Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Ojai Music Festival 2010

George Benjamin and friends say good-bye to historic Libbey Bowl

Ensemble Modern---------------------------------Photo by Robert Millard

Review by Rodney Punt

When you drive to the bucolic town of Ojai, up the coast and inland from Los Angeles, you think of its enchanted valley as a destination, like the end-of-the-rainbow Shangri-La it depicted in the classic film, Lost Horizon.

If, however, you take the “back” route up highways 5 and 126, over the hill and into its west bound valley, Ojai seems a momentary crossroads to other destinations along the coast.

The renowned Ojai Music Festival can be viewed in much the same way – as a “destination” for music lovers to gather, and as a “crossroads” for musicians to explore new directions in works of contemporary composers, or the forgotten contributions of earlier ones.

Heading the festival’s front office for several seasons now, Artistic Director Thomas Morris and Executive Director Jeff Haydon have established a good track record in their global search for talent and trends. Last year they brought us eighth blackbird and Jeremy Denk. In 2011 it will be Dawn Upshaw and friends.

This year's 64th Ojai Music Festival was the last to be held in the historic but outmoded Libbey Bowl. It featured as Music Director (impresario) the 50-year-old English composer and conductor George Benjamin. The Thursday through Sunday event celebrated the composer’s works and those in his circle - his teachers, mentors, colleagues, students, and most admired composers.

Benjamin's works, and those he selected for the festival, seek to break down barriers between musical styles - popular and serious, tonal and atonal, Eastern and Western. He is, however, not an eclectic in the pasted-together, anything-goes way that trivializes the moniker. His works, in the modernist tradition, are precisely integrated, objective in style, and full of sensual and dazzling instrumental colors. Though his musical subjects are often stimulated by visual images, natural phenomena, or program narratives, he is essentially an abstract composer.

In appearance and style, Benjamin is meticulous, articulate, and energetic, also modest in the pleasing manner of a well-educated Englishman. It should be no surprise, meeting him and hearing his music, that he was a favorite pupil of French composer Olivier Messiaen. Less noted than Messiaen's influence, but also important to his development were studies with Alexander Goehr at King’s College, Cambridge, where he was exposed to Schoenberg's 12-tone system. Benjamin has become a noted teacher in his own right as the Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King’s College, London.

A frequent collaborator with the composer, the Ensemble Modern of Frankfurt, Germany, served as Benjamin’s central reservoir of performers for the weekend, augmented by singers, raga artists, a group of early music viols, and guest pianists. As modus operandi, the Ensemble Modern reconfigures its members in flexible instrumental groups for each work, seldom appearing in the same guise twice. Benjamin conducted the larger of such impromptu ensembles.

The overall program was an interesting contrast from some previous years at Ojai; not a note of minimalism pulsed anywhere within earshot, nor was there anything from the neo-romantic Atlanta School (less likely heard here anyway). This festival's fare was representative of progressive lines stemming from 20th Century French colorists and German formalists.

Three of Benjamin’s works were performed. His chamber opera, Into the Little Hill, of 2006, received its West Coast premiere in its concert version on Saturday evening. It was agreeably paired with the orchestral suite from Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat. Both are morality tales involving pacts with the devil and share a common musical aesthetic of objective astringency.

Little Hill is a retelling of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Remarkable in its depictions are passages that capture, in the words of Chris Haley’s program notes, “the slashing whiplash of the bloodthirsty crowd, the smooth platitudes of the unctuous minister, the scurrying rats, and the mysterious, unsettling stranger.” Story-telling in the third person reinforces the inherent objectivity of Benjamin’s works. Vocal lines for its two soloists, Anu Komsi, soprano, and Hilary Summers, contralto, are no less impressive, and Komsi’s performance of her stratospherically high flying role was riveting.

Sound enhancement for this work and the Stravinsky was spot on in the amphitheater, absolute clarity reigning, as designed by the Ensemble Modern's Sound Director, Felix Dreher. (In general, sound amplification at the Ojai Music Festival is among the best in the outdoor business. Let's hope its success carries forward in the new amphitheater next year.)

Benjamin’s Viola, Viola composed in 1997 and heard at Ojai ten years ago, is a study in textures and the potentialities of a string instrument too often overlooked. The viola, unfair butt of insider jokes in music circles, is Benjamin’s favorite of the string family (as it was also Mozart's). Violas have the ability – fully exploited by Benjamin - to plunge extreme depths into cello territory, as well as reach, in the upper registers, the province of the violin. With double-stopping and wild interval leaps the two violas of Megumi Kasakawa and Patrick Juedt made this duet sound at times like a full string quartet, which was, in fact, Benjamin's objective.

