Nothing could stop Robert Lepage—except Wagner’s Ring. The Quebec director has received great reviews for his plays, his opera productions and his spectacular shows for Cirque du Soleil. But then the Metropolitan Opera invited him to stage the mother of all epic fantasy cycles, Richard Wagner’s four-opera event about a bunch of gods and warrior maidens fighting over a magic ring made of gold. And in the last month, as the Met unveiled the completed cycle and sent it out into theatres for HD broadcasts (along with a documentary on how it was made), Lepage received his first critical drubbing. “Over about 15 hours, the relatively static staging comes across for long sections as cumbersome and monotonous,” says Wayne Gooding, editor of Opera Canada. Though there was some criticism of the casting—especially after star singer Jonas Kaufmann had to pull out of the role of Siegmund, a heroic tenor who sleeps with his own sister—most of the brickbats were reserved for the staging. Alex Ross of The New Yorker called it “the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.” The opera company was accused of forcing a radio station, WQXR, to pull a blog post critical of Lepage’s work. The Globe and Mail wondered whether “the much-celebrated Robert Lepage [has] finally jumped the shark.” Maybe. Or maybe the Ring is just an impossible beast to slay for any director, especially in North America.
The Ring has always posed an irresistible challenge for theatres, because Wagner wrote more into his saga of gods and monsters than any stage can possibly show. The first scene of the cycle is supposed to take place at the bottom of a river, with three mermaids swimming around in it; the hero, Siegfried, makes his entrance with a live bear and kills a dragon in front of the audience, and the work ends with more or less the collapse of the entire world. The piece has so many magical disappearances, transformations and animals on stage that a 19th-century critic called it “a damned pantomime.” But the directors who typically do opera and theatre aren’t always prepared to handle a scene where a trickster god fools an evil dwarf into turning himself into a frog. In some productions, the special effects don’t work; in others, they work but make the piece impossible to take seriously. That wouldn’t please Wagner, who intended the piece as a revolutionary theatre work where music would be “one with the drama.”
Some directors and theatres have chosen to deal with the problem in the simplest way possible, by stripping out most of the pantomime effects and de-emphasizing the supernatural stuff. The war between theatre traditionalists and anti-traditionalists, always at its most ferocious in opera, is heated when it comes to the Ring—especially after the Second World War, when many directors ( including Wagner’s grandson Wieland) tried to rescue the work from Nazi admirers and the realistic theatrical style they preferred. As early as 1951, record producer John Culshaw was appalled by the Wagner family’s disregard for the great man’s literal stage directions. “The portrayal of these tumultuous happenings,” he wrote of a Ring production at the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, Germany, “was as if an enthusiastic amateur with very limited funds at his disposal had tried to create them with a few drapes and a spotlight.” Culshaw went on to produce a bestselling LP recording of the Ring, which used sound effects, including the sound of a ring being thrown on a pile of gold bricks, to recreate all the effects that Wagner had in mind.
Since then, productions of the Ring have often been revisionist, like Wieland Wagner’s, or literalist, like the versions Culshaw preferred. In Europe, revisionism mostly reigns. Many productions use modern dress and ignore many of the special effects, and they go heavy on political messages—influenced by Wagner’s fan George Bernard Shaw, who argued that a scene where the evil dwarf Alberich uses gold to enslave his fellow dwarfs is actually “a poetic vision of unregulated industrial capitalism as it was made known in Germany in the middle of the 19th century.” Other companies have gone for an in-between approach. The Canadian Opera Company’s Ring production, entrusted to four different directors including Atom Egoyan, was basically modernized, but not as radical as a European production.
Lepage and the Met’s current general manager, Peter Gelb, tried to come up with a Ring for traditionalists and modernists alike. The last Met production, done in the ’80s with hairstyles to match, was mocked for its old-fashioned look and staging, but audiences liked it; the author of the blog Likely Impossibilities says the old version was “excoriated by people like me for its lack of creativity, but became something of a pilgrimage site for people who like that kind of thing.” In coming up with a substitute, says Leslie Barcza, who blogs about opera at Barczablog.com, “Lepage seems to have been asked to do something original that would not offend a conservative audience.”
In the New York Times, Lepage specifically took a shot at European productions and their revisionist messages and settings. “Let’s strip all of that from the 20th century and go back to the 19th century.” The idea behind the Lepage Ring was a literal production with a modern, high-tech look to it. Lepage and his team designed a complex set consisting of a series of moving planks and video projections, collectively nicknamed “the machine,” and which some critics compared to a giant xylophone for the singers to stand on.
The point of this machinery was to allow most of Wagner’s stage directions to be followed without the old-fashioned style that was mocked in the Met’s previous production. Gelb told the New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini that by incorporating this kind of technological wizardry, Lepage had become “the first director to execute what Wagner actually wanted to see on stage.” Opera Canada’s Gooding points out that this claim is overblown, and Lepage leaves out some of the effects: “There is, for example, no sword in Rheingold, even though there’s an explicit call for it in Wagner’s stage directions and in the music.” But Lepage did include many literal special effects. His version of Rheingold, the first work in the cycle, began at the bottom of the Rhine and had the Rhinemaidens swimming around, just as Wagner demanded—but in front of computer-generated water rather than a conventional set.
Barcza says that all the special effects give the production a “carnivalesque quality,” different from the austere European style. “The Rhinemaidens are on strings, while the Valkyries ride the set, which imitates flying horses for them, in the Ride of the Valkyries. Lepage makes Loge, the god of fire, walk backwards up a wall, while on strings. It was, in theory, the culmination of what traditionalist Wagner fans had been advocating for decades. “Before long, an attempt will be made to use widescreen filmed backgrounds for certain parts of the Ring,” wrote Culshaw in 1967. “This is probably the only reliable and effective way of dealing with the various magical incidents.” Lepage and Gelb tried to take Culshaw up on that challenge, creating an old-fashioned Wagner production with modern methods.
But as the producers of Spider-Man on Broadway have found out, a production that depends on technology is going to get a lot of protests when the effects don’t work. There were many complaints that the machine made too much noise. “Lepage’s dragon looked like a big, silly muppet,” wrote Ruth Haworth at the blog Yappa Ding Ding. “It was hands-down the worst special effect I have seen in a Ring cycle.” Gooding says that the machine, “though undoubtedly effective in some of its transformations, is also a trap that restricts the ability to block the singers and action effectively.”
In the end, it proved impossible to satisfy the traditionalists and the modernists. Reviewers who wanted a profound approach were disappointed. Zachary Woolfe of the New York Observer lamented that “there is nothing of Wagner’s own hatred of social hierarchies, his conviction that money and power corrupt everything.” And fans of 19th-century-style Wagner were put off by what Barcza, who has defended the production on his blog, calls the elements of “circuses and Vegas acts.” It could be that opera and theatre fans are so divided that there’s no pleasing both groups.
The real lesson here, though, may be that discussion of theatre and opera today is all about directors—and to a lesser extent, the scenery. Conrad L. Osborne, the veteran music critic, says that he saw Lepage’s staging of the final work in the cycle and “did not hate all of it,” but the real problem was that the singing and acting weren’t great. “Personally, I think it’s preposterous to blow millions on a great contraption in the hope that technology can make performances work, but it isn’t the contraption that kills the show.”