Review: ‘Wagner’s Dream’ is a divine look at daunting Ring cycle

Los Angeles TimesFilm Critic

Once upon a time, Richard Wagner dreamed a mighty dream. The composer envisioned a series of four operas so ambitious they dealt with nothing less than the creation and destruction of the world. And he dreamed of doing things — like having singers swimming underwater and riding through the clouds on winged horses — that were frankly impossible to stage. That did not, however, stop people from trying, both then and now.

“Wagner’s Dream,"an engaging new documentary directed by Susan Froemke, details the most recent attempt to put on a new version of the 19th century Ring cycle, considered, one insider says, “the peak of the mountain” for any opera company. You don’t need to be a fan of Wagner, or even opera, to find this a fascinating glimpse of a dauntingly complex human endeavor.

The company in question is America’s most prestigious, the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The Met hadn’t done a new Ring in 20 years, and its general manager, Peter Gelb, was not only a zealot for new productions in general, he was also determined to bring opera into the cultural mainstream and felt reinvention was the best way to do so.


Opera, Gelb insists, “can’t survive by playing it safe.”

Robert Lepage, the man Gelb hired to stage and direct the Met’s Ring (starting with a 2010 production of “Das Rheingold”), has never been accused of playing it safe. A celebrated theatrical designer with strong avant-garde tendencies, he considered the Ring to be “the movie that Wagner wanted to make before movies existed.”

Lepage, as it turns out, had been offered Ring cycles before but had always turned them down. A trip to Iceland, where he viewed manuscripts of the ancient sagas called eddas and experienced the country’s earthquake-prone landscape, both piqued his interest and inspired his production design.

What Lepage came up with was the notion of staging all four Ring operas on the same enormous set, which consisted of 24 huge rotating aluminum and fiberglass planks built between two towers and run by a hydraulic system. Weighing in at an impressive 90,000 pounds, the set was nicknamed simply “the Machine.”

Veteran director Froemke, a four-time Emmy winner who spent considerable time in the employ of documentary pioneers the Maysles brothers, worked on “Wagner’s Dream” for five years, and that effort and energy expended is key to the film’s effectiveness.

Froemke’s early start meant she was able to follow the progress of the Machine from its start as a tiny model in the Quebec City offices of Lepage’s Ex Machina production company all the way to an installation in Manhattan that was so fraught that the opera house’s concrete floor had to be specially reinforced to support it.

It wasn’t just the weight that was a problem for the Metropolitan’s stagehands, it was the unimaginably complex logistics of the most technical show in the company’s history.

The singers too had just as much difficulty getting used to the moving behemoth as the crew did operating it. Unapologetic fear was the most frequent initial response to the elaborate contraption, with one singer reporting, “That was the most frightening entrance I’ve ever had.”

Soprano Deborah Voigt, taking her first crack at Brunnhilde, the Ring’s central role, had the most at stake in the production. Filmmaker Froemke had an especially strong rapport with this un-diva like diva, and we get a good sense from her about why and how this production was so challenging.

Froemke and her team don’t just talk to the stars, they interview widely in the Met family, displaying an eye for visual details and an ear for involving quotes. Best of all are the interviews with, if there is such a thing, ordinary New York opera-goers, many of whom are distinctly mistrustful of this new-fangled production even as they line up to buy tickets.

“I’m afraid of what they’re going to do with it,” says one, with another insisting, “I don’t want to see pizazz.”

“Wagner’s Dream” ends up being a classic process documentary, showing how an opera company can work as a single organism as it copes with any number of last-minute crises, including an equipment malfunction that led the New York Times to memorably run the headline “The Gods Are Stranded As Set Misfires.”

The film would have benefited from the perspective of critics analyzing how well the production did artistically when all was said and done, but this is a minor omission in a very satisfying effort.