Canadian Director Threatens To Crush Metropolitan Opera Stage

Is 'Wagner's Ring'—including Robert Lepage's new Met version—worth the expense?

I was wondering how Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s Ring — the big test of Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera leadership and one of the Canadian director’s biggest projects to date — was going. According to the New York Times, the Met has had to spend over $1 million hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-enforce the stage, because it was determined that Lepage’s set would be so heavy it might literally cause the stage to collapse. The article includes a picture of the sloping, shifting constantly-moving set that Lepage has built in his studio in Quebec. Since he was allowed to do the work at his own studio, and then have it transferred to New York, that explains why the set didn’t take the theatre’s capabilities into account. Anyway, the idea of it sounds pretty interesting; the Ring demands all kinds of complicated effects, and Lepage’s approach, including the moving set and computer-projected images, might be the one to create those effects without clumsy 19th century theatre trickery (on the one hand) and fake-hip modern multimedia ideas (on the other).

I have to admit that while I understand why the Ring is the ultimate goal of any opera house that wants to be considered major-league, I’ve never been quite convinced that it’s worth all the expense. Certainly the influence of the cycle is enormous: it was, as many people have pointed out, the first and perhaps greatest multi-media blockbuster, where Wagner tried to organize all the arts — music, theatre, poetry, political polemics, special effects — into the ultimate commentary on life itself. And someone argued to me that Wagner’s famous leitmotif method, which was so revolutionary and avant-garde in its time, is now something that makes the Ring more accessible than the average opera: instead of listening for the shape of a number or scene and how it relates to the drama, one can just listen for the themes and relate them to whatever the characters are singing about.

Still, the Ring is also the work where Wagner put into practice a theory of musical theatre that has never convinced me, never will convince me, and that even Wagner himself didn’t follow outside of these four operas. Wagner’s theory was described by Tchaikovsky, a notable Wagner-skeptic, in an article after he saw the Ring in 1876:

Since opera, in his view, is nothing other than drama accompanied by music, and since the characters in a drama are supposed to speak rather than sing, Wagner irrevocably banishes from opera all rounded and self-contained musical forms, i.e. he does away with arias, ensembles, and even choruses, which he uses episodically and very moderately only in the last part of his tetralogy. That is, he banishes that conventional element of opera which to us had not seemed offensive or false merely because routine had made us quite insensitive to it.

Since in the moments of passionate intensity to which people living in a social community are subject nobody would think of striking up a song, arias are to be rejected; and since as a rule two people do not speak to one another at the same time, but rather one will let the other speak out first, there can be no duets either. Similarly, since people in a crowd do not generally all utter the same words together at the same time, a chorus must also be out of the question, and so on and so forth.

Wagner, by apparently forgetting in this context that the truth of life and the truth of art are two quite different truths, is in effect striving after rationality. In order to reconcile these demands of truth with the requirements of music, Wagner exclusively recognizes the form of the recitative. All his music—and it is a music which is profoundly conceived, always interesting, often splendid and exciting, though at times also a bit dryish and unintelligible, a music which is astonishingly rich from the technical point of view and equipped with an instrumentation of unprecedented beauty—all his music, I emphasize, is entrusted exclusively to the orchestra. The characters sing mainly just completely colourless successions of tones which are tailored to the symphony being performed by the invisible orchestra.

Wagner actually couldn’t stick to this theory for very long; he couldn’t even stick to it for all of the Ring. He broke off composition of the cycle after the second act of Siegfried, and when he returned to it, he started throwing in more scenes that had the shape of conventional operatic numbers (not a lot, but a few). Still, some of the basic ideas have been part of operatic writing ever since, and they don’t strike me as very good ones a lot of the time — in particular, the tendency to have the melody in the orchestra and the singers sort of noodling away on top of it. (Oddly enough, this type of writing usually makes more demands on the singers, not less; they have to scream their lungs out even though the music is basically heightened recitative.) That’s a very reductive description of Wagner’s music, and I don’t think it applies to all of his work — but for me, it does apply to a lot of the Ring. It feels like 18 hours of music where the most important instrument, the voice, doesn’t have a lot of interesting music to play.