Whose dream?

We’re in the summer of Wagner’s Bicentennial.  Frank Castorf’s new Ring cycle has opened at Bayreuth, which led to the inevitable boos from the audience.

Inevitable?  Two of the greatest Bayreuth productions of the past few decades were booed at first.  If Chereau & Kupfer were booed –and later embraced—what is one to make of Castorf’s new Ring production being booed? I wish I had a sense of whether it’s any good.  We seem to be in a kind of critical no-mans-land, at least those of us unable to see the production.  I don’t trust most critics.  I have to wonder whether Castorf deliberately sought controversy, given that Anthony Tommasini wrote the following in his NYTimes review, “the entitlement and hostility that Mr. Castorf conveyed while staring down the booing Bayreuth audience seemed revealing: this was a director who wanted to get a reaction. He got it.”

click image for more info about Susan Froemke’s documentary

Coincidentally, PBS broadcast Susan Froemke’s documentary Wagner’s Dream, concerning the Robert Lepage / Ex Machina Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, tonight in the Toronto-Buffalo area.  The gossip I have read suggests the production won’t be revived anytime soon:

  • Because the tickets didn’t sell well for the last Cycle
  • Because some singers are allegedly resistant to participating

And that’s too bad.  When I posted the broadcast time on Facebook, a friend showed no compassion whatsoever in observing the disconnect between the claims of the documentary (doing it Wagner’s way) and the critical reception for the production.  Canadian Wagnerians I know seem very supportive of the production, whereas Americans seem much less willing to meet the production on its own terms.

On one side of the Atlantic Regietheater is the norm.  On this side, there seems to be less readiness to use imagination to meet a director half-way.  I was charmed by Lepage’s choices, often made from between a rock and a hard place.  I think the director under-estimated the willingness of singers to take physical risks onstage, a mistake that drives the surreptitious refusal of singers to appear in future cycles.

There’s so much that’s new in this interpretation I don’t think the production has had a fair hearing.  Lepage’s understanding of the Cycle is fascinating to me still, and much clearer from this documentary.

I understood that the “machine”, an ever-changing contraption of huge planks that is both a set and a kind of sculptural installation, represents the world.  Its malleability and changing shape is daunting because it’s more than just a backdrop.  Lepage spoke of two aspects of the Ring, that his set is emulating:

1) the source tales for Wagner’s Ring are the Icelandic Eddas.  Lepage saw Iceland as a kind of landscape of tectonic upheaval, perpetually changing & malleable.  His set echoes this, the planks being something like tectonic plates

2) the leit-motivs in the score, too, appear, combine, and then change.  Lepage spoke of the set as a kind of visual echo of the motives of the score.

And as I said more than once (I wrote a ton about this production), Lepage captures the essential cosmology of the Ring in his set.  The world changes, new powers overthrow the old ones, and this too is reflected in the set.

While it’s not literally what Wagner wrote, Lepage managed to stage a great number of moments in the cycle that usually are omitted, from Rhine-Maidens who seem to swim at the beginning, to Grane & Brunnhilde riding onto the pyre at the end.  It’s very ironic to me that one of the biggest problems with the Lepage Ring is Wagner: that instead of heavily glossed productions we see just how little is really there.

As for Lepage’s direction, I saw little or nothing by way of acknowledgement that whatever else you might say, Lepage is a terrific director.  There were complaints from people upset that the set compelled people to play in a narrow space downstage, or perhaps some other locale on the stage.  I don’t understand this kind of objection.  When you come to opera, you don’t expect movie or TV acting, you don’t object to characters singing rather than speaking, so why make other stipulations?  I did not see comments about the many marvellous moments in Lepage’s conception, the character relationships elucidated as never before.

The thing i love most about Froemke’s documentary is how well it seems to capture the adventure of this Ring, including a willingness to show us the many challenges backstage.  We see Debbie Voigt fall in rehearsal, and even saying “i’m not going up there again, you heard it here”.  But she does, and she recants.  This is not whitewash, but a very brave and truthful documentary, or as truthful as you can expect under the circumstances.

Here in Toronto, as we wait for the Girard Parsifal to come to town, we may be wondering if we’ll see the COC Ring anytime soon.  The imported Sellars/Viola Tristan production did very well at the box office last season, but I believe that’s due more to Ben Heppner than anything on the stage (just as the Met’s difficulties likely have more to do with musical issues than what they put onstage).  Even so I suspect a Ring could be very good at the box office, especially if the Met has decided to mothball their Ring for awhile.

Forgive me if i didn’t answer the question that’s in the headline.  I think that if one really engages with the works, one embraces alternative interpretations, even if these are uneven.  That is my dream, as i believe it’s the dream of anyone who loves Wagner’s operas.

