Ready (at last) for your close-up, Herr Wagner

The Met’s Das Rheingold’ in HD-Live (1st review)

6 minute read
Bryn Terfel as Wotan: It's the characters that matter.
Bryn Terfel as Wotan: It's the characters that matter.
The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen has certainly been in the air recently. Alex Ross, the New Yorker's music critic, recently wrote a splendid op-ed piece about Wagner's music in the New York Times shortly before the opening of Das Rheingold, the first opera in the cycle. A few days later, in his blog, Ross convincingly drew a parallel between Rheingold and The Social Network, the hot new movie about Facebook.

As proof (if proof still be needed) that Wagner's narrative enjoys the perennial relevance of myth, the Times's political commentator Maureen Dowd, obviously unaware of Ross's blog and admitting that she had never previously heard one bit of the Ring, drew exactly the same connection in her column, complete with quotes from Wagner's libretto.

I described my own conflicted relationship with the Ring nearly five years ago, in the one and only article I have written about Wagner for BSR. Lately, though, after 35 years of working hard at not thinking about Wagner, I've found myself drawn back to his mesmerizing musical world.

In August, I tied up one particularly messy loose end in my musical experience and attended a performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Seattle Opera. And on Saturday October 9th, I found myself at the Philadelphia's Riverfront Theater on Columbus Boulevard, attending the Met's live broadcast of Rheingold.

Great apprehensions

This was my first experience of opera in this format, and I wasn't optimistic. Sticking a few cameras on an opera stage, I felt certain, would be poor competition for my imaginary landscape of the Ring and the characters inhabiting it, which have so vividly existed in my mind for decades. What I experienced instead was a more successful realization of Wagner's dramatic and musical intentions than I could ever have believed was possible.

As Wagner himself said again and again and again, it's what his characters say and think that matters; the Gesamtkunstwerk is more a dramatic medium than a musical one. The Ring in general and Rheingold in particular are wordy, intellectual works.

An audience sitting in the opera house, even with the aid of excellent English subtitles, is simply too far physically removed from the proceedings to experience the intimate psychological detail that Wagner clearly had in his mind's eye. Although he couldn't have put it this way, it seems to me that Wagner clearly conceived the crucial dramatic junctures in the Ring as cinematic close-ups. And, of course, the close-up is the very feature that sets the HD Live movie theater presentation apart from what one experiences in the opera house.

Zeffirelli's disaster

Of course, just the capability in itself is no guarantee of success. Historically, opera singers, especially Wagnerian ones, haven't been known for their acting chops. A Wotan with a blank face— one who sings while standing like a post, perhaps making a few perfunctory hand gestures— won't profit from the close scrutiny of the camera.

Moreover, there is always the danger that putting a camera into a singer's face will only serve to magnify the grotesque physical contortions that operatic singing entails at the expense of drama and musical beauty. (Franco Zeffirelli's famous 1982 rendition of Verdi's La Traviata is an egregious example.)

But in this production, I kept saying to myself, "This is a live performance? Really?!" The camera work was so much a part of the dramatic texture that it was hard for me to accept that the shots I was seeing weren't the result of many takes and countless hours of editing.

And the members of the cast—for the most part vocally impeccable— proved themselves, almost completely without exception, more than up to the cinematic task. It was clear that they had prepared for the camera as thoroughly as they had for any other aspect of their roles.

Shrugs from the critics

Why this production received such mediocre reviews in the musical press is beyond me. To be sure, I liked some parts more than others, and some moments didn't work the way I thought they should. But I won't bore you with these trivial observations.

The overall result, combined with accurate and superbly timed English subtitles, was gripping psychological drama in which Wagner's music, marvelous though it is, operated subliminally beneath the action, just as Wagner intended"“ the ultimate movie music!"“ and the physical effort of singing became a natural extension of expressive speech.

HD-Live might not work equally well on all occasions. Productions with singers who can't act, and operas that are more about singing set pieces than about drama would, I expect, not fare as well as Das Rheingold. But I salivate at the opportunity to see works like Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, Bizet's Carmen or practically anything by Puccini in this format.

Indeed, as soon as I got home, I sat down at my computer and five minutes later had printed myself tickets for May's HD-Live performance of Die Walküre (May 14, 2011, with an encore June 1).

A $22 bargain

Perhaps the original idea of HD-Live was to make operatic performances accessible to the masses, a reasonably priced substitute for the "real" thing. And indeed my wife and I paid only $22 apiece for this performance. We dressed as we would to go to a movie. Our seats were comfortable, with plenty of legroom. The theater is a five-minute drive from our house in Queen Village, and parking is plentiful and free.

But it seems clear to me that this production was geared as much to us as it was to the live audience. And, as I've said, what we experienced was far closer to Wagner's artistic vision than the version that the live audience paid hundreds of dollars to see.

Who do you think got the better of the deal? Which performance was the "real" one and which the substitute?♦

To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

What, When, Where

Das Rheingold. Opera by Richard Wagner; James Levine conducted. Metropolitan Opera HD-Live performance October 9, 2010.

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