THE WRONGED ‘RING’
has been an opera fan for his entire adult life. He sang leading roles with SMC and UCLA and in the Baltimore Symphony Chorus. Aside from this blog, he is a guest critic on the website Parterre.com. He is often asked to sing softer.
An amazing thing happened in the opera world this week. For almost a whole day the leading classical music magazine in the country was locked out of the institution it was created to support. Peter Gelb, General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera in New York, had decided that the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s publication, Opera News, would no longer be allowed to review performances in the house. Apparently, Mr. Gelb was more than a little miffed at the reception the Met’s new production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen had received in the press, and in particular, the in-house reviews. There was also a very sharp editorial by the Features Editor, Brian Kellow, that evidently wasn’t well received in the executive aerie of the Met.
I imagine anyone would be upset if they’d spent $16 million dollars on a technical and theatrical marvel like “The Machine” that comprises the entire set design for all four of Wagner’s operas, only to have it met by furious tapping at critical keyboards proclaiming it a grandiose failure. Opera News was certainly not alone in being dismayed over the current production in spite of its fantastic effects. I have yet to read a positive review on the cycle in any publication in print or online, and most point to the dehumanization of Wagner’s epic by making the star of the evening the world’s most sophisticated Jumbo Tron.
Actually, sophisticated isn’t even the word for a 45-ton structure made up of a series of 24 planks on a central pivot that can be raised and lowered and spun independently. The surfaces of the planks are also video screens capable of projecting startling 3-D images. Set designers and directors have beaten their collective heads against walls since the first production in the 1860’s trying to bring Wagner’s sensational visions of mermaids and dwarves and dragons to the stage. To say nothing of the kaleidoscope of nature Wagner requires; lightning, water, rainbows, fog, and fire, fire and more fire. Enough fire in the finale to destroy the world and enough water to cultivate its rejuvenation.
“The Machine” was the brainchild of Robert Lepage, who has helmed a wide range of theatrical productions and operas and even the Las Vegas spectacle “Ka” presented by Cirque du Soleil. Anyone who expected Mr. Lepage to hit a homerun with audiences and critics on his first attempt at the Ring Cycle displayed colossal naiveté, hoping for the equivalent of theatrical lightning striking four times. For Mr. Gelb to take it so personally, and react so harshly, says everything about how far powerful men feel they can go in our society to have their way.
Truth be told, bad press is the hallmark of any Ring staging. Wagner had his own detractors during his lifetime, this we know for certain. They included no less than Schumann, Rossini, and Berlioz. The stagings at Wagner’s home theatre in Bayreuth after World War II were tremendously abstract and relied more on lighting and were performed on a disk. That raised quite a few eyebrows in the beginning. Surely Mr. Gelb can’t have forgotten the outrage that was meted out by both press and public when the curtain rose on Bayreuth’s Centenary Production in 1976 directed by Patrice Chereau Instead of the bottom of the Rhine, the audience found themselves staring at a detailed representation of a hydroelectric dam with a trio of tarted-up Rhine Maidens flouncing about like common street walkers. It only got worse from there. The Valkyrie’s rock was nothing more than an abandoned construction project and the Hall of the Gibichungs was a slum. Thirty-six years later, of course, that production is considered an untouchable classic.
The last Met presentation, which debuted in 1987, was so hard line traditional it was faulted for being out of synch with modern staging ideas. So, if you’re starting to feel, at this juncture “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” I’d say I’ve made my point.
Peter Gelb was previously the head of Sony Classical and a born marketer. He’s done more good for the Metropolitan Opera than any administrator since Rudolph Bing, who revolutionized repertory and production and brought the Met into the modern era. Bing, in his final season, also hired James Levine to make his debut, which turned into a reign that we’ve just come to the end of. Even if Gelb quits tomorrow, which he certainly won’t, his legacy is assured as the man who fast tracked the Met into the 21st century both in repertory and production faster than any of his predecessors. To say nothing of the Live in HD theater presentations which have brought a quality opera-going experience to hundreds of thousands and added to the Met’s coffers in no small amount.
He should also be reminded as well that things could be worse. Los Angeles staged its first Ring in 2010 in a stunning, Brechtian production full of archetypes and imagery far beyond anything ever attempted and well outside the norm. Critical reaction was tepidly mixed and no one came. Had it travelled to New York, I assure you they would still be shouting about it from both sides of the analytical fence to this day.
I hate to say this, but I think it’s also true that many people who attend the Met on a regular basis, and I include critics and Brian Kellow especially in this regard, take it for granted. Very few theaters in the world present at such a high standard both musically and production-wise. Is it Peter Gelb’s fault that he’s taking too many chances with a traditional audience or is he still being too conservative in his choices? I hear both verdicts leveled at him on a regular basis.
The lesson to be reminded of here is that everyone has a right to their opinion and discussion is the only other thing, besides performance, that keeps art alive.