Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” at the Met

A stirring performance, beamed live from Lincoln Center to a Boulder theatre.

| Oct 14, 2010

A report on the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, simulcast in high definition to the Cinemark Theatre at Boulder, Colorado, on 10/10/10– by Gordon M. Wickstrom who…

…who has lived his life under the spell of this music and this drama, who has collected this stuff throughout the history of his imagination, and has lived to see this day.

I was more than moved by what I experienced. I was shaken. I am not one to encourage crying: I leave that to television’s evening news. But this production came as close as I want to come to tears — of joy.

That great ending, when the gods cross over into Valhalla over the rainbow bridge, the staging of which failed to work on opening night last month (Sept. 27), worked flawlessly yesterday afternoon. I think I have never witnessed a finer effect on any stage anywhere. One could only gasp at the daring and the magic of it. My wife grabbed at me.

The dangerous mechanics of that wondrous setting: it was not an environment in the ordinary sense of stage scenery, but a machine for acting. It was a machine for our time.

And there was James Levine getting that great and glorious sound out of that great orchestra, and he grown so frail and physically diminished by his recent surgeries! And those singers, busting a gut, for us, risking everything on that next note, that next phrase, coming at us straight on! One might call the afternoon a perfect riot of superb bass and base-baritone singing, all those accomplished men pouring it out. I have heard many of the great German Alberichs and have admired them immensely. But this American guy, Eric Owens, was phenomenally effective and persuasive.

Wagner with American clarity

I put that word “guy” in italics because that’s what these people were, all regular “guys” for the working day, on a big job of work. Singing Wagner with what feels to me an American clarity and directness. It made me flush with pride. No “Bayreuth barking” here.

<cutline> Bryn Terfel as Wotan </em>(Photo: Metropolitan Opera)</em></cutline>And as if this were not enough, we have a new Wotan on our hands, to rival the international master of the role, James Morris, who must all too soon pass it on to the likes of this young Welshman, Bryn Terfel. 

It has always seemed to me that, after the brilliant orchestral introduction to the opera, the action opens only to drag on too long with the Rheinmaidens (or “dotters”) teasing poor Alberich about what must be his erection, hidden in that costume, and then about the gold itself. But not yesterday, not with these three Rheinmaidens, who were captivating, clever, intelligent and, again, with what I want to call that American clarity, vitality, and precision of voice — and high spirits.

In fact, I want to say that there was a peculiar high spiritedness throughout the production, a certain “lift” and lightness of heart amid the most dire of existential circumstances. Call it “tragic joy.”

Performed live…by satellite

I will never admit and always deny it, but I suspect that it is the very technology of this satellite performance that must contribute hugely to this extraordinary accomplishment.

This mode of performance, electronic as it may be, manifests a new kind of audience, one readier for the intimacies of acting and singing, an audience who is let in on the secrets of production.

I have always argued for the traditional decorums of performance. I have resisted the contemporary urge to demystify art. I have wanted to preserve, especially in the opera, its glamour, its ceremony, its privileges, and secrets. But I give up. I realize now that I have lived to experience the secularization, the improvisation, the democratization of the opera. I am now all too glad to be let in on the secrets, to see back stage, and to see what I knew all along, that it was not a mystery after all, but hard, hard work accomplished with an efficiency and dedication that is breath-taking.

I understand now what made the traditional ceremony of opera possible. It was hard-working men and women, all the technical staff and support people, all the singers, even those acrobats who doubled the singers in Rheingold.

From radio to satellite

If the Met radio broadcasts, beginning in 1940, were the start of this secularization, it must be these HD transmissions to movie theatres everywhere that are accomplishing this cultural transformation. (There are those who feel that these transmissions take a toll on the production’s effectiveness in the theatre. One major reviewer suggests that the production was cast with lighter, inadequate voices in order to record them “easier.”)

In any case, I am awed with admiration for those hundreds of men and women who worked at such a high level of accomplishment, all of it entirely “hand made,” depending on those theatre workers doing their jobs faithfully and precisely. I get so proud of it that I want to burst. I feel personally involved with them and what they are doing — and don’t forget: it’s in real time, at the instant that I’m watching them. Just think! And then wipe the dazzle from your eyes.

This Rheingold reminds us of the meaning of work, of making something by hand, and for the first time, and knowing that it will have a continuing life in a community as a proclamation of its profoundest values.

At the curtain-call, as those singers came forward to take their bows, there was gaiety on that stage, a sign of the oneness of performer and audience, of their having been somewhere together that afternoon, where their shared humanity reached its fullness — in spite of everything. These best of workers for the working day had achieved something greater than any one of them, something in the total service of music and theatre that ennobles us all. Then, after their bows and getting out of costume, they could go out for a good dinner.

Before this, back in the 80s, I had a seat in the house in New York for the complete Ring Cycle, the Otto Schenk ravishing “naturalistic” cycle. Levine was there, back then, working the pit, making music, and making me hold my breath with that exaltation peculiar to Wagnerites. Sometimes we are chided for our enthusiasm. But, look what we got yesterday: we got this stunning electronic transmission of Das Rheingold to our own local movie palace, live! It was not the old and dear ceremony of opera, but something else, not a substitute for the “real thing,” but a new thing in art and life. I, for one, welcome it.


This production was haunted. A spook out of the Met’s Golden Age haunted the stage as Froh, and calling himself Adam Diegel. But we know better: this guy is actually the re-incarnation of the youthful Lauritz Melchior, whom, I bet, we will one day soon hear as Siegfried himself, when he will remove the breast-plate of the sleeping Brunhilde and sing out in consternation, maybe the funniest line in all opera, “Das ist kein Mench!” 

Gordon Wickstrom is a Boulder native, navy man in the Philippines, CU grad and Stanford Ph.D., professor of drama, director and sometime actor. He retired home to Boulder in 1991, fishes with his wife Betty, and writes books, essays and columns on the angling life and on theatre. He is the oldest living — in captivity — writer about fishing in English, and a member, for the sake of his obituary, of the Flyfishers’ Club of London.