Michael Levine’s Scenographically Dynamic Architecture: The Ring Cycle



Natalie Rewa


In Michael Levine’s production design for Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold opens onto an unmarked fabric-draped white cube.  In the final opera of the tetralogy the curtain rises on a space reminiscent of curve in a highway, oriented by a center-line with two hydro poles as vertical markers stage left. Opposite them, on stage right, are skid marks that ghost in the traces of an accident on the stage floor; the top third of the stage space is crisscrossed by about 30 electrical lines extending across the stage. Marking distance on this set is a sole red light upstage ambiguously signaling an intersection.  Levine’s scenography neither specifies places mentioned in Wagner’s libretto, nor analogizes a contextualizing décor. It is the work of scenographic dramaturgy. The Canadian Opera Company’s Ring Cycle is emphatically a designer’s Ring, in which stage space enables a dramaturgy of human interaction through dynamic gestural performance rejecting the Wagnerian didascalia that Theodor Adorno described as the composer’s predilection for a ‘phantasmagoria’ of design.1 Levine’s design choices, on the contrary, reveal the social and cultural implications of action and desire through the making and remaking the stage space. The spaces that Levine creates emerge from a deployment of materials, objects and stage machinery with which the singers will actively engage.

It is worth considering, at least briefly, the distinct role that scenography plays in opera performance, from the point of view of the scenographer. Unlike spoken word theatre opera productions are developed two years or more before the singers and orchestra begin rehearsals. This process makes possible a strongly dramaturgical role for the scenographer – involving discussion with the director and extending to the building of several maquettes to make concrete the potentialities of the performance spaces before rehearsals begin. The French designer Yannis Kokkos observes that within this process the stage design initially exists as a thing in itself, and that it changes once the piano rehearsals start and, more significantly, that the presence of the orchestra intensifies any visual effect.  The design “takes off’, he says, with the orchestra and the singers.2 The abstracting effect of the music on the materiality of the stage also tends to distance the singer’s body, which in spoken word performance remains dominant.3 Kokkos thus implies that analysis of any scenography for opera is best to be undertaken in light of orchestral presence, and that it is productive to steer the discussion to sequences of spatial rhythm within performance, rather than to consider isolated images. It is precisely this appreciation of the operatic sequence – of which the tempo comes from the orchestra – that marks Levine’s scenography. So, in this paper I concentrate on specific moments in the Das Rheingold 4 when Levine’s scenography operates symbiotically with the orchestral sequences to create new spaces of authenticity.

“I just want to tell the story”, says Levine and so the resources that he brings to the stage and how he introduces and deploys them are of particular interest as narrational devices.  He appears to be in agreement, to some extent with Yannis Kokkos, that in opera the music can abstract the body. Exploiting this phenomenon, a mainstay of his scenography is an additional presence of nameless persons who are neither principal singers nor musical chorus. These silent figures become emblematic of the interpersonal gesturality that the stage environment generates. The way in which his production design incorporates such figures, even employing them to manufacture the scenery, is akin to relational aesthetics in gallery installations that bring the visitor into contact with the objects in the installation. This interaction both animates and modifies the exhibit by rearranging, taking or adding something to it. In the case of Levine’s production design the interaction is a process of human individualization stemming from a spatial as well as well as musical environment. That is, Wagnerian leitmotivs are expressed in terms of the animate and inanimate spatial rhythms.

