09 February 2012

Do You Remember the Ring?

La Machine, at rest: It slices, it dices.
Now how much would you pay?

I walked out of Robert Lepage’s Götterdämmerung, the final installment in the high-tech Ring cycle he produced for the Met over the past two seasons, in a fuming rage. The Met’s general director, Peter Gelb, was lucky that New York City Opera’s woes have captured so much of our attention lately, I avowed, because otherwise he might be run out of town on a rail for permitting such an outrageous boondoggle. Lepage’s stagings are dominated by “the Machine,” a gigantic contraption that creates multiple, varied settings for the cycle’s 20 hours and many scenes; the Machine also serves as a video screen, onto which digitized images are projected.

Or so said the Met. Encountering the Machine live this week for the first time, I found it to be — in no particular order — ugly, noisy, and dull. It cost a fortune, but its very size prevents the Met from programming many other operas at the same time, because there’s simply no room for the other scenery. The Machine is also notoriously unreliable, the butt of many Spider-Man-style jokes in New York, though Tuesday night’s performance went off without any noticeable hitches.

The Met is one of the few companies in the world that can afford to stage the Wagner operas, and it does so, generally, with top-notch casts comprised of the best available singers in this repertory. Replacing Otto Schenk’s storybook production may not have been the most urgent item on a new general director’s agenda, but surely if the Met — the Metropolitan Opera, for mercy’s sake — is going to produce a new Ring, ought it not be about something?

You’re encouraged to pass the time by recalling Anna Russell’s Ring analysis. Here, we get some “veddy competitive singing” on a rock “surrounded mit Feuer und Schmoke … und Schtink.”
With Deborah Voigt and Jay Hunter-Morris.

Lepage’s Ring, it’s now clear, is about the Machine. Nothing else. And the Machine exists because the Met was too pretentious or too chicken-shit to project those video images onto a flat screen. No, we needed a “flexible” screen, or screens, or somesuch, and this is the result. In the pursuit of the Machine and its special effects, Lepage seems to have neglected entirely every other goal of staging.

Yes, Deborah Voigt managed to do some fine acting, when seen in close-up during the HD simulcast of Die Walküre, but what you see from inside the house — especially from the Family Circle, where I sat — is singers who are dwarfed by the Machine and upstaged by the videos, and who mill around aimlessly. Voigt was out sick on Tuesday, replaced by the estimable Katarina Dalayman, who is arguably an even stronger actress, but there was precious little drama anywhere on the Met stage.

Was there a unified acting style? Of course not — the playing ranged from Jay Hunter Morris’ exuberant Siegfried to Hans-Peter König’s chillingly understated Hagen, both effective but neither really merging into a coherent statement. Here again the Machine is to blame, since it’s neither fish nor fowl. It is abstract in itself, and it certainly doesn’t resemble the hall of the Gibichungs or the Rhine or a rock surrounded with fire. But the video projects are realistic — extremely so.

If you’re an actor looking for clues whether to go stylized or naturalistic in your playing, you’re not going to get much help from any part of Carl Fillion’s set.

So forget about the emotional power of the Ring, and meanwhile, we in the audience can forget about any consideration of the philosophical, moral, and cultural issues that Wagner raises here. Directors in the past several decades have mined these operas for all kinds of riches — from parables of industrialization to paeans to nature, from Freud to Marx and back again.

Engagement Party from Hell: Brünnhilde (Voigt)
tries to sort out who’s going with whom.
With Iain Paterson (Gunther) and Hans-Peter König (Hagen).

Schenk’s physically gorgeous production (the only one I’ve seen all the way through) boasted precious little philosophy, but it said plenty about mythology and storytelling. Wieland Wagner’s abstract, minimalist settings for Bayreuth were about refocusing our attention on the psychological drama. Patrice Chéreau went political; Robert Wilson went personal, with imagery and gestures that made best sense to himself alone.

It will be years before New York gets another Ring to call its own. Lepage has cheated the Met, and Peter Gelb let him do it. It’s a scandal; there ought to be a general public outrage.

Why then am I not angry anymore? Because, when the light of Wednesday morning broke, it became clear to me that this production is so incredibly dull that it’s impossible to sustain any kind of strong emotion toward it.

I’m not a Wagnerite — far from it. But you don’t have to enter into his cult in order to admire and to need his work, and the Met is, as I say, one of the rare places where you can get it. The musical aspects of this Götterdämmerung were, mercifully, still quite compelling — if Fabio Luisi didn’t command precisely the same majesty that James Levine used to elicit from the Met orchestra, he still did a masterful job, and the future bodes bright as he and the musicians continue to collaborate and to explore this music. It’s just a shame that there won’t be anything to look at.

But then, that’s what radio is for. The Met happens to do radio particularly well. And it’s cheap, too.

The Hall of the Gibichungs.
“Wir singen laut! Wir machen ein earschplittinge Din!”

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