Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Machine

The Ride of the Valkyries

When theatrical effects and the word “machine” are used together, the modern theatre-goer may well groan. ‘The New Yorker’ music critic Alex Ross certainly did when reviewing the The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s epic four-performance ‘Ring Cycle’, with direction and sets by Canadian Robert Lepage and his company Ex Machina. The monstrous great machine at the heart of the production, dubbed by the company itself with the affectionate nickname “The Machine”, cost 16 million dollars and weighs 45 tons. The set of The Met opera theatre had to be reinforced to hold the beast. According to Ross, this was “Pound for pound, ton for ton, ...the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”

Although I’m a fan of the erudite Ross, and would certainly swoon if I found myself sitting next to him taking notes in a concert, I have to disagree in this case. The Machine enthralled me. It starts as a great grey monolith filling the width and a great deal of the height of the very large Met opera stage, and literally creaks and groans as it moves into action. Two dozen huge flanges rotate around a hidden axis, together or independently, while technologically miraculous video images are projected onto their surfaces. The Machine becomes the flowing Rhine, a rainbow bridge to Valhalla the kingdom of the gods, a hidden cave with a glowing forge, a dragon’s lair, a mountain top encircled by fire, a hunter’s forest house built around a tree trunk, a delightful forest with birds flitting through it; and perhaps most thrillingly of all, a bevy of wild horses ridden by the Valkyrie, Wotan’s warrior-god daughters. 

Mountain on fire? No problem.

I’ve referred to video projections, but these are not merely static. They use extraordinary motion and sound sensing, so that when, say, Siegfried (live singer) dips his glowing hot newly-forged sword Northung (prop) in the woodland stream (video), the water seems to steam and sizzle and flow around his hand. I make no claim to understand the technology behind this - I have seen it before in other Le Page/Ex Machina productions, and every time it just seems magical.

The term “deus ex machina” - “the god from the machine” - is given a whole new meaning. In ancient Greek drama, this term meant the intervention of a god to solve a sticky problem. In later drama said god might appear on wires hung from the fly. The term later came to mean any case where a seemingly insoluble problem was solved by an improbable plot device allowing the hero to work his way out of a sticky problem - an unexpected inheritance, perhaps.

Siegried and a temporarily quiescent Machine

Le Page’s company Ex Machina has taken these allusions and run with them. It has been responsible for some pretty amazing on-stage effects in theatre, opera and for Cirque de Soleil. Here’s how Ex Machina describes itself on its website:

Ex Machina is...a multidisciplinary company bringing together actors, writers, set designers, technicians, opera singers, puppeteers, computer graphic designers, video artists, contortionists and musicians.

Ex Machina’s creative team believes that the performing arts - dance, opera, music - should be mixed with recorded arts - filmmaking, video art and multimedia. That there must be meetings between scientists and playwrights, between set painters and architects, and between artists from Québec and the rest of the world.

Here’s what the ‘New York Times’ said in its review; and here’s an interview with Robert Le Page.

The Machine and the marvelous production which uses it was many years in the building. The Met introduced it gradually to its audience: last year each of the four operas of the Cycle were performed individually throughout the season -  a try-out, you might say - before the three complete Cycles were performed together this year through April and May. (‘Together’ actually means over ten days, as it is necessary to allow a night off for the singers between the first three operas, and two nights before the massive final one: these operas are the longest in the repertoire, lasting up to six hours.) In the try-outs, The Machine did not behave entirely impeccably. In particular, there were creaks. Loud creaks. Also groans and rattles. In one fitful moment the computer projections failed in the middle of the high drama and left the Windows logo emblazoned across The Machine, instead of woodland scene. 

The Valkyries

I am pleased to say that no such hitches marred the religious experience of my first full Ring Cycle. For me, The Machine and the extraordinary sets it provided were a fitting and fabulous backdrop to Wagner’s gut-wrenchingly beautiful music. It’s not easy to produce a convincing scene on stage where the composer-author requires three mermaid maidens to cavort in a river, gods to walk across a rainbow into a cloud city, wild warrior princesses to ride in on flying horses, a mountain top to be ringed by fire.  Wagner had a clear vision of how his operas should be presented. In his stage directions he specifies that “the sky glimmers” or that “the flames immediately flare up so that the fire fills the whole space in front of the hall and appears to seize on the building itself. When the whole stage seems filled with fire, the glow suddenly dies down. At the same time the Rhine overflows its banks.” So - how would you do it? Especially to an expectant modern audience in 2012?