Levine begins with a reference to actual stage space – and proceeds to abstract it by the use of materials. The curtain rises on Das Rheingold to reveal what at first appears to be the simple cubic volume of the stage of the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts defined by white fabric walls gently undulating in currents of air. In the center of the stage floor, in a tangle of arms and legs are two male figures formally-suited in the style of the nineteenth century. Eventually one begins to sing and is visually identified by his long hair as Alberich, while the other figure is identified as Wotan by his eye patch. Their twinning in the opening sequences is unsettling not only because of the entangling of Alberich with Wotan but because the visual narration itself places elements of the domain of one in that of the other, individualizing them as both different and alike. Levine's Black Alberich, who chooses power when he is rejected by the Rhinemaidens and steals the rhinegold for himself, is twinned with Wotan, who hungers for power and who has already cut out his spear from the World Tree. In the crucial moment when the sun glints off the rhinegold, Levine reoriented the lighting cue so as to introduce the light from below and just behind the still present Wotan and then, only gradually, to suffuse the whole of the stage space in an intense golden light. Eschewing the gold as a prop, Levine has no tangible object for Alberich to abscond with. Instead, Alberich’s stealing of the rhinegold is designed as a destruction of the stage environment. Alberich pulls down the fabric walls as he disappears through the central trap in the floor, pulling the fabric behind him and thereby removing the whole set for the Rhine. In this sequence the silk fabric is drawn under the stage like water running into a drain, seemingly taking with it the silent Wotan and revealing a new space.

Throughout this sequence Levine has emphasized the proscenium arch as a limitation of stage and any space "off-stage" is denoted in terms of theatrical technology – the grid in the fly tower, the magnets fixing the stage curtaining around the stage and the trap in the stage floor, or by emphasizing the dimensions of the stage floor, as in the second scene of this opera. By immediately drawing attention to the actual stage, Levine insists on the audience’s attention to the possibilities of superimposition of multiple stories on the same space. As Alberich disappears into the trap, it is Wotan’s space that stands revealed.

With great ingenuity, Levine answers the call in Wagner’s stage directions for a view of Valhalla as a whole building but without adopting a perspectival view of a distant Valhalla. Instead, he has designed two Valhallas that are not only manageable in the immediacy of the stage space but also dominate it physically in altogether distinct manners. The first Valhalla is the architectural model, for the second Levine has designed a glimpse of the enormous structure which can only be accommodated on stage as a small section of the scaffolded façade of the  completed Valhalla and one for which construction site safety netting seems to stand in for the softening focus of mists of Wagner’s Rhine valley. Levine's evident delight in the three-dimensionality of a model is in keeping with the fascination with miniaturization seen elsewhere in his design processes. These two representations of the one architectural concept boldly underscore the performance itself of Wagner’s tetralogy as a material process of human creativity, and demonstrate the dynamic variations of scales of expression that characterize Levine’s scenography.

The narrative of the next sequence of the first scene is not interrupted by a curtain. Instead Levine works with lighting designer David Finn to complement Wagner’s musical augmentation with an equivalent augmentation of stage composition. Wagner’s interlude between scenes 1 and 2 – the most resounding of the leitmotivs of the tetralogy – introduces Valhalla aurally. The sequence is about 5 minutes long and features only a statement of the theme. Levine takes this moment to create a specifically new space – literally – in these minutes:  once the tiled white floor is revealed, a team of stage arrangers begins to assemble the next scene. What the spectators witness is the the assembly of the most important symbol of the Cycle and Levine overcomes the impossible vastness of Valhalla by exploiting the inherent immediacy of the stage. Whereas Wagner in his libretto, and designers such as Appia and others since have presented Valhalla as an object in the distance,5 leaving the stage space as the domain of the gods and giants, Levine emphasizes the actual limitations of the stage space by assembling an oversize model of Valhalla before the spectators' eyes. This model, once-assembled, takes up almost all the available width of the stage and about two thirds of its depth. In an inversion of the stage tradition of a central acting area the model occupies the center and the players intervene from the periphery.

Heinrich Porges’s observations on the rehearsals for the first Ring cycle provide an insight into Wagner’s emphasis on Valhalla as an aural image before it becomes visually distinct.6 Alberich’s escape with the Rhinegold is followed by a calm in which we hear a “mournful lament for the lost happiness of love [that] accompanies the faint rustling of the water like a tragic epilogue.”7 And the second scene gives forth onto Wotan who is awoken by Fricka and who starts his greeting to Valhalla “in a half-reclining position; at ‘stark und schön steht er zu Schau’ he rises, and at the concluding ‘hehrer, herrlicher Bau’8 steps towards the castle. Then, while the orchestra is delivering the final D flat major chord, he turns back and comes downstage where Fricka receives him with her reproaches.”9