At First Light is an early Benjamin work (1982) and remains an impressive achievement. It’s inspiration derives from a J. M. W. Turner painting of sunrise at Northiam Castle. Impressionistic writing pushes the extremes of instrumental registers, mostly upper but notably lower in one section. Rarely used instruments like bass flute and bizarre sound effects such as a ripped newspaper and bouncing ping-pong balls make its colors particularly vibrant. Benjamin’s proclivity for objective description – apparent in the Little Hill score of four years ago - has some of it origins in this remarkable work by a twenty-two year-old.

As could be expected, works by two of Benjamin's revered masters, Olivier Messiaen and Arnold Schoenberg, were represented the festival offerings, in addition to those of a number of admired contemporary composers and one very old master.

Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, of 1909, was performed in the chamber version arranged by the composer in 1920. At a time when his fellow Austrians were wringing the last potential out of Wagnerian romanticism, Schoenberg was instinctively moving on to new forms and timbres, in this work "a continuous succession of colors, rhythms, and moods” as he described them. The luminous delicacy of the orchestral version could not be duplicated with the chamber forces on hand, but one could trace the work's influence on Benjamin's own delicate colorations in such movements as Bygone and Colors.

Saturday morning provided a perfect setting for pianist Eric Huebner's stunning performance of Messiaen's two-hour tour-de-force, Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jésus. Though inspired by his Catholic faith (with a capital "C"), Messiaen's "catholic" tastes infuse and inform the music. Unresolved dissonances, jazz inflections, chord clusters, irregular rhythms, nature references, sensual colorations in the tradition of Ravel, even thematic nods to Stravinsky - all are present, and all influential on Benjamin's own work. The presence of chirping birds within the overhead English Sycamores seemed part of the intended effect.

Speaking of birds, Ueli Wiget's Sunday evening piano performance of Messiaen' Oiseaux exotiques further explored the composer's riotous colorations and tingling replications of bird calls, again with a few aerial contributions from Ojai's natural aviary.

A selection of Henry Purcell's Fantasias for Viols performed by the Wildcat Viols (hardly descriptive of their drone-like performance style) gave opportunity to hear an influence on Benjamin's approach to string writing. These works and their ancient stringed instruments were already old-fashioned in Purcell's Baroque era, and the Fantasias sound more like polyphonic madrigals than steady Thorough-bass. The four simultaneous lines of the viols' oddly intervaled melodies collided in piquant harmonies simply unique to the composer.

In the category of works by contemporary composers Benjamin admires were Pierre Boulez's tender, etherial flute solo, Mémoriale; Oliver Knussen's moving Requiem - Songs for Sue, dedicated to his wife, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's esteemed former education director; and György Ligeti's Chamber Concerto, reflecting a view of life that is the dark-matter counterpart to Messiaen's heaven-infused earthly vision.

Elliott Carter was represented by his Oboe Quartet, of 2001, described by its then 91-year-old composer as “built up from a series of six duets, which cover every possible combination of the four instruments. Each duet lasts just a minute or two and the other two instruments provide an accompaniment.” The Ensemble Modern’s oboist proved as precise as a finch in his pitch-perfect landings of the work's angular melodic intervals. While witty and finely etched, the work reminded me of the later works of Picasso, full of uniquely developed technique but without pushing any new boundaries. For the then 91-year-old Carter (still with us at age 102), what he says may not be as important as saying it as well as he does.

Benjamin's pupils were represented in two works. Saed Haddad's Le Contredésir, in its west coast premiere, draws motivic inspiration from the Middle East within its Western musical format. The dialogue is between clarinet in two different registers and a French horn, with a cello grounding the two. The conversation seems first agreeable, then a bit of a tussle, and finally, with all three equally joining in, a taffy-like tug of war.

Steve Potter's Paradigms was excerpted in its U.S. Premiere. The composer calls it "a fragmented piece of many tiny sections at odds with one another." Selections aired varied between both accompanied singing and purely instrumental. Its tool box of tone clusters, Japanese-infused (and screamed) haikus, percussive effects, peculiar colorations, and accompanied poems could serve as a calling-card for the composer. While sometimes gimmicky, there were spurts of impressive inventiveness.

