In 1980 a film crew came to Bayreuth to capture Wagner's Ring cycle at the close of the infamous centenary production by Patrice Chéreau. The Chéreau Ring opened amidst controversy and outrage and divided the public in debates that spread over years. In a documentary about that filming the point is driven home that filming the complete ring cycle for television would bring this music to a new audience. They did not film in front of a live audience but did capture each act from start to finish without stopping. Looking back at the Chéreau production, the use of media as a form of documentation was part of its visionary appeal.
A new audience was exposed to Wagner's Ring Cycle through the Met's Live in HD technology, and though we have grown accustomed to the technology, it remains a miraculous system worth pausing to consider. The complexities of transmitting these operas as live events was significant, but a new and much wider audience has been able to understand the amazing physicality of these works; qualities that can be disguised through the editing of recordings.
Anyone emerging from the six hour event found themselves in a cinema, and would have discovered when they walked into the lobby how strange it is when the mythological is incongruously juxtaposed against the ordinarily commercial.
Listening to Wagner requires a special kind of meditation. One must be able to follow his arc into motions that are almost completely still. The 21st century asks that we do this in cinemas and shopping malls. And we did.
The Lepage production, like the Chéreau before it, has generated new conversation. Though its use of technology has been fairly criticized, it is worth remembering that the technology was not only "the machine" itself, but was also the inclusiveness of the transmission and the context in which we shared these events.
This production of Götterdämmerung opened with the norns weaving ropes suspended from planks that resembled part of a bifurcation fractal. The ropes seemed to extend as they twisted and to even become braids of hair. The prolog of the opera sets a diabolically referential musical language against alliterative refrains and a structure (3 norns each speaking in turn 3 times) derived from the oral tradition. The machine was dazzling as this scene was introduced, and then just as importantly, it became still so that we could absorb the rest without distraction.
But the Immolation scene was a disappointment. It was THE place where we would have expected the most remarkable fantasy of which "the machine" is capable. In the cinema it looked like Deborah Voigt rode a merry-go-round horse to a Barbecue.
The singing in this production, as in all three other operas, sustained interest. One of the unexpected treats was to hear the German soprano Waltraud Meier as the Valkyrie Waltraute. Her vocal presence gave immediate credibility to one of the most important, and easily overlooked exchanges in Götterdämmerung. Han-Peter König sang a resonant and chilling Hagen, and Wendy Bryn Harmer impressed as Gutrune.
It was amazing to observe how quickly tenor Jay Hunter Morris has become a fixture at the Met. He brought a welcome sense of humor to the role, and gave us a reason to rethink all stereotypes of the the heldentenor sound. Imagine what he will do next.
The Met orchestra, conducted by Fabio Luisi, made a deep impression with consistently clear textures powerful rhythmic drive. Sometimes lost in the conversation about technology is the simple reality that old-school virtuosity speaks for itself.