So TIFF, as part of a broader Robert Lepage retrospective, today screened Susan Froemke’s Wagner’s Dream. It’s a documentary about the creation of the Lepage Ring at the Met and it’s very good. We were fortunate to get a brief introduction and Q&A session with M. Lepage himself before the screening.
What did we learn about Lepage , the Ring and the process of bringing it to the Met stage? First of all, Lepage seems to be almost devoid of ego. I really believe his vision was to present the tetralogy as Wagner might have done if he had 21st century technology available to him. In some ways that’s admirable but i suspect that ultimately it was doomed to fail. I was also really struck by the fact that Lepage and the team stuck with the revolving plank concept despite extreme difficulties at every stage. When a 1/10 scale model screams like a banshee one might be forgiven for expecting the scaled up version to be problematic. Also, I didn’t realise that the fundamental concept was inspired by tectonic chaos in Iceland and the relationship between the Ring and the Eddas. That does explain a few things. My opinion of peter Gelb went up too. He really went out on a limb with this and the way he held himself together through a series of very trying incidents was really rather impressive. It was also clear that the all consuming process of dealing with problems with the technology affected everybody’s ability to deal with the drama itself. Some of this improved as the cycle went on but perhaps if there had been less need to focus on getting the machine to work things like the cheesy ending of Götterdämmerung might have got a rethink.
The documentary itself is gripping. It really conveys the tensions in the production team and the struggles the singers had with some of what they were asked to do. There were some very frightened people at various points in the production (and speaking as someone with industrial health and safety experience I think they had a point). It also shows just how manual many of the processes around the machine are and how the Met stage crew adapted to this extremely unfamiliar set of demands (ultimately rather well, albeit with a slow start).
Some of the audience reaction was also extremely telling. I was particularly struck by the, obviously wealthy, couple who complained that directors’ today just want to be “weird” when it was painfully obvious (and I thought this from my initial viewing of Das Rheingold) that Lepage was trying to be exactly the opposite. He was just trying to tell a story. In fact, his Ring is an exemplary attempt to respect the more or less mythical “composer’s original intention”. It’s also, perhaps, the ultimate example of why that’s a fundamentally flawed idea. Wagner couldn’t realise his “dream” with 19th century technology and Lepage can’t 100+ years later. I doubt anyone ever will. And that’s why we need directors who will try to find less literal ways of presenting the essence of the piece.