Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wagner’s Dream (Susan Froemke Productions/PBS, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I had in mind was Wagner’s Dream, a Great Performances special on PBS that was supposed to be shown on September 11 and preface a nightly broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s current productions of Wagner’s Ring operas the next four days — only given the local KPBS outlet’s abject refusal to show any cultural programming, especially anything as recherché as a full-length opera, in prime time the operas are being relegated to KPBS’s usual ghetto for cultural programming, Sundays at noon (and this means Charles and I have already missed the first opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold, which aired last Sunday — oops). Wagner’s Dream is a documentary by director Susan Froemke about the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and its controversial new production of Richard Wagner’s four-part, 16-hour cycle of operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, under the direction of a French-speaking Quebeçois director named Robert Lepage (his name is pronounced in the French style, “Ro-BAIR le-PAAGHE”) who first worked at the Met in a production of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust (which Berlioz intended merely as a “dramatic symphony” for concert performance but, unlike his previous “dramatic symphony” Rómeo et Juliette, is a fully written-out opera in all but name) which had the various characters inside a row of boxes at the back of the stage that reminded Charles of the set for the old TV quiz show The Hollywood Squares. (It did, too — as did the set for Penny Woolcock’s Met production of John Adams’ opera about the Manhattan District Project, Doctor Atomic.)

For his Ring Lepage decided to search for inspiration in Iceland, source of the Eddas (the two books — the Elder, or Poetic, Edda and the Younger, or Prose, Edda — which later got adapted into the German Volsunga Saga and Nibelungenlied from which Wagner got his basic story), and he glued onto the fact that Iceland lies at the collision point of the American and European tectonic plates, which means not only that it’s highly seismically active but offers such spectacular visuals as the ground literally heaving under you and rocks breaking open and spurting lava into previously cold environments. (Charles saw a clip of an Icelandic volcano erupting under such conditions and it suddenly made the “ring of fire” with which Wotan surrounds Brünnhilde at the end of episode two, Die Walküre, seem real instead of just mythical.) Lepage decided to reproduce this effect by staging his Ring entirely on 24 huge steel planks which would travel up and down and give the “heaving” effect he wanted. He also came up with the idea that using these planks would enable him to project any backgrounds he wanted onto them rather than having to build big sets — though as things turned out the planks, which were supposed to have a total weight of 50,000 pounds, ended up weighing 90,000 pounds and required the Met to reinforce not only the stage wagons that maneuvered them on and off stage but the concrete floor of the stage itself to support their weight. Most of the documentary focused on the mechanics of Lepage’s construction and design rather than the actual singers — we’re more than 30 minutes into this production before we actually meet a real live opera singer, Deborah Voigt, who was singing the first Brünnhildes of her career in this production — which was rolled out piecemeal: Rheingold and Walküre in 2010, Siegfried (episode three) in 2011 and Götterdämmerung (the fourth and final episode) in 2012.

Not surprisingly, Voigt and the other singers worried about their safety on those movable planks — there had already been accidents on a similarly “advanced” Ring production, also with mobile sets, in Los Angeles (stills from that production I’ve seen make it look even more outrageous than the one in New York, complete with Cirque du Soleil-style acrobats doing their stuff above the stage action and huge costumes that made some of the performers look like giant balloons), and on the opening night of Rheingold the set stuck in place during the final scene, the stage crew decided it could not be moved without jeopardizing the safety of the singers, and so opening-night attendees didn’t get to see one of Lepage’s planned stage coups: the ascension of the gods to Valhalla on the Rainbow Bridge, accomplished by having acrobats double for the actual singers because real opera singers wouldn’t have the agility or control over their bodies to make it up the steeply raked position of the planks. Instead the singers simply slipped off the stage as best they could and the audience got to see the Rainbow Bridge, or at least some lights purportedly representing it, stage center without anything actually going on anywhere near it. And for Brünnhilde’s entrance in Walküre, on opening night Voigt slipped and slid down the slanted planks — she actually demanded that her entrance be changed, but Met general manager Peter Gelb said no, and rather than pull a diva hissy-fit and walk out of the production, she stayed on and learned to handle the tricky set. What’s more, Lepage’s idea for the Ride of the Valkyries at the start of Act III of Walküre — one of the most famous bits in all Wagner and also one of the most problematical, since the Valkyries are supposed to be flying in and out of Valhalla on winged horses, bearing the bodies of dead heroes to be revived and serve as Wotan’s palace guard — was to have each singer playing a Valkyrie sit on one of the planks and have it move up and down to suggest she was sitting on and steering a flying horse. When record producer John Culshaw, in his book Ring Resounding, made a point about the correct rhythm of the “Ride” by suggesting it be sung with the words “I’m sick on a seesaw, sick on a seesaw, sick on a seesaw, sick on a train” (his point was that the strong beat should be on “sick,” not “see”), I don’t think he expected that someone would stage Walküre and literally put the Valkyries on seesaws!

