Monday, September 27, 2010

Das Rheingold opens MET Opera Season

It's a well-known fact that mounting a new production of an opera these days requires a special "vision" from the stage director. It isn't enough anymore just to stage an opera, the work must be dissected, re-invented, and somehow made "new" to audiences that demand a new take on an old warhorse. Needless to say, the less the director follows the stage directions and intentions of the original librettist and composer the better. Richard Wagner's stage works are perfectly suited for this directorial experimentation; and so we have had productions of Parsifal where the Holy Grail has inexplicably morphed into anything from an apocalyptic glow from a nuclear blast to a decomposing giant rabbit in Equatorial Africa. This summer at the Bayreuth Festival the guests at Lohengrin and Elsa's wedding were a chorus of giant rats, and a shower of sneakers rained down from the rafters during the finale of Act II of Die Meistersinger. These days, everything is fair game: the weirder the better.

The Metropolitan Opera made a big deal when it decided to retire the old Otto Schenk production of the Ring and replace it with a new staging by Robert Lepage. The old production went out with a sold-out bang, and everybody waved goodbye to possibly the last "old-fashioned" realistic setting of the Ring left in the world. Weeks later, during a dinner hosted by the Metropolitan Opera Club, of which I am a member, Peter Gelb assured those of us gathered there that the new production would be set in "a mythological world." He had to reassure us of that. American audiences, by and large, are essentially conservative ones, and they are somewhat skeptical of "Eurotrash" stagings.

The poster that appeared all over town a few months later, advertising the new production is worth noting. It shows Wotan (sung by Bryn Terfel) wearing a breastplate and a wig with long locks of dark hair draped over his missing eye. In his right hand he carries a spear which is filled with ancient runes. In other words, in this getup Mr. Terfel can board Dr. Who's TARDIS and be transported back in time, and easily step into a production at the old MET circa 1902. By the looks of the poster you would think that the MET had replaced the Schenk production with an even more traditional one.

Not so! The Met opened the new season on Monday with Mr. Lapage's first opera in the Ring cycle, Das Rheingold. It is certainly set in a mythological world all right, I just don't know which particular mythic realm he picked (although the director claims that the myths of Iceland have influenced him the most). The mammoth set for Rheingold and for the rest of the Ring is a wall that consists of twenty-four planks constructed between two towers. These planks can be configured in a number of ways in order to produce different settings. Also, on their plain surfaces, projections as well as interactive video that reacts to movements and sound (as in Mr. Lapage's 2008 MET production of La Damnation de Faust -- clearly a dress rehearsal for this Ring) can be projected.

This monstrous contraption (the MET had to reinforced its stage this summer) allows for some beautiful stage pictures as well as some very clumsy staging. The first scene features the Rhinemaidens swimming about underwater with bubbles rising to the surface. Then we see them lounging by the banks of the river, their mermaid tails moving the projected pebbles by the river banks. A beautiful and unforgettable effect. Later on, Wotan and Loge's journey to Nibelheim is presented as an aerial view as the two seem to be descending a giant staircase designed by M.C. Escher. The staging of the second scene, on the other hand, proved to be more complicated. The giants Fasolt and Fafner are isolated, standing on their own platform above the gods with nowhere to move, and unable to interact physically with anyone else on the stage. The gods Freia, Froh and Donner enter the scene by sliding down one of the walls as if Valhalla was some kind of immortal playground. Further, when in the last scene Fafner kills his brother Fasolt, the body of the slain giant slides down the wall like the disposal of human garbage. It looked like a scene from Sweeney Todd. This awful bit of staging drew a loud amount of laughter from the audience.

The fairest criticism that one can have of this production is that it is largely unimaginative. The last scene presents us with a small rainbow bridge and rainbow colored lights upstage. However, the gods exit into the wings rather than take the ride up to Valhalla via the rainbow bridge -- why? My understanding is that the wall did not work as it was supposed to. A pity, it definitely left you wanting more, that's for sure, especially at Opening Night prices. After all the years of planning and months of building can't they get these things to work?

Musically, the evening went a lot better. James Levine is back on the podium, looking frail and thin after this summer's 10 hour spine operation. His body may be weak, but his musical talents remain as prodigious as ever. He led a well paced performance which rarely overpowered the singers. The orchestra played beautifully throughout the evening, even inspired at times. Towards the end of the evening, however, there was some unevenness in the brass section.

