The Metropolitan Opera
Director: Susan Froemke
Cast: Robert LePage, Deborah Voigt, Jay Hunter Morris, Peter Gelb, James Levine, Fabio Luisi, and the Metropolitan Opera
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 7/11/12
Opens: July 19, 2012 in NY; July 27, 2012 in L.A.
Let me take a wild guess that more people have heard of Spider-Man than Götterdämmerung and that, further, more people have seen “Spider-Man-Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway this year than Richard Wagner’s 15-hour long Ring Cycle at the Met. What do they have in common aside from the sounds of music? Both productions embraced avant-garde staging that includes flying actors and singers. A month from its Broadway debut, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” found one of its stars injured at the first preview, struck by a weighted rope backstage. She suffered a concussion. Several cast members were later injured by inadequate stage props.
When the Met arranged an avant-garde production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle (which could also be called “The Ring of the Lords” and which inspired “The Lord of the Rings” in movie theaters), there were not many accidents, but there was certainly a fear of getting crushed by a 90,000-pound set design! By avant-garde, we don’t mean something as ordinary as Woody Allen’s creation in his latest movie “To Rome With Love,” which involved staging “I Pagliacci” with the hero’s coming out onstage while taking a shower. No, this Wagnerian production was somewhat more complicated. Wagner himself was never satisfied with stagings during his lifetime since they did not capture the gradiosity of Scandinavian gods, but he would have liked what bilingual opera director Robert Lepage had done at the Met. Believing that opera must continually reinvent itself or die (and given the fact that subscriptions at the Metropolitan Opera House at New York’s Lincoln Center were in free-fall), he dreamed the kind of dream that Wagner would have dreamed. He may have disappointed the fogies who want to see operas over and over again staged in the same style, but he must have dazzled most who took in even one of the four music dramas of the Ring cycle.
To afford spectators the excitement behind the search by gods for a ring, in a story that includes the god Wotan’s punishing his daughter Brünnehilde by taking away her immortality, he used the crew of Ex Machina in Québec to construct a 45-ton set of wooden planks nicknamed “The Machine,” planks that would move up and down and would dazzle all by showing the characters retreating slowly to Valhalla. On opening night of “Das Rheingold,” the first of the cycle, the planks simply did not work, but all was redeemed on the following eve just when the critics from the New Yorker and the New York Times were present, as the operation went over smashingly.
Not everything was perfect. At one point music conductor James Levine had to leave the cycle to get surgery for a lower back problem (he was effectively replaced) and an illness by the tenor playing Siegfried allowed for a substitute who spoke English with a Texas accent but mouthed his ponderous arias with the panache of a Berliner. The most charming member of the documentary is Deborah Voigt, who comes off in interviews as anything but a prima donna but who sings like a goddess. Robert Lepage, the visionary director, finds fulfillment in the riskiest bet of his career, while Susan Froemke, who worked on this doc for five years, gains kudos for her persistence and for her ability to coax her interview subjects to let their anxieties all hang out.
I’d have liked to see the backstage methods of the computer-generated imagery, imagery that Wagner would have killed for in the late Nineteenth Century. Froemke strikes a balance between scenes of construction and vignettes from the four operas. While I don’t know I could have sat through all sixteen hours in one night, I’m pleased to get an inkling of what Wagner was attempting. Now if only I could afford $500 for a good seat at the Met! Lest the 90,000-pound planks with its attendant straps and ropes be trashed, I’m sure it can be utilized next time the Met knocks out “The Flying Dutchman.”
Unrated. 115 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+