Wagner’s Dream. A documentary film directed by Susan Froemke and edited by Bob Eisenhardt

LePage Ring Metropolitan

A review of the documentary Wagner’s Dream requires the separate consideration of three distinct elements: the Ringcycle, the Robert Lepage production, and the documentary about the production.  This review will not discuss Lepage’s production itself [each of the Ring operas has been reviewed in the pages of Wagner Notes] but will concentrate on the documentary.

Wagnerians are fortunate to have some skillfully produced documentaries about recording the Ring. One is The Golden Ring, a 1965 BBC film on Sir Georg Solti’s legendary audio recording of the Ring. Another famous one is about Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 Bayreuth production, The Making of Der Ring des Nibelungen.  Both documentaries attracted new audiences to the music of Wagner and to the world of opera. Unfortunately, we don’t have a documentary film about the beloved romantic production by Schneider-Siemssen and Otto Schenk that lasted 20 years at the Met; the only testimony is the excerpts from the book Die Bühne – mein Leben by Schneider-Siemssen and K. Pahlen (2001),  published as The Stage – My Life (2009).

Susan Froemke is a well-known writer, producer and movie director; she has made more than 30 documentary films and has worked with Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, for more than 30 years on many films (e.g. Wynton Marsalis, Vladimir Horowitz, and Rostropovich). Peter Gelb asked her to make a documentary about the Met’s 2007 finalists who were competing to sing at the Met; the result was the acclaimed film The Audition (2008). Convinced that the Met should reach new and existing audiences for opera through new technology, Gelb invited her to make a documentary about Lepage’s controversial production of the Ring; he considers it “the hardest project in my life, the most exciting, and the most rewarding.” Bob Eisenhard is a three-time Grammy Award and Oscar nominee and has edited more than 60 films. The documentary will accompany the HD broadcast of the entire Ring worldwide.

The movie follows an almost chronological order, from January 2008 (Quebec City) to the opening night of Götterdämmerung in January 2012. The Met and the “Ex Machina” studio provided Susan Froemke access to everything she needed. Through this long period, the film tracks honestly all the details of the evolving production. Lepage confesses that at the beginning he did not have a clear view of what to do; he began to study the texts and found himself attracted by the influence of the Icelandic Edda poems on Wagner. On a trip to Iceland, Lepage was gripped by the sheer power of its geology: “it is a place that moves all the time … lava flows… and you see things that you only see in the Ring.” Back in Quebec City, Carl Fillion, Lepage’s set designer, conceived a 45-ton computerized unit of 24 interlocking and swiveling planks, soon dubbed “the Machine,” noting that they had decided early on to employ the same set for the four operas - a set that would have the ability to change from walls to stairs, become a wild forest, a rough landscape, or a royal hall, with the aid of modern light projection technologies.

The documentary candidly captures the doubts, mishaps, and frustrations of those involved in the production, including technicians, designers, and singers, clearly illustrating the importance of “team work.” They show a great sense of cooperation and dedication to correct the gaffes of others. The film also captures the frustration about the performance of the Machine, particularly its noisy movements and malfunctions. After making multiple corrections, Michel Gosselin, the Technical Director of Ex Machina, proudly says that they have finally “tamed the Machine”  (‘on l’aapprivoisée’). 

The film also touches on some of the positive and negative reactions of the public. At the interview program with Lepage presented by the Wagner Society of New York in September 2010, one of the attendees said that he had seen over 35 Rings and he doubted that Wagner would have had approved of this one. Marylyn Muskin, a Met usher, said that “people want it as it was in 1909.” Numerous comments and anecdotes are also provided by Margaret Juntwait (Met radio host) and William Berger (broadcast producer and author of the attractive book Wagner without Fear).

There are many notable moments when the camera shows the reactions of the performers - the apprehension of the Rheinmaidens when they are asked to fly, Levine praising the acoustics of the set in the opening of Das Rheingold, Terfel looking for a bent nail before going to the stage, Voigt mentioning her dreams about singing Brünnhilde and posing with a real Grane for a publicity photo, as well as the stamina and enthusiasm of Eric Owens and Jay Hunter Morris. Unfortunately, nothing is shown from the first and second acts of Die Walküre, where Eva-Maria Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann gave memorable performances.

One important element of the production that the film did not fully capture is the use of the latest technologies in lighting and projections: i.e., “painting with light.” No explanation is given about this advanced visual technology. No mention is made of Lepage’s three superstars responsible for the video technology, Boris Firquet (Rheingold and Walküre), Pedro Pires (Siegfried), and Lionel Arnould (Götterdämmerung). However, the film shows some remarkable examples - the Rheinmaidens making bubbles when they sing, the alive forest floor in Siegfried, the orange-tinted wood grain of the Gibichung Hall, and the movement of the water in Siegfried Act I and Götterdämmerung Act III with the Rheinmaidens. Apart from the few moments when Levine addresses the orchestra, or in the Voigt rehearsals, little attention was paid to the musical grounding of the production, and little mention was made of the high quality of the Met orchestra and chorus.

In the opening of the film it is said that “the quest to produce a perfect Ring remains opera’s greatest challenge.” And this documentary extensively explains why it is an impossible task. It is very likely that this excellent documentary will become a landmark and will attract newcomers to opera and to the rich Wagnerian world. Many skeptics and opponents to Lepage’s production will probably change or at least will temper their critical views after viewing the film.  In a sad moment, when Peter Gelb receives the news that James Levine has cancelled his scheduled conducting appearances, he mentions that on Rheingold’s opening night, Levine gave him the complete score of the Ring with the words, “here is to the beginning of our exiting new Lepage, Levine, Gelb Ring!”


Wagner’s Dream. A documentary film directed by Susan Froemke and edited by Bob Eisenhardt. 115 minutes. Premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. 

(Reprinted – with revisions – from Wagner Notes, Vol. XXXV No.3, June 2012, pages 6-7. Published bimonthly by the Wagner Society of New York, Inc. www.wagnersocietyny.org ) 





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