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The Gods in the Machine,
This review is from: Wagner's Dream [DVD]  (DVD)
This film should more properly be called 'Lepage's Dream' as, in truth, one learns little about Wagner from it beyond the nature of some of his 'impossible' staging demands. It is an account of the genesis of Lepage's staging of the Ring for the Met in 2011/12 and the working through of the myriad problems presented by its central design conceit, the appropriately named 'Machine'.
Disappointingly there is little in the way of exploration of the thinking behind the staging, other than an oft mooted focus on an attempt to respond 'realistically' to the staging instructions in the libretto, such as the entry of the gods into Valhalla over a rainbow bridge: this is not a staging which is predicated on any historical, philosophical or psychological concept, and many would no doubt be all the more pleased for that. In fact, its ability to 'solve' the staging problems is quite hit and miss - in Gotterdammerung, Brunhilde rides a hobby-horse into the flames, all the more crass because of the vaunted 'realist' agenda. (Lepage DOES reference Iceland's sagas and plate tectonics as somehow informing the concept animating the production, but the reference is made and then left hanging). Beyond snatches from the full cycle (surprisingly often not the most musically or theatrically interesting) there is little to learn here about the Ring in particular nor about Wagner generally. (Compared to this film, the documentary exploring the Chereau Ring in 1976 is FAR more interesting and provides a real sense of a coherent rationale underpinning that production.)
At the end of the film, it seems to me fairly clear that this Ring is primarily about spectacle rather than offering a coherent sense of the work or any particular view of why it is such an important masterpiece. This cycle seems to live or die in direct relationship to the generation of a 'wow' factor: sometimes that is considerable, at others less so. What is a little surprising about this film is that it gives relatively few sights of 'wow factor' moments, and so doesn't really work as an appetite-whetter for those who might be tempted by it to watch the individual operas. (I saw 3 of the 4 broadcast live to UK cinemas and, I confess, was surprised that virtually all the truly memorable staging moments that I witnessed are absent from this film. We get a glimpse of Brunhilde - her body-double, in reality - suspended, bat-like on the vertical planks so we get a stunning bird's eye view of her as the flames surround her on Walkure Rock, but bizarrely the climax of the music is suddenly subdued as a most inopportune voiceover adds some unnecessary comment, and that's about it). It's also a pity that there is so little discussion of quite how the specific qualities and configurations of the Machine can be exploited to solve staging problems, or indeed, how they actually make some aspects of the production surprisingly 'flat': because the axle around which the planks pivot is fixed in relation to the front of the stage, (though it can be raised and lowered) means that the effective acting space is generally shallow. Video, with the flexibility of camera movement, would obviate some of this, but for those in the theatre, I imagine it could become problematic.
While I would not choose to buy this complete cycle on dvd because of a range of short-comings as an interpretation (I don't really think there IS one), this film is an interesting purchase for Wagner nuts like me, but also for those with little interest in the composer but a fascination for stagecraft, though I doubt I would have bought it had I been able to catch its very limited theatrical release; there isn't enough here to merit repeated viewings. Some of the transformations in the cycle (from the forest at the start of Walkure into Hunding's hut, Walkure Rock into the Rhine Journey and then the Gibichung Hall in Gotterdammerung) are quite remarkable, though, as one might expect, not everything works equally well and the film being reviewed shows none of them satisfactorily when it shows them at all.
If you love Wagner AND have an interest in innovative stage production (Wagner's works often engaged the imaginations of some of the most important and creative stage designers of the last 150 years) I would strongly recommend Wagner and the Art of the Theatre by Patrick Carnegy, a superb account of the history of Wagner production.