NEW YORK — The saxophonist on the subway platform is wailing out — could it be? Yes, it actually is — the music from Wagner’s “Siegfried.” Four giant Wagner-themed banners hang from the balcony of the Metropolitan Opera House. Wagnerians visiting from Europe can be heard in heated debate at restaurants all the way down in Greenwich Village. There is no mistaking it: The “Ring” cycle has returned to New York City.
The Met has been rolling out new productions of the four “Ring” operas individually over the last two seasons, but only in recent weeks has the “Ring,” as staged by the Canadian director Robert Lepage, been presented in a complete cycle, the company’s first new “Ring” in over 20 years. And thanks to the Met’s popular “Live in HD” cinema broadcast series, it’s also coming soon, as is said now about opera, to a movie theater near you — in the Boston area, May 9-19.
As ever with the “Ring,” the question is, where to begin? The basic facts of the new Lepage staging are known to anyone with a passing interest in Wagner. These are the most expensive and technically complicated productions in the Met’s history; they deploy a single set for all four operas, consisting of a series of rotating planks dubbed “the machine” and used as a kind of elaborate shape-shifting projection screen; much of the singing has been praised, but the productions themselves have been sharply criticized in the New York press and many quarters of the blogosphere; and they have further suffered from a series of technical misfires that began on opening night of “Das Rheingold,” in 2010.
I was in the audience that evening, but long before Wagner’s Rainbow Bridge failed to materialize, I had been perplexed by how such striking visual displays could be paired with what seemed to be theatrical hollowness. So in recent weeks I’ve gone back to the Met to catch performances of the remaining three operas. Seeking some fresh perspectives on Wagnerian stagecraft, I took with me Frederic Spotts’s fine history of Bayreuth — the festival inaugurated by Wagner himself, complete with a custom-built theater to ensure the proper presentation of his works. It’s in that Bayreuth theater that the “Ring” first met the world in August of 1876.
It was an event like none other in the history of opera. Kings and emperors descended on the modest Bavarian town. (Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil, one learns from Spotts, checked into a hotel under the name “Pedro” and listed his occupation as “Emperor.”) Musical royalty was in attendance too: Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, Liszt, Bruckner, and Grieg were all there. Wagner brought his whole orchestra to meet Kaiser Wilhelm at the train station.
The theater Wagner had built was the most advanced of its day, with special gas lights and a hooded orchestra pit that kept the musicians hidden from the audience. The composer, who, shall we say, was never inclined to delusions of modesty, dreamed of his operas sparking in the viewer a kind of spiritual redemption. In an ideal theater setting then, nothing should distract an audience-member from achieving, as Wagner wrote, “that inspired state of clairvoyance in which the visible stage picture becomes the authentic facsimile of life itself.”
In practical terms, the trouble may have begun with that whole “authentic facsimile” bit. How exactly does one authentically portray gods and giants, maidens swimming in the Rhine, dragons guarding treasure? Wagner himself, as the first director of the “Ring,” pulled out all the stops, 19th-century style. The Rhinemaidens were hoisted up on tall poles attached to wagons, a dragon was built in London and shipped to Bayreuth in pieces (too bad about that neck section, lost in the mail), and at key moments, a boiler from a locomotive spewed geysers of colored steam onto the stage.
Most of those present seemed in awe of the spectacle, but interestingly, among the composers present, it was Grieg alone who sounded a note of reservation about Wagner’s stagecraft. Commenting on “Siegfried,” he wrote that “the stage properties jeopardize the drama by being so realistic; it is almost impossible to construct a dragon that does not look a bit ridiculous — and this one certainly did . . . .”
Grieg was putting his finger on a tension that evidently dates back to the premiere of the “Ring” itself: the way a certain strain of literalism runs counter to poetic fantasy, or worse, that it can muffle or altogether choke off the mythic, psychological, and emotional resonances of these vast scores.
