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Music: A Ring in Moving 24 Planks

By Frank Behrens
ART TIMES Online April 2013

The ring

What with Public Television and local theatres set up for HD screenings, I imagine quite a number of my readers might have seen all or part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle as done at the Metropolitan Opera for the last 3 seasons. For those who missed the fun, Deutsche Grammophon has released all four operas that make up the Ring with a bonus DVD titled “Wagner’s Dream, the Making of the Ring.”

The latter, which I advise be seen first, is a 114-minute feature about how Robert Lepage conceived and brought to reality his now famous (or infamous) “24 plank” single set to be used for the whole tetralogy. Weighing in at 90,000 pounds (it was supposed to be 50,000), it posed its greatest challenge ever to the Met’s technical staff. Designed to rotate, bend, and reflect lights and scenic effects (like the forest in “Siegfried), it nearly made the opera itself superfluous.

There was once a play in which a very realistic moon began to rise. After a while, the audience was paying no attention to the play at all, their eyes glued to that moon. I find that Lepage’s plaything does pretty much the same. When not moving, it has some impressive effects (something, someone on Amazon wrote) like a screen saver. But if the audience is wondering “What will it do next?” then it is upstaging all the action and whatever else the opera is about.

For example, the planks form steps down to and up from the underground in which the Nibelungs dwell; but after all the talk about Valhalla in “Das Rheingold,” we never get to see the edifice. The Ride of the Valkyries is accomplished by using the ends of eight planks (well, why not?) and the Magic Fire at the end becomes impressive only when some of the planks move up vertically. Worst yet, the destruction of Valhalla during the last moments of “Gotterdammerung” (2012) is merely hinted at. Where are those planks when they are needed?

The Dragon in “Siegfried” is well done (although it looks like the reptile third of Kukla, Fran and Ollie), as are the transformations of Alberich in “Rheingold.” And for once we get to see a realistic Forest Bird, who is spotted early in Act II as a hint of things to come.

There is no need to discuss the excellences and shortcomings of the cast, because the scenery is the main attraction—ridiculously—and I must keep focus on that.

As for the bonus disc, “Wagner’s Dream,” I simply cannot tolerate statements like “Wagner would have loved his Ring done this way.” It was a nightmare for the huge backstage crew who had to cope with Lepage’s Rube Goldberg machine. It seems that more time was spent on the manipulations of the planks (I think I spotted 24 crewmen, each in charge of one plank). After all, it kept breaking down not only during rehearsals but on opening night. Indeed, the mechanism designed to bring the Gods (actually, acrobats hired to sub for them) up the vertical Rainbow Bridge into the (invisible) Valhalla jammed during one rehearsal and again on opening night. No one mounted the Rainbow Bridge into Valhalla, twice.

The actor playing the giant Fafner (Hans-Peter Konig) protested in rehearsal that he feared for his safety when a plank that never moved before decided to move during his entrance. Not to mention a Rheinmaiden exclaiming at first try up the planks that she was terrified of falling. And worst of all, Brunhilde took a slide down a plank upon her first entrance on the opening night of “Die Walkure.” Off stage, she swore she'd not make any entrance at all in the second performance unless something was done about it. Nothing was and there was no second slip.
I can just picture the entire cast confronting LePage for his ill-thought out concepts. To what purpose at that late date, I cannot imagine; but plans for future productions in any opera house should “count him out.” At the very least, the cast really should have gotten danger pay for this.

LePage showed his cast a sequence from a mini-series titled “Wagner,” in which the Rhine Maidens were being strapped into swinging harnesses and expressing their fear of getting killed. Lesson? If they did it, then the cast at the Met could it too! I don’t buy that for a second. It would seem that LePage was heavily on the defensive at the point.

Yet, I must confess, I am now watching the video of the tetralogy and enjoying it. I have no respect for LePage has a humanitarian, but he did manage some impressive results. But all in all, give me a cave that looks like a cave, a forest that looks like a (non-projected) forest, and some hint at what Valhalla at least looks like, after the all shouting in “Das Rheingold” is over.

Frank Behrens:

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