The sequence that Porges outlines indicates Wagner’s transition in the aural imagination from the gestural moment of the gold being stolen to the creation of Valhalla. The musical transition  precedes the allusions in the sung articulation. Michael Levine’s approach to this significant transition also marks the priority of the Valhalla concept in a distinctive manner through the use of his monumental model of the contemplated structure. The raising of this Valhalla begins with a massive planning project: the model fixes the grandiose scheme in the spectators' minds well before the construction of the real thing has begun. The twenty attendants attired in suits set out the model in the five minutes that it takes to play the orchestral interlude. An implicit comment on Wagner's lack of a chorus, they bring out seven tables onto which they place twenty two pieces of a white architectural model, and in the course of the sequence the dark upstage area (the scaffolded façade) is lit up as a large light box, the full height of the stage. A lone figure enters along one of the scaffolds of this proleptic building site. The interlude ends as the final segment of the model is put in place – a magnificent cathedral-domed structure is lowered on four chains from the flies.

Geometry also plays a distinct role in the sequence, since Levine divides the stage in thirds forestalling a vanishing point. Not only is the white cube of the first scene replaced by the small white tiles on the floor – now creating a very measured space, but the space itself is defined by the model rather than by the free flowing and joyous movement of the Rhinemaidens. As for them, they are now are pressed into the downstage third of the stage – as they too are 'reassembled'. As the model is being assembled upstage there is a comparable transformation downstage – attended by nine female attendants who help them dress into period taffeta dresses and put up their hair, the three Rhinemaidens are metamorphosed into women of the late nineteenth century. They and their attendants take up their new positions in the limited space around the newly-assembled model. 

The model remains geometrically intact until Freia disturbs it, as she runs in to ask for her sister’s help, and it is roughly pushed out of shape as Fasolt and Fafner make their violent entry to confront Wotan. They assert their indifference, even contempt, for the carefully ordered arrangement that they themselves have wrought. The symmetries designed to fulfill the desires of their client they destroy: thus Levine forces the clash of these two orders spatially and symbolically. There is a triangular relation between the model itself, its creators who remain indifferent to all but the price, and their client, whose yearning it will realize. This contentious relation is scenographically figured in such a way as to bring out the historical, political, and social resonances of the mythical action. Wagner’s own promotion of a social revolution that would enable theatre to proceed beyond the “tempting exhibition of the heterogeneous wares of art manufacture” is powerfully figured in the model– in its style, its size and placement, its assemblage and violent disassembly10 The monuments of the Third Reich, their makers, overseers and inspiration are inescapably evoked.

Levine’s conceptualization of the giants makes a significant gesturally-expressed relation with the architectural model, since at the moment of their entrance he initiates an important interplay of persons and objects, without resorting to visual perspective. The giants are assemblages no less than the model: each giant is composed of seven men, the singer held aloft in a composite structure of dancers and extras. As the giants confront Wotan, their choreography deposits them on the tables that have been used for the model, as if onto platform stages.11 Standing next to parts of the model, they demonstrate an alternative to Wotan’s relationship to Valhalla. This striking effect is immediate and demands a reconsideration of any oversimplified view of the giants as misshapen grotesque beings merely incidental to Wotan’s larger plan. Their presence on stage vies with the presence of the model in both its intact and fragmentary forms, for Fasolt’s ‘corpse’ will be integrated as a human element amid the destroyed model. Once disturbed by the giants, the model is never seen in its entirety again: the fragments remain on stage throughout Das Rheingold, and appear in various configurations in the other three operas.

Levine returns to the issue of scale at the end of Das Rheingold, but on this occasion he makes use of the scrim of the scaffold-enclosed Valhalla. He reverses the effect of scale which had been present in the scene with the giants by using the lighting as the animating mode of presentation, so that oversize shadows of the gods are cast onto the scrim, as if onto a screen, making the gods into misshapen, gigantesque doubles of themselves. But finally this upstage Valhalla serves an enormous lightbox which dwarfs the dimensions of the stage and by its luminescence not only silhouettes the gods as they make their way in, but also the features of the destroyed architectural atelier amidst the hanging trusses and wires. Levine’s scenography offers a searing dynamic imagery of Wotan’s ambitions and its implications as the connections between the two Valhalla structures are made: a harsher and more historical ironical vision than that of a rainbow bridge.

