Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Into the Freyer

LA Opera concludes Ring cycle
with unblinking

Images courtesy Monika Rittershaus, LA Opera - click to enlarge

by Donna Perlmutter

When Achim Freyer and the Los Angeles Opera unveiled their final “Ring” entry, Götterdämmerung, or, as German-averse speakers call it, Twilight of the Gods, there was more than a hint of Wagner’s capacity for irony. Yes, the mighty composer could not only see corruption trumping idealism but he could send up the whole kit and caboodle of gnomes and warriors, mortals and gods, in a rousing conflagration and be quite satisfied with the apocalyptic outcome.

How’s that? Well, director/designer/artist Freyer proved the point; he never blinked throughout his brilliantly imaginative traversal of the four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and by the time he got to its finale, clocking in at five hours and 20 minutes, he made us understand that, like the princely Siegfried, we’re all dupes of universal forces.

You see, Siegfried (left), in Freyer’s hands, is the ultimate dupe. Now we know why this innocent fool gets a comic-book characterization – yellow Harpo Marx wig made of giant plastic-roller curls, trompe l’oeil muscled long-sleeve tee shirt, bearskin baggy pants. He’s a sendup of the hero. And the director’s production is a 21st-century play on the futile workings of man and his gods, be they righteous or otherwise.

All elements from the three earlier installments are in place – a poetry in motion generated by ever-adjusting symbolic props that drift in space (these include a shiny gold top-hat representing the tarnhelm); a steeply-raked stage framed in linear neon tubes that keep re-positioning; posterboard costumes that the characters step in and out of, painted with their physical identifiers (trompe l’oeil breasts for Brünnhilde and Waltraute).

And Hagen (right), for instance, takes on a puppet’s appearance. His empty pant-legs dangle over his posterboard counter – remember he was sired by Alberich solely for the purpose of stealing the gold, ah, that universally sought-after gold, and he’s become a sometime Charlie McCarthy as a consequence.

The only staging quibble I have is with that moment when the divinely happy couple Siegfried and Brünnhilde part, he to do further great deeds and she to await his return. But while we’re now hearing the glorious music of his Rhine journey, we’re left to watch them – now reduced to two teeny, primitive, stick figures, static as could be in their upstage position -- as the orchestra roars forth in momentous motion. Possibly, that’s a miscalculation. Or, more likely, that touch of irony again, another nose-thumbing at 19th-century theatrical naturalism and its Wagnerian vision of triumph über alles.

But there was no let-down in the music-making department. James Conlon, at an achievement level perhaps equal to Valery Gergiev’s or Jimmy Levine’s of a decade ago, culled all the dramatic majesty and lyrical gorgeousness from his orchestra one might want (its suavity, power and dimension broken only by the occasional bobble from an exposed horn).

The cast coped, as all are wont to do, with the extraordinary demands Wagner made on mere mortal larynxes. Linda Watson sang Brünnhilde with fervor and force, if not always the steady column of sound that is ideal. Freyer helped her engender an aura of wisdom and empathy, of course, by positioning the ex-Valkerie on a pivot of grandeur, her towering crown of curls in place – until she confronts Siegfried’s betrayal, whereupon she strips them away, section by section, to reveal a bald pate.

John Treleaven, a more-than-game Siegfried, may not have the leather lungs of his famous predecessors, but his tenor withstood the role’s heavy lifting and, except for some wobbling on high sustained notes, he helped us see the semi-comic naif through sympathetic eyes. Eric Halfvarson made Hagen a nefarious foe, his knife-edged bass a vocal counterforce to Siegfried.

Freyer kept the faces of siblings Gunther and Gutrune enshrouded, suggesting their lesser power in the scheme of things, but both bass-baritone Alan Held and soprano Jennifer Wilson, in those roles, brought richness to the aural picture, while Michelle de Young was a standout as Waltraute, singing her narrative with a sustained strength that both commands and beseeches.

With this offering the company ushers in its grand Ring Festival LA, an extravaganza that spreads itself around the city through the end of June, with every imaginable sort of lecture, novelty, symposium and artifact-array relating to Wagner’s unique contribution to the opera literature – not silliest, among them, Das Barbecü, a country-western parody of the Ring and most controversial, the appearance of Wagner’s great grandson, Gottfried, in a talk titled Music of an Anti-Semite.

All this, a project begun years ago, stands almost in contradiction to the city’s current dire straits. And life goes on.

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