Ever since Richard Wagner’s four-part epic “Der Ring des Nibelungen” premiered in 1876, the work has invited numerous interpretations. In the past, some of the productions have been controversial, such as the 1976 Patrice Chereau staging, a socialist interpretation that depicted the characters – gods, dwarves, giants, and humans among them – as proletariat and bourgeoisie stereotypes and set the action in industrial factories. When it was premiered, it caused no shortage of raised eyebrows for opera traditionalists. The Metropolitan Opera’s current production, which opened last spring and is directed by Robert Lepage, has proven to be equally controversial.
Much of the commotion has concerned the production’s modern set, which consists of 24 gigantic, electronically controlled planks that rotate on an axis across the stage. As the scenes change, they move to provide slopes, flat surfaces, or towering structures while colors and ambient images, such as forest backdrops or molten lava, are projected onto them as the staging demands. “The machine,” as the gargantuan set has been called, weighs a whopping 45 tons, a mass so tremendous that the Met had to install steel beams under the stage to reinforce it.
With this high-tech set, Lepage attempts to tell the story of the “Ring,” set in ancient times. The four-part story is centered on a ring of power, which the dwarf Alberich (bass-baritone Eric Owens) crafts after stealing a horde of gold from nymphs in the Rhine River. The ring is then stolen from Alberich by Wotan (bass-baritone Bryn Terfel), the ruler of the gods, to repay two giants for building Valhalla, a home and fortress for the gods. Alberich, crushed by his loss, casts a curse on the ring so that it will bring death to whoever owns it and envy to whoever doesn’t.
This is the plot of “Das Rheingold,” the first of the four operas, whose purpose is to set in motion the events that determine the plot of the next three parts (“Die Walkure,” “Siegfried,” and “Gotterdammerung”). In these operas the characters’ struggle to possess the ring is intertwined with subplots involving Wotan’s human and immortal offspring, culminating in the heroic exploits of his grandson Siegfried (tenor Jay Hunter Morris). “Siegfried” chronicles his coming of age and successful pursuit of ex-god warrior Brunnhilde (soprano Deborah Voigt) as his bride. The cycle then concludes with “Gotterdammerung,” in which Siegfried is betrayed and killed by those with whom he swore allegiance, and Brunnhilde rides her horse into his flaming funeral pyre wearing the ring on her hand. This restores the ring to the Rhine, and sets forth the redemption of mankind and the destruction of the race of gods
It would seem that a set so massive would be rather appropriate for the mythological characters and epic plot of the “Ring.” Sadly, this isn’t the case. The production, with its computer-generated projections and giant machinery, seemed far too detached from nature for a story that takes place almost exclusively in earthly environments, and for a score that, in a display of Wagner’s masterful ability for orchestration, evokes the sounds and moods of the natural world. Nature is, arguably, the unifying theme throughout the cycle. The cycle begins with a musical rendering of the flowing of the Rhine River, and ends with the annihilation of all manmade things, leaving nothing but earth in its natural state, as it began. Some of Wagner’s most breathtaking motifs, which were brought to life by the fantastic Met orchestra under the baton of Fabio Luisi are reserved for nature. He uses smooth cello melodies and the harmonic series of the French horn to represent the Rhine River, roaring minor scales on the double bass to evoke storms and radiant horn solos to conjure up thunder.
Unfortunately, Lepage’s set doesn’t do Wagner’s music justice. In one scene in “Siegfried,” as the titular hero waits outside of a cave in a forest preparing to fight a dragon, he communicates with a bird chirping from a nearby tree. Wagner’s score compliments the scene perfectly, with delicate conversations between the flute and the clarinet representing the speech of the bird and the strings providing light harmonies underneath. Lepage’s production, however, detracts from the scene. An animated bird on an unrealistic forest backdrop is projected on the planks to give the physical setting. As much as Wagner’s music immerses the viewer into the scene, the set is more like a generic nature picture that one might find on a Macbook screensaver rather than an actual forest. Almost every other nature scene suffers from the same problem.
There are, however, parts of the “Ring” that are set, instead of in earthly environments, in grand halls, homes, and other interior spaces. It’s in these settings that Lepage’s production truly succeeds. In the first act of “Die Walkure,” set in a welcoming house in the midst of a storm, the planks are used to evoke the warmth of the hearth, while in the first act of “Gotterdammerung,” set in a royal hall, the massive planks suggest towering columns and large structures of grandeur.
The casting for Lepage’s production is superb. Bass-baritone Terfel lends Wotan not only an air of godly might, but also of tyrannical brutality and power lust. Morris stepped up to the demanding role of Siegfried with the confident acting and singing style necessary for the arrogant hero.
It seems fitting that Lepage has directed “Cirque du Soleil” shows in the past, as the extravagance of his production of the “Ring” sometimes seems more like a circus show than an operatic staging. The over-the-top-ness was so distracting at some points that it was difficult to focus on the characters and their situations, which, as in all of Wagner’s operas, are very carefully nuanced and complex. It’s a shame that Wagner’s vision, close to being fully realized in this production by the strong cast and musical accompaniment, had to be stifled by an imposing set.