The anticipation that accompanies any new Ring Cycle is heightened when the producer is the Metropolitan Opera. That institution is highly esteemed for musical quality and high production values. It also has a reputation as a conservative house, with many of its productions set in a style reminiscent of the composer’s own time. With 28 productions in repertory this season, musical breadth is one of the Met’s strengths; theatrical experimentation, however, is not.
Thus the excitement that greeted the appointment of Robert Lepage as stage director of the new Met Ring. In film and on stage, Lepage has earned a reputation for astonishingly exciting stagecraft, imaginative interpretation, and original use of the extraordinary resources of the theater.
His work in the first segment of the Ring bears many of these attributes. A single vast piece of machinery and the extraordinary talents of the projectionists of Lepage’s production company, Ex Machina, combine to provide mind-bending stage images. The stage space seems infinitely possible, completely flexible, as surfaces appear for actors to walk upon (sometimes horizontally), sing in front of, be covered by, arise from, sink into, and be threatened by. One leaves the theater eager to see what magic will be created next in this wonderful piece, calling as it does for dragons, underwater scenes, aerial feats, split anvils and depictions of the beginning and the end of the world.
Nevertheless, the production shares one of the dispiriting characteristics of too many Met productions: It is intellectually tepid. For all of the thought that evidently went into each scenic moment, no new light was shed at all about the action of the drama. Lepage doesn’t interpret this work – he stages it (or, as he says in a program interview, “supports” it). The actors seem to be entrusted with the entire burden of portraying the action of the drama with very little directorial insight. As a result there is no tang or sharpness, no drive or freshness to the production. At the core, there is little new in this telling of the Ring.
What is the reason for Loge’s peculiar relationship to each of the gods? And other than talking trash about Loge, how do they behave when dealing with him? Why does Wotan alone respect him? What is the relationship between Black Alberich and Light Alberich (Wotan): Competitive brothers? Generals of opposing armies? Is the gods’ entry into Valhalla glorious or vainglorious? What does Fricka need, what is she willing to risk to get it, and what does she do to keep it? What is Alberich giving up when he renounces love, if he simultaneously reasons that power will nevertheless bring him “Lust”? Did he ever have love to begin with, so as to have anything to renounce?
These questions seem not to have been posed. For all the innovation on the stage, there is very little innovative insight into the way the characters treat each other, or new inquiry into what the story means to us in 2010. As Wagner himself intended when he built an entire new theater to house it, I was hoping for something provocative – even revolutionary — in this Ring; but I found it only in the machinery.
This is not to say that the actors were anything less than brilliant in their own right. Bryn Terfel was dramatically focused and musically exciting. Freia, too often a drippy ingénue, in the hands of Wendy Bryn Harmer became an audition for Isolde. Richard Croft gave Loge a cogency and self-awareness that sometimes escapes those portraying him as a mere mischievous imp. And Alberich’s curse was, as performed by Eric Owens, so frightening that were this Ring performed in festival conditions, each subsequent iteration of that motif would bring shivers of horror to the listener.
There are two extremes in modern operatic productions: In one, historically referential sets and costumes are built, the actors are given their blocking, and they stand and deliver their marvelous music. In the other extreme, the stage director places Otello in a urinal to portray the decadence of Cyprus society. I espouse neither of these extremes, though I witness the first with distressing regularity at the Met.
According to Wagner, the theater is not a place for comfortable, predictable, pretty pictures; and music-drama is not merely an opportunity for singers to hit high or loud notes. The Ring that occupied the Met stage for the last 20 years was this kind of theater: lovely to look at but having no point of view and devoid of any interpretive content whatsoever. It was intended as an attractive frame for famous singers to portray familiar roles in conventional ways. One would hope that, as this Ring progresses, Lepage will turn his imagination to the characters and the story, as much as to the “Machine,” and will give us a responsible, provocative interpretation of this great work that offers something new, fresh and worth thinking about.