Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Wagner's Dream

Mark Twain is famously (and somewhat apocryphally) quoted as saying "Wagner's music is better than it sounds." But, truth be told, Twain was an asshole. And he was quoting Edgar Wilson Nye anyway. Even for a lover of opera, though, the sixteen hour "ring cycle" is an endurance trial.

So what could be better than a documentary about trying to stage Wagner's tetralogy the way he imagined it? With, like, mermaids and rainbow bridges and crap?

Not much, as it turns out.

No, seriously. This is a fun, harrowing, wonderful tale of ambition in a world that is quite frankly hostile to innovation.

The conceit behind this production is The Machine, a 90,000 pound monstrosity of 24 giant planks that move and roll and even spin in order to create the effects Wagner (who was sort of an operatic Spielberg, or perhaps Michael Bay) dreamt of. Allegedly.

Truth be told, I couldn't say about the musical qualities of this production, and I suspect that the documentary has a somewhat triumphal spin perhaps to encourage sales of the DVD of the opera (which are scheduled to release in the next month or so for a whopping $150-$160). It's an amazing technical effort that we're permitted to see many of the struggles, which are ultimately resolved.

We don't see all the glitches, of course. Apparently, at one point during Gotterdamerung, the motion and sound sensitive program crashed and the Windows logo was shown during reboot. (Guys, you can get rid of that, and should have.)

And a lot of the glitches we do see (conductor getting sick, Siegfried having to drop out four days before show time) are probably pretty common to any four-part mega-opera that unfolds over the course of a year, even without the whizbang gewgaws in this performance. And we don't even see all of these, as several cast changes aren't mentioned at all. But the films weighs in at just under 2 hours and I don't suppose it could've covered a year's worth of operatic drama without being as long as the Ring Cycle itself.

There are some weaknesses, at least for non-opera fans. (I actually like opera, but my tastes run toward the early baroque ones and some of the 20th century ones. I'm  not into it enough to know or care about the meta-drama.) We're constantly told how big a deal it is for the soprano (Deborah Voigt) to be singing her first Brunhilde at the Met and with this (frankly, weird) production.

There isn't quite enough there to understand what the dynamics of the whole thing are. They have to appease the hard-core fans but that base is shrinking so they also have to expand that base to include new, younger people. And the movie seems to suggest that they alienated some and attracted a few but there's no mention of the economics.

I've read elsewhere—it's not mentioned in the documentary—that it cost fifteen or sixteen million to put the show(s) on. Where'd the money come from? How many tickets do they sell? What are the expectations for the DVD sales? The personal and technical details are wonderful but the drama derives from that and from a kind of insular concern about the "community".

And let's face it, wherever they exist, "communities" are populated by douchebags.

Anyway, both The Flower and The Boy actually enjoyed it quite a bit. They weren't bored and they agreed it was a little long but not in a complain-y way.

It did make me curious to see the whole thing—though maybe not $150 curious. Of course, if they really wanted to make opera accessible, they'd sing them in English. But they can't do that without offending the hard-core. And so it goes.

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