Sunday, October 10, 2010


Wotan and Loge descend to the Nibelheim in one of the most "cinematic" moments in Das Rheingold.
You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief at the unveiling of the Met's new production of Das Rheingold (I caught up with it via HD over the weekend): it was pretty good, and at times its imagery was pretty great, even if on opening night the most dazzling effect in the whole show (the rainbow bridge to Valhalla) failed to operate.  The retirement of Otto Schenk's traditional, handsomely pictorial Ring (which had been inspired by an 1897 Bayreuth production), and the installment of high-tech theatre guru Robert Lepage in the driver's seat of a new cycle, led many to fear they'd be forced to watch Wotan in a jockstrap zap Brünnhilde with a laser pointer for the next twenty years. And the controversial premiere of the wildly-expensive L.A. Ring, with its giant puppets and light sabres, only raised anxieties to a fever pitch.

No wonder, then, that at one level Lepage decided to play it so safe.  His gods prowl the stage in something close to Schenkian costume, and the acting (such as it is, more on that later) hews to a standard, grand template.  There aren't any dramatic surprises in this Das Rheingold (although there's one vocal disappointment).

Rather than court conceptual controversy, Lepage has devoted himself to the technology of the production.  He has created, with designer Carl Fillon, a 45-ton set the Met's stagehands have taken to calling "the Machine."  The Machine is essentially a set of 24 steel planks that rotate like see-saws on a central spine.  Together, in various configurations, the planks serve as screen and surface for Lepage's trademark projections and vertiginous wire-walking effects.  It sounds simple enough, but the Machine proves capable of astounding imagery, from a stairway across the sky (at top) to the rising tide of the Rhine (below).  What's more, the Machine is designed to provide the core of the rest of the Met's Ring Cycle (Die Walküre, with Deborah Voigt, will premiere in May). So it's not just a set, it's a virtual "Wagnermachine."

And I have to say I think Wagner himself would approve of this idea, even if not all the critics have.  Of course many are simply tired of the way the Ring has become conceptual catnip for auteur directors - and even Lepage's dramatic circumspection didn't appease their irritation with his technical bravado (plus, as several pointed out, the Machine isn't exactly silent, at least not yet).  Of course how you feel about that issue probably depends on how you feel about the whole Wagner "question" - the entanglement of his legacy with his notorious anti-Semitism, and particularly the exalted status of the Ring within the Nazi regime.  Not for nothing did the Berlin Philharmonic play Wagner just before the Soviet tanks rolled in.

Thus, when the Bayreuth Festival finally resumed operations in 1951, its productions of the Ring were carefully scrubbed of any old High-Aryan schtick.  Gone were the winged helmets, and in came blasted heaths and doomed existentialism (at left, the 1951 Siegfried, conducted by former Nazi Herbert von Karajan).  And a consensus of approval formed around this new compromise.

Of course some new formulation around Wagner had to be reached; I know they don't like to play him in Israel, and of course I understand why, but he's just too important to ignore.  Indeed, I sometimes think many people are in denial about just how artistically influential this nasty anti-Semite actually was; probably only a handful of people - Shakespeare, Beethoven? - have had a larger impact on the performing arts. Wagner's influence even stretches into our physical theatres - he was the first to demand that house lights be dimmed during performance, and he designed Bayreuth, his playhouse, as what we'd now perceive as a proto-movie theatre.  These were of course only the outward manifestations of a profound shift in attitude toward what was happening on the stage: Wagner aimed to create a kind of collective dream, a  "Gesamtkunstwerk," or "total art-work," in which every facet would interact to produce a particular effect on the audience - usually a mystical combination of sensation and subconscious response.

The impact of these ideas was tremendous.  Wagner completely dismantled opera's tradition of recitative and aria, replacing it with a complex of musical motifs - a mode that would echo for years through musical impressionism (and really on into modernism).  Likewise his insistence on the proscenium as a mystical dividing line - a "fourth wall" between art and audience - provided the basis for Chekhov, Stanislavski. the Method, and eventually Marlon Brando.  And the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk found its apotheosis in the cinema - where such composers as Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann recycled Wagner's motifs as "soundtracks," synched up to imagistic editing which in itself was rhythmically indebted to his music.  Wagner's inflation of heroic legend into pop myth likewise resonates throughout the commercial culture, from Superman to Star Wars.  In fact, every time a Jewish kid cracks a comic book - much less a "graphic novel" - he essentially is reading a Wagner libretto.

