The depth of incompetence in the critical analysis of the Met Ring is inconceivable in a culturally sophisticated city like New York.

The Met Ring and Critical Incompetence

Unlike others, I have waited to form my overall assessment of the new Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera until I actually saw it.  The Cycle is an entirely different experience from each separate installment (remember Wagner furiously refusing to cooperate with Ludwig’s premieres of Rheingold and Walküre in Munich?), though that didn’t stop Alex Ross and others from condemning the production before they had experienced it.

Mr. Ross has now weighed in with a blog post (which, unlike this one, does not seem to invite comments from readers) touting unanimous critical and popular rejection of the production.   He cites the music critics for The New York Times, the music critic for the Boston Globe, the music critic for the Wall Street Journal, the music critic for Opera News, and the music critic for New York magazine, none of whom had any problem with the music.

Nor do they possess any credentials  as theater critics.  And it shows.

I have not read any serious criticism that places this production within the context of the development of modern theatre, or of trends in staging the work since the 1876 production.  Indeed, I haven’t read a single essay by a professional theatre critic.  I haven’t read anyone who seems aware of Lepage’s work, in particular his shattering and innovative use of projections in The Andersen Project.  All anyone talks about is one Lepage project in Las Vegas — hardly a responsible treatment of this profoundly responsible artist.  No one I have read has cited Adolphe Appia, whose theoretical work on staging Wagner’s work was so soundly rejected by Cosima and is so fundamentally vindicated in the Met production.  No one has written about the connections between what is on the Met stage and Wagner’s use of “magic lanterns,” or his peculiar and visionary writing of “sunrise scenes” long before Belasco‘s lighting innovations — even before the advent of electric stage lighting itself!  No one has considered what kind of theatre Wagner intended when he directed that the scene changes in Rheingold take place with hissing steam jets along the apron of the stage; instead there is comment after disapproving comment about creaking during scene changes.

None of the music critics seems to understand the basics of staging, the stuff you learn in Theatre Production 101 or after you direct your second student play in college:  that elevators (which are responsible for scene changes in Billy Budd) are different from vertical rotations (which are responsible for scene changes in the Ring).  I haven’t read a music critic knowledgably discuss how three-dimensional projections are accomplished, or how interactive visual effects work, and whether (as Gordon Craig always postulated) great stories are best told on a bare surface through light and shadow.  Based solely on the lack of sophistication of his theatre criticism, I doubt that Alex Ross, in opining on the projections used in this production, knows the difference between a leko and a fresnel.

This gets worse.  No newspaper (to my knowledge) has even sent a theatre critic to review this production.  The level of analysis has been among the crudest I have read: “I like it” or “I don’t like it.”  (This is as much as to say “This reminds me of what I think it should look like” or “This doesn’t.”)  The music critics have written little about the music — which has been on an extremely high level — and instead spent their time discussing something they demonstrably are not trained intelligently to assess — the staging.  And so, not knowing how to write intelligently about what is in front of their eyes, they write unintelligently about it:  They discuss how expensive the set is (there is no basis to conclude it is more expensive than any other four new Met productions), how dangerous it is (no one has ever been injured on this set, which is more than you can say for the backstage elevators or the roof of the Met), or how much it weighs (what???  We are seriously discussing the weight of a set???).

In his Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope write “A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing.”  Well, no learning at all is a lot worse.

Mr. Ross says that no one who has written to him, and no one he has read, has disagreed with his conclusion that the production is “witless and wasteful.”  Mr. Ross is probably too busy attending string quartet recitals to read this blog or to speak to the person to my left, the couple to my right, and the couple behind me at the recent Cycle.  He had already shared his untrained views so I suppose he needn’t bother.

For the rest of us, accept from this trained and experienced stage actor and director that what is going on at the Met is the most cogent, most innovative, and thus the most essentially Wagnerian endeavor that a lover of music drama will be privileged to see.  Go.

(And is it too much to ask newspapers to send music critics to critique music — and theatre critics to critique theatre??)

8 Comments

  • What an extraordinary complaint you lodge. Perhaps the reason you see the music critics not talking about those things you as a “trained and experienced stage actor and director ” want them to talk about is because NONE OF IT IS OF ANY IMPORTANCE WHATSOEVER. There’s but a single thing of importance here: how vividly and faithfully Robert Lepage has realized onstage the concept and vision of Richard Wagner as made manifest in the score of the _Ring_ (music, text, and stage directions). The clear answer to that question is: miserably. By his staging, Lepage has made a fairytale joke of the _Ring_ suitable for presentation to tipsy patrons in a Las Vegas dinner theater, not to serious operagoers in a major opera house. And that’s because he has little understanding of the _Ring_ beyond its fairytale surface, and little — one is tempted to say, no — understanding of Wagner music-drama as an artform. Couple that with his utter and total devotion to his Frankenstein contraption, and what you end up with is the artistic and aesthetic catastrophe that can be seen today on the stage of the Met and at movie theaters worldwide.

