Das Rheingold Rocks the House

10 October 2010

I’ve never been much of a Wagner fan. There’s something heavy and turgid about all that bombastic brass-heavy orchestration, his work is deeply humourless, and, as Woody Allen once quipped, it gives me the urge to conquer Poland. Still, it’s him we have to thank for the popular notion of opera singers as XXL-sized Germanic women wearing metal breastplates and horned helmets – something that I first remember being parodied on The Muppet Show in the late 1970s, and seems to run as a standing joke ever since.

I’m also aware of the liberal nervousness around Wagner, who was Hitler’s favourite composer, and in whose music the Fuhrer supposedly found encouragement to re-create a Germanic master race and emulate the power-hungry gods of Wagner’s operas. Since then, Wagner has rather been tainted with the Nazi brush – listen to this stuff, and you may find yourself goose-stepping around your country estate and shooting poor people out the window.

Despite being to New York several times, I’ve never managed to make it to the Opera, or to the Lincoln Centre. Fortunately, along came the idea of filming opera performances and broadcasting them “live” (well, by delayed transmission) to cinemas all over the world). New York gets delivered to you in the comfort and relative cheapness of a cinema seat.

When the New York Metropolitan Opera decided to throw out its 20 year old “traditional” version of The Ring Cycle (more on that later) and stage a new version, and commissioned the very cool, avante-garde French-Canadian theatre director Robert LePage to direct the series, I got seriously excited. Robert LePage, an innovative, creative, funny theatre director, who specialises in big, awe-inspiring sets and extensive use of audio-visual effects. his last touring production to reach London, the 8 hour long epic LipSynch, was bookended by live performances of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which is about as operatic as it gets. It seemed such an exciting idea to let him lose at someone as over the top as Wagner. I’ve never seen The Ring Cycle before, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to get back into bed with LePage, and expand my cultural reference point.

Fortunately, it was (mostly) all right on the night. The early Saturday evening crowd at Curzon Mayfair was mostly wealthy old ladies with Belgravia accents, heavily made up faces and jewellery to match, who were all terribly-terribly polite and obsessed with being in the right queue. The screening began with a behind-the-scenes doco hosted, somewhat awkwardly, by Deborah Voigt, the American soprano will be playing Brünnhilde in Part 2 of Ring next year. (Expect a lot more winged Valkyrie helmets and metal breastplates). Most of the focus was on LePage’s extraordinary set, which was already freaking out opera traditionalists long before the production opened.

As the Guardian‘s Ed Pilkington explained in a 2009 article, the Met’s old production of The Ring Cycle, directed by Otto Schenk (a Wagnerian surname if ever I’ve heard one), was celebrated for employing (then) modern technology to deliver a production supposedly “as close to Wagner’s original stage conception as possible”. Pilkington describes the Schenk Show’s “epic set changes to match the scale of the music”, which is an unashamedly literal representation of Wagner’s stage notes: “When Wagner notes in his stage directions that the sky glimmer, then there is a glimmer across the Met’s proscenium-arched sky. When he orders lightning, lightning is duly provided”. It’s this slavish attention to detail, and very Germanic respect for Wagner’s orders, that have made the Schenk version so celebrated. “[Fans] see in it,” Pilkington writes, “everything that is good about literal translations of the score – and by implication everything that is bad about newfangled modern interpretations full of clever-clever directorial antics never intended by the composer”.

The show’s longevity has had financial as well as artistic success, as the show has become a repertory staple of the Met’s programming, apparently bankrolling the company through leaner years. On the downside, Pilkington describes, the well-worn set is on the verge of implosion, and the staging’s once impressive combination of theatrical events (“blood-red lightning, tumbling faux-granite boulders and masses of dry ice”), and ceasing to thrill younger audiences who find the show’s Gothic excess “more comic than majestic”. How, how cruel the passing of time can be – sooner or later, every great theatrical success hits its twilight years and becomes irrelevant, or worse still, camp.

