I'm so sick of Israel, so sick of reading about it and writing about it and thinking about it, that I'm going to go clean off the rails and talk about music here -- assuming that opera falls into the category of music, admittedly a thesis open to question.
The Metropolitan Opera here in Gotham is putting together a new production of the Ring. The set -- apparently the one and only set -- is shown above. It consists of a row of Brobdingnagian teeter-totters, actuated by mighty hydraulic cylinders.
In order to support this Gargantuan busy-box, the Met's stage has had to be reinforced. The New York Times, which is to the written word what the Met is to music, smacks its institutional lips:
Wagner’s “Ring” cycle concludes with the flaming destruction of Valhalla, the hall of the gods, a scene that will play out when the Metropolitan Opera mounts a new production of the cycle’s four operas over the next two seasons."Structural collapse is definitely not the fate you want for your actual theater." I'm not so sure about that. Now that the World Trade Center is no more, the Metropolitan Opera is arguably the ugliest building in New York, and certainly the ugliest on the West Side. If the whole gaudy gawky cheap bright-and-shiny Brummagem affair folded in on itself during the last scene of Gotterdammerung -- well, wouldn't that be poetic justice? A shoddy overblown building brought down by shoddy overblown music? Now that's the real opera! -- to paraphrase the immortal Oscar Jaffe. Boffo!
Structural collapse is definitely not the fate you want for your actual theater. But at the Met, that was a distinct possibility. Engineers determined that the set, conceived by Robert Lepage, the Canadian director who is creating this production, would be so heavy — roughly 45 tons — that the floor under the stage might not hold.
So that reality doesn’t imitate art, the Met had a steel company install three 65-foot girders under the stage, a feat of delicate engineering involving thousands of pounds of steel that counts as a permanent structural change to the opera house, the most extensive work yet to prepare for a new production there.
But leaving my childish apocalyptic longings aside: isn't it amazing how much support Wagner seems to need -- not just financial support, but actual non-metaphorical steel I-beams? Something there is, in Wagner, that calls for bloat: bloated sopranos, bloated conductors, bloated sets, bloated rhetoric. It's a good thing the B Minor Mass doesn't require this kind of infrastructure, or it would never have lasted as long as it has.
Baby Huey's new Lincoln Center playground falls, I suppose, into the category of "Expressionist" productions. There was a famous one years ago that starred a big ominous hole in the stage, if memory serves, like the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. Slightly more recent productions have been a bit more historicist, featuring genuine Bayreuth-style cement trees and what one critic memorably called "a man in a bear suit." But the pendulum -- or teeter-totter -- appears to have swung back.
What exactly are the semiotics of sets like this? Are they supposed to tell us how "modern" -- or even, Wotan help us, "universal" -- Wagner is?
If so, that's a laugh. There's nothing more period than Wagner -- no composer more firmly situated in the ideas and tastes of a specific time and place. The Tristan chord no longer startles us -- and without the startling, it's just schmaltz. It's like of of those no-longer-funny jokes: You had to be there.
Institutions like the Met really seem to have painted -- or I-beamed -- themselves into a corner, mounting ever more dropsical and ever less interesting readings of an ever more sclerotic repertoire. That's practically the definition of decadence: increasing investment, diminishing returns. More I-beams! Goddammit, keep those I-beams coming!
By contrast, my own Early Music world seems like the picture of health. Oh, we're a niche market, all right; but we don't spend more and more bucks for less and less bang. The same old shabby folk in tweed jackets (with chic leather elbow patches) show up every time, with just enough fresh young faces to make one feel it's not totally hopeless. But we don't do the same two dozen over-familiar items year after year. In fact, we usually do stuff you've never heard before.
For example: A little group I'm part of did Clerambault's Te Deum -- the big one, not the little one -- a couple of weeks ago. Now our singers aren't so large, either physically or in their own self-regard, that they have to be wheeled on stage; and they can't shatter a punchbowl at fifty paces. But they sounded pretty good, as did the fiddlers and the amazing chap who played the cornetto.
More to the point: we did it on a shoestring -- no I-beams required -- and it was something striking and new. It wasn't over-familiar, so it didn't have to be tarted up with some Leni Riefenstahl spectacle to stimulate the jaded tastes of boxholders too rich for their own, or anybody else's good.
He who has ears -- let him hear.