The massive 45-ton stage apparatus (designed by Carl Fillion) for the reportedly $17 million production consists of 24 planks that rise, fall, slant, undulate, turn colors and even take on the dappled texture of undersea gravel that, when touch-activated by the singers, seemingly moved under their feet. When descending into the underworld, the gods are seen navigating a winding stairway in the theatrical equivalent of an overhead shot. Fafner and Fasolt - the semi-Neanderthals who built Valhalla - arrive onstage with the planks pointed outward like battleship guns. Some characters enter by sliding down a ramp on their bellies.
Such things support the story, but not in ways that are particularly atmospheric or stimulating to the imagination. Costumes addressed the characters' mythic archetypes only with all-purpose breastplates and gowns. Even with some ideal vocal casting - Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, and Eric Owens as Alberich - the cast seems under-directed, all taking care to be in the right scenic positions but not really addressing the psychology and inner lives of these strange mythic figures.
That's not to deny the pleasure of their company: Blythe's sound and phrase-shaping grow more remarkable every season. As the evil Alberich, Owens gets to wear a Rasta wig, crack a whip, and face off with the formidable Terfel with a sort of anti-chemistry suggesting Godzilla versus King Kong - although with a linguistic authority that clearly comes out of his work in German art song. (For Philadelphians who have witnessed his remarkable evolution over the years, Owens alone is worth the ticket.) Terfel was his charismatic self, but one reserves judgment on his Wotan until the role takes on greater dimension in Die Walküre, which arrives at the end of the season.
Back from his latest health-related absence, Met music director James Levine took unsteady bows and showed a significant weight loss. As a seasoned Wagnerian, he drew a performance from the Met orchestra that blazed when it needed to, but elsewhere it dragged, as in the long second scene when the gods negotiate over Valhalla. Narrative passages had slack tempos and limp accompaniment. If this is a sign of things to come, Siegfried (the narrative-heavy third part of the Ring) may be interminable.
How much can be remedied with more time to let the production jell? Met management says the final scene's malfunction will be addressed in future performances. The singers will inevitably grow more comfortable in the staging. But when a production invokes neither the traditional alternative universe (like Otto Schenk's) nor the updated robber baron-era (like Patrice Chéreau's), you're left outside of the opera's world, asking the wrong questions. In this pre-civilization netherworld, why does everybody want gold when there's nothing to spend it on? Why rule the world when there's not much to rule?
Music and libretto by Richard Wagner. Production by Robert Lepage, set design by Carl Fillion, video by Boris Firquet, costumes by François St-Aubin.
Alberich . . . Eric Owens
Fricka . . . Stephanie Blythe
Wotan . . . Bryn Terfel
Freia . . . Wendy Bryn Harmer
Fasolt . . . Franz-Josef Selig
Fafner . . . Hans-Peter König
Froh . . . Adam Diegel
Donner . . . Dwayne Croft
Loge . . . Richard Croft
Presented by the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York, Monday, Oct. 9, March 30, April 2. Performances are sold out. Information on standing room, waiting list tickets, and movie theater simulcasts: 212-362-6000 or www.metoperafamily.org.fdf
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.