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.”
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”?