I, for one, believe the stage machine can only work with operas like Siegfried.
When I conjure up memories of the opera, there is only its extravagance—its voices, costumes, orchestra, and opulent sets. Indeed, the opera overcomes the senses more with its visual stimulation than its melodramatic dazzle. So, imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch Siegfried.
Instead of painted sheets depicting the rich forests of Viking saga, there was only an ominous hunk of metal. The “Stage Machine,” they call it. The stage machine comprises of a 45-ton set of 24 rotating planks, each of which projects digital images. It was upon these elongated screens that the five hours of Wagner’s opera unfolded, serving both as stage and backcloth.
The stage machine proved itself surprisingly versatile. At times, its planks were the trees of a peaceful forest; at others, they were the jagged edges of a mountain outcrop; sometimes, they were the licks of flaming fires. The opera singers both sang in front of it and on top of it. Suddenly, the opera stage was more three-dimensional than it ever had been.
However, the machine has received much criticism. While some claim it is revolutionary, others call it a monstrosity. Every now and then it creaks and malfunctions, as much any amateur actor on stage.
I, for one, believe the stage machine can only work with operas like Siegfried. Siegfried is an opera about the beauty of solitude and the terror we feel upon falling in love, threatening the solitary condition. The most beautiful moments are produced in Siegfried’s solitude as he reflects on his parentage in the company of a songbird in the woods.
The stage machine’s screens create the illusion of a forest so real, that the shadow of leaves brushing against the wind sways you to ease. The songbird flutters across the planks, singing to Siegfried, while an opera singer voices her off-stage. The songbird transforms from an instrumental moment to luscious vibrato when Siegfried drinks of the dragon blood that imbues understanding. Here, the most beautiful part of the opera takes place upon these planks, rather than on the horizontal stage upon which opera singers swell.
The stage machine, as the solitary force creating geographic moments, heightens this sense of solitude. This made the five-hour opera a meditation rather than a marathon. It isn’t a particularly deep or richly symbolic opera. In my opinion, the story is rather silly and unconvincing.
But then, when stripped of the decadent distraction of stage opulence, are not all operas just as plagued by empty narrative? In this performance at least, the singing alone could not make up for it. The most useful aspect of the stage machine is that it highlights much needed reforms in the opera libretto.
Check out more info on Siegfried at The Metropolitan Opera.