Monday, 11 October 2010

Met Das Rheingold - controversial implications?

The long-term implications of the Met Das Rheingold are far more radical than the merits or demerits of the production itself. Despite Robert Lepage's high tech mechanics, this Das Rheingold is regressive, old wine in new skins. Of course it uses state of the art technology, to rival any movie or computer game. Experienced live it must be fantastic. Wagner used the latest mechanics in his time to create ultimate theatre. Using the best modern technology is perfectly valid. Unfortunately, that's where the insight in this Met production stops.

There is no such thing as non-interpretation. Even when we read a score, our minds are processing the relationship between the notes, "interpreting" through imagination. Conducting, direction, staging and individual performance are all part of a process. "Doing the notes" just isn't enough. The main flaw in the Met Rheingold is that there's no coherent interpretation. Letting Lepage's set take the attention lets Levine off the hook. Maybe that's why the Met personnel looked so pleased with themselves.

Ideas-free Wagner isn't Wagner. The Ring is such an amazing work that it supports multiple interpretations. So what's the Met telling us? There are good visual moments in this production, the best of which illustrates Wotan and Loge's voyage to Nibelheim. The white slats look dangerous, twisting and writhing as the pair proceed. Impossible, slippery angles - just like the scam they're planning for Alberich. Here, the set is "acting", adding depth to meaning, so it serves a purpose.

Not all stage directions are equal. Wagner wanted the Rheinmaidens to swim realistically, since by stage techniques in his time that would have been miraculous, emphasizing their supernatural powers. The Met's Rheinmaidens can "swim" since they flap their flippers and emit bubbles generated by their singing. But Wagner's point was that they were spirits, not fish.  Realism is only relative: what matters here is that they should be seeen as free spirits, not women harnessed to guy-ropes. Having them run about on rocks or whatever depicts that essential natural freedom infinitely better than slavishly following the "swimming" instructions.

Similarly, what role does the Rainbow Bridge play in the drama? It's meant to look gorgeous, but the fact is that Valhalla is a scam. Through the entire Ring this theme repeats: power and wealth mean nothing if they're gained by ill means.  Which is why Wagner fixed on "rainbow" - something beautiful that's just a trick of the light. The audience that raged when the Bridge didn't function on the first night missed the point. The Rainbow Bridge is an illusion. Making it material kills its symbolic portent.

Perhaps the tree of golden apples was marginalized because it didn't fit this studiously non-interpretive approach. The apples aren't snacks but sustenance: soulfood in every sense. The tree references the World-Ash tree and the conflict between nature and non-nature which is so much a part of the Ring.  But since technological excess is the God in this Rheingold, such things don't fit in.

There probably will be no more technologically realistic Das Rheingold than this. Just as there can be no physically more realistic Rigoletto than the RAI Mantua film. Both productions follow stage directions literally. But real drama comes from understanding how all elements in an opera work and work together, not on their own.  Both this Rheingold and that Rigoletto demonstrate that real drama is created by understanding ideas, not by rigidly following what's on paper.

Now that we've got the technology to do most anything, we've come full circle, back to the idea that drama springs from imagination, not from tangible material things. That's what the Greeks knew with their utterly minimal stagings and archetypes. that's what Shakespeare knew, when he staged Julius Caesar in the costumes of his own time. The Ring has so much to tell us because it's universal. It's time to realize that ideas aren't constrained by physical trappings and that music in music drama is abstract, open to multiple interpretations.

Many will rage at the Met Rheingold because it's high tech and is expensive.  But that's where the quest for literalism has been leading to. Now that we've got there, maybe we'll realize that it's delusion. The real values of drama - and Wagner drama in particular - lie deeper.  Das Rheingold isn't the first part of the Ring but a prelude, referencing what is to come. It's only when Brünnhilde throws the Ring back to the Rheinmaidens that she breaks the curse. All the gold in the world is dross if you don't follow basic morality. And so,  perhaps we too can be freed so we can concentrate on basic dramatic meaning.

Musically, the Met Rhingold is disappointing, whatever the reports may suggest. Even on film, where voices are enhamced and balanced, there were lapses, not important in themselves but a symptom of the general incoherence. Pleasant enough perforrmances but uninspired, soft-centred, lacking committment or motivation. To his credit, Bryn Terfel holds himself aloof. Why should he be intense when no-one else bothers?

Some extremely hammy acting from the lesser parts, glaringly obvious in the filmed close-ups rather than on stage. This ties in with the fundamentally non-interpretive approach, dependent on externals rather than thinking things through. Direction matters because it helps singers understand why what they do relates to role and to ensemble. There's a lot more to creating drama than walking backwards wired to a cable. Park and Bark leads to Comic Book Performance.

Wonderful-looking set, and a great experience, But set isn't direction. Blaming Lepage isn't fair. What about Levine, what about the whole Met ethos, which favours elaboration and excess? For a production this high profile, not a lot of effort seems to have gone into thinking the music out throroughly. There was little sense of structure, drama or dare I say it - direction.. A conductor can't abrogate vision or interpretation any more than than a director can leave things to the set and costumes.  With his experience, Levine ought to have something to contribute. Mahler and Alfred Roller understood each other because each had the concept of interpreting Wagner to intensify meaning, the heart of the drama. "It's more than just the notes." Mahler said in another context but the idea applies. 

But maybe that's all wrong and what the public wants is opera that looks good but nullifies drama and meaning. Maybe it's all a clever game to reinstate the old Otto Shenck set and formalize it for all time. But if art is worth anything, it grows, lives, and breathes. "Kinder macht neu!" said Wagner. But until such time as audiences listen to what he really says, instead of demanding window-dressed regression, maybe we're doomed. Wagner without meaning is pointless. Doesn't anyone get why Alberich, Wotan and later Siegfried are cursed?
Please read my piece on Robert LePage's Rakes Progress in 2008 (when LePage and Gelb discussed the Met Ring)

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