A documentary by Susan Frömke. Unrated. Opens Friday, January 25, at the Vancity Theatre
This isn’t speculation about Robert Wagner’s nightmares concerning the demise of Natalie Wood—although that sort of angst fits with the napalm-in-the-morning world created by composer Richard Wagner. Still, such messy psychology may be lost in the abstract vision of Robert Lepage as captured in this fitfully engaging film.
For more than three years, veteran music documenter Susan Frömke followed the Canadian stage wizard from his home base in Quebec City to the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan. There, his elaborate set design figures in yet another rethinking of Wagner’s Ring cycle: four full operas comprising 16 hours of music, breastplates, Viking horns, and much, much more. Lepage’s eyebrowless attention, like Frömke’s camera, is mostly focused on the devising and completion of a massive series of planks on which all the action, including complex video projection, will take place.
The precariously suspended elements are to be endlessly reconfigured, sometimes magically so, although once in situ, it’s not clear if the 90,000-pound system is cantilevered or won’tilevered. The set fritzes out on opening night, and there are other mishaps along the way, with star soprano Deborah Voigt’s Brunhilde sliding off the tilted platform at one point. Much is made of her anxieties and adjustments, less of the singing itself, which probably reflects the priorities of Lepage, who has designed similar work—as ticket buyers point out, skeptically—for Cirque du Soleil.
The two-hour movie, which could have survived some tighter editing, favours engineering over art. Certainly, it glosses over the critical reaction this cycle generated from the start. The New Yorker called it “the most witless and wasteful production in modern opera history”, while New York magazine lamented that the director’s vast imagination “does not extend to humans”. Certainly, the proportions feel wrong, even for a dream as weird as any of Wagner’s.