Levine integrates the fragments of the model piecemeal into his visual narrative. For the descent of Wotan into Niebelheim he remakes the stage space by lowering a metal truss on which Alberich enters from stage right (a mirror image of Wotan’s entrance to the atelier in the previous scene).  From this height Alberich lets fall a voluminous gold cloth, which expands to cover the stage as the truss rises into the flies (a movement that inversely mirrors his disappearance, with the silk/water through a trap that takes on the connotations of a drain in the stage floor, in the first scene). Here, the pyramid of Alberich’s riches is built and signified, by Levine’s frankly scenographic economy, from fragments of the model brought from upstage but covered by the gold cloth. This theatrical economy of transformation casts Valhalla as a double of the Rhinemaidens’ gold, and signifies the fetishization of both by the animate doubles: Alberich and Wotan.

Levine maintains the spectator’s focus on the architectural model as Wotan leaves Niebelheim and returns to his atelier. By the simple device of raising Wotan on the stage truss while drawing up the gold cloth with him, Levine makes the ascent from Alberich’s depths a return to the architectural atelier as its pristine whiteness is seen once again. The final choreography between scenes three and four replaces the model upstage, but not without a final act of demolition by the chorus of attendants whose slow-motion dismantling of the imposing central cupola into several pieces precedes their removal to the upstage location, where they will remain, “the decay of that colossal wreck,”12 throughout the rest of Das Rheingold and throughout Die Walküre. Levine’s use of the architectural model and later its fragments in Das Rheingold balances the gold and averts one-sided dominance and, positively, it enables the doubling of desire in Wotan with Alberich.  

But if the spectators have expected the model fragments to be gathered into the stack of gold in the final scene, Levine makes a different disposition of them. In a profoundly arresting manner he subverts the architectural deal by switching the emphasis to the new ‘currency’: Freia becomes the vicarious object of desire, as Loge wraps the gold cloth around her and her silhouette becomes part of the form that the gold-hoard now takes in Levine’s mise en scène. In a matter of minutes she becomes part of the spoils, a horrific trophy.

Kokkos observes that the scenography needs always to be conceived as present in relation to the music and that on occasion “it is necessary to devise [a scenography] that is able to resist the assaults and intensity of the music”13. He clearly invites us to look at how the scenography interacts with the music and to see how the scenography maintains its articulate engagement. In the case of Levine's production, sequences that were perhaps conceived as primarily orchestral become memorably scenographic, with their own dramaturgical dynamism. The interaction in these sequences invites the spectator to look afresh and listen with this visual perspective. In the discussion session about Das Rheingold  it was of great interest that though several critics were unsettled by the opening sequence, members of the audience voiced their strong approval of the dialogue that Levine had struck up with them.14

Levine understands his role as a scenographer dramaturgically. He makes it his primary objective to enable the gestural performances that reveal profound insights into human interaction, underscoring the musical expression with a squad of onstage assistants whose function it is to animate elements of the design. In this way, Levine's scenography is part of the ‘social field of the visual” not a "byproduct of social reality but actively constitutive of it.”15

Levine’s perceived dynamism of volumetric qualities of the stage oriented the rhythms of the stage space as an interpretive environment in which the movement of persons and of objects by persons engendered a series of thickened moments in performance. Attention to describing this active mode of storytelling, which often exceeded the libretto with the silent extras who manufactured the stage environments, situated the production of the Ring Cycle in a human landscape, in contrast to other productions which deployed the materiality of design as the foreground. The acoustically superb architectural envelope of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts designed by Diamond and Schmitt Architects supported Levine’s insightful design; reception of the synaesthetic scenography/choreography was affected by hearing the orchestra and singers with crystalline clarity and was enabled by the refreshing technologies of the venue that served to maintain a focus on human desire and accomplishment. This production design with its integral scenographic dramaturgy marks an important shift in an expanded design for opera of the twenty-first century.

