Puppetmaster Robert Lepage Produces an Inhuman 'Ring'

In Robert Lepage’s program notes for his production of an evening of Igor Stravinsky’s short musical fables, which opened in Toronto in 2009 and came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music a few weeks ago, the director remarks on how curious it is that, given the high style and complexity of opera in general and Stravinsky’s music in particular, the composer focused in these works on telling children’s stories. The goal of the production, Mr. Lepage writes, is to blend “the sophistication and grandiose aspects of opera with a vocabulary coming from our childhood.”

“And, in a way,” he concludes, “I think it’s exactly how, each time, we should go to theatre: with the open mind of a child.”

To that end, Mr. Lepage has created a seductive combination of intimacy and spectacle. Though the production is hardly unambitious–BAM’s orchestra pit is flooded with 12,000 gallons of water, into which the singers wade waist-deep–Mr. Lepage tells these charming stories using the simple conventions of Vietnamese water puppetry: puppets of the shadow variety as well as uncannily humanlike puppets deftly operated by singers standing behind them.

The critics have found that Mr. Lepage’s work in The Nightingale and Other Short Fables certainly fulfills the “childlike wonder” aspect of its promise. The critic for The Times wrote that the production contained “the most affecting and intricate puppetry I have ever seen.” Le Figaro wrote of a previous revival in France that Mr. Lepage “has succeeded in the space of an evening in giving back to adults … a capacity for enchantment reserved for children.”

The production was indeed enchanting. There was so much going on, so much of it well crafted and well executed, that it felt odd and almost perverse to be so bored by it all. And boredom, more than anything else, was also the primary reaction to another recent Robert Lepage production, one far removed from the Stravinsky evening’s self-consciously straightforward and simple aesthetic.

New York operagoers have been getting a heavy dose of Mr. Lepage’s work lately, and we will be spending a great deal of time with him in the coming years. In September, his production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold opened the Metropolitan Opera’s season, the first installment in the Met’s new Ring cycle, which will be rolled out over the coming year. (Die Walküre, the second opera in the cycle, opens April 22.)

There is nothing restrained or intimate about Mr. Lepage’s Ring. A 45-ton “machine” forms the set of all four of the cycle’s operas. The whole Ring production will cost around $16 million, and the weight of the set required the Met to reinforce its stage. Enormous planks seesaw individually and can rise and fall as a unit, creating a huge variety of shifting configurations. Moreover, the entire structure functions as a constantly morphing projection screen, particularly for the interactive digital projections in which Mr. Lepage and his team specialize, like a hill of pebbles that gently roll down as the dwarf Alberich climbs up and a small circle of flames that accompanies the fire god Loge when he walks. It’s a long, long way from shadow puppets.

The result of all of this spending and innovation, though, was a Rheingold dull and shockingly out of touch with Wagner’s intricately drawn characters and plot. The singers seemed genuinely undirected, lost in front of the set’s imposing mass. The production team working down to the wire to get the technical aspects right (the climactic effect malfunctioned on opening night), but it appeared that relatively little attention was given to the acting. There were no relationships; there was no drama. No one, not even the powerful bass-baritone Eric Owens as Alberich, made much of an impact.

The lower-key, lower-tech Nightingale and Other Short Fables at BAM seemed at first like it would be an antidote to the overstuffed, underdone Rheingold. But it gradually became apparent that there, too, despite the relative simplicity of his resources, Mr. Lepage was more invested in gadgets than in characters. The reliance on puppets grew tedious. It worked best in the brief, superficial tales of the evening’s first half, but in The Nightingale, which followed intermission, the emotional material is more complex. Yet the puppets continued to be the only eloquent ones, wiping their brows and projecting uncannily nuanced feelings in front of largely immobile human actors.

Puppets, of course, can be diverting, but they have no depth. This is fine if your audience has, as Mr. Lepage must hope, childlike emotional demands. But ultimately, for an adult, watching puppets is simply boring after a while, not because they’re not beautifully done, but because they’re not alive. After the initial burst of wonder at the logistics and detail of their operation–which fades, by my watch, in about 15 minutes–you’re left with little.

Similarly, with Das Rheingold, it was only when the massive set was moving that you had a sense that the director was engaged, that you got a whiff of the cycle’s dramatic stakes and the epic scope that frames its intimate narratives. But in neither Rheingold nor Nightingale were you much aware of the human emotions at the heart of both pieces; in both, as much as possible, Mr. Lepage avoided dealing with humans at all.

In this crucial respect, Mr. Lepage’s intimate show using dolls is identical to his massive 45-ton machine: The director consistently creates productions in which it is nearly impossible for an actor to form a character. Indeed, Rheingold, with a plot full of effects and gimmicks, should have been the opera in the Ring cycle that most rewarded the limitations of Mr. Lepage’s vision; the rest of the Ring contains an awful lot of hours of people essentially standing around and talking to one another. This can be beautiful, and moving, and fascinating, but not if it’s shaped by a director uninterested in people.

After growing up lonely and isolated–he lost his hair to alopecia at an early age and suffered from depression–Mr. Lepage made his name with a series of theater works perhaps unsurprisingly aimed at channeling the spirit of childhood, including another evening of fairy tales, The Andersen Project. But he was likely hired at the Met for his more widely known successes as the director of two Peter Gabriel tours and of two of Cirque de Soleil’s best received shows, Ka and Totem. He has shown himself adept at the stunning, characterless, largely plotless spectacles of the contemporary circus and rock show, giving those tired genres a bit of high-culture sheen. But when it comes to great works of art, which are never really about special effects and which demand interpreters alert to their subtleties and possibilities, his tricks fall flat.

Underlying the Met’s choice of Mr. Lepage and the plans for his Ring cycle is a fundamental misunderstanding of Wagner’s operas. These works are not about the sets, be they “traditional” or “modern”; not about spectacle; and not about instilling some sense of childlike wonder or “enchantment.” As directors from Wieland Wagner to Patrice Chéreau to Francesca Zambello have shown, the Ring is a work of profound intellectual and aesthetic rigor, certainly (if done well) a deeply entertaining experience but just as certainly not a kids’ show. These are operas for grown-ups; if he wants his cycle to rebound after Rheingold, Mr. Lepage will have to prove that, for once, he’s more than a child.


Puppetmaster Robert Lepage Produces an Inhuman 'Ring'