Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Peril of Aping Other Art Forms

A recent review by Oberon's Grove of the most eagerly anticipated second installment of Wagner's Ring Cycle staged by Cirque du Soleil fame Robert Lepage, Die Walküre, was quite frank and damning on the trend for flashing staging, imitating that of a circus:
Now that we're half-way thru this RING I must say, the enterprise seems a colossal waste of money. The reported outlay of $20 million for the production plus the small-change invoice of another half-mil to reinforce the stage floor to bear the weight of The Machine seems the height of theatrical vanity. The RING is basically a series of dialogues; there's very little 'action' really. As a setting, you basically need to create something that is pleasing to the eye without intruding on the drama and hopefully come up with a bit of excitement in those well-spaced-out moments when a visual coup is desired.

Flywires, mechanicals and the occasional stagehand are visible from time to time in the Lepage setting, preventing an illusion of magic. The planks rise and fall and fan out to modestly interesting effect, but placing the action on a bare Wieland Wagner disc would have been equally convincing and cost a hell of a lot less.

The basic setting of grey planks is both innocuous and dull. Absolutely nothing happens on the back panel in terms of lighting, film or other effects: it's deep blue throughout most of Act I of WALKURE (with snowflakes falling) until the moment when Siegmund annouces the arrival of Springtime when it turns...green! How thrilling! I could have provided that idea for a coup de theatre for 99 cents.

The singers are left to their own devices (M. Lepage 'doesn't do character work' reportedly)...


The Ride of the Valkyries has been staged elsewhere on flight-wires, on a carousel, as a bungee-cord and trampoline fest, or with Earth-bound warrior maidens dragging the naked bodies of fallen warriors hither and yon around the set. Mssr. Lepage places each of the eight sisters on a separate plank of The Machine and they ride 'em like bucking broncos. This ludicrous idea trivialized the scene and was simply one of the stupidest things I've ever seen on any stage.

I suppose we will be stuck with this RING for the rest of my lifetime and probably beyond. How amazing that they can find this kind of money to throw away.

Ride My See-Saw: The Valkyries in Act III of Die Walküre at the Met.
Eve Gigliotti (Siegrune) is all the way at the left. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
- originally posted by Supercomductor

According to the influential operatic blogger, La Cieca, "An eyewitness to the performance reports: 'She was sliding down the plank and either tripped or fell when she hit bottom. One of the other Valkyries helped her up. She went offstage for a few minutes and then returned the audience applauded when she came back onstage. Scary few minutes. As for the rest of it, somewhat better than the opening night stream vocally but a lot of miscasting and appalling direction. The Machine is distracting. Money wasted.'"

That reminds me of the fiasco of the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, courtesy of famous director Julie Taymor, whose misadventure was doomed by her focus on flashy staging and mechanism, rather than drama and music.

The fact that both stagings took place in New York, cannot be coincidental.

New York, the capital of performing art, is leading the trends and sometimes not necessarily a good one.

The Metropolitan Opera has done a lot of innovative things, and the most visible is the HD live-transmission to the cinemas around the world.  It is a worthy effort and should be lauded.  However, many a times, the video directors are so enamored to their toys and so keen to wring a cinematic product out of a live staged performance, they present something wearing little resemblance to what live audience see.  Some might find it exciting to see many close-ups but I would love to see more steady shots in mid distance, with occasional full stage picture and some close-ups at crucial moments.  The cameras should not distract and becomes the end of its own.

A review of 1980 Metropolitan Opera's Lulu by William R. Braun argued eloquently: "Nowadays, an extreme reluctance to maintain any one camera angle for more than a few seconds pulls focus from the music. One camera now runs along the footlights like a rat; although it destroys the effect of the music and causes the illusion that the scenery is flapping, it is used simply because it exists. In this Lulu, video direction [Video direction: Brian Large] is used instead for artistic ends. Plenty of establishing shots of the full stage document the way Dexter placed his characters in relation to each other as power shifts, and there are glimpses of the portrait of Lulu whenever the portrait music is heard in the orchestra. There has never been another Met telecast that so effectively gave the sense of what it was like to experience the production in the house, and there will never be another one. Goals are different now."

Another reviewer complained about MET Salome DVD in which soprano Karita Mattila brief stripped naked but the video director cut to her facial close-up.  That censured camera work does not represent the audience's view point for sure.

I remembered a most frustrating viewing of DVD Tannhäuser - when young tenor Jonas Kaufmann sang Walther von der Vogelweide beautiful aria, we saw close-up of Tannhäuser of another tenor, for the entire duration of the aria.  Would anyone in the opera house be so determined to avert their eyes from Kaufmann?

None of incidences mentioned above gave clues to people sit in cinemas what audience would see in the house.  The missteps, if occurs only incidentally are forgivable; but due to those venues' high profiles and influence, these perversions would inevitably cause some audience members to accept nothing but those kinds circuses and forever demand more.  That's the damage.

They will demand opera, ballet and plays staged like a circus or a movie, which they could never be and will always be in disadvantage when compared, therefore, it is quite suicidal to me.  I really enjoy what San Francisco Ballet does with their in-house screen for balcony audience.  They project a single focused view of the entire stage for the entire duration of the performance, so everyone call see the entire stage, particularly when the upstage viewed were not visible to them.  By refusing to distort a performance, they presented the true picture of their performances.  Alas, SFBallet is in minority.

To imitate another form, to me, is a way to kill its own form.

With the advance of 3D technology, I am more and more pessimistic about people

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