The Machine is Le Page’s answer. I’ve tried to convey the visual splendour of watching the thing, but the real revelation is how it takes theatrical design into a kind of post-digital era. We’ve seen - from Le Page and others - the theatre magic that can be achieved with  video projections and digital effects. Too much of this and attending a live production can seem disappointingly close to going to the movies. Combining art forms is one thing; losing the immediacy of the live theatre experience is another, and to be deplored. With the spectacular Machine, we are reminded - courtesy of those creaks and groans - that here is a great hulking piece of engineering. Computer controlled, perhaps, but a 21st century version of the ‘deus ex machina’ - the gods don’t quite fly in on wires, but their stand-ins (yes, the acrobatics in some scenes require stand-ins for the opera singers) come close. All the time we are completely present with The Machine, not detachedly watching a clever post-production bit of video. Will it turn properly this time? What will it turn into now? Is Wotan safe perched precariously on the tip of one of the flanges, now representing a jagged mountain peak? It’s something like being a little kid at their first circus: dangerous, enthralling, magical. 

Yes, there's a dragon too!

Except that you are grown-up, in The Met Opera theatre, listening to Wagner. The audience is a sophisticated bunch of opera-goers (Wagner is not for the opera virgins), and they’ve seen the crème de la crème in their time. How did this hard-boiled group react to The Machine? I have to report, sadly, not well...some of the comments on The Met’s website blog give a flavour of the reactions:

Where I was sitting in the mid-rear Orchestra, the whirring sound of the cooling fans was constant, discordant, annoying and totally out of keeping with the quietude we have come to expect at the Met. Why, it almost drowned out some of the coughers and sneezers! This grey-noise was certainly more intrusive than the Machine wheezes. I would be interested to know how many decibels these things produce; certainly they mask some of more glorious sounds coming from the stage. 

I find it remarkable that this assault on the aural environment is not a subject of more comment. Presumably, professional critics get better seats than do I.
You can read more pointed comments of this sort on The Met’s blog.

Siegmund & Sieglinde in a woodland scene

But for the engineers out there, perhaps some technical details? From Ex Machina, who built the thing:
The machine is comprised of 24 triangular 2-foot-wide, 30-foot-long aluminum planks mounted to an axis that spans two 26-foot-high offstage steel towers. They are then “painted” with ever-changing streams of interactive video. The guts are hydraulic pistons in the towers which enables the raising and lowering of the axis, which rotates within the planks. Fitted with a redundant brake system (for safety and positioning), the individual planks can either turn automatically with the axis or be configured independently. 

It is the projections, however, that animate the pale gray planks — a neutral palette surfaced with fiberglass resin–topped plywood and coated in a pale gray epoxy — further transforming them into other worlds. Motion and sound detecting equipment, along with a special encoder to correct perspective distortion, distributes the imaging in a natural, lifelike manner across the stage.

And let’s give some credit where credit is, in my opinion, hugely due: The Ex Machina team that created this production includes Carl Fillion (set design), François St-Aubin (costumes); Étienne Boucher (lighting) and Boris Firquet (video).

Since this is a post about The Machine, it might sound as if it dominated the experience to the detriment of the music and performances of the singers. I hasten to correct this impression: the singing was superb, the orchestra magnificent, and as to Herr Wagner...I cried when we got to Siegfried’s Funeral Music. You had to be there.

Wotan & Brunhilde
The only sorry moment was learning that the wonderful tenor Jonas Kaufman had to withdraw as Siegmund at the last minute, due to illness. For the record, this is the production and cast when I was privileged to experience The Machine (Luisi conducting):

Das Rheingold - Thursday, April 26, 2012 - 8:30 PM
Luisi; Harmer, Blythe, Bardon, Klein, Siegel, Terfel, Owens, Selig, König
Die Walküre - Saturday, April 28, 2012 - 11:00 AM
Luisi; Dalayman, Westbroek, Blythe, van Aken, Terfel, König
Siegfried - Monday, April 30, 2012 - 6:00 PM
Luisi; Dalayman, Bardon, Morris, Siegel, Terfel, Owens
Götterdämmerung - Thursday, May 3, 2012 - 6:00 PM
Luisi; Dalayman, Harmer, Cargill, Morris, Paterson, Owens, König

Thank you one and all.

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