Cher Public

Twilight of the Machine

“Now that it has become apparent that Robert Lepage‘s production of the Ring at the Met is a fiasco (too soon? Nah.)… well, anyway, since arguably the production is a dreary, unworkable, overpriced mess whose primary (perhaps only) virtue is that it actually hasn’t killed anyone yet, and since, let’s face it, the Machinecentric show turned out to be so mind-bogglingly expensive (all those Sunday tech rehearsals with stagehands being paid, no doubt, in solid platinum ingots!), something has to be done. In this article, I intend to propose that ‘something’.” Our Own JJ gets prescriptive at Musical America. (Image based on photos by Ken Howard)

  • iltenoredigrazia

    Hard to imagine that JJ’s basic ideas have not already been thought of, discussed, and considered among the powers to be at the Met. As a matter of fact, I would be surprised if the 2017 revival has not already been planned around a “revised” production.

    Is the LePage production a fiasco? I doesn’t upset most people. There’s little, if anything, “ugly” or “disturbing” about it. It probably looks “pretty” on DVD. Does it provide a clear and accurate representation of Wagner’s work a la “traditional” way? On and off. Does it provide a theatrically dramatic experience? Not to me. Does it allow for different singers to come along and integrate their dramatic insights into it? I doubt it. Too complicated. Is it workable for a seven-performance-per-week opera house and limited stage rehearsal time? I doubt it. Is it a Ring worth of the premier opera house in the US and likely to host most of the best Wagnerian singers and conductors at any given time? Not in my view. Was it worth all the money claimed to have cost? Not in my view.

    Is the LePage Ring fixable in some reasonable way as proposed by JJ? I think so. I’ve suggested before that “the machine” could be pushed back and used to provide varying three-dimensional backgrounds while allowing the action to be up front. Visible to all in the house. It shouldn’t be that difficult to restage the action so that it is meaningful, illuminating, effective. (I suspect that if you got the singers together to work it out on their own, they may come up with a more interesting performance by themselves.) I don’t think you need a superstar director to get this to work. Nor do I think that this is the occasion to come up with a deeply psychological interpretation, a rethinking of the Ring, or a Reggie to satisfy some here. You’ve got to work with what you already have plus limited budget and rehearsal time. It can be accomplished by someone who LOVES the Ring; who KNOWS the Ring; who has experience matching music with stage action; and who knows how to bring out the best in singers. No big name theatre director who’s never been to the opera; who believes opera has to be reinvented to be “relevant;” or who wants to be the subject of attention. It has to be Wagner’s Ring and not Mr. or Ms. X’s Ring. Not “a machine” ring.

    Perhaps in 2017.

    • armerjacquino

      ‘It has to be Wagner’s Ring and not Mr. or Ms. X’s Ring’

      I never get this argument, it’s meaningless. It is always Wagner’s Ring. That’s what the band is playing and the turns are singing.

      • iltenoredigrazia

        Not the way it’s often advertised and as “we” often refer to it. Just read the comments here. We talk about von Karajan’s Ring, about Schenk’s Ring, about LePage’s Ring…. just as we talk about Zeffirelli’s or Bioti’s Tosca, etc.

        • armerjacquino

          Yes, I understand that. But that’s just a shorthand to distinguish one production from another.

          Saying ‘it has to be Wagner’s Ring’ strikes me as meaningless, because it always will be.

          • iltenoredigrazia

            Well, I believe the copyrights to the Wagner’s Ring have expired, so I guess we could also say that it is “our” Ring. And so it will be on and on.

            How about if we say Wagner’s Ring as presented at the Met or as staged by Mr. X? I might even accept Mr. X’s Ring based on Wagner’s Ring. I’m just not willing to give that much credit to the director while ignoring the original creator.

          • armerjacquino

            I think that might get a bit cumbersome.

            ‘I didn’t like Wagner’s Ring as directed by Otto Schenk, but in many ways I preferred it to Wagner’s Ring as directed by Robert Lepage. I have heard good things about Wagner’s Ring as directed by Francesca Zambello though’.

          • Only if you agree to the usage “Verdi’s Traviata as sung by Maria Callas at La Scala” and “Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as conducted by Herbert von Karajan at Bayreuth in 1952,” instead of the handier “Callas’ Scala Traviata” and “Karajan’s ’52 Bayreuth Tristan.” Nobody affects to believe that Callas or Karajan wrote (or re-wrote) these scores, so why should “Bieito’s Parsifal” imply that the director is meant to be regarded as anything more than an interpreter?

