One result of the modern rage for new productions is that music reviewers have become production reviewers. Take Anthony Tommasini’s review of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Walküre,which debuted last Friday. This technology-heavy production by Robert Lepage does require some explanations of all its visual tricks, and likely that’s what readers are interested in finding out, but the review devotes barely a couple of sentences to the actual quality of the performers, and just a few words to what the music itself sounded like.
True, in the age of Wikipedia and YouTube, I don’t need the New York Times for a lesson in Wagnerian leitmotifs. But by embracing new innovations and technologies in stagecraft, we gain a new perspective on old works while losing focus on what makes it great. That is, the music takes a distant second place to the visuals. And while spectacle is a significant part of Wagner’s vision of his own music, this production – with its creaking set that causes some singers to slip and fall or wave their arms for balance – sounds like it detracts at times from supporting the music.
Tommasini sums it up when he describes the end of the opera, when Wotan leaves Brünnhilde on a mountain top surrounded by a ring of magic fire. He is baffled by Lepage’s fascination with body doubles, which he uses to replace the singers at the very end. Tommasini writes: “I wanted to see the living, singing goddess meet her fate, with a much simpler staging. Mr. Lepage cannot help showing off his 45-ton toy, even when it means sending his Brünnhilde to the wings at what should be her most transcendent moment.”
And reviewers are forced to recount the pros and cons of these toys, while a listening audience must look elsewhere for insights into music.
An interesting discussion on the visual upstaging the music in opera is found here.