Unlike others, I have waited to form my overall assessment of the new Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera until I actually saw it. The Cycle is an entirely different experience from each separate installment (remember Wagner furiously refusing to cooperate with Ludwig’s premieres of Rheingold and Walküre in Munich?), though that didn’t stop Alex Ross and others from condemning the production before they had experienced it.
Mr. Ross has now weighed in with a blog post (which, unlike this one, does not seem to invite comments from readers) touting unanimous critical and popular rejection of the production. He cites the music critics for The New York Times, the music critic for the Boston Globe, the music critic for the Wall Street Journal, the music critic for Opera News, and the music critic for New York magazine, none of whom had any problem with the music.
Nor do they possess any credentials as theater critics. And it shows.
I have not read any serious criticism that places this production within the context of the development of modern theatre, or of trends in staging the work since the 1876 production. Indeed, I haven’t read a single essay by a professional theatre critic. I haven’t read anyone who seems aware of Lepage’s work, in particular his shattering and innovative use of projections in The Andersen Project. All anyone talks about is one Lepage project in Las Vegas — hardly a responsible treatment of this profoundly responsible artist. No one I have read has cited Adolphe Appia, whose theoretical work on staging Wagner’s work was so soundly rejected by Cosima and is so fundamentally vindicated in the Met production. No one has written about the connections between what is on the Met stage and Wagner’s use of “magic lanterns,” or his peculiar and visionary writing of “sunrise scenes” long before Belasco‘s lighting innovations — even before the advent of electric stage lighting itself! No one has considered what kind of theatre Wagner intended when he directed that the scene changes in Rheingold take place with hissing steam jets along the apron of the stage; instead there is comment after disapproving comment about creaking during scene changes.
None of the music critics seems to understand the basics of staging, the stuff you learn in Theatre Production 101 or after you direct your second student play in college: that elevators (which are responsible for scene changes in Billy Budd) are different from vertical rotations (which are responsible for scene changes in the Ring). I haven’t read a music critic knowledgably discuss how three-dimensional projections are accomplished, or how interactive visual effects work, and whether (as Gordon Craig always postulated) great stories are best told on a bare surface through light and shadow. Based solely on the lack of sophistication of his theatre criticism, I doubt that Alex Ross, in opining on the projections used in this production, knows the difference between a leko and a fresnel.
This gets worse. No newspaper (to my knowledge) has even sent a theatre critic to review this production. The level of analysis has been among the crudest I have read: “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” (This is as much as to say “This reminds me of what I think it should look like” or “This doesn’t.”) The music critics have written little about the music — which has been on an extremely high level — and instead spent their time discussing something they demonstrably are not trained intelligently to assess — the staging. And so, not knowing how to write intelligently about what is in front of their eyes, they write unintelligently about it: They discuss how expensive the set is (there is no basis to conclude it is more expensive than any other four new Met productions), how dangerous it is (no one has ever been injured on this set, which is more than you can say for the backstage elevators or the roof of the Met), or how much it weighs (what??? We are seriously discussing the weight of a set???).
In his Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope write “A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing.” Well, no learning at all is a lot worse.
Mr. Ross says that no one who has written to him, and no one he has read, has disagreed with his conclusion that the production is “witless and wasteful.” Mr. Ross is probably too busy attending string quartet recitals to read this blog or to speak to the person to my left, the couple to my right, and the couple behind me at the recent Cycle. He had already shared his untrained views so I suppose he needn’t bother.
For the rest of us, accept from this trained and experienced stage actor and director that what is going on at the Met is the most cogent, most innovative, and thus the most essentially Wagnerian endeavor that a lover of music drama will be privileged to see. Go.
(And is it too much to ask newspapers to send music critics to critique music — and theatre critics to critique theatre??)