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On Monday evening, the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts to movie theatres will allow anyone who can wangle a ticket an introduction to the strange and overpowering spectacle that is Robert Lepage’s conception of Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung cycle.
The $16 million production, in gestation, development and gradual deployment for nearly eight years, has become a fulcrum for every major issue surrounding the world of opera, in particular the debate over what it means to keep the artform relevant and alive in a world of awash in distractions.
It is also about the meaning of stagecraft as people push the limits of what can be physically achieved with live theatre.
In short, it’s safe to say that no opera production in modern times has created as much buzz and controversy.
Filmmaker Susan Froemke has captured all of these issues and wrapped them in real, human drama in her 112-minute documentary, Wagner’s Dream, which serves as Monday’s prelude to the four-opera Ring Cycle itself.
(In Canada, Cineplex’s scheduled Met theatre broadcasts for the operas is: Das Rheingold, May 9 at 6:30 p.m.; Die Walküre, May 12 at 10 a.m.; Siegfried, May 17 at 6:30 p.m.; and Götterdämmerung, May 19 at 10 a.m. For details and tickets, click here.)
Wagner’s Dream is an engrossing thrill ride through the tangled intersection of imagination, ego and the limits of the possible.
Even if you don’t have the slightest inclination to see the operas themselves, this documentary is well worth your time.
Froemke doesn’t go soft on anyone. From wooden models in Lepage’s Quebec City workshop to the final curtain on the first performance of Götterdämmerung, the final opera in the cycle, no twist is left unexplored.
She makes it clear that Met general manager Peter Gelb put not only his own career, but pretty much the fate of his whole, storied company on the line to make this happen. And famed Canadian director Lepage admits on screen he had no idea what he was doing when he accepted the job.
So, like any responsible artist, he did his research, travelling to Iceland for an introduction to the ancient Nordic gods and godesses that inspired Wagner’s grand vision. He says that 85 per cent of the story is directly drawn from Edda myths. He stirred in his awe at Iceland’s lava-spewing volcanoes, and realised he needed something equally jaw-dropping to carry the 16 hours of opera from curtain to curtain — without the curtain, of course.
He calls the rotating, shifting metal planks of his 90,000-pound stage machine “tectonic,” a reflection of the continental plates pulling apart under Iceland.
Lepage also makes a convincing case that, had Wagner been able to harness the technology of the 21st century in 1876 Bayreuth, something very similar might have ended up on his stage there.
Gelb and the generous Met patrons who came up with these millions of dollars bought into the argument.
But translating technology into something that can handle the unpredictability of live stage performance is another matter altogether. This is where the nail-biting fun of the documentary comes from.
We see Lepage and his crew trying to actually make The Machine, work properly. Nerves fray as glitch upon glitch piles up before the first dress rehearsal. The Machine breaks down at the end of opening night of Das Rhinegold, in Sept. 2010, and the collective disappointment of everyone backstage is palpable.
We witness the sheer terror on the faces of the Rhine Maidens when they realize that they will swim suspended above the stage, as a massive platform rotates under their feet. (The truly dangerous acrobatic work, such as the ascent to Valhalla at the end of Das Rhinegold, is done by stunt doubles.)
We can collectively gasp as soprano Deborah Voigt, this production’s heroic Brünhilde, misses a singing leap on the treacherous set, falls flat on her face — and doesn’t miss a note.
And we can marvel at the sheer collective force of will that has an army of stagehands in blackout costumes make all the stuff of theatrical magic happen with split-second timing, while the handsomely suited-and coiffed audience sits serenely in the gilded opera house. (When the Rhine Maidens finish setting up the opening to Das Rheingold, they have to quickly duck under the stage floor or risk having the set’s rotating blades cut off their heads.)
This takes the magic of live theatre to a whole new level.
It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with what Lepage and Gelb have wrought. By the time this movie ends, you might very well believe that Richard Wagner would have loved every goosebump-raising minute.
So, was this massive undertaking really worth it?
That debate will continue to rage for years.
But, using all the standards at a critic’s disposal, it’s very difficult to argue with what Lepage has created.
The set’s ability to dynamically incorporate video and to seemingly defy gravity while transporting the onlooker far beyond the realm of the ordinary is beyond debate. Our disbelief is easily suspended (quite literally, in many instances).
The cast is excellent, and conductor Fabio Luisi does a fantastic job of teasing colour and texture out of Wagner’s score.
As is so often the case in people’s heated debates, the arguments are not about the thing itself (das Ding an sich, as philosopher Immanuel Kant called it), but about the cultural touchstones that provide familiar markers for us to navigate our world.
The world is in the middle of startling technological and cultural change, and Lepage is out there, showing how art can go along for the ride.
Here’s the trailer for Wagner’s Dream, followed by nice, illustrated narration by Lepage prepared by the New York Times for Rheingold‘s opening in 2010: