The opening of the Met HD Broadcast season, and the first production to be aired at the SLO Performing Arts Center, was epic to say the least. First, the opera chosen to begin the season was Das Rheingold, the first opera in Wagner’s mythological Ring Cycle. This story involves dwarfs, gods, Rhinemaidens dressed as mermaids, giants, and gold so powerful that it can grant the owner complete control over the world. Add to that the high-tech set which was surreal to say the least, and we can clearly state that the Metropolitan Opera General Manager, Peter Gelb is living up to his promise to make opera more approachable to a wider range of audiences. From the first minute of this production, it was clear that the set was the star of Das Rheingold, almost to the point of overshadowing the performers. This metal structure weighing 45-tons consists of 26-foot towers at either end of the stage with a horizontal bar running between them that supports 24 planks. These 24 planks move as if vertebrae on a spine, each plank moving independently, able to rotate in any direction or to combine in groupings to create a seemingly infinite collection of shapes. This machine, deemed “The Monster” by the cast and crew, carries a $16 million price tag and will be used for each of the 4 operas which constitute the Ring Cycle. The set was so extraordinary and unreal that I spent most of the show with my mouth wide open, shocked by what I was seeing. The production design team made further use of the set through computerized projections. The entire piece begins with the Rhinemaidens in mermaid costumes being hoisted halfway above the stage as they sang. Imagine sustaining a high C while floating through the air, your legs bound so that you cannot completely bend your knees. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the sound these 3 Rhinemaidens were able to produce while flying about and waving their arms in a swimming motion. Behind the Rhinemaidens, we see projections of blue water and bubbles which are actually activated by the movements and sounds produced by the 3 singers. Later, as the Rhinemaidens sit atop the set, small stones are projected on the planks which fall down the steep incline as each maiden flicks her tail fin. Other projections include a glowing fire wherever Loge, the god of fire, steps, and swirling mist that moves when the characters pass. While the set and projections created a very contemporary setting for Wagner’s classic opera, the acting style, stock gestures, and costumes were very traditional. Much of the singing took place standing on the apron of the stage and each singer performed small movements with few changes in facial expression. The style was very intimate and, at times, some of the singers hearkened back to the days of the “park-and-bark” singers. It was an interesting juxtaposition of a high-tech fantastical backdrop behind a traditional collection of singers who would be just as comfortable on a period set. However, I believe it was just this juxtaposition which director Robert Lepage was striving for when he imagined this set design. These mythological creatures do not live in our world. They live in a mythological world somewhere between traditional and contemporary. The rules that govern our world do not affect theirs. The gods can take a magic stairway down into the Nibelungs’ underground home, open a door and find Erda, the goddess of the Earth, and later ascend a rainbow to their new castle, Valhalla. These dreamlike actions require dreamlike sets and characters, and that is just what the Met succeeded in doing. It was one of the best dreams I’ve ever had.
You have 12 more opportunities to see the Met: Live in HD series at the Cal Poly Performing Arts Center sponsored by Opera San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Arts. The next production will be Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at 9AM on Saturday October 23rd. Visit http://www.pacslo.org or call 888.233.2787 for ticket info.