The Machine in the Garden

Richard Wagner had contempt for the nineteenth century’s theatrical habits: the laughable onstage posturing, the audience preening, distracted and well-lit. When he staged his four-evening epic “Der Ring des Nibelungen” in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth in 1876, he transformed the visual experience of opera. The darkened house focused attention on the stage, where Rhinemaidens swam in mid-air and scene changes took place behind curtains of vapor. The technology sometimes failed: the hefty water nymphs looked a little foolish swinging from their towers-on-wheels, and the steam machine flubbed its entrances. But ever since, directors have risked ridicule and disaster in their attempts to re-create that alternate universe in ever more intoxicating ways.

With the fiery six-hour finale, Götterdämmerung, the Metropolitan Opera has completed its new “Ring”—the whole cycle returns in April—and director Robert Lepage has extended Wagner’s pursuit of seamless wizardry into the digital age. Forests, flames, and psychedelic abstractions are projected onto an apparatus of 24 aluminum planks that bow and twirl independently. At first, “The Machine,” as it came to be known, prompted fears of tearing metal or crushed bones, but the total result is less hair-raising. The twenty-hour extravaganza of gizmo-driven stagecraft glides smoothly from scene to scene, observing the apocalypse as if through the tinted windows of a coach. There’s hardly a moment in any of the four episodes when you sense the director’s passionate involvement with the characters or their moral dilemmas.

Digital animation has become so ubiquitous as to undercut its own wow-ness. When a 14-year-old gamer can obliterate a golem from another galaxy, it’s hard to be stunned by a stage dragon. But this “Ring” ’s more crippling problem is that it neglects the singers, who clomp around in costumes that look scavenged from a death-metal band’s going-out-of-business sale. And when Lepage does land on a felicitous bit of stage business, he quickly loses sight of its meaning. In Act III of Götterdämmerung, the Rhinemaidens scramble up a mountain stream that flows illusorily along a smooth steel slope. They perch seductively on projected boulders, then butt-surf down. And then they repeat the sequence over and over, like toddlers: climb, perch, slide; climb, perch, slide, singing the whole time about greed and destiny and a hero’s duty.

In Wagner’s saga, human history is guided by gods who meddle and fuss and engage in violent moral debates. They are physically absent from the final chapter, but their influence continues to course through the music. Lepage represents the forces of divinity with statues that get trundled onstage looking less like idols than like Brobdingnagian action figures. When their lease on immortality ends, their heads explode. It’s a kitsch apotheosis for a staging powered by glibness.

Fortunately, the Met’s musical resources can overwhelm even the tackiest production, thanks largely to the conductor Fabio Luisi, who brings out the score’s three-dimensional detail and animal heat. One of the glories of Wagner is the deft toggling between archetype and character: Siegfried is a dragon-slaying, bear-hunting, sword-forging, fireproof hunk; tenor Jay Hunter Morris makes him a goofy, selfish, and callow young man. Morris doesn’t have a great flamethrower in his throat, capable of drowning out trombones or scorching ears way up in the Family Circle. Instead, his voice is almost dainty—mobile, expressive, and tender. In theory, his kind of singing should be hopelessly overmatched by the cavernous Met house, but Morris imposes himself, partly through physical presence but mostly with a musicality that makes you want to lean in and listen.

Deborah Voigt, as Brünnhilde, sounds charged, clear, and ferocious. Rather than pretend she’s still got the downy tone of her youth, she husbands her energies for much of the evening, then unleashes the character’s badass side. The results are fitfully electrifying. This “Ring” has always thrived on casting superior singers in minor roles. The echt-Wagnerian Waltraud Meier made me wish there were more of Waltraute. Eric Owens, who has made himself indispensable to the Met’s roster, sings an Alberich who is at once conniving and noble.

When Peter Gelb took over the Met in 2006, he promised, like Wagner at Bayreuth, to overhaul the theatrical trappings of opera and make the company a showcase of fresh visual thinking. Critics worried that he would neglect the music and shortchange non-telegenic singers. The opposite has happened: The casting has mostly stayed within the reliable-to-exquisite range, and Gelb has been triumphantly bold with out-of-the-way operas like Satyagraha and The Nose. But in the standard repertoire, the Met has often been a place where visionaries come to choke. Earlier this season, the entertainer’s touch that Des McAnuff has often brought to Broadway deserted him in Gounod’s Faust. Half-assembled bombs dangled above a stage flanked with catwalks and spiral staircases. The set’s extravagant ugliness, all gruel-colored steel and fluorescent lights, proclaimed the determination to make the opera grimly relevant. But that meant battling a composer who was equally intent on producing lovely tunes. McAnuff tossed all sorts of leftovers into his significance stew: World War I uniforms, a mushroom cloud, Méphistophélès’ pinstriped suit and fedora inspired by Guys and Dolls. In the final act, Marguerite becomes a caged inmate of some industrial facility for the criminally insane.

The conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin wisely ignored McAnuff’s contempt for Gounod’s irresistible sentimentalisms, leading an intensely nuanced performance. The tawny-voiced tenor Jonas Kaufmann sang Faust without heroics or saccharine overstatement but with mellifluous legato, delicate pianissimos, and a sophisticated sense of ensemble. As Méphistophélès, René Pape sang with casual majesty but also tried to lighten the proceedings with a bit of soft-shoe and a smile. I have rarely experienced such a disjunction between the opera I heard and the one I saw.

One occasion when the Met merged musical excellence with razzmatazz, irreverence, and theatrical daring was The Enchanted Island, a shamelessly inauthentic, captivating Baroque-opera mash-up that the company had made to order. What might have been a tacky revue instead proved to be a fluid anthology of obscure music by Vivaldi, Handel, and Rameau, mostly from operas that the Met will never—and probably shouldn’t—stage entire. Singers contributed arias they wanted to perform. Jeremy Sams manufactured an English libretto by stitching together The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (the brilliant team behind Satyagraha) invented a fantastic world, complete with, yes, digital projections. An opera designed by committee should by rights be a camel-like creature, but this one was a unicorn.

The production made plenty of room for silliness—Plácido Domingo as Poseidon commanding a team of carboard-cutout sea steeds, Luca Pisaroni mugging as a simian Caliban—but the show’s engine was a high-powered musical seriousness. Joyce DiDonato began an aria in wry/tragic mode and gradually eased into genuine poignancy, guiding the audience from snickers to tears. The rest of the casting could hardly have been more elite. The singing sprite Danielle de Niese, the countertenor David Daniels, the eminent conductor William Christie: This is the Baroque-opera equivalent of seal Team Six.

Gelb’s record may be no more wildly erratic than anyone else’s in the ever-dicey opera biz. But he doesn’t always seem to know whether he’s hiring a director who truly knows and trusts the music or one who wants to save a piece from its faults. This is opera, where even the most resplendent visual spectacle has to make sense to the ears.

Das Rheingold Photo: Ken Howard/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

Siegfried Photo: Ken Howard/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

Götterdämmerung Photo: Ken Howard/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

The Machine in the Garden