Indeed, one thing I give Susan Froemke credit for was that, though she was making a film essentially to promote the new Ring production, she gave voice to traditionalists in the audience who, before the production opened, were skeptical about whether they would like it, even though her sympathies were obviously with Peter Gelb and the others in the movie who were saying that opera has to grow and change with the times and can’t just stay static, content to produce the 19th and early 20th century masterpieces the way they were produced when they were new. The odd thing is that’s a debate that has long since ended — right now an overwhelming majority of new opera productions, especially in Europe, feature radical stage techniques and wholesale reinventions not only of the time and place of the story but plot themes and details, many of which go totally against the grain of both the music and the original texts. Interestingly, Wagner in general and the Ring in particular have largely driven the reinvention of opera staging, starting in the 1920’s when Adolphe Appia published a book calling for a less realistic, more stylized way of designing and directing Wagner productions. He didn’t get many chances to put his ideas into action — though Toscanini called him in to do Tristan und Isolde at La Scala — but from what I’ve seen of his sketches he went in for stylization but didn’t go overboard with it: his design for the mountain rock on which Wotan puts Brünnhilde to sleep at the end of Walküre and surrounds her with a magic ring of fire only a hero without fear can pass through (the hero, of course, is Siegfried, Brünnhilde’s nephew and himself the product of brother-sister incest — an important turn in the story completely unmentioned in Wagner’s Dream) is at least recognizable as a mountain crag, and likewise his designs for Tristan were still recognizably a ship in act one, a garden in act two, and the balcony of a castle in act three.

Wieland Wagner, Richard Wagner’s grandfather, threw all that out the window when he and his brother Wolfgang took over the Bayreuth Festival in 1951; Wieland’s Ring productions literally used a ring — a giant disc on the stage floor — as the overall visual motif, and whenever a special effect was needed (like the dragon Siegfried fights and slays in Siegfried) he would do it with a rather crude stage projection hovering over his big disc and the principals cavorting on it. John Culshaw, who attended the 1951 Bayreuth festival and watched a bit of the apocalyptic ending events of Götterdämmerung in Wieland’s production, which “was as if an enthusiastic amateur with very limited funds at his disposal had tried to create them with a few drapes and a spotlight.” Lepage and his co-workers and defenders generally cited Wagner’s dissatisfaction with the Bayreuth premiere of the complete Ring in 1876 (in which the singers playing the Rhinemaidens at the start of Das Rheingold were made to look as if they were swimming by being forced to lay inside steel frames and be pushed on a merry-go-round contraption in front of a painted backdrop of water) and his desire for something new — but the “something new” in Ring productions has already been done again and again and again: by Wieland Wagner in the 1950’s, Patrice Chéreau in the 1970’s (his idea was to have the Ring take place in the 19th century, when Wagner wrote it, and to that end he had Wotan wear a business suit and Siegfried forge his magic sword Nothung with the aid of a gigantic machine that got wheeled out by unseen stagehands — which really went against the whole point of the scene, which was that Siegfried overcame his obstacles and forged the sword himself with nothing but his own strength and the crudest of tools: an open fire, a bellows, a file and a hammer) and Achille Freyer in Los Angeles earlier in the 2000’s, as well as countless other weirdo Ring productions that have afflicted operatic stages all over the world.

