Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Before the Ring Cycle

Getting there was half the fun

-Achim Freyer ---------------------------------------- Photo: Rodney Punt

by Rodney Punt

On September 11, 2000, when LA Opera announced it would mount Richard Wagner’s massive tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, it could not have envisioned how much water would pass under the bridge of its putative river Rhine before it was realized.

A year later to the day came 9/11, launching the Age of Terrorism and two foreign wars. Severe disruption to normal travel would ensue, including that of international artists and musicians. Multiple economic disruptions hit the US and world economies. A flashy financier close to general director Plácido Domingo, who had pledged to fund the Ring, instead went bankrupt and was convicted of fraud. The announced “Star Wars” collaboration between German director Peter Mussbach and George Lukas’ Industrial Light & Magic, the innovative Hollywood technical factory, fizzled.

Adding injury to insult, General Manager Edgar Baitzel, credited with bringing in back-up choice Achim Freyer to helm the production, unexpectedly died, and was replaced by his wife, Christina, in a liaison capacity between Freyer and the Opera's staff for the project’s duration.

Sometime later, LA Opera nearly went bankrupt, laid off a substantial number of its administrative and technical staff, and survived only on the kindness of government strangers. About this time, certain members of the Jewish community in Los Angeles, along with County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, took exception to attention given to the anti-semite Wagner in Ring Festival LA. Then, on the eve of the first full Ring Cycle launch, two of its star singers broke protocol and complained to the press that the production was unsafe and artistically compromised.

Talk about the curse of the ring!

Opera production ain’t for the faint-hearted. Did I mention the volcano in Iceland that sporadically grounded flights to and from Europe, spooking continental Wagnerites against flying here at the critical decision-period before the production, along with the loss of their purchasing power when the euro tanked in Greece’s financial crisis?

Add a pinch of Greek tragedy to two portions of Alberich’s curse and you get the recipe for some sluggishness in ticket sales experienced at the box office today.

Where was the ring’s power when we needed it most?

With all this thrown at it, last Saturday evening at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion our battered but still standing LA Opera was poised to set in motion the first complete Ring Cycle in its quarter-century history. Helming it was the same controversial German opera director who had previously staged in Los Angeles Bach’s Mass in B minor and Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, neither, incidentally, operas.

Reactions to those productions had been mixed.

Freyer's Bach Mass in B minor

Introduced during General Director Plácido Domingo’s inaugural season in 2001-2, most found the Mass in B minor production baffling. With Bach’s music treading the well-worn path of the Christian Eucharist, Freyer had actors on stage in full body stockings slowly walking around amongst abstract linear drawings. The whole thing seemed yet another exercise in Regietheater (director’s theater), a peculiarly European phenomenon characterized by willful stage directions that take serious revisionist liberties with the works they purport to realize.

Freyer's La Damnation de Faust

Things improved considerably with Freyer’s production of the Hector Berlioz La Damnation de Faust in the 2003-4 season. Freyer’s fanciful costumes and lively direction made the original “legende dramatique” (a kind of dramatic oratorio) come to life as a stage production. Even so, one directorial misjudgment compromised the dramatic conception for me.

In the Berlioz version, an aging Faust is represented before his encounter with Mephistopheles in a state of ennui and regret for a life seemingly wasted on pointless intellectual pursuits. He longs for youthful love again, and is willing to pay any price, including that of the future of his soul.

As directed by Freyer, the work skips this initial emotional set-up and begins in the middle of the ensuing surreal nightmare as if Faust had already signed his fateful contract with the devil.

Here was a missed opportunity. Had Faust’s empty longing been established first, the contrast with the “hellish” state he got himself into after would have matched the drama and music and offered an even more dazzling introduction to what Freyer does best: depict the bizarre.

One has to remember only the blandness of a sepia-toned Kansas, with Dorothy opening the front door of her plain prairie home to reveal the Technicolored Land of Oz, in a film made in 1939, to have some idea what grand effect was thrown away in that similar moment in the Berlioz work.

This combination of brilliance in conception mixed with the occasional tone-deaf theatrical moment puzzled me, but my appetite was more than whetted for what was to come in the massive work of Wagner, so full of theatrical possibility and precedent.

The world of opera has already seen realistically depicted mythological Rings, beginning with the cycle's premiere at Bayreuth in 1876 and continuing more or less unabated through World War II. The war having left disillusionment with Wagner and his family's association with Nazi Germany, an attempt to distance his musical legacy resulted in the pared down, hyper-symbolic Rings by Wieland Wagner, the composer's brilliant stage director grandson, at Bayreuth in the early 1950's.

Following these, Regietheater productions gushed forth, featuring industrial settings, war zones, and "green" disasters. Still others emphasized local color in foreign lands. The mighty Metropolitan Opera, catering to its audience's conservative tastes, had until quite recently kept in production its old-fashioned, realistic Ring. But times change.

How would Freyer's visionary new Ring stack up against these?

We will leave it at this question, as the scrim was set to light on the first complete production of Wagner’s Ring by LA Opera in its intended cyclic staging of the four operas together.

1 comment:

Joseph Mailander said...

A great summary of the problems on the Rhine. To return the favor of the staging, we should post a photo of Freyer wearing a mask on an underlit stage, standing behind a gauze curtain.