Quite simply, it’s the largest scale event in all of opera. With 18 hours of music in a 3,800 seat house, Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Met is a giant, lavish undertaking – all starting with that famous E flat chord: starting from the quietest of pianissimo double bass notes and building for nearly four minutes before it explodes into the melody of the Rhinemaidens.

Stefan Margita as Loge © 2013 Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Stefan Margita as Loge
© 2013 Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Robert Lepage’s staging took giant quantities of flak when it first came out, which I’ve deliberately not read in detail before writing this review (I’ll read it before doing my end-of-cycle roundup). Personally, I loved the sets, as did several audience members around me. All the action revolves around a giant mechanical structure of angled parallel beams, which twist, lift and are relit to transform into many different shapes and places: the rippling waters of the Rhine, the stony riverbed (video projection makes the pebbles shift when the Rhinemaidens swish their tails), the path from Midgard down to Nibelheim, the rainbow bridge.

Inasmuch as it’s possible to be faithful to Wagner’s original stage directions, Lepage has done a fine job of it – and if you read some of Wagner’s originals, you’ll see quite how creasingly embarrassing they seem to 21st-century eyes. Each of the effects is impressive and seems to me to be a good effort at capturing the intent of Wagner’s original while using modern technology and minimalism in place of 19th-century painted backdrops. And Lepage doesn’t take himself too seriously: when Alberich is changing shape into a dragon and a toad, the animals are entertainingly plastic, with dragon truly gigantic and awesome. The toad prompted laughs from the audience, which I’m sure were intended.

I can’t say the same about most of François St-Aubin’s costumes, which mostly lacked invention, veering towards traditional straight-out-of-Norse-mythology-book images without being of sufficient quality to carry it off. One exception was Loge, whose fringed and strapped outfit was brilliant lit by Etienne Boucher to give the fire-god effect: Boucher’s lighting was excellent throughout, as was the sparingly deployed videography. Another was Alberich’s: any costume that successfully portrays Eric Owens as dwarf-shaped deserves respect.

Without exception – and Rheingold has a lot of roles – the singers were up to the quality you’d expect at a leading opera house. But some stood out more than others. Rheingold doesn’t have any big lyrical set pieces or even important moments for pure vocalism to shine (in which the later Ring operas abound): it’s all about getting the story across, so what matters is the depth of engagement of the singer with the character. For me, the outstanding performer was Stefan Margita as Loge. When he appeared on stage (a somewhat belated appearance, in the story line), Margita was in charge: mercurial, impish, manipulative, petulant and wickedly entertaining – a brilliant portrayal of the trickster god who (being only semi-divine) is a misfit with the others, never to be trusted.

As Fricka, Stephanie Blythe has fewer opportunities to shine, but she took all of them: hers is a voice that commands attention. Mark Delavan, singing Wotan, has a smooth, clear bass-baritone, particularly comfortable in the high register; his characterisation seemed a little muted compared to the radio broadcasts I’ve heard from him, so I’m expecting him to come into his own in the more lyrical later parts of the cycle. Meredith Arwady only gets a brief cameo as Erda, but made an impression with it. The giants Fasolt and Fafner were sung robustly by two big German basses, Franz-Josef Selig and Hans-Peter König, standing high above the rest of the action and dominating proceedings as they should – until Loge’s intervention.

Fabio Luisi kept everything moving along nicely at tempo, and blended the orchestra nicely with his singers. However, I was slightly disappointed by the overall orchestral sound, which I felt was rather on the thin side. This is my first time at the Met, so I don’t know whether this is a function of the orchestral playing or the hall acoustics. Whichever is the case, there is a lushness and body that can be achieved with Wagner’s music that didn’t come through to the extent I would have wished.

Ultimately, Das Rheingold is about the story: its function is to set the scene for the more substantial operas in the rest of the cycle, to introduce the audience to the characters and to prepare their ears with the musical material with which they will become increasingly familiar in the coming operas. As a piece of pure storytelling, last night’s performance worked extremely well, setting us up in fine style for the rest of the cycle.

***11