There are no happy endings in Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen, but one of the most conspicuous losers is the amorous giant Fasolt, slain early on by his grasping brother Fafner. Another is the woebegone dwarf Mime, first the slave, then the rival of his grasping brother Alberich. No one attends The Ring for Fasolt or Mime, but in recent performances of Das Rheingold on opposite coasts, a pair of extraordinary artists made them unforgettable.
At the launch of Achim Freyer's riveting new production of The Ring at the Los Angeles Opera in February, it was the British character tenor Graham Clark, towering above his colleagues as Mime. Freyer's production—now half completed, with the balance to follow next season—dresses up ideas of mythic depth in colors and symbols and spectacle that enthrall the child in the viewer as surely as they do the thinker. Freyer's creation is nothing short of a marvel. But the use of prosthetics and mimes doubling all the major figures poses a challenge no one else in the Rheingold cast has yet proved able to surmount. Singing from inside a gigantic prop head reminiscent of the caricatures of Georg Grosz, Clark managed—by tilts of the head, action of the hands, and other details of body language—to project Mime's personality in three dimensions. Equally important, his articulation of the words and music illuminated every syllable of dialogue. No, you could not see Clark's face, but you could see him.
Two months later, the Met embarked on what has been advertised as its final revival of the reactionary, two-decade-old production by Otto Schenk. Many previous editions have come and gone without the director's personal supervision. This time, Schenk returned to brush up the action, and not in vain. On April 27, the ensemble in Das Rheingold launched the second of three cycles in admirable form. But as Fasolt, the German basso René Pape simply took it away. Encumbered with a dark mane of Mosaic luxuriance, in elevator shoes that gave his gait the halting gravity of a robot, he cut a figure that would not have been out of place in the pages of Classic Comics. Yet across the wide orchestra pit, his eyes cast their spell: piteous with heartache for the lovely Freia, blazing with righteous indignation at Wotan's evasions and deceit. Like Clark, Pape used every inflection to deepen the reading of his character's inner life. The sheer eloquence of Pape's sound—smooth, noble, yet nobly austere—is a chapter unto itself. Fasolt is small potatoes for a star of his stature, and sources in the house say that with next week's third cycle, he will retire it. A pity, though no surprise. But what a way to go.