If This Is What Opera Is Like…

When Wagner completed his epic operatic cycle, The Ring, in 1874 his stage directions were more cinematic than pragmatic.  Limited by the technology of his time, he still produced it in 1876, and struggled with many mechanical challenges to the staging, including the Rheingold maidens, as would the many directors and producers who would follow him.  The central obstacle faced when staging Wagnerian opera is that the music itself carries the central core of the drama.  The score is so full and complex that adding intricate scenery or landscape only complicates the audience’s perception of the story.  With these types of challenges to the mise-en-scene, the theatrical landscape must remain uncluttered so that the audience may use their own imagination to fill in the blanks to the drama without unnecessary distraction.

Director Susan Froemke’s Wagner’s Dream is a documentary film that follows the five-year journey of the NY Metropolitan Opera’s challenging and exciting staging of The Ring using modern technology and a unique approach to the set design.  Editor Bob Eisenhardt does an impeccable job of interweaving HD footage from the Met’s archives with film from 1 operating documentary camera.  The film even uses stills of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of The Ring to help set the mood for this mythical, bigger-than-life story.

You can never give us enough access; we wanted to be everywhere . . . people were very patient with us . . . [this] came from the top.  We wanted to film the good, the bad, and the ugly.  — Bob Eisenhardt, Silverdocs Q+A

Carl Fillion, the set designer, spent two years workshoping the set design with director Robert Lepage at the Ex Machina studios in Quebec.  Lepage explains his concept of the shifting teutonic plates of the earth, and lighting that will respond organically to the performer’s touch.  The set first appears in miniature scale, then grows large enough to support small wooden dolls, and is finally installed full-size on the stage of the Met.  Despite intense planning, the set’s final weight exceeds the capacity of the floor of the Metropolitan, requiring additional steel reinforcements to be placed underneath the floor.  A crew member stands backstage with paper in hand, explaining that there are roughly “152 steps to set this up”.  Later, as the set fails to move into place for the “rainbow bridge” on opening night, the crew explains “sometimes the miracle happens, sometimes it doesn’t.”

This is not the only mishap Lepage’s production experiences — the lead soprano, Debora Voigt, slips and falls during an entrance on opening night.  “That entrance will be reblocked,” she says backstage — but the director overrides her and she ascends the steep incline of the set again in the spring performances.  The tenor cast as “Siegfried”, the romantic lead,  drops out due to illness and is replaced by a singer from Paris, Texas.  The conductor resigns due to health trouble as well, and must also be replaced.  These struggles are what make the film so interesting to watch — they are a drama apart from the struggle with the “machine” that is the set.

The set design begins in the first cycle of this three-part opera as sensuous, curvy waves of movement silhouetted against a blue background.  As the productions build upon each other, the lighting becomes more skillful.  In the final production, 3D lighting creates images that follow the set as it moves on the stage.  In one scene, branches and snakes wind across the set as it rotates from one side to the other.  Lepage’s grand finale for the full cycle ends with the same image – soft, sensuous movements appropriate for the story of a mortal male who falls in love with a demigod female.

Like Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park, the Met dedicated its opening to the people of New York, setting up an outside screen complete with captions in Times Square.  When the camera cut to a longshot of the square, rain was falling.  In the auditorium of the AFI Silver Theater on Sunday night, people laughed spontaneously — it seemed such bad luck.  But as the scene continued, the camera revealed people sitting in the rain through the entire performance wearing disposable raincoats to watch the show, drawn in to the drama that is Wagner.  Then the fourth wall disappeared, and the audience within the AFI Silver Theater was drawn back into the story themselves.   Was it a perfect Wagner?  No.  But maybe that’s the beauty of it.

“Wagner’s Dream” opens in New York City on July 19,2012, then in Los Angeles, and will eventually air on PBS.

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