Into all this reverence and jackboot-licking comes LePage, a newfangled, modern and clever-clever theatre director if ever there was one. Pilkington describes LePage’s work, somewhat dismissively, as featuring “very little literalness, plenty of video projections, and, yes, digital manipulation of moving images”, which no doubt caused cardiac arrest among many of the old faithful, keeling over at the modernity and vulgarity of it all. Among the funnier of the quotes I’ve found is this from Dalia Geffen, president of the Boston Wagner Society, quoted in a New York Times article about the new version. “It all looks very promising. But we don’t know how close to Eurotrash it will be. That’s the big if. I don’t think Americans are too fond of Eurotrash, and I don’t think Europeans are either. We don’t want any silliness.” Even the Met’s general manager didn’t seem quite sure. “These changes are subtle and in the context of the story. It’s art harnessing technology, not the other way around. At least that is the intention.”

The traditionalists need to relax. The story of Das Rhinehold, despite being based on Norse myth and appearing to be a conventional swords-and-sandals epic, seems sufficiently supple and morally ambiguous to lend itself to a number of different interpretations.

It’s never particularly clear whether we’re supposed to admire the protagonist, Wotan, an ego-driven god whose ambitions for power kick the story off and lead everyone else into a lot of misery. Wotan is an appropriate protagonist for our recessionary times, since he appears to have a serious spending problems and an impending credit crisis. He employs two plodding giants, Fasolt and Fafner, to construct an expensive palace, and offers them his sister-in-law Freia as payment. His wife Fricka understandably tears his ear off for making a deal, so Wotan decides to repay his debt in another, equally morally corrupt way – by theft.

Wotan’s buddy Loge, the fire-god, tells him about Alberich, a dwarf who has recently stolen precious gold from the rivers of the Rhine, and fashioned it into a cloak that makes the wearer invisible, and a gold ring that makes the wearer invisible. Aided by Loge, Wotan steals the ring and the cloak from Alberich, but is forced to hand both over to the giants in exchange for Freia. The story ends with Wotan cursing his missed opportunity to be a seriously megalomaniacal bad-ass. Though we’re meant to admire Wotan for being, well, godly, nothing that he does is particularly admirable, and you leave expecting that the hubris will really hit the fan before the Cycle is over.

LePage’s version was much less radical than expected. That being said, he has one hell of a set concept. Viewed on the big screen nestled into the Curzon’s armchair-like seats, the set was one of those “wow” moments of theatrical staging that only happens once every year or two in a life of theatregoing. Dubbed “The Machine” by the cast, it’s comprised of 24 giant fibreglass planks, linked by an invisible, spinal cord-like crossbar, operated backstage by dozens of beefy-armed firefighter-lookalikes backstage who crank the set around on huge spindles. Weighing in at 45 tonnes, it’s required the Met to reinforce the main stage with steel bolsters to take the weight, and presumably also to ensure that XXL sized divas don’t fall through the floor. The planks rise and fall and move singly, in patterns or all together, in shapes that remind you, variously, of piano keys, prison bars, the human ribcage, Japanese origami or the set of Star Trek, creating the architecture for each scene and providing backdrops for digitally projected images. Like much of LePage’s set design, it looks incredibly simple, but is wondrous in its complexity and flexibility of use and form.

The production starts with the planks undulating slowly and lit by blue-green lighting, creating the churning of the Rhine. We then see the three Rhinemaidens, dressed in Studio 54 disco era mermaid outfits, attached by harnesses and wires and ascending in mid-air, as digital images of water are projected behind them.  As they hover in mid-air, slowly the set changes shape, creating a high platform for them to sit on. As they flap their tails over the edge, digitally-created pebbles fall underneath them. It’s a massive feat of stage pyrotechnics, which I’m guessing took weeks of rehearsal (the backstage doco shows the three sopranos playing the Rhinemaidens taking their first ride in their harnesses, and looking suitably terrified). The finished effect looks eerily simple but strangely sci-fi, like a post-apocalyptic videogame.

After this dazzling beginning, the rest of the action is staged in fairly conventional form, on a raised platform (the thespian terminology is “apron”) at the front of the stage. (This seems to have been a relief to the plus-sized Wagnerian soprano Stephanie Blythe who plays Fricka, for whom being winched onto a pulley looks to be a perilous undertaking. The singers mostly march around, strategically blocked to face the audience at most points, with the occasional movement of The Machine to change scenes.

