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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 3 OCTOBER 2010 — The wet ground and threat of more rain kept everyone moving briskly through a tent abutting the State Theater’s arcade. Photographers let up a communal whoop and lit the arcade walls with stroboscopic bursts every time someone important came through. The Metropolitan Opera’s Opening Night Gala this year was much like years before, except that the rain and the opera itself conspired to make it — for once — an evening more about opera than about who came to be seen at the opera.

Because of the weather, everyone hurried inside, making it more difficult than usual to spot celebrities, although many people in evening dress again posted themselves atop the grand staircase, straining to have a look. The gawking had to be done while the gawking was good, because the opera tonight would be Das Rheingold, the first of Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and the only one performed without intermission. No intermissions meant no opportunity to mill in or around the Belmont Room or the corral set up outside the box seats for VIPs.

The Rhinemaidens
Photo: © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Wagner fans aren’t exactly a cult, but they could well form one if their leader were still living. Because this would be the first new Ring cycle at the Met in twenty-four years (when the previous, traditional production by Otto Schenk premiered), the Gala tonight would not merely be a social event but an authentic milestone in the opera world.

It would be fair to admit that there have been far too many explanations and analyses of the Ring to consider offering one more, except that, as a practicing attorney, I note that the entire cycle is propelled by a pair of contract disputes in Das Rheingold. The opera begins with sustained chords in E-flat that evoke the rolling of the Rhine. There appear three mermaids — the Rhinemaidens: three tarts with fins who cruelly tease the Alberich, a member of the dwarf race of the Nibelungs. They brashly tell him, in effect, that if he forsakes love, he can have the pile of gold over which they stand guard and that, if he forges a chunk of it into the shape of a ring, he will become ruler of the world. Realizing that with looks and technique like his he has little to lose, Alberich agrees and takes the gold. The Rhinemaidens are apoplectic, but as Alberich’s attorney, I would argue that the prior owners made an offer that Alberich accepted, forming a binding contract, so what are they complaining about? Indeed, the Rhinemaidens apparently spread the story that Alberich is a thief; that would have exposed them to a defamation action were Alberich not otherwise engaged in brutalizing his fellow Nibelungs with his newly found powers.

Eric Owens as Alberich
Photo: © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Meanwhile, Wotan, the chief god, has hired two giants (Fasolt and Fafner) as general contractors for the construction of a new house for the gods, Valhalla, in exchange for handing over his sister-in-law (Freia, the goddess of love and beauty). Assuming that, in the jurisdiction of the gods, you can legally sell off family members as sex slaves, another contract has been properly made. But at the importuning of his wife (Fricka), Wotan breaks the contract, propelling into motion the longest plot line in the standard opera repertoire. Contract law aside, the point Wagner was making was that there is both a natural justice and an order to which the gods themselves must adhere and that will survive their passing when Valhalla literally comes down on their heads in the final Ring opera, Götterdämmerung.

Richard Wagner was a high-living socialist, a home wrecker and anti-Semite, periodically and spectacularly in flight from creditors, scandal and political troubles. He was also his own librettist, which was something that Giuseppe Verdi, his only rival in greatness for the delivery of the canon of Western opera, could never be. As grand as Wagner’s music sounded, his poetry and the characters who sang it were passionately and authentically human. (Even the gods: in the second Ring opera, Die Walküre, Wotan and Fricka advance the plot with a disquietingly authentic marital argument.)

The confrontation between giants and gods
in Das Rheingold's second scene
Photo: © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The Ring Cycle is about as close as a contemporary theatergoer can get to the ancient Greek ideal of theater as a religious experience. It is not merely that the subject is the gods or that the story is an epic sung to music; done right, the Ring is as transcendent to the devoted as a papal mass. The problem for the Met is that, unlike European opera houses which live off the public dole and are given free rein to experiment, the Met gets few governmental subsidies and is beholden to its audience (especially big donors like those assembled this evening) that it dare not disappoint. That tends to make for traditional productions, such as the Schenk Ring.

So even before the curtain went up on a slanting, gray slab that occupied nearly all of the stage, word had gone out that the Met was taking risks with one of its money-making crowd pleasers. The new Ring cost a reported $16 million — a lot of money for an art form that has such a rarified audience in the USA. Part of the high cost was due to the fact that, at forty-five tons, the set was so heavy that work spaces below the stage had to be reinforced with three sixty-five-foot girders to prevent the set from crashing down onto them.

The result was a mixture of tradition (the costumes could have been from a production from Wagner’s lifetime) and modernity (the gray slab opened, pivoted and at times fanned itself into different shapes that became minimalist takes on operatic scenery — with some clever help provided by projected animations and other electronic and mechanical effects).

As Wotan, Bryan Terfel added a moody self-awareness that is often missing from other well-sung performances; Wotan is, after all, the chief god, and brash and sometimes cruel as he is, he cannot be unaware of his own fate. Eric Owens, as a hulking Alberich topped by dreadlocks, vividly captured in voice and action the shifting fortunes of the luckless Nibelung.

Bryn Terfel as Wotan
Photo: © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The musical star of the night, however, was James Levine, who is celebrating forty years of conducting at the Met, where he is music director. Obviously frail — he had to be helped onto the stage for his bow by Stephanie Blythe (the evening’s Fricka) — and dressed for comfort, New York’s longest serving maestro outdid himself with a note-perfect performance, and the audience was universal in its approbation.

When the director of the production, the Canadian Robert Lepage, took to the stage next, followed by his production team, we were treated to an unhappy repetition of what happened at last year’s gala with its new production of Tosca (dotted with references to Fascism): traditionalists began to boo, and others provided a counter fire of cheers. True, there had been a few laughs Wagner had not intended, as when performers, including one playing a corpse, used the tilted platform as a sliding pond. It is also true that the set, nicknamed the "machine" by the cast and crew, was so abstract that none of us noticed it had failed to move to the required position for the entry of the gods into Valhalla, locking them out of their new home. But I found the production absorbing, as did my companion for the evening, and so, from us both, an editorial:

New Yorkers,

This is not Milan. Booing may be the custom there, but here it is rude. The correct thing to do in New York if you don’t like what you are seeing is to get up quietly and leave early.

As we all walked into the thick crowd descending the grand staircase, the cast appeared on the balcony, in costume, trailed by a video camera, and a cheer filled the lobby. Observed a friend I shall identify only as Ken the Socialist, "The idea of such an extravagant audience coming to see an opera that is revolutionary and that forecasts their destruction is rather ironic." And socialists, as we know, will keep talking until they have the last word, so there you have it.

Additional performances: 4, 9 October 2010
30 March 2011; 2 April 2011

Metropolitan Opera

Alan Behr is a partner in the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. He last wrote on the new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Book, Heaven for Culturekiosque.

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