          • iltenoredigrazia

            Perhaps, LC. Every performance is different musically (as sung, conducted and played by the orchestra). That’s a given. A dramatic or psychological perspective on a staged work can be something else. We don’t often mention or identify the director when referring to an opera production. (Quickly, who remembers who directed the Met’s Dutchman, Cosi, Ernani, Otello, etc.?) I agree that we use the shorthand sometimes to differentiate, e.g., Boito’s vs Zeffirelli’s Tosca productions; or because the production is so unique or successful or awful, e.g., Wilson’s Lohengrin or Zeffirelli’s Boheme.

            But sometimes a production has such a distinctive identity that it becomes a co-creation of the composer with the director or at least an adaptation. And that’s when they should be credited as such. Just truth in advertising. I believe that was the case with Wieland Wagner’s and Patrice Chereau’s Rings, which offered totally new perspectives -- even meanings -- to the Ring.

            My point in referring to Wagner’s Ring in this discussion was that I personally don’t think that Schenk or von Karajan or LePage “created” anything. Why give them credit?

    • operaguy

      I doubt JJ’s ideas (or something similar) have been discussed. That would require Gelb to admit he made a BIG mistake, which I doubt he would do and I suspect anyone on the Met staff who suggested as much would find themselves unemployed. It will be an elaborate game of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” until Gelb is gone. Which, hopefully, will be soon.

  • Arianna a Nasso

    What I find disappointing in this discussion is the idea that all productions should have the same intent, and any deviation is a failure, e.g., all productions should aspire to re-examine a work, tell it in new and different ways because the old folks are bored with conventional interpretations they’ve all seen before. And if one doesn’t agree with this and just wants a straight-forward entertainment, one is called ignorant. People with decades of opera-going and training in theater are entitled to their preferences, but I don’t see how it’s helpful to put down others without that skill set or who simply want to go to the opera for different reasons.

    • iltenoredigrazia

      I certainly was not, and am not, advocating that “all productions should have the same intent, and any deviation is a failure,” or that they should be “straight-forward entertainment.” My point, and I think LaCieca’s, is that the LePage Ring lacks any “intent,” other than using “the machine.” It has no interpretation, conventional or otherwise.

      As to whatever revision of the LePage production should be like, I just said that it will be limited in concept by cost and rehearsal time. It will have to be a “revision” of the current production and not a new one from scratch.

  • No, I must have expressed myself badly. The reason for interventionist production is not that old folks are bored with conventional interpretations, but rather that there are more meanings in a great work like the Ring than can be expressed in a single interpretation. Therefore, a wide variety of interpretations is necessary not for the sake of just doing something different, but rather because a single interpretation can give the audience member access only to a limited rage of possible meanings.

    Does it help if I compare a director to the curator of an art museum? It is entirely possible to enjoy a lot of random paintings hung up on a wall somewhere, lit so they’re visible, but otherwise uncurated. But the way art is generally displayed is in a curated exhibition. The curator selects various pieces of art and structures their display (and the commentary surrounding) according to a theme or thesis. For example, MOMA did an exhibition a few years ago called “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night.” The idea here was to focus on the technical means the artist used to depict darkness as well as his use of darkness as metaphor in his art. So the paintings were selected and grouped with that idea in mind.

    It would be a little foolish to go to this exhibition and suddenly complain, “But where is ‘The Harvesters’?” That painting was not included in the exhibition because it doesn’t depict darkness, and thus in the view of the curator it wasn’t relevant to this particular exhibition. It doesn’t mean the curator didn’t like the painting, or didn’t want you to see it, or thought people were bored with it, or though he was smarter than Van Gogh. Rather, the curator wanted to focus attention on a particular aspect or meaning in Van Gogh’s oeuvre.

    Or, to take an example a little closer to home: why does an opera fan possess several, even many, recordings of Norma? It’s because no one singer on any one night can completely encompass every possibility of this great role. Maria Callas in 1953 does on thing; in 1960 she does something else. The great golden tones of Zinka Milanov illuminate the finale ultimo, but Montserrat Caballe provides the most serene “Casta diva,” and Joan Sutherland the most cleanly articulated roulades, and Renata Scotto the most eloquently declaimed recitatives. None of these singers went into a performance of Norma saying, “All I want tonight is to get all the notes right and pronounce the words correctly.”

