Film Review: Wagner's Dream

Marvelously candid documentary depicting the creation of a massive, seemingly foolhardy pipe dream of a production. One of a handful of truly fine movies about opera.

Richard Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen, aka “The Ring Cycle,” is considered one of the highest human artistic achievements, a 16-hour work that is staged over four nights. It tells the story of a magic ring forged by the Nibelung dwarf Alberich from gold he stole from the Rhine maidens, which throws the worlds of both Norse gods and mortals into utter chaos, ultimately destroying the gods and their home, Valhalla.

The title of this documentary by Susan Froemke is something of a misnomer. It should actually be called (stage director) Robert LePage’s Dream, or even (Metropolitan Opera general manager) Peter Gelb’s Dream, as Gelb hired Canadian visionary Lepage to create a new Ring Cycle in what was probably the Metropolitan Opera’s most ambitious project in its 122-year history. Both Lepage and Gelb make a lot of somewhat presumptuous statements about this being the production Wagner would have wanted, had he possessed access to today’s technology. But one has to wonder what the composer would have made of what is commonly referred to here as “The Machine,” the hulking, unwieldy conglomeration of mechanized wooden planks which served as this production’s basic set.

The Machine was a logistical and technical nightmare which completely shut down on opening night, causing the doomed gods of Valhalla to merely walk offstage rather than impressively surmount the structure, representing a rainbow, to the splendor of their new home, Valhalla. On another night, upon her first entrance, lead soprano Deborah Voigt, playing the key role of Brunnhilde, daughter of Wotan (Bryn Terfel), king of the gods, got tripped up and humiliatingly fell. As if singing these arduous Wagnerian roles weren’t difficult enough, the performers had to deal with the additional stress and terror of an ever-shifting stage and, in some instances, being suspended high in the air.

In short, this all seemed more a case of artistic and managerial ego on the part of Lepage and Gelb, respectively, than any real desire to truly serve this time-honored, greatly beloved music. The visual monotony of the concept is expressed best by one diehard Wagner fan who puts it bluntly: “It looked like a basketball court.”

Whatever one’s reservations may be about the production, however, there is little doubt about the efficacy of the film itself. It is simply the best documentary about the Met ever made, a complete warts-and-all portrait of this venerable, often-controversial institution, from conductor’s stand to standing room, and quite amazing in its candid footage of all these giant egos at their most bombastic and vulnerable. Gelb, surrounded by his Emmys in his office, says at one point that this is the biggest, most difficult undertaking he’s ever experienced, and if it fails, he’ll leave the country. Lepage emerges as a rather infuriatingly obtuse figure, blithely unconcerned with the safety and comfort of the performers, in his mania to put his vision across, regardless of the cost (which included an expensive reinforcing of the Met stage, as his set proved twice as heavy as predicted). The costumes are, tellingly, as heavy and uncomfortable as the set and cartoonish-looking in the extreme. Apart from one effective use of film projection of evilly slithering rats and vermin to depict this universe’s dark underbelly, one looks at the production and asks, “Where is the real drama, the beauty, the magic, the poetry?”

Performer-wise, Voigt is solidly featured front and center, which brings up another question. This once-promising dramatic soprano has, for some time now, been in serious vocal trouble, and the unbeautiful, squally notes you hear emanating from her are proof, as were the very respectful if not earth-shattering reviews she received. Gelb goes on about how few singers there are in the world who can tackle these roles, but surely there must have been another, more technically secure soprano around whom this massive production could have been wrought. The great Welsh bass-baritone Terfel makes much the stronger impression in the equally important role of Wotan, but he is given short shrift. There is, however, some nice coverage of Texan tenor Jay Hunter Morris, a very likeable unknown who stepped in to replace an ailing star singer as the hero, Siegfried, and acquitted himself admirably in one of those 42nd Street scenarios which, if truth be known, are just as prevalent in opera as they are on the Broadway stage.