Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Stop Your Sobbing

May 02, 2009

Model for the Lepage Ring set
Photo: Met Opera 2009

I’ve done a lot of bitching here this week about the Otto Schenk production of Wagner’s Ring in it’s hopefully final revival here at the Metropolitan Opera. So it was a no-brainer for me to catch a Patron preview event on Friday afternoon hosted by Peter Gelb of the new Ring production that is in development apparently as we speak. The preview consisted of a short speech from the general director followed by some recently edited film footage looking at the new Ring cycle that will be rolled out starting in the Fall of 2010 with plans for full cycles as early as spring 2012. The director will be Robert Lepage who had a robust recent success here with a staging of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust and has a long history of technologically innovative theater work with his group ex machina. Based on the preview material, the production appears to be both intriguing and a huge step forward for the most dowdy of opera organizations. From what I can tell so far and based on Gelb’s own comments, the production will use a deceptively minimal unit set consisting of 24 giant planks that can be raised, lowered, and individually rotated from a set central axis. Singers, or more likely acrobats and others, can perform atop these planks that can be positioned at stage level or elevated, in order to form undulating waves, steep inclines, see saws or turning windmills. Of course, the full range of interactive video projection technology will also play a role for something that at this stage looks both colorful and full of movement.

Model for the Lepage Ring set
Photo: Met Opera 2009
Of course, the audience for this little dog and pony show was far from the forward thinking variety. Needless to say, it remains true that frequently money and taste do not go hand in hand. (We can't all be Betty Freeman now can we?) The knives were out in the crowd and it was during the extended question and answer part of the show that things really got going. The program was an apology of sorts, intended as a reassurance to the most reactionary elements of the audience. It's the the kind of thing San Francisco audiences have become accustomed to in recent years with the arrival there of David Gockley. But, ironically, while that house is sinking in an artistic quagmire of star-studded left-overs, Gelb is valiantly trying to pull this august New York institution into the something approximating the present. He spent much of the time reassuring the gray-haired moneybags in the room that the music and story of Wagner’s work would be respected and that nothing is going to change even though, in fact, it will look different. Taking no reassurance, the audience responded like a room full of fear-mongering CNN anchors by trotting out all of the usual opera bogeymen it could think of – regietheater, Cirque de Soleil, Los Angeles, etc. All of this wrapped in the kind of pseudo-intellectual garbage you'd expect. (Q: What experience does Lepage have in directing Wagner prior to this? A: None. Neither did Chereau or Schenk prior to their legendary Ring cycles.) And as usual, the organization tried to walk the fine line of saying, I feel just like you do, but trust me, this is for the best. There was an inordinate amount of attention spent on the issue of what will happen to the sets from the current Schenk production and whether they would be lovingly kept is a sock drawer somewhere or burnt in hellfire. Gelb reassured them that the supposedly universally loved production would not be destroyed, but I suspect that fact may have more to do with the likelihood that these constructions are so old they are comprised of significant amounts of hazardous carcinogenic materials that will end up requiring unusually expensive means of disposal. It’s obviously cheaper to keep her.

However, it appears that the die is wisely cast on this one. And, even though the Met is actively soliciting funds to support this and other endeavors, Gelb himself announced the good news is that the new Lepage-directed Ring is already paid for based on other prior major gifts. So, though I may be in a minority, at least among this group of supporters, I say more power to you Mr. Gelb. Keep fighting the good fight.



Just wanted to say HOW MUCH I admire the phrase "artistic quagmire of star-studded leftovers."
I'm a fan of "I suspect that fact may have more to do with the likelihood that these constructions are so old they are comprised of significant amounts of hazardous carcinogenic materials that will end up requiring unusually expensive means of disposal". :-)
Great post! I actually am a HUGE fan of the Schenk production - but am ready also to see it go. I happen to be a great admirer of Lepage's work and have been foaming at the mouth waiting for his new Ring. I can't (but will) wait. THanks for the update and "preview."
Yeah, those old sets have to go. What a stupid design. Can you imagine, an opera production that looks like what the composer wished it to look like? What an arrogant thing to do. It didn't have Nazis, or strippers, or Bush and Cheney, or a corporate boardroom, or pinwheels, or oompa-loompas, or cheerleaders, or terrorists, or Mexican immigrants, or the cast of "Melrose," or anything...you know, GOOD.

The Hall of the Gibichungs didn't look like Gitmo, Valhalla didn't look like 30 Rock, Fafner's lair didn't resemble Halliburton, Wotan didn't look like Doctor Who, and nobody was sexually ambiguous.

In fact, the First Scene, described in the score as "At The Bottom of the Rhine," looked like-get this- it was set at the the bottom of the Rhine River. HELLO!!!! What was up with that? Any halfwit would have known that when something is described as "At The Bottom of the Rhine," it's supposed to look like either Yankee Stadium or a bowling alley.

But now, no more mountains or caves. Now, we'll have planks. Wonderful, spinning planks.

Hey, waddya know-I'll finally get my pinwheels. Whoopee!
I have to admit that I was unexpectedly underwhelmed by the Schenk production, which looked dated & worn-out. There were almost no theatrical ideas either, with characters usually doing little more than moving around the stage. The current enthusiasm for the Schenk production thus puzzles me. I came to conclusion that I would rather be offended by a regie production than bored by Schenk's toothless approach.
Axel Feldheim and I must not have seen the same performances. For instance, in the first act of Walkure, during that stretch where nothing is sung and Wagner's music tells the story, the tension between Botha, Tomlinson and Theorin was palpable. I also thought the sets were just as striking as they were twenty years ago. Sometimes, having fine singers, with well-honed interpretive skills, communicating Wagner's text is the best theatrical idea of all. Presenting Wagner's opera without gimmickry is a virtue.
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