Originally published in 2013
Wagner’s Dream (2012) directed by Susan Froemke documents the most recent production of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the Metropolitan Opera. If one has even a passing familiarity to opera, the idea that a new staging of the Ring Cycle would be bombastic is obvious, but this film illustrates how much more grandiose this version is. To be plain, this production could have been the equivalent disaster that the Broadway play, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark became. How could an opera that is over 140 years old be a potential debacle? The documentary illustrates this fact clearly, to the extent that an opera novice will be excited and entertained by the production’s trials and triumphs.
The ambition of Wagner’s Ring Cycle cannot be understated, both historically and for present performances. The composer never realized his complete vision for this massive piece; he passed away having only produced it once. Any production changes, which Wagner hinted at making, have to be imagined by subsequent companies. The Metropolitan Opera’s idea to bring Wagner’s dream vision to light was to contract French-Canadian stage producer Robert Lepage to oversee the massive undertaking. Lepage and his team aimed to build one set that would be used for the entire 16 hour Ring Cycle; a 90,000 lb. computerized and manually operated set dubbed “The Machine”.
What unfolds through the course of Wagner’s Dream are the trials that the Met encounters using “The Machine”, along with regular theatrical problems, like losing a conductor during the run and bringing in a new Siegfried a few weeks before opening. It is fascinating watching the stage crew deal with the unruly, gargantuan set and the frustrations this puts upon the rest of the company. The opera house had to be reinforced or the set may have collapsed the floor. The singers, though accustomed to expressive acting in Wagnerian operas, are highly challenged by the set and have understandable arguments against even stepping foot on it. At one point a Rheinmaiden is nearly crushed when the set moves into position and she is not correctly hidden in a crevice. Having to navigate such a daunting set, as well as having to perform in one of the most difficult operas ever written, illustrates how utterly amazing the company is as a whole.
The documentary is more an ode to theatrical innovation and efficient teamwork, than a tale about the Ring Cycle. Audience members are interviewed throughout the film about their impressions of the newly imagined pieces. The reactions range from the upset traditionalist to the young “hip” opera-goer who doesn’t mind the deviation in set design. Wagner’s Dream is swift in its treatment of the operas; the labyrinthine story is quickly explained with a few sentences. The real action of this film derives from the overhanging audacious artistic vision of Wagner, Mr. Lepage and his team’s engineering feats and the enthusiasm of the crew and cast. The sheer joy, energy and expertise which the Metropolitan Opera Company exudes, fills this documentary with a universal quality. Opera is an unfamiliar art form for many; the backstage view presented helps to normalize and bring down to human scale the audacious task they hope to accomplish.
Author’s Note: I had the good fortune to procure one of the few remaining tickets for the May 11, 2013 performance of Gotterdammerung; the final performance of the entire production. The words epic, entrancing spectacle do not even get close to describing how amazing this opera was. “The Machine” is terrifying; it creaks and swings about wildly(there was even a short techincal stoppage during the first intermission due to it malfunctioning). The orchestra kicks complete ass; 6 harps! SIX!! I spent Act 3 sobbing because it was so mind-blowingly beautiful. Due to this being the very last performance, the stage crew took a bow. “The Machine” lifted up and 50 or more stagehands emerged and started waving at the audience. They got the largest ovation of the day and damn, did they deserve it. I cried and cheered along with everyone else. An amazing life experience; transcendent.