N o t e s

  1. Adorno, Theodor.  In Search of Wagner, transl. Rodney Livingstone (London: Verso, 2005), 79.back
  2. “Dans le premier temps, il y a le décor qui existe en lui-même, puis vient le musique: durant les répétitions au piano, le décor garde un vie normale, mais dès qu’arrivent l’orchestre et les chanteurs, l’image “monte” de cinq ou six degrés, c’est à dire que la musique transcende véritablement le décor, le soulève.” [At first the décor exists as itself, then when the music is added during the piano rehearsals, the décor maintains a regular life, but when the orchestra and singers arrive, the image is intensified by five or six degrees, that is to say that the music transcends the décor, transforming it.] (This translation of Yannis Kokkos is mine, as are any other remarks by him.) Banu, Georges and Yannis Kokkos. Yannis Kokkos, Le Scénographe et le héron (Actes Sud, Arles, 1989), 134.back
  3. Kokkos, 135. back
  4. Scenographic design occupied an exalted place in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2006 production of the Ring. There is no precedent for the Toronto-based company’s arrangement of a single designer, working in collaboration with a different director for three of the four operas and, moreover, directing one of them himself. The late Richard Bradshaw was its sole conductor, and Michael Levine its production designer.back
  5. For a history of the Wagner on stage, see: Patrick Carnegy, Wagner and the Art of the Theatre. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006.back
  6. “The rendering of the Valhalla theme should convey a feeling of sublime calm. The tempo throughout should be a broad adagio – which does not mean that the span of the phrasing should be wide: on the contrary, accents should demarcate the two-bar sections of the longer periods. These accents, together with a proper grading of the different dynamic levels, bring out the inner dramatic development of this monumental tonal image which we must regard as the principal musical theme of the whole Ring.There is a particular remark of Wagner’s I must not pass over: when the motive is depicting an actual event it should be delivered in a grand style, slowly and broadly, but when serving as a reminiscence – as for example in Sieglinde’s narration – it should be slightly faster and with accents less pointed – as it were, in the throwaway style of an experienced actor delivering an interpolated sentence.” Porges, Heinrich. Wagner Rehearsing the ‘Ring’: An Eye Witness Account of the Stage Rehearsals of the First Bayreuth Festival, transl. Robert L. Jacobs. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 12.back
  7. Porges, 11.back
  8. “Strong and beautiful it stands for view/ Sublime, magnificent building”back
  9. Porges, 12.back
  10. Wagner, Richard. “Mercury, God of Merchants, Reigns over Modern Culture,” in Cultural Decadence of the Nineteenth Century, transl. Ashton Ellis. Excerpted in Albert Goldman and Evert Sprichorn, eds., Wagner on Music and Drama. (New York: DaCapo Press, 1965), 38.back
  11. These sequences were choreographed by Serge Bennathan.back
  12. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”.back
  13. Kokkos, 134. “Il faut inventer un capable de résister aux assaults et a l’intensité de la musique.”back
  14. “The View from Valhalla.” 16 September, 2006.back
  15. Mitchell, W.J. T. What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 47.back

Natalie Rewa is the author of Scenography in Canada: Selected Designers (University of Toronto Press, 2004). She was co-curator if the Canadian delegation to PQ07, and co-editor of Imprints of Process, the catalogue for the exhibit, editor of Design and Scenography (Playwrights Canada Press, 2009), guest editor of the special issue: “Costumes and Costuming” of Canadian Theatre Review 152 (2013). Her research appears in Performance Costume:New Perspectives (forthcoming),  Performing Architectures: Projects, Practices, Pedagogies (2018), Canadian Theatre Review, Theatre Research in Canada, Australasian Studies, Scene and Theatre and Performance Design. She is Professor of Drama in the Dan School of Drama and Music at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.