    Very few opera fans are so foolish as to say, “X was the only Norma; none of the others was valid in any way.” Yes, one soprano might more closely fit your already existing notion of what Norma should sound like; however, another that didn’t at first appeal to you might, by the end of the night, have made you note a particular passage in the score that had never before struck you as an important one. Such a discovery could very well change your whole understanding of what the role of Norma is supposed to be about.

    That’s the value of a variety of viewpoints, and I think that value applies as well to the dramatic aspect of opera. Performing an opera repeatedly from the same viewpoint means that the audience is going to see only the same features they have seen before. (I’ll spare you my metaphor about a tour guide in the Grand Canyon.) Since the Met did Schenk for two decades, I think it was time for that audience (experiences and newbie alike) to take a different look at what Wagner might have meant in the Ring, with the understanding that there is neither a single meaning of the work nor any way to glean all the meanings of that work from a single viewpoint. Unfortunately, Lepage is not much more than Schenk in a slightly sleeker guise: what they have to say about the Ring is more or less identical, i.e., “well, here it is, be sure to turn the lights out when you leave.”

    • tancredipasero

      La Cieca/JJ is totally right about the machine, mostly right in drawing an analogy between a variety of musical interpretations and a variety of dramatic interpretations, but wrong in thinking that this logic extends to the wholesale rewrites and from-outside-the-piece’s-content interpolations of Regietheater. Wrong on two counts: First, like it or not, musical interpretation engages the part of the work that matters most, while visual interpretation (important as it is) engages parts that (important as they are) remain secondary in the nature and construction of the piece. Second, the varieties of musical interpretation cited don’t approach the substitutions, contradictions, deconstructions etc. that have come to be considered a normal part of interpretation on the theatrical side. There are arguments to be made for why these may be valuable, but also valid and dramatically serious arguments for the idea that they are more harmful than illuminating.

  • Noel Dahling

    “A director’s quick editing and discreet avoidance of any embarrassing spots can make even a middling production seem exciting as a video.” Very true. The old Tosca that many on this site were eager to get rid of plays like gangbusters on video. Some accused Zeff of directing the production for the camera rather than the house all along. One case in point: on video, the camera can go in for a close-up of Scarpa during the te deum, then go to a long shot of the entire stage with all the just arrived chorus, to breathtaking effect. This can’t happen in the theater, so some found all the movement of the chorus entering the church a distraction during Scarpia’s important monologue.

  • La Valkyrietta

    I can’t disagree with La Cieca here. The machine is a horror, period.

    Wagner is my favorite composer and ordinarily I would pay anything to hear a complete Ring, but I might skip this in the spring. I don’t want machine noises during the music, and it is clear the Met can’t eliminate them, I have already suffered them in the first two operas of the ‘tetralogie’, as Proust would say.

    I remember in the late eighties going to a concert in Avery Fisher Hall. The Harvard Glee Club, Marilyn Horne, some Brahms, and Leinsdorf conducting the end of Götterdämmerung. That was perhaps the best rendition of that I have ever heard. Absolutely breath taking. I would pay hundreds to hear that again live, but, of course, that is impossible, Leinsdorf is gone. I love Luisi, and I would love to hear him, but I don;t want to go to the Met and hear machine noises. I know the last opera of the ‘tetralogie’ has many scene changes, and I know the machine, then, will move a lot. I fear a lot of noises. The Met does not seem able to make the machine noiseless. Thus, as much as I love Wagner -he is perhaps my favorite composer- I might skip seeing the Ring at the Met in the spring. I would love for the Met to get the best conductors in the world, the best singers in the world, and the Met could do that, if it were not throwing money away in ghastly noisy machines. Pity, pity, pity. I did sit ages ago for the Karajan Ring in a center parterre box and saw Nilsson in that Immolation Scene. Thank God for good memories. I know what they say about the past. I saw Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”. Today is most important. I hope the Met hears this. WE WANT TO HEAR A GOOD RING.

