Monday, October 8, 2012

The German Opera Project: “Wagner’s Dream” (VIFF 2012)

It’s nice to know that in parts of North America, high culture can still be a big deal. In the fall of 2010, New York was in a furor when the legendary Metropolitan Opera debuted Robert LePage’s staging of Wagner’s Der Ring das Nibelungen. Opening night drew out high society, in addition to the notorious “Ring nuts”, and luminaries such as André Leon Talley attended. Outside Lincoln Center, hundreds sat on plastic chairs in the rain to watch the opening performance for free in as it was projected on giant screens, which was also simulcast in Times Square. Despite being so close to the Jersey “shore”, high culture can still command an audience.

The production of the most noteworthy Ring Cycle in recent years is the subject of Wagner’s Dream. Directed by noted Quebecois stage and film director Robert LePage, the massive undertaking involved a 90,000 pound (45 ton) stage, hydraulics, zip lines, a frequent fear that the stage would injure the performers, and assembled talent such as famed conductor James Levine. Director Susan Froemke had free rein to follow every aspect of the production, much like last year’s little-seen Wagner documentary The Singing City, a document on the staging of Parsifal in Stuttgart at around the same time.

LePage is known for unconventional productions. He staged Peter Gabriel’s masterful Secret World Tour from 1994, made the award-winning film Le Confessionnel in 1995, directed numerous operas and oversaw the Cirque du Soleil shows Ka and Totem. The Met had wanted to instill new life into a shrinking subscriber base as opera was becoming more expensive, and their prior productions had not been well-received. A production of the Ring Cycle in LA in the spring of 2010 cost an astounding $31 million and failed to turn a profit, not to mention having been criticized for its avant-garde staging, and with lawsuits stemming from workplace injuries. Taking a chance on LePage meant they wanted something fresh and exciting, and potentially ground-breaking. And they got it in spades.

The Rhine maidens, suspended in performance
LePage’s stage for the Met’s Ring Cycle consisted of one giant piece. It is a set of overwhelmingly large planks spinning 360 degrees on a long rod that ran the length of the stage. The planks moved independently of each other and, with the right lighting, were able to stand in for the River Rhine, the forests, the great palace of Valhalla, underworld caves and all manner of hinterlands in between. The Rhine maidens were lifted on harnesses and sang the challenging libretto while suspended in mid-air, adjusting so that the safety wear did not prevent their diaphragms from being able to fully project. We see the initial rehearsals where the sopranos worked with technicians to ensure that they were positioned so that they could sing, and learning how not to get caught in the set or plunge below should a harness snap. (And you thought you had occupational hazards.)

Voigt, as Brunnhilde 
We follow LePage and other production heads as they negotiate the set and reassure the performers that they will be safe. We meet charming Deborah Voigt, the dazzling soprano who was famously dismissed from a 2004 production of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Royal Opera House for being too fat for the title role, as she prepares mightily, only to suffer an embarrassing fall on the set on opening night of Die Walküre. Brünnhilde is considered the ultimate test for sopranos and for many is the role of a lifetime. We also learn that famed tenor Gary Lehrman bowed out of the production four days before opening night of Siegfried and was replaced by Jay Hunter Morris on short notice. And then there is the sudden exit of conductor James Levine due to ongoing health issues. On top of this, that darn stage appears to have a mind of its own and continues to be a potential safety hazard.

Nevertheless, Froemke’s assured hand as a director ensures that we see the top players in the industry work their way through the difficult material, breathing new life and vision into the work. This is a film not just for Ring nuts or classical music lovers, it is an accessible story of collaboration on a project everyone believes in. You will not find any diva tantrums, All About Eve-style backstage back-stabbing or petty squabbles here. We also see the perspective of the New York Wagner Society, who traverse the world seeing different versions of the Ring Cycle and warn the opera directors that the production should not overwhelm or get in the way of the score. An usher tells us that purists want to see the same play performed in the same way, time after time, without deviation or. That Froemke’s camera is able to get behind the scenes and capture the perspective of the vanguard who is the gatekeeper of the canonical work shows that she understands the cultural value and interest in getting the Ring Cycle done just right. (Those purists would no doubt have hated last year’s San Francisco production, which combined industrial art deco production design with Jay Gatsby’s wardrobe.) They all know they’re embarking on a daunting and slightly mad venture, but everyone respects the journey and take it seriously.

Wagner’s original composition in the 1870s could not have been staged the way he wanted it, and he expressed unhappiness with the original production at Bayreuth, declaring “next year we’ll do it differently”. In an age when technology has finally caught up with the infinity of imagination, LePage was able to realize Wagner’s dream.

Wagner’s Dream played at the Vancouver International Film Festival and enjoyed a successful art house run in Los Angeles and New York. The entire Metropolitan 2010-2012 Ring Cycle played on PBS and screened in cinemas in HD. For more information on Metropolitan Opera productions in HD, head over to their site.