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Rheingold, Boris, and Artistic Miscalculation at the Met

The current issue of The Times Literary Supplement (UK) includes my review of Das Rheingold and Boris Godunov at the Met, as follows:
The two most eagerly awaited Metropolitan Opera productions this fall autumn were Wagner’s Das Rheingold directed by Robert Lepage, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov directed by Peter Stein, with René Pape singing his first New York Boris and Valery Gergiev conducting. Boris worked as a whole, and Das Rheingold did not, but both were disappointments arising from artistic miscalculation.
As every local Wagnerite knows, Peter Gelb, the Met’s high profile general manager since 2006, has entrusted a new Ring to Lepage, the Canadian director famous for stage wizardry. Gelb has called Lepage “one of the great theatrical visionaries – a true artistic genius.” This Lepage may be, but nothing about his previous Met production – a mounting of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust equipped with underwater sylphs and galloping steeds – suggested that he is a genius when it comes to directing actors. His Rheingold sits inert and neglected on an animated, computerized stage. The singers, left to their own devices by stage devices, include two principals obviously new to their roles: Eric Owens as Alberich and Richard Croft as Loge. Bryn Terfel, who first sang the Rheingold Wotan in 2005, looks and sounds equally lost. Exits and entrances are clumsily handled. The Monday night I attended, the killing of Fafner and Donner’s hammer blow were badly mistimed. Lepage raises the curtain on the Rheinmaidens too soon – here, and elsewhere, he misses eloquent musical cues.
The physical premise – and the governing visual motif for the entire Lepage Ring – is a series of 24 aluminum planks run on a hydraulic system, an assemblage so weighty and complex that Gelb had to expensively reinforce the Met stage with steel supports. The planks are proudly manipulable – they’re pulsating waves of water, or a mountaintop, or a surface for projections. In Rheingold, their most striking configuration is a spiral staircase flipped on its side – so that Wotan and Loge must negotiate it, drawn by halter and rope, while striding perpendicular to the stage floor. Whatever the pertinence of this conceit to the descent into Niebelheim, the resulting human movements are tentative. When the planks slant to receive Fafner’s body, the audience tittered: he evoked refuse sliding down a garbage chute. In the actual pit, James Levine’s conducting was typically massive and slack; the Met orchestra played beautifully, but not poetically. Levine received by far the evening’s biggest ovation – when he entered and bowed. Another conductor might have thought to enter inconspicuously for an opera intended to begin in blackness and stillness. Rheingold is a hot ticket. Die Walküre follows in April.
Peter Stein withdrew from the Met Boris three months ago; the New York Times reported his unhappiness with the American Consulate in Berlin, where he spent a day unsuccessfully applying for a visa. Stein’s production, taken over by Stephen Wadsworth, is full of subtleties of design. The sets and costumes are considered statements. The scene changes are handled with a swiftness, felicity, and simplicity surpassing in impact anything Lepage manages. The central metaphor is an enormous book lying flat on stage – a chronicle of Russian history which Pimen reads and others trample.
But the memorable strengths of the Met’s Boris are wholly Russian – or, more precisely, Russian, Ossetian, Belarussian, and Latvian. The unheralded star of the show is the Grigory – Aleksandrs Antonenko, a commanding singing actor whose dramatic tenor rings top to bottom (he sings Otello in Paris this season). Antonenko and Ekaterina Semenchuk, as Marina, turn the battle of wills that is their love duet into the opera’s most gripping moment, during which Gergiev’s broad tempos permit a layered tangle of deceit and ardor to luxuriously unfold. The exceptional Russian ensemble – also including Mikhail Petrenko (Pimen), Vladimir Ognovenko (Varlam), Evgeny Nikitin (Rangoni), and Andrey Popov (the Fool) – documents a performance tradition that keeps this opera fresh. Gergiev, who more than anyone else has sustained that tradition, has also partnered another tradition – of misguided exogenous star turns. In seasons past at the Met, Placido Domingo in Pique Dame and Samuel Ramey in Boris have vitiated the full effect. Pape’s Boris is a higher achievement. And yet I have no doubt that Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theatre could have supplied a stronger Tsar – or that Pape could himself deliver a stronger Boris sung in his native German. His portrayal is full of intelligent detail. No sooner does he accept his crown than he removes it from his head. He anxiously observes Pimen’s narrative. His interactions with his children reveal a crippling vulnerability. But Pape is still growing into the part – and the language. The final utterances that imprinted the impersonations of a Chaliapin (in Russian) or Hotter (in German) – “Farewell my son, I am dying” or, coming last, “Forgive me” – are rendered with care. But no one discovering Pape via Mussorgsky could possibly imagine the surpassing authority of his Gurnemanz or King Mark.
Ultimately, these new Met productions reinforce nagging questions about Gelb’s new regime. For all the energy and enterprise he has brought to the Met, for all the millions he has spent, he is still learning on the job.

Comments

  1. Matthew Valenti says:

    Mr. Horowitz,
    Briefly:
    Have you ever met anyone who greatly prefers to experience opera by listening to complete audio recordings at home as opposed to seeing the whole theatrical event in an opera house ?
    (I’ve always been one of those people)
    As an aside, Ernest Newman went one step further than listening to records: he used to say that the finest performances of The Ring he’d ever heard were in his own imagination, as he sat at home with the scores.
    Sincerely,
    MV

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