Wagner’s Ring Cycle

I was all psyched up for this assignment. I read up on the history of Wagner's opera and the mythology that fed his imagination, I ran down the interviews the director Robert Lepage gave when his production opened last fall, and I ran down the interviews he continued to give over the course of the next several months, as Wagnerites and other opera buffs treated him as a piñata. I checked out audio and visual snippets of other productions, for purposes of comparison. I sat my ass down in front of the flickering image machine and took notes. And then I woke up this morning, turned on the computer, went to Facebook, and saw that my friend Phil Freeman had already written the perfect review of this high-culture media extravaganza, fully summing up its achievement with a succinctness I can only marvel at and envy: “Ronnie James Dio had a way better dragon at MSG in ’86.” Kind of took the wind out of my sails, y’know?

The broadcast of Lepage’s production marks the third time that PBS has cleared its decks for a week to bring the biggest, splashiest, most self-enraptured, most time-consuming and money-devouring work in the entire canon into people’s living rooms. In 1983, the Patrice Chereau production was an event, but it also inspired a lot of hand-wringing about whether Wagner’s 800-pound gorilla belonged on TV at all. Back then, it was a lot easier to find three people in any given group who’d be prepared to make the assertion that culture counted for less if you didn’t suffer a little to experience it. Watching Gotterdammerung as easily as if it were The A-Team was just wrong. You were supposed to squeeze yourself into some uncomfortable form of dress and cram yourself into a seat designed for someone with the lower-body proportions of Mr. Peanut and sit there for four or five hours at a stretch, without the option of hitting the “Pause” button long enough to make a sandwich.

The republic survived well enough that just seven years later, PBS broadcast another Ring, directed by Otto Schenk. Twenty-two years is a long time between Rings, and if PBS felt the country was suffering from the lack, it could have tried to make arrangements to rerun either of those shows, both of which were actually very good. But then, we wouldn’t have been able to kick back at home and watch gods and goddesses descending from the heavens by whizzing down to the stage as if they’re on a waterslide, or Siegfried’s ferocious battle to the death with Fran and Kukla's old pal, Ollie. (Apparently, the sliding entrances were among the things that got changed after the production had been running for a while, and Lepage got tired of listening to the sound of choking laughter from the groundlings. There was so much tinkering done, in fact, that the early performances PBS is showing almost qualify as dress rehearsals.)

It’s not as if there’s not talent on display here. For instance, Bryn Terfel sings his ass off as Wotan. Hour after hour, night after night, he’s out there, giving it all he’s got. He overcomes a lot, and he’s got a lot to overcome, starting with the brief pre-show interview that kicks off the opening salvo, Das Rheingold, when, seeing him towering over his interlocutor (Deborah Voigt, who plays Brunnhilde), something about his hulking frame and incongruously chummy manner caused me to picture him wearing a dog costume and trying to talk Elijah Wood into toking up. Only a major talent could survive the first sight of him here, in long-haired redneck mode—with what looks like a bad perm and with one handful of hair hanging over his left eye, as if the king of the gods were still saving up for that eye patch—and what looks like a plastic breastplate. When he goes undercover as a mortal in Siegfried, he gets to dress down a little, and signify that time has passed by trading in his mullet for Winter Brothers hair. This was famously the most expensive production in the history of the Met, so it’s not that it looks like a high school play because they couldn’t afford better. Lepage spent enough to get what he wanted, and he wanted… this.

The principal source of expense, and the real star of the production, is the 45-ton set, a butt-ugly arrangement of 24 revolving planks, which shifts into different settings with the help of visual projections. In the bravura opening, in which the Rhinemaidens accidentally goad the blue-balled dwarf Alberich (Eric Owens, whose resemblance to a pathologically obsessed Jordan Peele stops being distracting, oh, maybe three-quarters of the way through the third opera) into forging the ring that will give its bearer the power to rule the world, the singers appear to be reclining in one of those cages full of ping pong balls that people on the local news used to use to announce lottery winners. The set just turns into a drab nightmare when Wotan and his wife are conferring with the giants, played by Bluto and Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen. Wotan has to do some fancy footwork because he’s promised the giants his wife’s sister in exchange for building him a castle. If nothing else, the set hammers home just how badly the gods need to trade up for a new place to live.

The set works better at some points than at others—as in the opening of Die Walkure, when the planks form a forest through which men with lanterns are running around, searching for the dashing hero and all-around luckless bastard Siegmund. Then they regroup to form the home where Siegmund will meet Sieglinde, with whom he will fall in love, and who he will then learn is his long-lost twin sister. (When I called him a luckless bastard, did you think I was playing? This adulterous, incestuous passion infuriates Wotan's wife, who views it as the ultimate insult to the institution of marriage. Wotan himself thinks it's kind of sweet.) She first finds him snoozing on a bench, in front of an enormous dark thing growing out of the center of the stage; it could be a tree, or a supporting beam, or King Kong’s erect member. The dirty-minded will get an even more unwelcome dose of probably unintentional phallic imagery during the big “Ride Of The Valkyries” number, when people sit atop the planks, which keep rising and flapping and pumping underneath them. There’s never a second when the people or the story in this production feel as important to the director as the technological razzle-dazzle, which isn’t all that dazzling. Those planks are the real point of the show in the way that the chandelier was the real star of The Phantom Of The Opera.

In a New Republic cover story that David Denby wrote about the 1983 Ring broadcast, because David Denby had to write about something in 1983 and there were no Batman movies then for him to point to as the end point of civilization, he acknowledged that Chereau’s production wasn’t perfect—any discussion of any Ring has to start with the admission that no one’s is, or can be—and that neither was the experience of watching it, or any other opera on television. But, he wrote, those considerations had to be weighed against the fact that relatively few people ever get to see the full cycle at all, let alone under ideal circumstances. Here, at least, was a way for millions of people to at least get an idea of why it is that some devotees plan their lives around their next chance to see this huge, multi-part opera, one of the ultimate spectacles ever devised by the mind of man, wherever and whenever they can.

That was true in 1983, when the average TV set really was pathetically inadequate in terms of visual and sound quality compared to what’s available today. The joke is that Lepage has responded to critics of the Met production by sneering at purists who attend the theater “with the score on their laps” and are blind to “the spectacle of opera” and “the magnifying of the ideas you can’t see in the eyes of the singer.” This television version serves only to inform millions of people who couldn’t make it to the Met last year that the problem with his Ring isn’t that it’s too visually imaginative, but that his spectacle sucks; stripped of the impressiveness that comes from seeing the performers live, the sheer, uninspired ugliness of what’s on the stage blots out even the beauty and power of the music. It gives new meaning to the phrase “a great face for radio.”

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