As she brilliantly demonstrated in her Metropolitan Opera docu “The Audition,” helmer Susan Froemke excels at delineating process, a quality that also distinguishes “Wagner’s Dream,” her docu about Robert Lepage’s highly controversial staging of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Tracing the evolution of the avant-garde Met project from inception in Quebec to opening night at Lincoln Center, Froemke never sacrifices the intricacies of artistic creation for cheap suspense. But tension flows organically from every phase of this dangerous endeavor, making for a highly entertaining outing for operaphiles and operaphobes alike.
Playing nationwide May 7 for one night in conjunction with the “The Met: Live on HD” series, the docu is particularly timely due to the opera company’s second risky attempt to stage Wagner’s famously “unstageable” work.
In Quebec, at Lepage’s Ex Machina studio, Froemke records the years-long struggle to bring Carl Fillion’s concept of a continually morphing platform to fruition. The 45-ton contraption involves 24 planks that mutate into walls or staircases while computer-generated imagery plays over them. Then this cumbersome behemoth must be transported to New York, where the reinforced stage barely manages to hold it. The result creaks, misfires and threatens lives, turning the first part of “Wagner’s Dream” into a kind of Frankenstein movie as Lepage struggles to regain control over the monster he’s created.
Meanwhile, Met director Peter Gelb stands fast in his support of Lepage’s vision, believing that opera must constantly be reinvented in order to survive. Orthodox “Ring” fans — and they are legion — hold fast to tradition, forecasting disaster while opera virgins are among those who opt to sample the ballyhooed new spectacle.
Once the action moves to Gotham, the focus shifts to the singers, in particular soprano Deborah Voigt essaying the difficult part of Brunhilde for the first time. Her candid commentary humanizes the continuing technical problems that plague the production. The Rhine maidens tremble in fear, swinging high above the moving set in harness, and then scramble to get underneath the infernal rising machine before it crushes them. Voigt clambers up the platform to deliver her famous “Wojoho” opening lines, only to ignominiously slide and fall, recovering and successfully turning disaster into comedy.
On opening night the climactic epiphany, a “piece de resistance” pictorializing the ascension of the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, fails to materialize, the planks stubbornly refusing to budge from their horizontal position. Other, more pedestrian, trials await the four-part, 15-hour production, as back problems force charismatic conductor James Levine (the subject of a Froemke-directed “American Masters” docu) to retire halfway through the cycle. Three days before the opening of “Siegfried,” a new tenor, Jay Hunter, is thrust into the lead role.
Froemke wisely concentrates on the laborious process of mounting the ambitious production, showing the slow meshing of stagehands, performers and director in an interactive unit rather than chronicling the relative success or failure of the finished product. The effect is to make the massive, wildly expensive undertaking seem worthwhile, if only to have engendered its documentation.