One of Potter's excerpts, a speak-song rendition of a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti ("What could she say to the fantastic foolybear...") reminded me of the sophisticated nonsense in William Walton's Façade. Mezzo-soprano Hilary Summers proved an effective singing actress as the deep-toned communicator of its surreal state.

In a parallel performance program, three separate sessions of North Indian Classical Ragas, so admired by Benjamin, were presented as specified for morning, afternoon, and late-night settings, by Sarode performer Aashish Kahn and two other performers.

Hermann Kretzschmar - Photo by Robert Millard

By way of novelty fare, Friday evening's program was devoted to Frank Zappa's experimental contempo-rock music Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions and his The Yellow Shark medley, the latter developed with and for The Ensemble Modern in 1992. Performance editions of the Zappa were made possible by a device known as the Synclavier, which can perform any imaginable number of parts with absolute accuracy electronically, an accuracy apparently only possible in human performance, according to the late Zappa, by the Ensemble Modern itself.

One sequence from Yellow Shark, "Welcome to the United States" is a facetious setting of an INS application form that provided Ensemble Modern's Hermann Kretzschmar an opportunity to step away from his usual position at the piano and comically recite a surrealistic sequence of questions actually asked as application for US entry. He wore an "Uncle Sam" suit and top hat.

All day Friday, the music festival's hipster new music crowd encountered former hippy Zappaistas from a wildly experimental era in pop. Zappa's pretensions toward serious music were contrasted on the program by Edgard Varèse's Density 21.5 and his Octandre, with which the "mad scientist" composer inspired Zappa, the two far-out creators meeting halfway in the odd space of their respective musical journeys.

The most sought-after ticket for the whole weekend was a late Friday evening screening of the classic Danish film, Vampyr, with Benjamin improvising its piano accompaniment. Directed and co-written by filmmaker Carl T. Dreyer, it was introduced drolly by noted film critic, Peter Rainer.

At the piano as the film ran, Benjamin introduced a theme I recognized from Franz Liszt's Faust Symphony. The character portraying the vampire emerged in the film shortly after as an exact - if most likely unintentional - image of the aging Franz Liszt draped in religious orders. The musical motif employed has an augmented major chord repeated four times, each a half step down, its later variations referencing both Faust and Mephistopheles. Cleverly echoing the film's own narrative between vampire and victim, it produced, from a musical point of view, a perfect twelve-tone row. Benjamin confirmed after the show that I had "solved the riddle" of his improvisation.

It was a notable 64th Ojai Music Festival, the last nostalgic encounter we shall have of the termite-ridden, fragile and obsolete, but beloved Libbey Bowl. Next year a new performing shell and backstage complex will be in place. Donations are being solicited by the Ojai Music Festival Board for its construction. My wife and I donated. You might consider doing so as well.

To contact the Ojai Music Festival office, click here.

Mystery guests at Ojai Music Festival--------------Photo: Rodney Punt

Paparazzi photo above: LA Times music critic Mark Swed, with the Ojai Festival's Music Director-designate, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and stage director Peter Sellars, relaxing at Ojai's Vesta Restaurant this past Sunday.

With an improved amphitheater facility on the way, next year should bring a new dawn for the music festival in at least a couple of senses!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ernest Fleischmann, 1924-2010

Left to right: Frank Gehry, Diane Disney Miller, Fred Nicholas, Ernest Fleischmann, 1988.

To be honest, I thought he was older than 85.

He was both marketer and product manager; a rare combination, especially for someone in music. Most of all, he knew, and pushed for, the value of the staged early triumph, a template borrowed from Bernstein; it was the template that serviced both Esa-Pekka (even with the same Mahler symphony as Lenny) and Gustavo.

I didn't know him, but he once told me that he found most Disney Hall seats not to his liking, and I liked him for that alone.

Now departed, the perpetual shills at the Times ask Frank Gehry, not a musician, for comment; they should have asked, say, Simon Rattle, or someone else who had to deal with his musical mind, rather than his singular determined hope for a special monument to his longtime orchestra.

But maybe it's appropriate to invite Gehry to babble and lie about him. There aren't a lot of symphonies in America that play in a hall totally dedicated to symphonic music, one that can't stage opera or ballet also; this most of all was Fleischmann's dream for the LA Phil, and he got it--at considerable cost to all involved, and even quite a few not involved as well.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ring of Freyer (II)

LA Opera concludes Wagner's Ring Cycle with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung

The Norns-----------------------------------Photo: Monika Rittershaus

by Rodney Punt

With this entry, LA Opus concludes its main coverage of LA Opera's Ring Cycle. General Director Plácido Domingo and Music Director James Conlon have achieved much in the last decade, not the least of which is to demonstrate to the world that our company can successfully undertake the largest projects in the repertoire. Not just the Ring but also the Recovered Voices project required vision, planning, and resources.

