For opera lovers who’ve been to Vegas and love Cirque du Soleil, Robert Lepage’s new 45-ton production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” the first in the Ring of the Nibelung cycle, will not disappoint. The show looks every pound of those 45 tons, but its iron mass tilts, levitates and swirls around like a feather. Whether Lepage has any great insight into this masterwork of Western civilization remains to be seen when “Die Walkure” is unveiled in April, with “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung” to come the following season. The big surprise, already on display, is that this director of Cirque’s narrative-less spectacles is a great storyteller.
For all the pre-opening-night hoopla regarding the mammothness of this production, Lepage provides an amazingly literal interpretation. When Alberich (a truly venal-acting, spectacular-sounding Eric Owens) kick-starts the story by stealing the Rhine maidens’ gold, they sing of his being spotted, and sure enough: Alberich’s costume sports a few spots. There are even projected bubbles coming from the maidens’ mouths when they sing underwater. Alberich’s failed attempt to keep that gold, as well as and the all-powerful ring, away from Wotan (Bryn Terfel), the lord of the gods, involves turning himself into a serpent and then a toad, both of which duly materialize. This is one “Das Rheingold” where the acting is nearly as good as the singing, which is pretty great, and most everybody on stage looks the part, which, considering the fairy-tale aspect of these gnomes and giants, is very ugly thanks to Francois St-Aubin’s fanciful costumes.
As for Carl Fillion’s Cirque-like set, it begins as a radically raked stage that resembles three piano keyboards — minus the black keys — laid side by side. Those “keys,” however, do just about everything: They ripple like water during the overture; they turn into a fascist fortress for the entrance of the giants Fasolt (Franz-Josef Selig) and Fafner (Hans-Peter Konig), who demand all the gold in return for freeing Wotan’s sister-in-law, Freia (Wendy Bryn Harmer); and they tilt and levitate to create a vertiginous staircase for Wotan and Mime (Gerhard Siegel) to enter the underworld of the Nibelungs, who are Alberich’s enslaved workers. Obviously, this is a very complicated story, and Lepage tells it superbly, missing none of Wagner’s terror, low humor or family pathos. And thanks to the versatility of the unit set, Wagner’s characters get to make some of the most sensational entrances and exits — whether they slide, fly or walk at 90-degree angles to the stage — ever seen in the theater.
From the pit, James Levine leads a subdued, almost muted performance. Perhaps he, too, like Lepage, wants to savor the words as much as the music. But all this attention to the story finds Terfel acting the words more than singing the music. In encounters with his wife, Fricka, Stephanie Blythe repeatedly floods the auditorium with her bright, focused, huge mezzo-soprano, whereas he often marks the music, at times offering bizarre dynamics that sound more like crooning than real opera singing. Fortunately, he gives a full-voiced ode to Valhalla at opera’s end. Etienne Boucher’s ripple-effect light show provides an exquisite rainbow bridge to that new and doomed home.
Freia is a small role, but Harmer delivers bigtime. Can’t wait for her Senta, Sieglinde and Elsa.