Adam Diegel, Dwayne Croft, Bryn Terfel,
and Stephanie Blythe in Das Rheingold
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Adam Diegel, Dwayne Croft, Bryn Terfel,
and Stephanie Blythe in Das Rheingold
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Robert Lepage's new multi-million dollar production of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold -- the first installment of the composer's famed Ring Cycle -- is perhaps the most-anticipated and most expensive production in the history of the Metropolitan Opera. That makes it doubly sad that -- despite some excellent singing and work from conductor James Levine -- there's no denying that this production is a five-alarm disappointment.

The usually brilliant Lepage's major contribution to the work is Carl Fillion's set, which when first seen resembles a grey hardwood floor. As the introductory music crescendos, the tilted floorboards begin changing shapes, bending into plateaus and serving as screens on which unimaginative videos are projected. Moreover, Lepage's 24 morphing planks aren't reconfigured enough to keep dramatic inertia from settling. The fiber-glass-covered aluminum slats assume awkward angles on which characters must step with extreme care or slide down as if trash-bags negotiating an incinerator.

Lepage's vision also leaves much to be desired in other areas. When dawn breaks over the Rheinmaidens and big to-do ensues about the bright underwater gold, lighting designer Etienne Boucher doesn't raise the wattage enough to illuminate a cluttered closet. The neon-like strip of rainbow colors meant to represent the approach to Valhalla is something any creative lighting man might have tried in 1965 and discarded as boring.

Where Wagner's fabulous music is concerned, however, things brighten up. Levine, returning to the podium after a publicized health leave, led the orchestra with his acclaimed empathy. His command of the sweep, the sonorous swelling and ebbing of the score was undiminished. Furthermore, the stamina he demonstrated during his nearly three-hour, intermissionless baton-waving was remarkable.

In most cases, as well, the singing was also worthy of the gods. The glaring drawback was Bryn Terfel, wearing an unkempt Veronica Lake wig to suggest Wotan's missing eye, who walked listlessly about the stage as if under a spell cast by a witch from another myth entirely. He did attain some colorful phrases after a wobbly start, but almost never lent the great god Wotan his god-like scale.

Stephanie Blythe, who presumably can do no wrong with her expansive and shiny mezzo-soprano voice, gave Fricka dignity and glow, while Eric Owens was a commanding Alberich. Rheinmaidens Lisette Oropesa, Jennifer Johnson and Tamara Mumford had the playfulness and the seductiveness in their music down pat. Franz-Josef Selig and Hans-Peter Konig blared properly as the giants Fasolt and Fafner, while Adam Diegel, Dwayne Croft, and Wendy Bryn Harmer delivered the vocal anxiety and determination demanded of their roles as Fricka's siblings (especially Harmer, who was required to assume some degrading postures as a kidnapped ransom pawn). On the down side, Richard Croft as Loge had difficulty at times making himself heard, and Gerhard Siegel as Mime and Patricia Bardon as Erda were not completely effective in their brief appearances.

But musical quibbles aside, the realization that Lepage will use his outlandishly expensive and unimpressive set for the entire Ring Cycle (set to continue throughout 2011) is enough to make Wagnerians weep.