Friday, October 26, 2012

Multi-Media, October 26, 2012

Ring 'Round Robert
Lepage's Wagner, Wagner's Lepage
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Unlike many proud Canadians, I am rarely delighted by two cultural icons: Cirque du Soleil and Robert Lepage. In both cases I find the mechanics - indeed, the literal machinery - devours what makes theatre theatre: humanity. In both cases I remember the theatrical philosophy of that zealot, Gordon Craig, who thought it might be a good idea to replace actors with marionettes.

Specifically, Lepage has used production size and length to consume audiences. The problem is that, often, the content wasn't up to the task of filling the time and space.

Well, M. Lepage, meet Herr Wagner.

What is most magnificent is that Lepage - an artist who never rushes anything - can allow his stage-pictures to linger as Wagner's magnum opus lingers.

In the Metropolitan Opera production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (available on DVD and Blu-ray) you have an almost perfect match between artists. For once the content Lepage is tackling is big enough for his amazing apparatuses. What is most magnificent is that Lepage - an artist who never rushes anything - can allow his stage-pictures to linger as Wagner's magnum opus lingers. From the first moment of Rheingold - hypnotizingly slow undulations of the central set piece joining the iconic E-flat - to the last seconds of Götterdämmerung - the same undulations and mist-blue lighting closing around the fires of Gods'-end - Lepage "gets" this work.

Moreover, Lepage approaches the 16 hours of music with his odd (Wagnerian?) sense of humour and a complete grasp of text. Fasolt, Fafner and Mime are marvelously silly, the Ride of The Valkyries is funny and wondrous at once (I felt childishly giddy!), and there is honest-to-goodness magic in the projected effects (when a flat surface shimmers like water, you know you are seeing the best that theatre technology has to offer). Of course, there are outlandish moments - but where is the Wagnerian who will not admit that the entire Cycle is not, itself, outlandish?

Yes, it is huge, but this, dear friends, is Wagner's Ring and there is nothing tiny about that. But here's the thing: both Wagner and Lepage understood the gigantic, convoluted and ultimately screwy story would not work if the people at its centre did not reflect human emotions. Lepage does away with the scenic contrivances during Wotan's heart-breaking farewell to Brünnhilde at the end of Walküre and, at the end of Siegfried, allows the joining of Brünnhilde and her lover to be ecstatically simple.

In the recording, Lepage has also lucked into a crowd of primo Wagnerian singers who can also act. Deborah Voigt is scary-sexy as her first Brünnhilde, Bryn Terfel a solid, stolid Wotan. Indeed everyone from the Rhein-maidens to the Norns buys into Lepage's vision. The big surprise is Jay Hunter Morris who is a fill-in (actually a fill-in for a fill-in) as Siegfried. Morris captures the essential stupidity of the hero, has the right look and though his voice is papery by the end of the Cycle, he has the makings of that rarest of things: a true Heldentenor. He is a thrilling revelation.

The pit is blessed with James Levine's robust, assured conducting for the first two operas and because of Levine's illness, Fabio Luisi's less-assured and, often, obviously-bombastic direction for the last two. But Luisi, like Morris, is clearly a great Wagnerian in the making.

The recordings also include the documentary, Wagner's Dream, a "making of" and it, too, is a joy - full of detail, hard work and no small amount of backstage bitchiness (watch singers get nasty about having to deal with Lepage's gadgets).

You don't NEED a great sound system or HD on your TV to appreciate this Ring, but if you have both and like Wagner into the bargain, it's...well...


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