Robert Lepage’s brilliant production of the Ring was revived at the Metropolitan Opera this Spring and Mr. Lepage has had the last laugh. The run was sold out, the “machine” came to life, the singers were sensational, and it was an almost unadulterated triumph.
The “machine” is a neutral platform comprising an apron and a movable back-space of 24 planks. Each plank is independently projected and independently movable, each shaped as a slender triangle. The number of possible permutations of acting and scenic space is mind-boggling, and Lepage and his triumphant designers respond to the challenge. We had vast alpine mountaintops with avalanches of snowfall; nasty loam-laden forest floors with worms and insects; river beds with slick pebbles that slipped under the feet of the people trying to climb them; psychedelic colors on a platform surrounded with fire, with a body upside down and perpendicular; a vast twisted staircase on which actors tread sideways.
This production, frequently called “unimaginative” and “witless” when it opened in 2012, has become iconic without intending it, similar to the Chereau production’s set for Walkure Act III:
Who is unfamiliar with these images from the Lepage Ring?
Rheingold, transition of Scene 2 to 3:
Walkure, final tableau:
Rheingold, Scene 1:
This time, there were no cautious actors, no blinking projections, no apprehensive body doubles, no squeaks and squawks or muttered curses or producers tearing out sparse hair or actors sporting limps and bruises. The Rhine maidens in Gotterdammerung Act III literally scampered up the steep and running river to perch on rocks in the middle of the stream, and slid back down. Siegfried bounced through the thrilling fire like a gazelle. Wotan exhibited no hesitation in climbing the plans to show Brunnhilde the regrettable past and the ineluctably catastrophic future.
Experience, time, reworking, confidence and commitment yielded a continuously astonishing staging.
I should emphasize what the Met Ring is not: It is not the imposition of a “concept” on Wagner’s work. There are no motels, oil drilling rigs, swimming pools, crocodiles or yellow construction tape. No rats’ tails, no dancing spermatozoa. It is also not particularly adventurous. The Rhine maidens swim rather than prostituting themselves before a hydroelectric dam; Brunnhilde wears armor, carries a spear, and refers to their being heavy in Walkure Act II; the costumes are evocative of Icelandic and Germanic myth; characters enter and exit when stage instructions indicate and, often, on the side of the stage that Wagner wrote. It is a highly conventional reading using ultra-modern staging devices. Wagner, whose arguments with Herr Brandt about the steam effects in the 1876 production were legendary, would (I have no doubt) be gob-smacked and delighted to see the Woodbird fly about and alight precisely on the branch of a tree in the forest, realistic to the last feather.
The greatest source of electricity (outside the projections) was the performance of Stefan Vinke in the May 9, 2019, Siegfried. He was supremely confident, never gave one the slightest reason to be concerned for either his stamina or his artistry, and gave a performance that simply thrilled. Michael Volle’s Wotan was masterful both musically and dramatically. Many others – Gerhard Siegel as Mime, Tomasz Konieczy as Alberich, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund, Eva-Maria Westbroek as a fiery Sieglinde – were as perfect as I could distinguish. Christine Goerke pleased many as Brunnhilde, though I did not join in the audience’s enthusiasm.
Philippe Jordan offered several unique insights into the score, yet failed to rouse for a reason I cannot explain. The Met orchestra, usually without compare, faltered from time to time, particularly in the brasses. And the whole of Gotterdammerung failed to leap to life, just sort of sat there – an odd experience for one who ordinarily weeps copiously at this gripping tale. It felt as if it were simply being presented, and when that happens one becomes aware of the preposterous nature of the conspiracy that is at the core of the plot, and what was intended as tragedy becomes mere melodrama. Is Gunther really not going to speak up when he learns in Act II that Siegfried had a girlfriend prior to the potion? Will Brunnhilde really not clarify that it wasn’t last night, but a while ago, that she saw Nothung leaning against the wall? Miscommunications like this fade when someone like Levine or Solti takes the score by the throat and insists that tectonic matters of morality and fate are being played out. That didn’t happen, at least for me.
We deserve for this production to return.