    ACD

  • Frederick Paul Walter wrote:

    I absolutely agree with peterp’s thesis: too many unqualified people assess NYC opera productions … and not just this particular Ring. As for ACD’s response from on high, it’s worthless in its unsupported generalities, one more snooty, empty example of the above-cited “I like it” or “I don’t like it” syndrome. Not a syllable displaying any authentic knowledge of music OR theater.

    He, too, would flunk Production 101. Ditto Criticism 101.

  • Yes, Peterp, I find this production one of the most fascinating of 20 Rings I’ve seen. The phenomenal rapid staging of the preludes, the scene changes, and the treatment of many of the critical moments of the stage drama all add in ways we have never before seen. ACD has added his hatred everywhere, as have some additional critics. I think more of my fellow audience members, at the MET and in the HD theaters, that were in tears at the end of Goetterdaemmerung, Act I Walkuere, even the end of Act II Siegfried. Thinking back to that once-hated Robert Wilson MET Lohengrin, tickets for the revival were quickly sold-out. Looking forward to the MET Ring in 2013! (No, I don’t work for the MET)

  • Kenneth Miller wrote:

    Well said. I think the most remarkable aspect of Lepages ring is that it does not disturb the music, rather it supports it. While I had fears that it would be tedious and “campy”, it proved anything but. Seigfrield in particular shone with Lepages production. I agree….Go

  • Louis Bothwell wrote:

    I could not agree with you more. Opera critics are usually musical critics, which is fine as long as they concentrate on musical values. To elaborate on theatrical aspects of an opera production, you either get someone with a dual background in music and theater or you have two critics.

    I for one as in awe that the majority of Wagner’s stage directions were actually followed in this Ring cycle. The staging of Sigmund’s death took my breath away. I guess it is always fun and a sign of artistic success when a production is actually controversial… people are paying attention. I for one am on the side of those that loved the mythical spectacle with a true heroic and human dimension that unfolded at the Met.

  • Marc-André Roberge wrote:

    As a resident not only of Québec but also of Québec City, where Robert Lepage has his Ex Machina headquarters, I would like to point out an element that, I think, may be a part of the problem in the strongly negative comments that Lepage’s Ring have elicited from the “official” reviewers (as opposed to opera goers and viewers). I doubt that many of these critics have had much exposure to his work other than his production of “La damnation de Faust” at the Met during the 2008-2009 season, witness the numerous references to his having conceived “Kà” and “Totem” for the Cirque du Soleil. Many opera lovers in Québec have enjoyed his Ring very much, and I wish to emphasize that many here (and elsewhere) have followed his work over the last twenty years or so and have been much impressed by his six-hour “Trilogie des dragons” and his nine-hour “Lipsynch”, the latter being one of the most intense theatrical experiences I have had in more than thirty-five years. (And in writing this I look forward to his in-progress twelve-hour “Playing Cards”, of which the first part, entitled “Spades”, has recently been premiered.) I venture to say that criticism of his work would be much different if more reviewers had seen a dozen or more of his (often multilingual) productions. At the end of July the Québec Opera Festival will feature his production of Thomas Adès’s “The Tempest” (conducted by the composer), in a coproduction with the Metropolitan Opera and the Wiener Staatsoper. Yet another opportunity to follow his path-breaking visions.

  • Chris McCormack wrote:

    Having seen “Rheingold” and “Walkure,” I’ll say I’m unqualifiedly positive about virtually all of the production. My only complaint has to do with the predilection for “illustrating” Wagner’s poetically and musically eloquent narrative monologues with projections of actors or dancers miming the events the characters are describing. As much as I tried to get in the spirit, I found these consistently distracting, not merely as distractions (which they are) but because of their relative crudeness when compared with the subtlety and expressiveness of the words and music. The machine, by comparison, was no distraction at all.

  • […] a work he has not seen.  I once lambasted the excellent critic for the New Yorker, Alex Ross, for writing about the staging of the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring Cycle when he had seen each of the works but not the Cycle itself.  Perhaps that’s harsh.  But not having seen the Ring at Bayreuth […]

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