Last night, La Cieca finally got around to watching that documentary about the rocky road to the new Ring at the Met, and she has a thought or two about this whole brouhaha.
To begin with, I don’t think the choice of Robert Lepage to direct the Ring was a bad idea. He and Peter Gelb had a history together and he had a strong body of previous work that plausibly suggested he could do something interesting with the Wagner. He’s not a phony. And, though this point is not touched upon in the documentary, it seems obvious that Lepage had the approval of James Levine. I can also see the validity of Gelb’s idea of using a director from off the standard European beaten path, someone with, for lack of a better word, an “American” approach.
The basic idea was solid: not brilliant or particularly penetrating, but solid in a conservatively modern way. What primarily went wrong was that the Machine never did work the way it was supposed to, and time that should have been spent refining the artistic vision was spent nursing the Machine and improvising stage pictures that were feasible given its limited capabilities. That’s why in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung the Machine seemed to be used as little more than a projection screen, for example: by the second year Lepage and his team had resigned themselves to the idea that the less the Machine was called on to do, the less it could fuck up. That’s a very sad way to direct anything, let alone the Ring.
I felt sorry for Deborah Voigt. She seemed to be in over her head and, the second year, not in the best of spirits. I think it was pretty obvious she was fighting to make the voice work technically while struggling with new roles that didn’t quite suit her vocally or, in many ways, dramatically either. She’s apparently not by nature a genius interpreter or a fanatically hard worker, which is no sin, but given the qualities she does bring to the table, more support is required to create a really excellent performance. She needed both a devoted one-on-one director (which Lepage isn’t to begin with, and then he was distracted by the tech disasters) and a sympathetic, patient maestro to coach her note-to-note on the roles. She didn’t get that either, because Levine was first overworked and then unavailable due to illness.
The most shocking thing I learned from this film is just how low-tech the machine actually is, how much of its movement depends on stagehands pulling ropes and shoving things from place to place. Again, it strikes me that this situation could not possibly have been what Lepage envisioned: he must have expected a lot more flexibility and ease of use from the set. So what visuals we do get in this Ring are at best rough approximations of the director’s actual vision.
And then there’s Gelb. He is a tough nut to crack. At least for the times the camera was on him, his affect barely changed whether confronted with triumph or disaster. He’s opaque and mildly ironic; he comes off cold. This is not to say that he is cold, just that I think it’s a mistake to say he’s passionate about this or indifferent about that, because he doesn’t let anything show.
Now for a little crystal ball gazing: La Cieca is going to predict that this Ring will not return as planned in 2017 and that sometime between May and four years from now, the Met will announce that due to technical problems with the physical production (i.e., the Machine), the whole thing will be shelved indefinitely. There are apparently tentative plans already hatched to substitute a new production of another work, starring an artist who made a spectacular Met debut earlier this season, in place of the spring 2017 Ring, so La Cieca’s take is that it’s just a waiting game until the Met finally cuts its losses with the Lepage staging.
Wagner’s Dream can be viewed free on the Met’s website.