The title of Susan Froemke’s Wagner’s Dream is both an expression of aspiration and a statement of achievement. Documenting the preparations for and performances of the Metropolitan Opera’s massive staging of the eponymous German composer’s complete, 16-hour Ring Cycle, from 2008 to its final curtain call earlier this year, the film both questions the claims that this is the first-ever definitive production of Wagner’s four-part masterpiece and more or less confirms its success.
More a structural device than anything intrinsic to the film’s larger ambitions, Wagner’s Dream‘s running commentary on whether or not master director Robert Lepage’s super high-tech vision is true to that of the composer’s is only sporadically touched on. In an opening sequence, fans doubt the validity of the enterprise, while the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, explains at a lecture the need for opera to innovate in order to remain relevant, and Lepage argues that only now has technology advanced far enough to fulfill Wagner’s conception. All these are interesting issues, but they’re only very lightly considered before being easily resolved. In a schematic progression, the doubting fans express their displeasure with the production after a difficult opening night, only to heap praise on the project in interviews that run at the doc’s conclusion.
All’s well that ends well, but the real achievement of Froemke’s film isn’t only to document the massive behind-the-scenes efforts to overcome a myriad of production challenges, but to show how much of the creative process consists of solving a series of technical problems. In the case of the Met’s Ring Cycle, the majority of these complications are the result of the series of 24 rotating planks (dubbed “the Machine”) that comprise the stage. This 90,000-pound apparatus required years of computer engineering and human labor to come into being and, when it does, it not only calls on the skills of a huge of team of stagehands to operate, but routinely malfunctions—including on opening night. At times, Lepage’s vision comes to seem like massive folly, his outsized ambitions matching Wagner’s, but in focusing the bulk of the film’s first half on the Machine, the director sheds new light on the primacy of technical issues in an ambitious opera production.
For her slightly less compelling second act, Froemke turns to the individual performers, particularly the brassy soprano Deborah Voigt, preparing to perform her first Brünnhilde, and the flamboyant Jay Hunter Morris, called in as a last-minute replacement to take on the male lead of Siegfried. Their nervousness and distinctive personalities humanize the high-toned milieu of world-class opera, and Froemke keeps a breezy pace throughout the film’s two hours. Nonetheless, these living, breathing figures are dwarfed, both literally and figuratively, by the moving stage they walk on, easily the film’s most vivid character, and something is lost in the switch in focus.
Similarly, the film’s need to document the openings of all four operas and its whittling down of a massive amount of material into smaller, easily digestible chunks makes the final act seem a little perfunctory, notwithstanding some limited but impressive footage of the actual performances. Still, Wagner’s Dream remains an entertaining, often enlightening look at the difficulties of staging a colossal operatic production, and its conception of the artistic process as a series of technical challenges to be overcome proves a valuable corrective to the 19th-century romantic conception of art as the product of an individual genius’s inspiration, which, ironically, was the very model that Wagner operated under while writing his magnum opus.