Monday, May 6, 2013

Technology and art: New York City edition

After seeing how Charlotte combines technology and art, I decided to see how New York does it.

On May 4, I saw Robert Lepage's production of "Das Rheingold" at the Metropolitan Opera. The first of four installments in Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung," the show uses a machine as the set: long, rotating panels that can flatten into a stage or rise into a vertical spiral staircase, covered with screens. The production has been critically lambasted and flogged, not only for a failed vision, but for the failed vision's expense. The Met spent $16 million on the production, including reinforcements for the stage; it couldn't hold the 40-ton set.

"In their fetishization of technological brilliance at the expense of just about everything else," wrote The Boston Globe's Jeremy Eichler, "Lepage's productions remain a chilling, cautionary tale."

The New Yorker's Alex Ross wrote that “pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”


They're not wrong. Even if you put aside the fact that the thing fails artistically, it's an obstacle to the singers--two of them unintentionally slid down the tilted panels during Saturday's production, which is not an uncommon occurrence. Again, yikes!

But there were plenty of beautiful moments, many of them enhanced by the machine (A lesson I've learned recently: actively lowering your expectations can do wonders for your experience. Too pessimistic?). The opening, for instance, shows the panels rippling against a blue horizon, creating the surface of the Rhine River. Slow, undulating waves gave way to the Rhinemaidens (mermaids) swimming through air as bubbles floated from their mouths on the panel screens. When Wotan and Loge trekked to Mime's lair, they went by the machine's vertical stairs suspended in the air, resembling a double helix; they were suspended from cables as they walked on the vertical surface--if it were a movie, the camera would have been in the ceiling. This highlights video shows the machine. Don't ask me why the opera highlights video doesn't have any singing in it...

I don't know how to reconcile my knowledge that the set was not worth the money with the stunning experience I had. I'm so intoxicated by Wagner's music, and we all know the story is a hit (J.R.R. Tolkien used the same mythology to form "The Lord of the Rings"). And that's not a bad outcome, making your audience weigh and contemplate for days to come. Check out the most famous snippet from the "Ring:"

"Ride of the Valkyries" from Robert Lepage's controversial production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle at the Metropolitan Opera.