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NEW YORK — Chronicling an undertaking audacious enough to impress Richard Wagner himself, Susan Froemke and Bob Eisenhardt‘s Wagner’s Dream follows the Metropolitan Opera as it mounts a risky, costly new production of the Ring cycle. Rising well above the typical making-of feature, the doc will fascinate buffs when shown alongside the operas themselves (on May 7, via the “Met in HD” theatrical program) and should stand on its own on home-vid, as a from-the-inside look at one institution’s attempt to remain vital as its popularity fades.
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The four-opera, sixteen-hour cycle — in which characters swim underwater, fly, and wield the power of gods — has flummoxed companies since it was composed. As one subject here puts it, Wagner “wrote it knowing it would be impossible to stage.” Shortly after being hired as the Met’s General Manager, controversial figure Peter Gelb recruited theatrical auteur Robert Lepage to reimagine it for the 21st century.
Lepage’s staging — built around a 90,000 pound machine whose independently moving planks twist to evoke myriad mythological settings — is technically daring enough to occupy the documentary’s first hour. Initially, it’s difficult to believe the thing will work without killing anyone.
That threat doesn’t disappear when, years later, rehearsals begin: Singers must crawl into sub-floor nooks to avoid being crushed; they rappel down it in harnesses; and — more comic than scary — they sometimes just find its steep inclines impossible to navigate.
On opening night of the first opera, “The Machine” fails to work during the climax. In the second opera, star soprano Deborah Voigt stumbles trying to mount it and must sing her scene from the stage below. Mishaps unrelated to the Machine arise in the third opera, when the tenor playing the title role gets sick and withdraws at the last minute — this on top of the sad departure of Met conductor James Levine, whose back problems forced him to withdraw mid-cycle.
Froemke and Eisenhardt chronicle these many setbacks calmly instead of playing them for melodrama, allowing viewers to assess them alongside more artistic concerns — say, from the Wagner maniacs who’ve seen 35 Ring productions and are skeptical of this one — threatening the undertaking’s success. The film barely alludes to how the finished product was reviewed (often harshly) in the press, implicitly suggesting that its true impact can’t be assessed until some time has passed. But few viewers will fail to be impressed that cast and crew make it to the end in one piece.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival, Tribeca Talks
Production Company: Susan Froemke Productions
Director: Susan Froemke
Producers: Susan Froemke, Douglas Graves
Director of photography: Don Lenzer
Editor: Bob Eisenhardt
Sales: Mia Bongiovanni, The Metropolitan Opera
No rating, 113 minutes
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