I thought of Grieg’s comments on Monday night when one of his spiritual descendants was evidently seated behind me as the curtain went up on Act II of the Lepage “Siegfried.” Long before the young hero slays the dragon, a bright 3-D projection of the Forest Bird is seen flying across the set, looking like it might have just escaped from Disney’s “Song of the South.” The nearby Griegian let out a brief but pointed peal of laughter. It was not supposed to be a funny moment.
It seemed, however, to encapsulate the monumentally squandered opportunity represented by the new “Ring.” In his efforts to realize the very stage fantasies that Wagner could not achieve in his own day, Lepage has put technology to the service of a kind of small-minded literalism. One’s imagination is not liberated by these productions. It is, I’m afraid to say, pinned down beneath a massive and ultimately grim set that weighs in at some 45 tons.
As I recently discovered, the machine expands its repertoire of movements in “Die Walküre,” “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung.” But Lepage does nothing to change the larger equation. The main problem is that, whether moving fast, creaking ominously or just looming there in all of its grandiosity, the machine dominates the stage at every moment, dwarfing the singers as they stand before it, enter through it, or clamber awkwardly on top of it. Some of Pedro Pires’s projections are vaguely pleasing to the eyes – especially when they react in real time to the singer’s movements – but they rarely add much depth or visual poetry to the theatrical experience.
At the same time, the set itself seems to have siphoned away all other creative energies from Lepage and his team. If there are any larger cogent interpretive ideas behind this “Ring” — not about how Wagner’s operas might look, but about what they might mean — I could not summarize them for you. What a shame. Not every staging demands a grand directorial conceit, political or social allegories, radical new points of view. But if interpretive modesty and theatrical transparency are the goals, best not to place such a mammoth distraction at center stage. The Lepage ‘Ring’ manages to feel at once hulking and empty.
A bit of insight on the situation comes courtesy of Susan Froemke’s revealing new behind-the-scenes documentary entitled “Wagner’s Dream,” which will be screened nationally in theaters on May 7. In one scene, Lepage recalls taking a trip to Iceland and coming face to face with the primordial landscapes — the fjords and lava flows — that helped forge the ancient Edda myths that, together with German mythology, became the sources for Wagner’s own libretto. He explains he wanted a “tectonic set” that might channel the spirit of the landscape that gave birth to these myths.
Sounds reasonable enough, but the task of building that enormous spinning set, the invention of the machine itself, then became a kind of run-away train, a tale of Frankensteinian proportions. The team encountered so many practical difficulties that taming the technology behind the machine — making it safe and fully deployable — became not a means to realize a larger vision of Wagner’s universe, but an end in itself. In the film, Lepage speaks of his set as an organic being that seems to almost be calling the shots for him. “The animal eventually shows its different sides,” he says. “You learn to listen to it and to make it shine for what it is.”
Sadly, the scenery seems to have devoured not only the creative inspiration of this team but also its appetite for risk taking. Lepage appears to have been intimidated by what he perceives to be the ultra-conservative tastes of, as it were, Wagner nation. So while aiming at technological brilliance, he leaves behind what is — in its efforts to capture the deeper power of Wagner’s musical dramas — an amazingly timid and under-realized theatrical experience.
In recent days, there were many compensatory pleasures to be found in the singing I heard, especially the brooding majesty of Bryn Terfel’s Wotan, the demonic intensity of Eric Owens’s Alberich, the streamlined power and promise of Deborah Voigt’s first Brünnhilde.
The Met’s principal conductor, Fabio Luisi, has been drawing exacting performances from the Met orchestra, but almost everything is lighter and brisker than in the Wagner of James Levine. To my ears, Luisi projects a consummate professionalism through this music, while Levine projects a palpable immersion in its emotional depths. The energy and heat coming from the pit during Levine’s “Rheingold” back in 2010 helped warm up the massive, frigid stage.
But Levine is now gone on medical leave for all of next season. The Lepage “Ring” will return without him. With singing and orchestral playing at this level, “Ring” fever will likely remain in the New York air. But make no mistake: Grieg called it back then as now. In their fetishization of technological brilliance at the expense of just about everything else, Lepage’s productions remain a chilling, cautionary tale.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.