Twilight of the Wagner Snobs

Courtesy of the Metropoiltian Opera

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. In a night of fine vocal moments, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was never more affecting than when she sang about wanting to keep Wotan faithful. Even the scheming, gold-obsessed dwarf Alberich—often seen as an expression of Wagner's anti-Semitism—managed to come across as sympathetically unwanted and unloved, thanks to a strong, mournful performance by bass-baritone Eric Owens. Unlike the Wagner who seems tough to get to know, these moments of dramatic power remind you of the composer whose "Ride of the Valkyries" was appropriated by Francis Ford Coppola for the napalm-assault sequence in Apocalypse Now. Welcome to Wagner the Accessible—without the dumbing-down that assignation can sometimes imply.

Fortunately, the audience for this Rheingold—as well as the three operas in the Ring left to come at the Met over the next year and a half—won't just be limited to New Yorkers and jet-setting Wagner fanatics. Starting on Oct. 9, the Met will begin broadcasting this Das Rheingold to 620 theaters nationwide (and at least one in every state). This is the fifth year that the Met has broadcast select productions in HD, but this is its first Wagner production tailor-made for the moviegoing audience. Having created shows for both Cirque du Soleil—remember those Rhinemaidens suspended by wires in midair?—as well as the more avant-inclined Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lepage knows how to walk the line between mass appeal and abstraction. So if you hoped to build a rainbow bridge between Wagner's many audiences—let alone any new ones—there's a reason you'd pick Lepage. "I want a completely uneducated 9-year-old who goes to the broadcast to be touched by something they usually see in cinema, and say, 'Oh, you can do this onstage, and it fascinated me!'" Lepage says. And while he's sensitive to the suspicions among opera devotees that such cinematic tricks come at the expense of opera's purity as a form, he claims Wagner is a special case. "He was ahead of his time, and now we have the technical tools to realize more of his vision," says Lepage. "So you have to have the coups de théâtre on the one hand—the dwarf who turns into a serpent and back—but then you have to make sure you have the intimacy as well."

How Lepage's desire to serve multiple audiences will affect the snob-neophyte divide is tough to measure in the short run. Though it's early going yet in this Ring—Rheingold is just the two-and-a-half-hour prelude, remember—there are pitfalls ahead. By focusing so much on the need to balance his stagecraft with his respect for the source material, Lepage may neglect to shed any new interpretive light on the work. But he (and the Met) have already succeeded in one way: this production will become, even if by default, a touchstone. Last season, more than 2.4 million people bought tickets to the company's HD broadcasts, nearly triple the Met's in-house audience. At least now everyone—rural and urban, expert and novice—can watch this Ring unfold over the next two seasons, and do so together.

The convening power implicit in this technology echoes Lepage's reminder about how Wagner was also ahead of his time—not least in terms of audience experience. More than a century before George Lucas invented the THX technology to project his own movies, Wagner prevailed on Ludwig II of Bavaria to build the acoustically and dramatically perfect auditorium for his dramas in Bayreuth, Germany. The theater is still there—and remains the holy grail for any serious member of the cult of Wagner—but relying on it alone is no way to run a campaign for "total art" in the 21st century. In fact, a twilight of the Wagner snobs might help create more Wagner fans than anyone aside from the man who called his own operas Gesamtkunstwerk ever dreamed.