Ring Recycle

By James Jorden

Now that it has become apparent that Robert Lepage’s production of the Ring at the Met is a fiasco (too soon? Nah.)… well, anyway, since arguably the production is a dreary, unworkable, overpriced mess whose primary (perhaps only) virtue is that it actually hasn’t killed anyone yet, and since, let’s face it, the Machinecentric show turned out to be so mind-bogglingly expensive (all those Sunday tech rehearsals with stagehands being paid, no doubt, in solid platinum ingots!), something has to be done. In this article, I intend to propose that “something.” 

Now, before we move forward, let’s recap the reasons (well, okay, let’s be modest, my reasons) this Ring is dead in the water.  The Machine, the basic unit of the set, breaks down extravagantly at a rate of approximately once per music drama: the failure of Valhalla to appear in Das Rheingold, the 40-minute delay in launching the HD telecast of Die Walküre, the ear-bending ka-WHONK! that disabled the gizmo in Siegfried a couple weeks ago, leaving Deborah Voigt reduced to scuttling out onto the apron and pretending to go to sleep.  Thus it’s a foregone conclusion that something will go wrong in Götterdämmerung, and we can only pray that whatever that something is, it won’t happen while the Met chorus is answering Hagen’s summons in Act 2.

Now all this is awful, of course, but stage technology is notoriously finicky as a species, and surely it’s worth throwing more hundreds of thousands of dollars at the thing it until it works, right? No, no, it’s not, because even on those occasions when the Machine works smoothly and silently, it’s not really all that impressive.

Oh, I admit the sequence in Siegfried where the mountain lake ripples and freezes and crystalizes into the Fortress of Solitude is pretty damn cool. But it’s cool only in a sort of abstract sense: all those holograms and moving platforms don’t really mean anything that I can see. What does all this meteorology have to do with Wotan’s summoning of Erda? And even when the visual delivers an aha! moment, it’s isolated from what’s surrounding it, not organic. I’m a big fan of the Wanderer’s deconstructing his spear into a rune-strewn scroll and a spindly golden curtain rod, but once the unfurling is done, the quarreling deities act as if this portentous document isn’t even there. Poor Bryn Terfel even has to strike the thing (it looks like he’s wrestling with a broken window shade) long after “his” music has sequed into Siegfried’s climb up the mountain.

Even worse, there’s next to zero Personenregie, character interaction. Okay, so everybody in Das Rheingold is a god or a dwarf or something, and maybe those beings are sort of standoffish anyway, who knows. But when humans arrive in Walkure in the form of those vivid singing actors Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek, the desultory standing around continues, even degenerates. Who can act waist-deep in a trench?

Admittedly, Voigt knocked it out of the park dramatically in Siegfried, but I’m not convinced her performance had anything much to do with Lepage. (If you can get Voigt to emote effectively, then you should be able to transform Westbroek into Cate Blanchett at least, but that didn’t happen, now did it?)

Now, you could just throw up your hands and say, “This is the Ring we have– not the Ring we might want or wish to have at a later time.” You might hope that some protean star would make a guest appearance and suddenly bring the whole show to life, as Gwyneth Jones did when she popped into town for a week in the spring of 1989 and electrified the brand-new, already musty Otto Schenk Ring.

But waiting patiently for the next Gwyneth Jones to find her way to 63rd Street is not the most proactive way to run an opera company– even assuming there is a “next Gwyneth Jones.” No, more positive steps must be taken, and I propose, from my position of utter lack of authority, to outline exactly how the Met should proceed.

  1. Get rid of Lepage. Say he’s suddenly come down with Lehman’s Syndrome, say he took a fall in Vermont, say he was urgently requested as a roadie on the next Lady Gaga tour. Lard the press release with heartfelt quotes of love and regret from Gelb, James Levine, Voigt, whoever’s handy. Pay off his contract and give him a bonus to dodge questions from the press.
  2. Since it’s too late to rescue this season’s Ring, plus it’s already sold out anyway, the 2012 cycles go on more or less as Lepage envisioned them, plus or minus whatever mishaps inevitably gum up the works. The lackluster artistic quality and occasional crash of steel girders handily suggests to the overpaying audience that something must be done.
  3. That’s when you do it: select a new director. Now, this is a bit tricky. Much as I would love to see a Ring directed by Martin Kusej, Stefan Herheim or, oh, what the hell, Benedikt von Peter, that’s not in the cards. Those guys are crazy busy, plus they understandably would want to build a production from scratch. Unfortunately, even Ann Ziff’s Birkin bag is not bottomless, so an all-new Ring is a non-starter.
  4. No, in my plan, the job of resurrecting the Ring is assigned to Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, triumphant with critics and public alike for (currently) Satyagraha and (by then) The Enchanted Island. The catch is that these gentlemen are tasked with creating a new Ring using mainly the existing sets and costumes of the Lepage production. As we might say, they would be handed the fragments of the broken sword and, oh well, you know…
  5. The details. Well, they harvest whatever they like from the Machine and the video elements. Then, just for funsies, they are set loose in the storage containers for the old Schenk Ring too, free to incorporate elements of that trove of dated hyperrealism into their vision. Let them go nuts. Meanwhile, Gelb has been juggling the accounts to find enough money to pay for a full quota of rehearsals, same as a new production would receive, and an extra half-million or so for puppets and a movement team of the team’s choice.
  6. Rehearsals, recasting, spin. Richard Croft comes back on board as Loge. Kaufmann gives an interview saying, “It’s like a dream of a child of the Ring, but a most adult outlook on the Zyklus also.” Jittery proof-of-concept videos are leaked to Dan Wakin and people start to ponder how those strange circling birds and stage-filling dragon can possibly be realized. The gathering-places of Internet opera blather set up special minisites devoted to the new, and yet not new Ring.
  7. Spring 2013. With Levine’s “request” for Emeritus status approved by the board and Fabio Luisi appointed acting music director, the chopped-up schedule for the cycles is reshuffled to the classic one week per Ring configuration. In April and May, the company presents (by popular demand!) four complete cycles of the Ring, in a production every bit as revelatory as Satyagraha and every bit as quirkily exotic as The Enchanted Island.
  8. As they say on the interwebs, “Profit!” The week-long HD festival! The Blu-Ray sales! The 2020 tour to Japan!

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