The costuming was similarly simple and mostly lifted from 19th century illustrations of Wagner. This was also presumably meant to reassure traditionalists that this wouldn’t be a disruptive modernist production with Wagnerian singers wearing spandex bodystockings and fright wigs like David Bowie in Labyrinth. Terfel wore a metal breastplate and chainmail (with no Batman-style nipples in sight) and a rustic shirt missing an arm, with matted hair falling across one side of his face, shielding Wotan’s missing eye. As Fricka, Blythe wore a voluminous pastel green ballgown (but sadly no horned helmet); and the giants were lifted straight from Grimm’s fairy tales with huge beards and furry leggings. Within a fairly muted colour palate, LePage and his costume designer added a few Studio 54 disco flourishes. The cloak of invisibility was a loose-knit gold lame scarf, apparently a discard from an old Shirley Bassey outfit. Loge’s hands were wired with lights creating fire in his palms, and as he moved, sensors created a fiery glow around him. And as the dwarf, Alberich sported the coolest (and heaviest-looking) set of floor-length dreadlocks since Bob Marley.

Sometimes, the simplicity of the staging looked a bit cheap. Among the set arrangements that didn’t work was an angled wall down which the Gods (or their stunt doubles) slid down: meant to represent their gods flying on and off stage, it mostly looked like children taking a tumble down a slide in a playground. As the New York Times reviewer noted, “Really, this is just not a very godly thing to do”. The props were similarly minimalist, almost to the point of looking like a school play. At one point, Freia was lowered into what looks like a beach hammock and has some Christmas-cracker plastic gold weapons laid on top of her. I’m not sure whether LePage was trying to be Brechtian, or whether the props master just got shitfaced on tequila shooters and forgot to buy anything, forcing the cast to improvise with whatever was lying around.

But when it did work well, LePage’s concept was dazzling. The other breathtaking moment of the evening featured mid-way through the story, when Wotan and Loge descend into the underworld of Nibelheim, we see them walking down the planks as if descending a giant staircase, moving in the near-darkness towards a small arched doorway, lit from within. It’s a simple, striking image, but LePage mixes it up a bit. It looks as though we’re looking down at the characters in bird’s eye view, from above: what we’re actually seeing are two body doubles, harnessed to cables and suspended in mid-air, walking “down” the stairs parallel to the stage floor. The stunt performers, who are actually hanging on one side in mid-air, have to look as though they’re upright and walking downwards, not sideways. It’s a quite remarkable circus trick.

Unlike many great stage technicians, LePage doesn’t seem to mind letting the audience in on his secrets – the cables are clearly visible, and the “concept” only takes a second look to reveal itself. Strangely, the revelation of the staging doesn’t lose any of its appeal, or congratulate itself on its own cleverness. The NYT reviewer describes LePage as being “like a magician eager to show off how a trick works, knowing it will still hook you”, and I think he’s right.

On the downside, the finale – when the Gods walk across the sky on a rainbow bridge to Valhalla – seemed a little flat. The planks of The Machine dutifully moved to create an upward-tilting platform which the performers moved up, bolstered by harnesses and cables – but it looked more like a festive abseiling exercise than a moment of godly transcendence. Still, we were thankful that there was a finale at all – the NYT reviewer reported that on the first night, the Machine broke down at the last minute and the bridge didn’t form, leaving the actors to simply walk off the stage. LePage’s final moment was a lovely flourish – bringing the planks together to make a flat screen against which he projected a night sky crowded with stars.

The idea is for The Machine to serve as set for all four parts of the Ring Cycle, so I’m guessing this production hasn’t revealed all the tricks it can perform yet. I already have my tickets for the screening of Part 2, Die Walküre, to be performed in Spring 2011 Parts 3 (Siegfried) and Part 4 (Götterdämmerung) will be staged later in 2011, and unless The Machine explodes or goes into space, The Met intend to run the complete Cycle in April and May 2012. I can hardly wait.

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