The narration also claimed that Wagner was asking for the impossible in his stage directions — people becoming invisible, changing into dragons, flying through the air on winged horses and transforming into other people — which, as Charles pointed out, vastly underestimated the level of special effects known to exist on the 19th century stage. (Even a relatively low-budget pop theatre like the Grand Guignol in Paris could do flight.) Wagner had been to productions of Meyerbeer’s big operas at the Opéra in Paris and other heavy-duty special-effects pieces like Rossini’s William Tell (the hero shoots an apple off his son’s head? No problem!) and the French production of Weber’s Die Freischütz (he criticized the effects as tasteless but admitted they were well done) and he knew all about the capabilities of the stage machinery of his time. I’m not one of those cultural reactionaries who insists that operas or classic plays should only be performed in the time and place the authors originally specified, but I think there ought to be a reason for doing an abstract or modern-dress production, and it should be one that brings the meaning of the work closer to a contemporary audience rather than trashing the meaning of it altogether. This is why, when Peter Sellars made his famous productions of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas in the 1990’s, I loved his version of The Marriage of Figaro because he found modern-day equivalents for the social class positions of the characters in the original — but hated his Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte because there he didn’t bother and instead ran roughshod over the works. Judging from the bits of Lepage’s Ring production shown here, aside from the accident-prone nature of the beasts — the technical mishaps on Rheingold and Walküre, the illnesses that forced James Levine to withdraw as the production’s conductor after Walküre (and his replacement by the far less interesting and intense Fabio Luisi) and the last-minute cancellation of the original Siegfried, Gary Lehman (I’d already heard the radio broadcast of Siegfried and I thought the tenor who replaced him, Jay Hunter Morris, had a fine lyric voice but one about a couple of sizes too small for what is almost certainly the toughest tenor role in all opera) — the production looks like it would be well worth watching, refreshingly free of the extraneous silent characters some latter-day Rings have added and surprisingly convincing in the ability of Lepage’s projections to evoke the various locales of the story. 

Where I part company with him is in some of his weird speculations about Wagner’s characters; maybe because I went through something like  this myself (I grew up calling my stepfather “Dad” and my father “Daddy George” and it was only when I realized that “Daddy George” was actually my biological father that I insisted on using his last name, not my stepfather’s), I’ve always identified with Wagner’s maddening uncertainty about which of the two men in his mother’s life, Carl Friedrich Wagner or Ludwig Geyer (who boarded in the Wagners’ home and married Wagner’s mother just six months after Carl Friedrich’s death while baby Richard was just six months old), was his actual father and his insistence, starting at age 14, that he be called Wagner instead of Geyer. I’m sure it was because of Wagner’s own uncertainty about who he was that so many of the male leads in Wagner’s operas — including Siegmund, Siegfried, Tristan and Parsifal — are orphans who grow up unaware of their family history, and when they do become aware of who and what they are it’s an important step in their maturation. I was put off by Lepage’s rather airy description of Siegfried as a young, naïve man who appreciates the world “sensually” — he’s right about the youth and the naïveté but he ignores what seems to me to be the most important aspect of Siegfried and the crux of his tragedy: that he grows up not only not knowing who he is but literally being lied to about it; that his whole character arc is his gradually becoming aware of his identity, his heritage and his destiny; and he only puts it all together and becomes a man when he’s singing his death scene after he’s already been fatally stabbed in the back. (For all Wagner’s challenge to the conventions of opera, one of the sillier ones he did keep was this whole business of having characters mortally wounded but continuing to sing long solos before the mortal wounds finally kill them — in Tristan’s case it takes him over half an act to expire.) Still, as modern-day and self-consciously “avant-garde” (but nowhere near as “avant-garde” as advertised!) Ring productions go, Lepage’s looks like it would be interesting and Wagner’s Dream serves as a good introduction to it.