In his first MET Wotan, Bryn Terfel did not disappoint, although he started the evening a bit shaky and a little gravelly, perhaps trying to save his voice for the long one-act evening. Good performances were also given by Dwayne Croft as Donner and Adam Diegel as Froh. Eric Owens provided the richest, most consistent singing among the men. As Alberich, who renounces love for wealth and power, Mr. Owens gave us a twisted, complex creature with a rich sonorous bass to match. As Freia, Wendy Bryn Harmer sounded strong and sure of herself vocally, easily the best performance from among the women.

I am not one of those who will petition the MET to bring back the Otto Schenk production, which I always thought to be too realistic and mad for details. The years pass, tastes change, and audiences must advance forward with the times. If I am nostalgic for anything, it is for the Wieland Wagner inspired Herbert von Karajan older MET production, with the rocky cliffs and the ever-present darkness and gloom. I have to admit: I loved that Ring!

One quarter of the tetralogy is down and we await to see what this production team will do with the next installment later on in the season. Let's hope that the wall is in working order and that it is used in more imaginative ways in Die Walk├╝re.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Social Network opens the 48th N.Y. Film Festival

All the buzz you've heard is true. The Social Network, director David Fincher's highly entertaining new film chronicling the genesis of Facebook is a first rate biopic of the rise and rise of Mark Zuckerberg, the Ivy League undergraduate creator of that Internet blue-logo social site that, for better or for worse, has most of the world in its virtual grip. With a first-rate script by Aaron Sorkin that fires with both cylinders, with rapid-pace dialogue reminiscent of His Girl Friday, the story takes us from Facebook's humble beginnings in Harvard Yard, and sweeps us along towards a morality tale conclusion where ultimate redemption might just be a click of the refresh button away.

We first meet Mark Zuckerberg, wonderfully played by Jesse Eisenberg, at a Harvard student watering hole where his relation with his girlfriend (the underused Rooney Mara) is rapidly heading for the rocks. Mark is a genius at embracing algorithms, but an utter failure at courtship. His revenge for being dumped starts a chain reaction that knocks down the university computer network, puts him on academic probation, and brings him to the attention of a pair of buttoned-down blue blood twins (both played by Armie Hammer) who lure Mark into building for them a website for elite WASPs. In a wonderful scene Mark is invited to the outer foyer of Porcellian, the elite "final club" to which the twins belong, and present him with their their offer. Mark runs with the idea, and the prototype of Facebook is born, while the brothers are left out of the picture.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark as if he suffers from Asperger syndrome. It is a brilliant performance built on a shaky foundation of fits and starts. Sometimes the character seems to know it all (he walks out of an advanced computer class being the only student in the room who knows the answer to an intricate question that the professor has posed), and at other times his face morphs into an eerie mask where his eyes are all but dead. It is a superb performance of a person unable to relate to others who, ironically, is destined to build the website whose mission statement is the unification and connection of us all.

If Mark is the brains behind Facebook, then Eduardo Saverin is its heart. Mark's best friend, played by Andrew Garfield in a breakthrough performance, is a great foil, and one of the best examples of good guys finishing last. There is a jittery quality to Mr. Eisenberg that is beautifully complemented by Mr. Garfield's grounded performance. He is a noble character for whom we feel compassion, especially when the tide of events turn against him.

Facebook might have had the kernel of its invention in the East, but it does not take off until the operation moves out West, and this move was largely influenced by Sean Parker, the creator of the defunct music-sharing site Napster, here played with great flair by Justin Timberlake. The introduction of Parker's character halfway through the film injects the narrative with a shot of adrenaline and directs the film to another plane. We move from the halls of Academia (beautifully shot digitally on "the Red" by Jeff Cronenweth) to sunny suburban houses with pools and trendy sushi restaurants shot with a palette of bright colors that contrast with the autumnal hues of the first part of the film.

Here lies the genius of David Fincher. He is able to juggle the many worlds of this movie with great accomplishment. Not a stranger to unknown worlds (as he proved with his first film, Aliens 3, and later on in the rain-soaked unnamed city of Se7en), he is comfortable in the binary world of computer geeks as well as in the elite world of privilege. He knows how to show the beauty of modern liquid crystal displays, and then turn around and convincingly lead us through a regatta in England where wealth, royalty, and old money mingle. Very few directors nowadays can perform this feat so convincingly.

In many ways, it is a film about the clash of the old and the new. But the success of the film lies not in the fact that it deals with the latest flavor-of-the-month Internet accomplishment. That is only its outer veneer. According to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the film has little to do with the Internet and everything to do with themes as old as storytelling itself. As he mentioned at the press screening of the film, The Social Network is about "friendship and loyalty, class, jealousy, and power: things that Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Paddy Chayefsky would write about." It is for this reason that this very up to date film about our age seems as ageless as tragedy and comedy, the poles of Western art that this work inhabits and balances so deliciously.