Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I arrived at the Revere cinema last Saturday morning at 11:30 am.

And I left a little after 6 pm.

During those six-and-a-half hours I watched the Met broadcast of Wagner's Die Walküre ("The Valkyrie"), in Robert Lepage's controversial new staging. The opera itself only took up a little over four hours. The remaining two and a half were filled with fluff pieces, set malfunctions, and scheduled intermissions, during which, oddly, the movie audience often stared at the actual audience at the Met staring back at us. (There really should be some kind of two-way exchange going on there, methinks; can't they figure that out?)

I confess I'm forging through the whole cycle (and dragging my friend Geoff with me) to some degree because I've never done it before, and because I'm intrigued by Lepage's concept.  I also admit I've long stored Wagner on the same mental shelf where I've kept most of Goethe, as well as Finnegans Wake and Infinite Jest; I appreciate their significance, but minute-to-minute, they're just too long and boring. Vita brevis, and some ars is very longa, as they say. At the same time, I feel tinges of guilt about not knuckling down and getting through these monuments, because often there's a huge pay-off in making it all the way through an enormous masterpiece (Remembrance of Things Past, Don Quixote, Moby-Dick). Then again, sometimes there's only a minor pay-off (The Divine Comedy).  Sometimes there's no pay-off (Thomas Mann, I'm lookin' at you).  It's kind of a crap shoot.

So far, I have my doubts about the Ring cycle, although of course not about Wagner's impact in general.  It's hard to think, in fact, of any genius who has been more artistically influential. In harmonic terms, his music jump-started modernism - and Wagner also fomented revolutions in conducting style and even theatrical design. But beyond these significant innovations his determination to make of opera a "total work of art," or Gesamtkunstwerk, had a profound impact on Western civilization as a whole. It's hard to over-estimate the importance of this central, animating idea; versions of it had long bubbled through Western culture, of course, but Wagner's insistence on opera as a synthesis of all artistic expression, under the guidance and control of a single mind, that the spectator would perceive and "enter" as a kind of living dream (and which would through that experience shape culture, politics, and civilization itself), steadily infiltrated, and eventually dominated, the worlds of art, literature, dance, architecture, and eventually cinema - which probably served as the composer's apotheosis.

So I kept trying to remember all that as I endured the turgid dramaturgy of Die Walküre. Amusingly, Wagner claimed in the first half of the Ring (Rheingold and Walküre) to be tossing aside the long dominion of music over drama in opera for a new synthesis based on leitmotifs. But alas, Wagner was a much weaker dramatist than he was a composer, so the drama lost out anyway; it's true that the old system of recitative and aria often hobbled dramatic action, but it turned out Wagner's matrix of leitmotifs only made things even more static. (Tellingly, the composer largely returned to recitative and aria when he wrapped up the Ring with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung).

What most interested me about Lepage's new production, however, was the way it seemed to re-formulate that underlying concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, particularly as it related to the dividing line between theatre and film. For Lepage's gargantuan, abstract set - famously nicknamed "The Machine" - is clearly designed to produce cinematic effects on the stage. In Das Rheingold, for instance, the famous arpeggios of the "Rhine Music" rippled away as the planks of "The Machine" rose and fell like waves; and as Wagner's harmonies deepened, they towered like an incoming tide toward the top of the proscenium, and we sank deeper and deeper into the dark. Likewise, during the "Magic Fire Music" at the climax of Walküre, the Machine rotated  as if the entire stage was a kind of camera lens, so that we finally viewed the sleeping Brünnhilde from "above" (at bottom).  Clearly what Lepage is aiming for in these sequences is a fascinating new synthesis of modernism and "physical" cinema.

The trouble is that while the Machine impresses during these musical high points, during much - and perhaps most - of the Ring it feels like a gigantic fifth horse, trotting along pointlessly beside what's really an inflated fairy tale.  And alas, after several minutes, the images projected on its flat planks begin to feel a little flat, too, and that sense of actual presence that distinguishes theatre from film begins, perhaps predictably, to leak out of the proceedings. Thus the nostalgia one often hears voiced for the story-book magic of Otto Schenk's durable, pictorial production (Hunding's cottage from Walküre at left), which served the Met well for something like twenty years. For to be honest, despite all of Wagner's high-falutin' manifestos, he often seems to be reaching not for high concept but rather for traditional forms of scenic magic (only king-sized).  Because deep down the old showman knew that high concept spread over four hours gets boring.

There has been considerable criticism of Lepage's direction as well as his set - and it's pretty clear that many of the long exchanges in Die Walküre have been under-directed.  The more talented actors - Stephanie Blythe, Deborah Voigt - managed well, and both were in great voice on Saturday (there has been a rash of hating on Voigt's vocals, for reasons I can't understand); but Bryn Terfel is clearly still wandering as Wotan - although he was in better voice here than he was in Rheingold.  Meanwhile, as Sigmund, the heart-throb Jonas Kauffman sang powerfully but seemed to be acting in some sort of fog (all the more distracting in the close-ups of the HD simulcast).  His Sieglinde, Eva-Maria Westbroek, also sang beautifully, if with less force, but acted with more conviction - although it must be noted that both were compromised by the staging of their scenes behind the front skirt of the Machine, which gave their incestuous passion an unfortunate sense of forced distance (it was only once Sigmund leapt up onto the skirt itself that things began to catch fire).

These problems indicate a deeper problem with the Machine: the actors - and maybe even Lepage - don't know how to relate to it; indeed, even the props and costumes don't really relate to it (they're basically traditional). So far the Machine's concept has operated at the technical level only - and sometimes not even at that level; the delays in Saturday's simulcast were clearly related to its recalcitrance, and there have been noted mishaps in performance (Voigt took a small tumble on opening night, for instance), although as yet no actual injuries à la Spider-Man. So far you'd have to rate the Machine as at best a mixed blessing, I think - and something tells me that a lot of people are hoping the Met didn't actually throw out those old Otto Schenk sets!

Opera as "physical" cinema - the "Magic Fire Music" from Die Walküre.

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