“Controversial” is a mild word for Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, which has just finished its second cycle of the year at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and has been described as anything from "witless and wasteful" to “merely adequate... a theatrical concept that had no sustaining vision” to “one of the best achievements of the Met in recent years.” I attended all four operas and reviewed the first three (see Rheingold / Walküre / Siegfried); Meg Wilhoite reviewed Götterdämmerung. This article gives some thoughts about the whole cycle, concentrating on that controversial staging.

Mark Delavan as Wotan and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka in Das Rheingold © Marty Sohl/ Metropolitan Opera
Mark Delavan as Wotan and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka in Das Rheingold
© Marty Sohl/ Metropolitan Opera
First, a few words about voices and orchestra. I was struck by the uniformly high vocal quality, especially given that this was supposedly the “B” cast. There really wasn’t a single performer, even in the minor roles, that failed to reach a high level of accuracy, with good timbre and phrasing. Off-nights, it would appear, were not tolerated.

That isn’t to say that every singer thrilled: overwhelming competence doesn’t always set the listener’s pulse racing. For sure, each of the four operas had its MVP (Europeans, translate “man of the match”): Stefan Margita’s Loge, Martina Serafin’s Sieglinde, Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried and Hans-Peter König as Hagen, with a series award for Katarina Dalayman’s marvellous portrayal of Brünnhilde. Others in less pivotal roles approached that level, such as Stephanie Blythe’s imperious Fricka or Eric Owens’ scheming but ultimately dignified Alberich in Siegfried. But many performances, although perfectly fine pieces of singing, will not stay in my memory.

Fabio Luisi is agreed by every critic I’ve read to be a master of precision, so it won’t surprise anyone that the orchestral performance displayed thorough technical excellence, just as the vocal one did. The number of obvious fluffs and missed entries could be counted on the fingers of one hand (an extraordinary achievement for 14 hours of music), the sonority of individual instrument groups was often gorgeous and the detail impeccably clear. Students of the score will have found this a particularly easy performance to follow.

But with the Ring, technical excellence isn’t enough: one is hoping for impact. In this regard, the orchestra was frustratingly inconsistent. For example, the opening scene of Götterdämmerung, with the three Norns doing “the story so far”, was absolutely superb, throwing us straight into the middle of the action, and Siegfried’s funeral march was weighty and apocalyptic. But after that power, the final scene of Valhalla seemed strangely muted, a considerable let down. Luisi has a fine orchestra from which he is capable of coaxing heights of romantic passion: let’s hope that as time progresses, he comes to lose some of the polish and bring that passion to the surface more frequently.

Mark Delavan as Wotan in Siegfried © Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Mark Delavan as Wotan in Siegfried
© Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Not much critical space has been devoted to the acting performances, which is a pity, as many of these were superb. Foremost in my mind are two duets depicting love and hate: Simon O’Neill and Martina Serafin as Siegmund and Sieglinde, and Mark Delavan and Eric Owens as Wotan and Alberich. But I could name many more and I feel that when evaluating Robert Lepage’s contribution, these should add substantially to the credit side of the ledger.

And so to Lepage’s controversial staging. For the benefit of those who haven’t read about it yet: all four operas use “the machine”, a 45 ton creation of 24 swivelling aluminium beams (triangular in cross-section), which spin, lift and interlock to form a myriad of different shapes, sometimes from their positions alone but more often with the aid of complex, large scale video projection. There are many outstanding effects, from the stony bed of the Rhine to a mesmeric chase through a snowy forest to a spider’s web woven from the Norns’ thread of fate.

In common with most opera productions, Ring settings can be categorised as traditional or conceptual. Traditional productions (following Wagner’s original) take their iconography from story books of Norse and Teutonic mythology: costumes bristle with armour, winged helmets and spears. Conceptual productions move the action to some other time and space, taking their cue either from some creation of the director’s or from an aspect of Wagner’s perceived intent (usually that of the revolutionary anarchist - perhaps the most notable example was Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 Bayreuth production which set the operas in Wagner’s time, with a top-hatted Wotan and the Rhinemaidens as prostitutes). In this categorisation, Lepage is definitely traditional: he and Met director Peter Gelb are on the record as having tried to imagine the Ring the way Wagner would have staged it if he had access to twenty-first century technology. The video projection and the use of “the machine” are true theatrical innovation and anything but traditional - but the underlying purpose is a purist Wagnerian one.

Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried and Hans-Peter König as Fafner in Siegfried © Cory Weaver / Metropolitan Opera
Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried and Hans-Peter König as Fafner in Siegfried
© Cory Weaver / Metropolitan Opera
Any Ring at the Met is a high profile affair, especially this one, which follows a much loved production by Otto Schenk and is being presented in Wagner’s bicentenary year by a director well known for theatrical spectaculars. Back in 2010 when its first Rheingold was unveiled, everything really needed to work on the first night  and it didn’t. Early performances had a catalogue of troubles, ranging from creaks and clunks to scenes in which the moving scenery failed to work at all, performers actually got injured, or, embarrassingly, one in which a large Microsoft Windows logo appeared on the scenery while a video projection computer rebooted. All this helped fuel a subsequent storm of criticism, which can be loosely grouped under the following headings:

  • The whole thing was too expensive
  • The staging was a series of technical catastrophes
  • The moving sets were overused, with equipment noise marring sensitive musical passages
  • Some costumes and props were embarrassingly naive
  • There was no overarching directorial concept

 

I’m not going to comment on the expense  I’m not a forensic accountant, I don’t have any of the data and I’m not even sure it’s appropriate subject for an opera critic.

The technical catastrophes were clearly there on earlier performances, but they do now seem to be sorted out. The worst that could be said of any of the four evenings I attended was that there were occasional creaks and clunks. Much of the time, I found the whoosh of the Met’s standard air conditioning more distracting than anything specific to this production.

That said, I agree with the anti-Lepage camp that “the machine” got moved around a lot when it was unnecessary and distracting to do so. It was a superb vehicle for changes of scene and mood, so it was annoying when it was shifted around with no apparent purpose other than to provide a bit of visual interest. I do feel that Wagner’s music contains enough interest in itself - by a wide margin - that it doesn’t need the help of eye candy. A particular culprit was the “forest murmurs” scene, in which a perfectly good, innovative set of video projections gave us the “in the depths of nature” feel, with no need for us to be distracted further, spoiling Wagner’s delicate music with creaky shifting scenery.

I also agree that some of the costumes and effects were poorly executed  a minority, in my view, but a significant one. I have no problem with Lepage going back to Wagner’s aesthetics  shining armour, actual dragons, mermaids with swishy tails  but I do expect to see twenty-first century production values: for a “straight” production that isn’t trying to be ironic, I want armour to look as good as it does in Game of Thrones and I don’t want a dragon that looks like it came out of a child’s toy cupboard.

But I have little sympathy with those who complain about lack of directorial concept or Lepage being supposedly disconnected from the story. Even before reading about Lepage and Gelb’s intentions, I felt that the staging was extraordinarily true to Wagner’s intent, making an excellent fist of this in some of the scenes where Wagner’s stage directions are at their most ludicrous, such as the opening scene in the Rhine or the Ride of the Valkyries. Directorial intent to tell a great story simply and vividly is good enough for me.

In any case, I’m not sure how safe it is to build anything more on top of the Ring’s somewhat fragile political and philosophical foundations. The Ring is a masterwork of music and storytelling  perhaps the greatest ever combination of the two, certainly the most ambitious in scale  but its attempts at political allegory are dubious at best, as is its central thesis of the naive hero as the only saviour of the world. There are too many plot lacunae and reliance on unlikely coincidences to make taut psychodrama, and the less said about its view of gender relationships and race issues, the better. A director has to be brave and lucky, I feel, to succeed in bending such a work to his own artistic purposes.

The Three Norns (Michaela Martens, Elizabeth DeShong, Heidi Melton) in Götterdämmerung © Marty Sohl/ Metropolitan Opera
The Three Norns (Michaela Martens, Elizabeth DeShong, Heidi Melton) in Götterdämmerung
© Marty Sohl/ Metropolitan Opera
Lepage’s Ring may not be perfect. But it’s improving, and not surprisingly so, since Lepage is well-known for tinkering with his productions long after they open (admittedly, this approach works rather better in a Cirque du Soleil environment with hundreds of shows than with grand opera.) Most importantly, the cycle as a whole is a faithful, vivid, powerful retelling of a great story. If you’ve seen many Ring productions in the past and are desperate for a new take, this is the wrong place to come. But if you are a Wagner purist, this production has a great deal going for it, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone seeing the Ring for the first time: you get a modern and theatrically innovative production without having to put in the effort to decode obscure directorial concepts.

The most virulent criticism I’ve seen of Lepage’s work comes from music critics of many years standing who have particular interests in twentieth and twenty-first century music. The most effusive praise comes from websites dedicated to Wagner. That probably tells you most of what you need to know.