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Some thoughts on Lepage's "Ring" production

PostPosted: Thu Sep 27, 2012 9:08 am
by alberich00
Greetings to the Discussion Forum:

I apologize for my lengthy absence from this forum. After I finished posting my huge review of Mark Berry's "Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire" late in June, I returned for the first time in a year to revising Volume One (devoted solely to the "Ring") of "The Wound That Will Never Heal" for publication. I just finished my first editorial pass through this voluminous material (about 1,000 pages), solely with the intent to eliminate passages which struck me as comparatively expendable (these passages will not be lost in any case, since the version I'm editing is identical to that posted at this website, which, with the exception of minor corrections from time to time, will remain unaltered). On my next pass I will start condensing and revising the passages which remain. My aim is to compose a much briefer and more accessible version of perhaps 1/3 the size of the book posted at this site, to be published in hardcopy.

Well, I just saw for the first time the complete Lepage production of Wagner's "Ring," from the MET, on tv. The only part of this production I'd seen previously was "The Rhinegold," which I saw simulcast at a movie theater. Sorry to say, when I saw that first part I was not at all impressed. I felt the performance, both as regards individual performers' interpretations, and also the direction/production, was mostly dramatically inert. Lepage's "Machine" seemed more an impediment than a means to enhance story telling. Why he did so little with the opening Rhinedaughters' scene was beyond me. Not having had the privilege of seeing this production live in person at the MET, I benefited from not having to put up with what has been described, by those in attendance, as the very audible creaking of the Machine.

I've now had the benefit of seeing the documentary concerning the creation of this production, "Wagner's Dream," and there can be no doubt that Lepage's intentions were legitimate. It seems to me that he was, in effect, attempting to synthesize Wieland Wagner's notion of creating a malleable stage set which could both frame all scenes of the drama yet alter with each scene, with modern computer generated virtual reality. My primary objection is that much of what was really dramatically effective in this entire production was due to the computer generated moving imagery and not to the machine (though there were some strikingly effective exceptions), so that I couldn't help thinking that Lepage could have gotten much of the dramatic heft he needed by eliminating the machine altogether and merely depending on the electronically generated imagery. He could have saved himself a vast amount of time, labor, and money.

However, as the production proceeded through "Valkyrie," "Siegfried," and "Twilight of the Gods" I grew increasingly impressed. Of course, it helped greatly that the commitment of the singer-actors we'd seen in "Rhinegold" seemed more intense as the work proceeded, and furthermore, there were some outstanding musico-dramatic performances by the cast who came on board for the first time after "Rhinegold." I was particularly impressed with Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, Hans-Peter Koenig as Fafner, Hunding, and Hagen, Jonas Kaufman as Siegmund (isn't it wonderful to occasionally see Wagner performers who not only look the part but can carry it off musico-dramatically), The three Rhinedaughters (I'm afraid I don't have their names in front of me), Bryn Terfel's performance in "Siegfried," Iain Patterson as Gunther, Wendy Harmer as Gutrune, etc. Deborah Voigt was adequate to the role of Bruennhilde, occasionally actually stepping up to it, and of course she is new to the role, but I didn't find her performance deeply persuasive. I've no doubt that she will grow into this role with time. I was much less impressed with her Isolde at the MET (another simulcast I saw at the theater some years ago). I'm always very impressed with Waltraud Meier who, again, looks her parts and performs them with total conviction. I found Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried charismatic (it must be damned hard to know how to play this role, which is a strange synthesis of naivete and vital force, not to mention a youthfulness which Wagner was asking much older singers to somehow embody, and also allowing for the the fact that Siegfried must also convey a subtle sense that he is tapping some much deeper roots) but he constantly put me in fear that his voice was going to crack when reaching for some of the higher notes. But this was true of Siegfried Jerusalem as well, another reasonably persuasive Siegfried.

I was moved to tears during Siegfried's conversation with the Woodbird (here the computer generated 3-D swaying forest with the fluttering Woodbird was the finest thing of its type I've yet seen, keeping in mind that for the past 20 years or so I haven't had the income to attend much live opera or theater, so I have little to compare it with), and overall I was deeply impressed with almost all of "Twilight of the Gods," with the possible exception of the finale. For once, the Gunther and Gutrune both looked the part and performed persuasively.

I've overlooked Eric Owens. A very good voice and commanding stage presence, but I suffered sometimes from what seemed a lack of variation in his facial expressions. Also, Eva-Marie Westbroek was a reasonably persuasive Sieglinde who very much looked like she might be Jonas Kaufman's love-interest, if not his twin sister (yes, I know that's virtually impossible to bring off).

In sum, I think that Lepage's Machine became something of an albatross, though as his production proceeded I became more and more impressed with some of its possibilities. I can't help thinking that much of the power of this production could have been created with far less fuss.

There are those who complained that in spite of Lepage's high-tech enhancements that his production was stilted and traditional, not saying anything new about Wagner. I understand the point his critics are trying to make in this regard, but they seem to be missing the point. I entirely object to Wagner productions which strive to force the audience to "think" about the meaning of the "Ring," while it is in performance. What is wanted instead is a seamlessness and naturalness and fluency and dramatic conviction which would permit the audience to forget everything else and lose themselves in the musico-dramatic whole. In general, whenever I hear such a critique of a Wagner production, it is because, in the view of such critics, it lacks artificially imported symbology and iconography and topical references which have absolutely nothing to do with what Wagner was about, but which these critics regard as essential to keeping the "Ring" up to date, or exciting, or out of the museum, etc. But even if this imported imagery, which Wagner didn't call for in his stage directions, does reference authentic Wagnerian tropes, it is wrong to import it into a work which Wagner deliberately kept within a mythological generality, because it forces upon the "Ring" a topical specificity which destroys that dreamlike state of free association which was Wagner's aim. Topical references are always, without exception, an impoverishment of the work. It is the last refuge of a scoundrel (no offense intended to such scoundrels, who I know mean well) to reference Wagner's endlessly quoted remark summing up his experience with the "Ring" premiere, that it would all have to be done differently and new next time. Wagner didn't mean that he hoped it would be left up to the whim of interpreter/director/producer to alter it willy nilly to reflect their pedestrian personal concerns. He meant that new productions should more fully approximate Wagner's original intentions.

I may have more to say later, but these are my first impressions after seeing Lepage's production of the "Ring" for the first time a few weeks ago.

Your friend from Wagnerheim,

Paul Heise