, but virtually nothing happens. There’s a lot of hand wringing and arm waving, but in the end it’s really just stand-and-deliver performance amidst kitschy scenery. Everything is exactly what it is and no more or less. And while sometimes a cigar, is just a cigar, I can't help but want something much more.

Of course, with so little going on, this might be the ideal staging to watch on video. Sometimes the necessity of changing camera angles can fill a visually dead production with life that isn't there in the flesh. And luckily with the free Met Player weekend, this might just be your chance to take in these operas in a format likely to spice them up a little so check it out while you have the chance.


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