When the contraption was first rolled across the floor of the Metropolitan Opera, it threatened to go crashing into the basement. The 45-ton lumbering monstrosity was the heaviest set ever put on stage at the Metropolitan Opera House – or any theatre for that matter – and reminded one of an artifact of the industrial revolution. It appeared totally out of place on a stage that would soon host Wagnerian opera singers. Since then, the Met has reinforced its stage floor – especially in the vulnerable wings – to handle the weight – and the clunky invention has come to be called “The Valhalla Machine.”
By itself, it was ugly, looking like something a geek or Rube Goldberg would invent, but once the computers and projections were turned on, it morphed into something truly amazing to see, a theatrical Ferrari. Of course there are differences of opinion on just how wonderful the new production is.
The New Yorker Magazine’s Alex Ross, didn’t hold back (link): “Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history. Many millions of dollars have been spent to create a gargantuan scenic machine of creakily moving planks, which have overshadowed the singers, even cowed them, without yielding especially impressive images. As for the psychological depths of the “Ring” story, Lepage’s clumsy comic-book approach suffers in comparison with many Hollywood superhero movies, never mind the visions of Wieland Wagner and Patrice Chérea.” He writes that as Götterdämmerung draws to a close and “Valhalla burns, the heads of the of statues representing the gods explode. Yes, they explode!” He compares the spectacle to an amateur-hour Ragnarök.
The machine is comprised of 24 triangular 2-foot-wide, 30-foot-long aluminum planks mounted to an axis that spans two 26-foot-high offstage steel towers. They are then “painted” with ever-changing streams of interactive video. The guts are hydraulic pistons in the towers which enables the raising and lowering of the axis, which rotates within the planks. Fitted with a redundant brake system (for safety and positioning), the individual planks can either turn automatically with the axis or be configured independently.
It is the projections, however, that animate the pale gray planks — a neutral palette surfaced with fiberglass resin–topped plywood and coated in a pale gray epoxy — further transforming them into other worlds. Motion and sound detecting equipment, along with a special encoder to correct perspective distortion, distributes the imaging in a natural, lifelike manner across the stage.
And with 18 months of steady use, it has inspired both disdain and awe and even admiration from some, including skeptics like me. It turns out that, once dressed in its complex projections and computer operated rotators, it is a chimera that can be the river where we find the Rhine Maidens swimming, or the flaming destruction of Valhalla, the final scene in the hall of the gods pictured above.
It is hard to imagine that Wagner’s four opera tribute to Norse legends (the Nibelungenlied), Der Ring des Nibelungen has met state of the art technology, and won. As opera singers large and small have clambered over the moving machinery, hung by harnesses above it, or fought valiantly on top of it, it brings to mind the technical and aerial challenges of Spiderman on Broadway. But its creator, who also devised the incredible sibling set for KA at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas (take a peek at this video if you want to be blown away), has had plenty of experience in deploying the ultimate in 21st Century staging. Banish any thoughts of a mezzo being crushed to a pulp in what could pass – offstage – for a leviathan meat grinder. It is so huge that the character Alberich the dwarf could disappear without a trace.
When Wagner wrote his four great Ring operas, it took him about twenty-six years, from 1848 to 1874 and he had plenty of time to work in the latest stage effects of his day. Wagner intended that his Ring would be seen quickly, in a series, but the total length of all four is some 15 hours. The first and shortest opera, Das Rheingold, typically lasts two and a half hours, while the final and longest, Götterdämmerung, takes up to five hours, and this does not include essential intermissions. No audience can hold their water that long.
Wagner had a clear vision of how it should be presented. In his stage directions he specifies that “the sky glimmers” or that “The flames immediately flare up so that the fire fills the whole space in front of the hall and appears to seize on the building itself. When the whole stage seems filled with fire, the glow suddenly dies down. At the same time the Rhine overflows its banks.” Much of this was not easy to produce in the opera houses of his time, and so he spent decades finding the way to finance his own in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. With the help of King Ludwig, he finally opened the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1876 with the first complete performance of the Ring.
Since then, acres of red gels have been fitted to modern lighting instruments, not to mention the tons of dry ice employed, and tumbling faux boulders made of styrofoam. Now even they seem antiquated in the presence of Robert Lepage’s Valhalla Machine which uses three dimensional projections to recreate the same effects, and they are often more dramatic than their predecessors. Watch the video preview below to see how dramatic the new production with the Valhalla Machine in motion can make these operas.
The team that created this production includes Carl Fillion (set design), François St-Aubin (costumes); Étienne Boucher (lighting) and Boris Firquet (video). They have taken a lot of heat for the production, mostly before it was actually seen in its entirely, and now the bravos are arriving as ticket buyers see the miracle they have achieved. This new Ring Cycle has to be seen in its entirety to be appreciated, and with the upcoming Met Live in HD Telecasts now scheduled, the Valhalla Machine will be center stage to be seen and evaluated by Wagner fans everywhere. Those telecasts, and a documentary on the production itself, are all coming in May. Look for our new preview of the Ring Cycle telecasts (link) which are actually o pretty decent entertainment bargain for those of us with refined tastes and working class wallets.
For all the hype, and even with all the attention I lavish on such technical achievements, we all know it is the music that counts, and the Met’s Orchestra with its rib-rattling double basses and twinkling chimes has a sound worthy of The Ring. James Levine may be recuperating, but his involvement which began a long time ago, is still there to be heard by all.
The singing, too, has been extraordinary, and as much as we all loved, even revered, the uber-traditional production of the Viennese director Otto Schenk which this has replaced, finally the epic set and glorious singing matches the larger than life scale that Wagner intended.
Other Voices, Controversy and Judgements
As The Met readies its Ring Cycle performances, my colleagues Anthouny Tommasini at the New York Times and Susan Hall at Berkshire Fine Arts have offered incisive critiques of their own on The Met’s Ring Cycle. The Times article had the good luck to catch Peter Gelb, General Manager, at an unguarded moment in which he spoke of the “trials and tribulations” of executing Mr. Lepage’s “superhuman,” technically daunting concept in a repertory theater “against amazing odds.”
He has been “complaining bitterly,” he said, about the persistent clankiness of the so-called machine. Anthony Tommasini Report
Meanwhile over at Berkshire Fine Arts, Susan Hall has been forthright and critical about the singing itself being disappointing, and to some degree impeded by the staging and rigging involved. She thinks it possible that “the Met’s administration simply doesn’t know how bad this Ring is.” Susan Hall Report
Peter Gelb Jambalaya Invitation
For my part, I await a chance to catch up with Gelb when he returns to the Berkshires. We spent time together working at Tanglewood in the Press Cabin, where he somehow discovered Miss Sadie’s Pie Palace over in West Stockbridge (and long since gone). Thanks to that I was introduced to Cajun Jambalaya, and became a fan of Louisiana food forever after. If we were to talk The Ring, sauerbraten would be the appropriate dish, but here in North Adams, The Hub Restaurant makes a wonderful Jambalaya from scratch. With a healthy shot of hot sauce it’s guaranteed to bring back great memories, and get the tongues wagging.