Robert Lepage's company Ex Machina and the Metropolitan Opera took Manhattan on Monday night, filling Lincoln Centre and Times Square with the sights and sounds of Lepage's production of Wagner's Das Rheingold. A glittering opening-night crowd gave the premiere a standing ovation, flecked with boos, as the Met launched its new Ring cycle with a performance unusually rich in stage magic and musicianship.
Das Rheingold depicts a theft and a curse that eventually lead (by the end of the Ring`s four parts) to the destruction of the gods. It begins in a river, continues underground and features giants, acts of magic, a huge serpent and a concluding rainbow as the gods march up to their new home, Valhalla.
Lepage's production revolves, literally, around designer Carl Fillion's enormous floating stage platform, whose 24 separate planks rotate separately on a central axle that moves up and down between two hydraulic towers. It seems wrong to call this machine a set: as it writhed and fractured and caught Lepage's interactive videos on its surface, it seemed more like an active participant in the drama.
Many directors struggle with Das Rheingold's purely orchestral sections, but Lepage revelled in them. His machine gave a monumental visual aspect to the famous monochordal prelude, rippling, rising and slowly revolving to reveal the Rhinemaidens swimming high over the stage before a watery projection, complete with air bubbles. For the descent to Nibelheim, the planks splayed around their axle into a twisting double staircase, its upper end tilted sharply towards the audience, as the gods (actually their wire-supported body doubles) walked along this vertiginous path to the smoking red pits of Nibelheim down below.
The interactive video was also stunning, at one point showing river stones tumbling down a beachy incline whenever the Rhinemaidens changed position. The giant serpent was a spiny puppet, worked by visible puppeteers - a charming sign of Lepage`s embrace of stagecraft old and new.
The director wasn't always so good with more mundane stage business. The dwarf Alberich's final attempts to snag one of the Rhinemaidens were embarrassingly lame, and the junior gods entered by sliding head-first down a steep incline (again, body doubles took the fall). This can't be right: Gods, if they sled at all, should at least use toboggans.
James Levine led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a vigorous performance of the score, giving lustrous support to a boffo cast. Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel had it all as Wotan: a gleaming, powerful voice, an imposing presence, and a knack for projecting the god`s increasingly conflicted feelings. When he wrenched the magic ring from Alberich, he sang his triumph in a way that subtly broadcast the character's partially suppressed awareness of how sordid that triumph was.
Eric Owens attacked the part of Alberich (the dwarf who first swipes the gold and forges the ring) with a big steely bass-baritone and a resilient stage presence, though I found him more convincing in rage than in humiliation. Tenor Richard Croft was very good as the fire god Loge, though this needling, flickering character was often immobilized by Lepage's insistence that he spend much of his time on stage standing on a 70-degree incline. Tenor Gerhard Siegel (as Alberich`s put-upon brother Mime) gave a performance so full of stage detail that he seemed to have migrated from a different production.
Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe sang with power and blustery eloquence as Fricka, Wotan's neglected, scolding wife, and mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon sang her show-stopping scene as the earth goddess Erda with authority and eloquence. The wooly giants (Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt and Hans-Peter Konig as Fafner) and fish-tailed vampy Rhinemaidens (Lisette Oropesa as Woglinde, Jennifer Johnson as Wellgunde and Tamara Mumford as Flosshilde) were all remarkably good, and the junior gods (Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia, Adam Diegel as Froh and Dwayne Croft as Donner) aptly sang their brief scenes with radiant, vain naivety.
Francois St-Aubin`s breast-plates and full gowns riffed on the costuming of a much earlier era, though Loge`s silvery costume looked like a summer-weight space suit. Etienne Boucher`s lighting was powerfully evocative but mainly dark - in fact daylight scarcely exists in this show, in spite of Wotan`s final greeting to the dawn. The nocturnal look was presumably dictated by the desire to keep the projections vivid.
Unfortunately, the stage machinery faltered at the end, and the ascent into Valhalla didn't happen. No doubt that glitch will be fixed by the time this show goes global, during a live HD broadcast on Oct. 9 to 1,500 movie theatres around the world.
Das Rheingold continues in repertory at the Met through April 2.