Anthony Tommasini interviews Peter Gelb on the MET's Ring Cycle: “...complaining bitterly, he said, about the persistent clankiness of the so-called machine"

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday, 8 April 2012 | 9:18:00 am

 “Over all for me, on balance, I think it’s a remarkable experience,” he said. Yet even he is a little worried: “I reserve final assessment until I see how it all works out technically, when presented complete in the space of a week.”

Peter Gelb has both raised expectations and invited criticism by calling Robert Lepage’s $16 million production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle for the Metropolitan Opera revolutionary. He used the word again in a recent interview at his office, as he spoke of the “trials and tribulations” of executing Mr. Lepage’s “superhuman,” technically daunting concept in a repertory theater “against amazing odds.”

This backstage drama should not matter to the public, he added. But Mr. Gelb, the Met’s general manager since 2006, has been living it, attending every stage rehearsal and “complaining bitterly,” he said, about the persistent clankiness of the so-called machine, the 45-ton set of movable planks that dominate the production.

Now the real test has arrived. On Saturday night the Met begins the first of three complete “Ring” cycles. On Wednesday night there will be a preliminary presentation of “Das Rheingold,” the first of the cycle’s four component operas. But it is the glitch-prone machine that probably needs this warm-up “Rheingold” more than the cast and the orchestra.

Despite the technical problems and the stinging barbs the production has received from many critics, Mr. Gelb sees the Lepage “Ring” as emblematic of his mission to bring the latest theatrical thinking and technology to the Met.

“Over all for me, on balance, I think it’s a remarkable experience,” he said. Yet even he is a little worried: “I reserve final assessment until I see how it all works out technically, when presented complete in the space of a week.”

It was at Mr. Gelb’s invitation that I met him last month for an interview. In part he wanted to expound on his vision and offer a “bird’s-eye view of what we have planned for future seasons,” he said. Some of those plans look exciting, like a new production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” scheduled for the fall of 2016, directed by Willy Decker, starring the soprano Nina Stemme and the tenor Gary Lehman, and conducted by Simon Rattle, who had atriumphant Met debut in Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” last season.

During the interview Mr. Gelb also rebutted backlash over some of the productions on his watch. Shortly before, Alex Ross had written of the “Ring” in The New Yorker: “Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”

In principle it is hard to argue with what Mr. Gelb espouses. He believes in “taking risks,” he emphasized. And he said that with an average of seven new productions a season during his tenure, there is more happening than in “any period since World War II.”

More output does not mean that everything has been good, he acknowledged. But “it is absolutely essential,” he added, “to take pieces that are clearly dated, in terms of their production, and attempt to give them new life.”

Defining “dated” is the question. For all the talk of theatrical innovation, many productions during the Gelb years have been found wanting, not because they are outrageously modern but because they are essentially traditional takes spiffed up with contemporary trappings: the surprisingly timid and unfocused production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” this season, for example, by the hot British director Michael Grandage, in his company debut.

The most popular recent productions have actually been those in which directors went all out with bold concepts, like Patrice Chéreau’s dark and wrenching staging of Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead,” and the artist William Kentridge’s dazzling production ofShostakovich’s bleak comedy “The Nose,” which ingeniously employs puppets and videos, and which made the Met, during the run, a hotbed of the contemporary-art scene in New York. On Friday night Mr. Decker’s sleekly modern, surreal production of Verdi’s “Traviata” will return after its smash premiere last season.

Mr. Gelb has recruited several acclaimed directors who have mostly worked outside the realm of opera. And some of the results, he admitted, did not turn out as he had hoped: among them, John Doyle’s cluttered staging of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” in 2008.

But other such risks have paid off, he said. Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch were both new to opera when, with the English National Opera, they created a transfixing production of Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha,” which was an audience favorite at its Met premiere in 2008 and equally successful on its return last fall.

The new “Ring” is both a point of pride and a sore point for Mr. Gelb. When pressed, he said that “revolutionary” was perhaps “not the right word” to describe it. For all its movable parts and often captivating videos, the production takes a straightforward, almost literal-minded approach to telling the story.

What is revolutionary about it, Mr. Gelb insisted, is that “Robert Lepage may be the first director to execute what Wagner actually wanted to see onstage.” Wagner’s libretto is filled with stage directions that were unrealistic for his day, including underwater episodes with the Rhinemaidens swirling about. But why do a bunch of undulating planks and female singers dangling from wires represent a closer execution of Wagner’s theatrical vision for this scene than more daring, playful or metaphorical realizations?

The Lepage “Ring,” Mr. Gelb asserted, is more popular than its critics allow, in part because of “this incredible feat that Robert pulled off, of offering a way to create a new character, which was the scenery.”

He could be right. But for many people, making the set a character is the problem. The machine imposes itself and distracts us from Wagner’s music drama.

By Mr. Gelb’s calculation, when his first decade as general manager ends in 2016 (“provided I’m not fired before then,” he added in what he later said was just gallows humor), the company will have presented 62 new productions and introduced 17 works to its repertory. This compares with 45 new productions and 12 Met premieres in the previous decade. Along with the increased productivity, clearly “a good thing,” he said, come “increased chances of success and disappointments.”

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