Early in Wagner's "Ring" cycle, Wotan glimpses the new home he has commissioned for his fellow gods and exclaims: "Vollendet das ewige Werk!" (The everlasting work is finished!")
Robert Lepage might feel some of that same pride and relief as he nears the Metropolitan Opera premiere this Friday night of "Goetterdaemmerung" ("Twilight of the Gods"), the fourth and final installment in a production nearly six years in the making.
But Wotan's boast carries unintended irony, since Valhalla turns out to be far from everlasting: The seeds of the gods' destruction have already been sown by the bargain he was forced to make to pay for his palace.
For the Canadian director, the problem is different but potentially just as devastating.
His "Ring" is the most expensive production ever seen on the Met stage, costing more than $16 million. It's built around a 45-ton contraption made up of 24 gigantic planks that move independently on a central axis. With the help of computerized projections, these planks conjure up all the scenery _ from rivers to mountains, from forests to caverns.
For many critics and members of the public, Lepage's reliance on this set signals a fatal flaw in the production. It's capable _ when it works right _ of creating magnificent stage pictures, but the skeptics say these come at the price of neglecting the interactions among the characters that make the "Ring" great drama as well as great music.
At times, the singers are confined to a narrow apron at the front of the stage or stuck in a trough that inhibits their movements. During the heart-rending scene in which Wotan bids farewell to his favorite daughter, Bruennhilde, Lepage diverts attention from them by having the set undergo yet another spectacular transformation. And the set is noisy _ given to making loud creaks and thuds.
Lepage acknowledges some of the problems, but the criticism that he has ignored the drama clearly rankles.
"People say we've put way too much emphasis on the set, but it's not true," he said in an interview last week. "From the moment we walk into the rehearsal room, the set is not there. We devote weeks to discussing the roles, discussing the idea behind the scenes, digging into the subtext."
Given all that time and effort, he was especially hurt by his reception on opening night last spring of "Die Walkuere," the second "Ring" opera. Cast and conductor were cheered lustily during curtain calls, but when Lepage and his team came out, the cheering mixed with boos.
"I remember thinking, `Do these people know that some of that good singing and good acting they just saw came from hours and hours of introducing somebody to the part, or to confronting contradictory ideas with people who had been doing it for a long time?'"
"They've been applauded," he said, "and then the guy who worked on that comes out and suddenly you're just the guy who has this big set that makes noise."
Many "Ring" productions place the action in a historical context, like Patrice Chereau's Bayreuth version, which imagined Wotan as a 19th-century industrialist. Lepage said he wanted to avoid that kind of specificity, and the set helped him.
"My idea was to do a kind of brush and scrub of the `Ring,'" he said. "Not locating it in any particular period or social setting helps us show that it's a work that transcends time and the economy and political systems."
He repeated a comparison he has made previously between his use of the set and Wagner's manipulation of his musical themes or "leitmotivs."
"The planks have been providing the braids from which the story is woven together, just the way the leitmotivs do," he said.
When viewers finally get a chance to see all four operas in succession, Lepage thinks they will be able to appreciate what the set has accomplished.
"There are things that will make sense when you get the whole story, because they echo things that happened in earlier operas," he said.
Audiences will soon be able to judge for themselves. "Goetterdaemmerung" will initially run for five performances, with the last one, on Saturday, Feb. 11, shown live in HD in movie theaters around the world. Three complete cycles follow in April and May.