I could go on and on; what this all means, of course, is that it's perfectly appropriate for artists to continually connect with, and re-interpret, this great composer and problematic personality - just as we constantly re-connect with Shakespeare (by comparison, a charmer, btw).  The trouble is that re-interpreting Wagner means spending a bucket full of money, as spectacle is really a sine qua non of his work.  And with money, inevitably, comes controversy.  Thus the high stakes surrounding the Met's $17-million Ring.

The Rhine maidens literally swim up into the playing space.
So what has Robert Lepage given us for our $17 million? Well, to my mind, he has ignored the loaded political questions inherent in Wagner - he simply has not interpreted Das Rheingold.  He has instead created an interesting meta-meditation on the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk - his production is literally a stage machine for producing psychological imagery; its "theme" is its own ability to extend the technical end of Wagner's vision.  And intriguingly, if the composer's apotheosis came with the advent of cinema, then Lepage has returned the favor, and turned the Met's considerable resources to producing cinematic effects on stage.  (Since I was watching the production on another screen, the ironic ramifications of this concept loomed large.)

Thus it's no surprise that Lepage's "Machine" often serves as a screen, too (for projections of water, fire and sky).  When it's on the move, however, it really comes into its own, and the effects it can conjure are startling, and more powerful than anything the cinema can offer.  During the opening Rhine music, for instance, its planks rippled like waves, then began to rise before us like a tide; the effect of sinking into the water, as Wagner's famous arpeggios rippled in ever-more-complex configurations, was thrillingly palpable.

But even more memorable are the amazing shifts in "perspective" Lepage achieves.  Thanks to stunt doubles and hidden wires, Wotan and Loge cross the sky on a twisting stair (at top), that's sometimes fully perpendicular to the audience; we seem to be floating above the actors, like a movie camera, as they descend. Lepage pulls off a similar, but even more dazzling, riff at his finale (at bottom), as the gods ascend a literal rainbow up the ramparts of Valhalla; this counts as one of the most beautiful stage effects I've ever seen.  It's really too bad it didn't work on opening night; all by itself it might have turned several skeptics into believers.

Not that there's nothing to be skeptical about in this production.  As has been widely reported, several of Lepage's gambits (such as the entry of the gods via slalom) don't really work, and over longer scenes, the planks of the Machine begin to look bland in a retro-70's-modernist kind of way (at such moments I began to ponder how indebted Lepage is to the work of Josef Svoboda, but that's another essay).  The costumes likewise had their misses (the giants Fasolt and Fafner looked a bit cartoonish) - and props like the magic helmet and the net in which Freia is weighed against her ransom left one scratching one's head.

And the cast, though promoted as a Wagnerian dream team, proved a bit uneven in performance.  The strongest acting came from Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and Richard Croft as Loge, with the best singing courtesy of Blythe and Eric Owens as Alberich.  In his highly-anticipated debut as Wotan, however, I'm afraid Bryn Terfel was dramatically bland and at times even vocally slightly strained toward the finish.  Perhaps most troubling was the fact that Lepage didn't really block his singers effectively.  They were often constrained to the flat, forward part of the set (as "the Machine" moved behind them), and yet within this constricted space they sometimes seemed to be wandering, or indulging in what opera wags call "park and bark."  Down in the pit, though, maestro Levine was having a grand time, serving both as attentive accompanist and happy orchestrator of grand climaxes; nothing new here either, really, but it was great hearing Levine doing what he does best.

Of course the Ring is a work-in-progress, and productions with intense technical (and safety!) requirements often take time to really gel.  As it stands, the Lepage Ring is a dazzler at times, and always conceptually intriguing; but whether it will eventually find its dramatic and musical feet, along with its technical and conceptual foundation, is still an open question.

In LePage's most stunning image, the gods ascend a rainbow to Valhalla.

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