On Saturday October 9 the Metropolitan Opera presented its first HD telecast of the 2010-11 season with its new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the opera that opened the Met’s current season. Robert Lepage’s production which uses computerized projections, shifting platforms, and flashy lighting has attracted much attention. The set which is little more than planks and platforms that can be reoriented to almost any shape or incline is so heavy that the Met’s stage had to be reinforced to accommodate it. Mr Lepage has a regular show in Las Vegas for Cirque du Soleil. If you didn’t know that he works for that outfit you’d suspect it from looking at what he put onstage at the Met. This show is like a semi-acrobatic version of the director’s staging of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust at the New York house in 2008.

The Rhine maidens swim about suspended by ropes that allows them to move around the platforms representing the river. When Loge and Wotan descend and ascend from Nibelheim they move down and up the sharply raked platform similarly tethered. This forces them to move with slow and exaggerated steps making them look like they’re trying out for the Ministry of Silly Walks. The paraphernalia and projections aside, this is a very conventional staging of Wagner’s opera – more below. Meyerbeer would have loved it.

Das Rheingold is the shortest of all Wagner’s opera. But lest you think he’s being concise here, Rheingold is longer than Verdi’s Falstaff. What Wagner did was write the world’s longest one act opera. The strengths and weaknesses of the work are those characteristic of all Wagner’s operas. If you are intoxicated by Wagner in general and the Ring in particular stop reading here.The descriptive passages are too long and are not set to interesting music. They move the story line ahead, albeit at a glacial pace, but they are boring. Verdi and Puccini knew how to write descriptive music (ie, recitatives) that are often as beautiful as their arias. When finally something happens Wagner offers inspired writing that is unique. Your tolerance for slow and boring may be increased by the inspiration; if so you are a Wagnerian. If not you may sleep through much of this or any other of the Master’s operas.

Das Rheingold makes two key and related points. First, never have a contractor build a new house for you. Second, don’t buy more house than you can afford. Wotan is under water before he even takes possession of his manse. And to make things worse, his wife’s family moves in with him. If he’d settled for a nice four bedroom home with a fenced-in backyard the whole ring could have ended after the second scene of the cycle’s first opera.

Back to the staging. The Rhine maidens cavorting really wasn’t that different from any seen in any number of other productions. Alberich was clad in a shiny brown costume that made him look like an ambulatory Hershey bar. Lepage had no solution to the giant problem. The giants weren’t giants. They weren’t even taller than Wotan. In bulging muscle suits they resembled a hirsute Michelin Man. Fright wigs were on all the men’s heads. Wotan’s curly locks covered his left eye in place of the usual eye patch. Several characters made their entrance by riding down the raked stage on a device that looked like Rosebud. When Freia was snatched by the “giants” the gods did not age as specified in the libretto. The actual Rheingold looked like it had been bought from FAO Schwartz. The ring was a puny thing that blinked on and off. It’s the kind prize that you might get in a box of Cracker Jacks or cold cereal. The big snake in the third scene was out of The Lion King. The toad got a chuckle in a work that’s not full of laughs. In general, the production was full of spectacular gimmicks, but lacked real imagination. Presumably, this set will be used in Die Walküre which comes to the Met later in the season and in the two remaining Ring operas next season.

Musically, the performance was first rate. The star of the occasion was the Met’s spectacular orchestra brilliantly conducted by James Levine. Maestro Levine has lost a lot of weight and looked shockingly frail, but he was in complete control and realized every orchestral effect required by this dazzling (when something is happening) score. The best singing of the afternoon came from Stephanie Blythe who brings power, beauty, and insight into everything she sings. Alas, she has a weight problem that threatens not only her career, but her health if not controlled.

The three Rhine maidens, Lisette Oropesa, Jennifer Johnson, and Tamara Mumford were attractive, managed their stage business well, and sang with beauty and expression. Eric Owens, despite looking like a candy bar, was a very effective Alberich – both vocally and histrionically. Richard Croft as the crafty and doubtful Loge sounded a little whiny and had the most silly walk of the day. His brother Dwayne was an effective Donner though he showed a little strain when singing at his loudest. Tenor Gerhard Siegel, Mime, looked and acted like Dom DeLuise. The remainder of the cast sang well.

This leaves Bryn Tefel. His voice is beautiful, as always. And he certainly looks like the king of the gods. But his mind seemed elsewhere. There was little emotional content to his performance. Wotan is a man (he’s really not a god – he just has a few magic tricks) whose life is completely out of control. He constantly  tries to get a handle on events. But nothing he does works out the way he hoped. Things finally get so bad that he drops out entirely. He doesn’t even bother to show up for the last Ring opera. Which is how I may feel by the time it arrives.

In summary, Wagnerians likely really enjoyed the performance. Normal people probably liked the special effects and great highlights. I stayed awake through almost all of it.

Gary Halvorson directed the telecast. As is typical for these broadcasts he was addicted to closeups. This vitiated much of the staging which took up all of the Met’s vast stage. But I guess a video director can never be persuaded to eschew the closeup; so I ought to stop kvetching about it . Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is next – October 23.