Twilight of the Snobs

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Byline: Seth Colter Walls

You know the score on Wagner--he's long-winded and punishing, strictly for the devotees. But a new production coming to a theater near you wants non-superfans to pay attention.

There is little about Richard Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen that, to outsiders, does not suggest an elaborate form of self-torture. First off, it takes four nights (and 16 hours) to see the whole thing. Given its gargantuan stage requirements--dragons, gods, demigods, and the dwarfs who want to rule them all--almost any production is guaranteed to fail in one (or more) ways. It doesn't get any easier if you decide to consume the Ring cycle in bite-size chunks at home, what with three dozen recorded versions on the market and no consensus on which one is definitive. Welcome to Wagner the Frustrating. Wagner the Inaccessible. Wagner the Impossible. The elusive notion of "getting Wagner right" or fully grasping his works in their inexhaustible complexity is exactly what many Ring lovers get off on--this idea of the operatic work that's the best of all time simply because it's the longest, or features scenes and leading roles that are punishing to stage or sing. To be fair, the composer himself encouraged this line of thought by using the German word Gesamtkunstwerk to proclaim his ambition "total art." So it's no surprise that an assessment of grandeur is where our Wagner discussion typically begins and ends.

The Metropolitan Opera's new production of the Ring cycle, which opened last week, seemed destined to play right into this Wagnerian church of the grandiose, starting with its reported price tag ($16 million), and with the set itself--all 45 tons of it. Carrying most of that weight is a phalanx of 24 stage-length planks, which are joined by an axis and manipulated via computers and a hydraulic system. The fiberglass-and-aluminum-forged planks do not merely conjure riverbanks, mountain slopes, and the murky depths of the Nibelheim, they also double as a screen for state-of-the-art video projections. This beast was so huge, it required America's largest opera house to retrofit its stage with additional steel-beam supports, lest the whole apparatus crash through the floor. In the breathless advance reports, it all sounded like a prelude to a radical reinterpretation of Wagner--the sort of staging that uproots the Norse and German myths that inspired the Ring and plunks them down in the Industrial Revolution, scandalizing the traditionalists who can't have their Wagner staged any way but in the traditional breastplate-and-horns fashion. So of course tickets to this tech-dream of a Ring sold out the day they went on sale. For some Wagner fanatics, nothing beats booing the new stuff in person.

But then the director of this production, Robert Lepage, threw a changeup. His staging of Das Rheingold, the first chapter of the Ring, does indeed feature a few jaw-dropping stage tricks. His Rhinemaidens, surrounded by leagues of projected blue, appear to swim while suspended from wires more than 20 feet in the air; when they sing or shake a tail feather, those animated waters behind them bubble and splash. (The animation is executed by interactive software that responds in real time to the singers' movements.) Still, not everything went according to plan on opening night. During the big finale--in which the gods ascend to their Valhalla castle (paid for on credit, in what amounts to history's first ill-advised housing loan)--the stage malfunctioned, leaving a substitute version of the ending to be staged on the fly. Yet, when it worked, the wizardry remained in service to the original poetry, as when the set twisted and morphed into a spiral staircase leading two characters into a lair of gold and smoke.

It turns out that Lepage's take on Wagner is, in its way, restrained and intimate. A long domestic scene between the god Wotan and his wife, Fricka, was played with great sensitivity precisely because it wasn't overstuffed with stage gimmickry. …