  • La Valkyrietta

    I don’t think the previous ‘Ring’ was bad in the sense the current ‘Ring’ is. Let me use the van Gogh example. You could do an exhibit of his work in different ways. You could do a night van Gogh and exclude any paintings with too much sunshine, or you can do a gay van Gogh and Interpret Dr. Gachet and drama in the distribution of pictures, or do a French-Dutch horticultural van Gogh, etc. Each exhibit would highlight what may be an aspect of the artist. I think, though, that the interest is van Gogh -unless the exhibitor wants to create something else himself based on van Gogh- and the idea is to present the pictures van Gogh painted so that they can be appreciated in themselves. If the exhibitor hangs a bead curtain in front of every picture, for example, and there is the usual rule of art houses, “do not touch the beads”, then the public can see the van Gogh paintings only in sections by peeking through the bead curtain. A visitor to the gallery is prevented from looking at the whole picture, as van Gogh no doubt intended. To such an exhibit I might go once, but not return as the paintings are almost invisible. I will wait for the same paintings to be exhibited somewhere else in a way that I can stand in front of them and look at them, their color, their subject, the distribution of forms, and really enjoy the painting, not beads.

    In the same way, the current Met ‘Ring’ subjects us to a noisy distracting machine that makes the opera, at parts, inaudible. When a screech from the machine interferes with a note Wagner wrote and makes the note inaudible, then the machine is interfering with the work, as much as the bead curtains in the van Gogh exhibit interfere with the pictures. It would be a vast improvement if the Met got rid of the machine and presented the ‘Ring’ in concert form.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Pretty much any composer’s opera can survive a few notes being rendered inaudible by stage noise, including Wagner. I think the particular problem with Wagner would be stage noise intruding into silences, which really would destroy the tension and intensity for which he uses silence to help create.

      • Talk of the Town

        “The stage effects were, with a few exceptions, in advance of most theatres. Steam was used, I believe for the first time, for stage purposes; but the noise of its escape was so great that it often nearly drowned the music.”

        --Sir Charles Villiers Stanford on the second cycle of the 1876 Bayreuth Festival (from “Pages from an Unwritten Diary”, quoted at p. 105 of “Bayreuth: The Early Years” edited by Robert Hartford).

        Of course I don’t have to tell Parterrians that people have been making exactly the same comments about the dragon since 1876 too.

        • CruzSF

          Thanks, Talk, for pointing us to this book.

          • Talk of the Town

            It’s a delightful collection of first-hand accounts. It’s out of print but available secondhand online — I chanced on my copy at a library book sale.

          • CruzSF

            A copy is now waiting at the library for me to pick up. Should be fun holiday reading.

  • Great piece by JJ. The Met wont be able to afford a new Ring for quite a few years but there’s no reason that subsequent revivals should be as dramatically inert as this production has been. I used to advocate the same approach for the Met’s old Ring. A new director with a fresh approach could have done much with those impressive sets and made the last few revivals far more interesting.

    • operaguy

      1 question -- What high-level Wagner singers are going to want to sign on to come to New York to do the Ring on THIS set? It really seems just a matter of time before someone is killed by the machine. And a number of singers are precluded by simply not being agile enough -- what soprano wants to come to New York and risk falling on her butt at the beginning of her debut performance (as, I understand, happened to Voigt). Does anyone seriously think that Terfel will come back for another go? Voigt will be 57 in 2017 -- do you think she wants to end her Met career in THIS production?

      • There are two questions here.

        1. I imagine that the Met will always be able to draw top-flight Wagnerian singers, no matter what the productions. And I think that the Met can make a case that the production’s glitches will be all resolved by the time they bring it back.

        2. I don’t think anyone is expecting Terfel and Voigt (especially Voigt!) to reprise their roles in five years’ time. And one could argue that Voigt IS going to end her Met career with this production, but this season as opposed to in five seasons.

  • Signor Bruschino

    In reading JJ’s usual brilliant take, he mentioned the lack of traditional ‘week long’ ring schedule. I was personally surprised not to see any previous (and I may have missed it) mention of this breaking with beloved tradition….

    And it seems really bad planning as well- With cycle 2 (the non-weekend cycle, which would normally be the first ‘week long cycle)- it starts with Rheingold on a Thur, then Friday is Makropolous, then Sat is walkure. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the machine just stay there for Monday Rheingold and Tue Walkure? I know there are multiple stages, but it seems to be just adding more costs to a never ending pit of expenses. And out of town travelers would have to come in on a Thur, and take the next week off of work (cycle 3 would be a little easier on the schedule)… With all the talk last year of LA Ring’s bad cycle scheduling, why hasn’t this gotten a bit of spotlighting?