I believe the Met will eventually revive the Lepage Ring, perhaps in a few years time, as they have too much money invested in it to simply mothball it.  Perhaps the use of doubles needs to be stepped up, possibly to the exclusion of singers onstage for anything potentially risky.  I’d like to see what the production can do when it isn’t being held back by technical limitations, when singers feel safe; that may only be possible by turning it into a lip-synch extravaganza, at least in the scenes where singers were fearful.  I wonder what it would look like.

In closing, i recall one of pianist Stewart Goodyear’s Facebook statuses from May 2012:

First, it is ridiculed….; Second, it is violently opposed; Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” -Arthur Schopenhauer

The Lepage Ring took the same sort of abuse as Chereau & Kupfer.  I wonder if the interpretation will ever get a chance to become “self-evident”?

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6 Responses to Whose dream?

  1. Alison Gray says:

    Hope so…

  2. Edward Brain says:

    I think the issue here is that the Lepage Ring does respect tradition. Most directors nowadays, especially in Europe, seem to think that because they are the Director that it means they can take liberties with the production. I don’t see that with the Lepage Ring. I see him trying to use 21st Century technology to do what Wagner originally wrote – which in my opinion is exactly what he did. I do hope it comes back.

  3. Operalover says:

    My chief complaint with the Lepage Ring was not whether it “respected Wagner’s vision” but the simple lack of direction for big chunks of the drama. In between the (sometimes) spectacular effects were long stretches with little direction of the human drama that takes up much of the Ring. When the blocking of the singers wasn’t awkward it was just plain uninspired.

    Yes, Le Machine had issues and some singers had reservations. But the real failure of the production was a lack of direction beyond the impressive projections and staging effects.

    Lepage came back to the Met with a much more interesting production of THE TEMPEST by Thomas Ades.

    • barczablog says:

      Sorry i couldn’t disagree more. Whenever something went wrong: “Lepage’s fault.” But the strong-points of this production were always laid at the feet of the individual performers, without any acknowledgement of what Lepage brought to the project. I was very impressed by the inter-action between characters. I wonder about people who only saw the effects and failed to notice how powerfully the opera unfolded. Are they usually asleep waiting for their favourite aria? I am fresh from this –admittedly on video–where i watched the whole thing last week.

      Lepage’s blocking & character dynamics are among his strengths. I saw complaints on the NY Opera List, concerning the scene between Fricka and Wotan, where Blythe is more or less stationary while Terfel circles around. While this was criticized, i found it wonderfully effective. If two people look at the same thing, and one sees meanings and depths while the other is bored, sorry, i ignore the one who is bored unless you can show me that the one seeing meaning is imagining something that’s not there. I compared this to Richard II, where the real power resides with the one who is still (and she seems literally to be on a throne). A friend posted about this scene on facebook (she was in shock because she’d never liked this scene so much), and i felt like saying “of course it’s the singers who make it good, never Lepage”. I was particularly taken by the scenes with Grane in Act I of Gotterdammerung, stunning powerful moments. UNINSPIRED? Then explain the tears all over my face, moments of stunning beauty. Siegfried’s rhine journey, Siegfried’s arrival at the hall of the Gibichungs… The first scene of the last act is so stunning my eyes were popping out of my head. Perhaps these moments didn’t speak to you, but I’m more than sorry if it left you cold. That’s not just too bad for you, that’s too bad for me, if this negative consensus prevents the production from being revived. But to say the blocking was weak is simply not true. The space was used in original ways, and can’t simply be expected to be blocked as though it were standard 20th century mise-en-scene. At times the arrangement of people on stage was stunningly beautiful. Our challenge coming to any new art is to see past what we’ve seen in the past, and see what’s there, rather than to complain about what’s not being done. I’ve seen all the operas in this production at least twice each (some 4 times now), and have decided to buy the DVDs, so i’m putting my money where my mouth is.

      The Tempest? a very different work, but again, fascinating, and full of eye candy. I had issues with Lepage’s Damnation de Faust, but even so, wow what a fabulous piece of theatre.

      Thanks for offering your opinions.

      • Edward Brain says:

        I think that any ‘flaws’ in the movements of the singers seemed to be more of an issue with Levine’s slowness in the first two operas compared to Luisi’s faster tempi in the last two operas. I did think the one scene that could have been improved on, at least from the point of the characters acting more, was the final duet between Wotan and Brunnhilde in Act 3. But this I believe was partly Levine’s slow tempi – I would have loved to see the same scene with Luisi conducting before blaming Lepage. Plus, I am seeing that scene with James Morris as Wotan in the Schenk production at the back of my mind. Not only did James Morris command your attention, there seemed to be more movement (like him throwing his spear at one point as Brunnhilde argues with him.)

        But this could also be an issue with the cast and with how far they wanted to take the action considering that Deborah Voigt fell during the first performance of Walkure in 2011.

        I also do not believe that any performance of the complete Ring can be perfect in every little detail – at 16 hours (not including the intermissions) there is simply too much to deal with.

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