In an earlier posting we outlined Ring director/designer Achim Freyer's previous work in Los Angeles, as well as the decade-long rocky (and risky) path LA Opera tread just to mount the monumental work [Link]. We followed that with a conceptual overview of the current Freyer production, and then individual reviews of the first two operas in the tetralogy, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre [Link]. My colleague Donna Perlmutter had reviewed Siegfried [Link] and Götterdämmerung [Link] in the earlier regular season, stand-alone productions.

This entry provides short updates on the recent full cycle renditions of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung and concludes with reflections on what all this means for LA Opera and its future.


Siegfried at Brünnhilde's rock--------------Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Mime, Graham Clark
Siegfried, John Treleaven.
The Wanderer, Vitalij Kowaljow
Alberich, Richard Paul Fink
Fafner, Eric Halfvarson
Forest Bird, Stacey Tappan
Erda, Jill Grove
Brünnhilde, Linda Watson

Thursday, June 3, 2010, 6:00 pm, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles

Update review by Rodney Punt

After the detour for the adults in
Die Walküre, Achim Freyer is back on track with his toy-box production in Siegfried. The 76-year-old painter-stage-director sits us grandkids down again and mesmerizes us with this sugarcoated morality tale in the language of comic books. For those who are grown-ups, that language can be jarring until we are ready to adjust perspectives and drift back into a Peter Pan world to let grandpa conjure up the magical journey.

The production is in a groove now. The complicated lighting elements run smoother; the pacing seems fluid and confident, and the cast more at ease. Maestro James Conlon and his orchestra are having fun with Siegfried. It’s almost as if the whimsy of the production has infected everyone with its high jinks. Steven Bicknell’s horn was jaunty in Siegfried’s forest calls. The woodwinds chirped joyously to nature’s giddy sounds. There is a carefree bounce in the orchestra that matches the action on the stage.

Props again took center stage. Fafner’s dragon transformation appears in two versions, the first as a small green toy, as if seen from Siegfried's fearless point of view. I was reminded of those plastic dinosaurs one finds in the bins at Hancock Park’s Page Museum.

The dragon's second version - the one we less heroic mortals might see - comes from the central stage disc, now transformed as Fafner’s mouth. In Das Rheingold the lower diameter had opened up to reveal Nibelheim. This time the upper diameter opens forward to form the gigantic jaws of Fafner, snarling in basso profundo his emphatic possession of the gold hoard.

It is the last time anyone will let him open his big mouth.

The cast is fully on board with the
Ring at this juncture. The unfortunate mud slinging at Achim Freyer over the hazardous staging and controversial conceptualization is now behind the star soloists. John Treleaven and Linda Watson take center stage, and, almost in compensation for their spat having gone public a few weeks ago, the two have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the spirit of things. They are doing their best work to date in Siegfried. If not forgotten, all is, at least for the moment, forgiven.

For the title role, Achim and Amanda Freyer create a buffed caricature of Aryan cockiness in this Siegfried, a male version of The Dumb Blond. Treleaven embraces the idiotically naive lad as if he had drunk from the Fountain of Youth, no mean feat for a middle-aged singer. His hero is a combination of adolescent confidence and gaucheness. Treleaven has him bouncing around on stage, herky-jerky, afraid of nothing and no one, and sure of his immortality if he could just think that far ahead.

Physically, Treleaven’s Siegfried is nature’s Boy Wonder. Vocally, the years of heldentenor assignments have taken a certain toll on his voice, a noticeable wobble emerging in the more strenuous passages, of which this opera has many. Treleaven is a singer, however, who can pace himself through a long evening and still have enough juice remaining for a third act encounter with a fresh-voiced Brünnhilde.

Awakened Brünnhilde with Siegfried------Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Linda Watson proves herself, once again, a noble singing actress, as
Brünnhilde awakens to embrace the strongest, but surely also the stupidest male in the world. She may out-sing him by a few decibels, but she's definitely smitten with the boy.

Graham Clark's Mime is as deliciously snarky a characterization as we likely have today, his bright tenor sniveling about in the nasty poison plot against Siegfried. It will land him flat on his back and down for the count.

Vitalij Kowaljow’s Wanderer makes his last stand, after an altogether a noble run, vocally and dramatically. The most complicated role in the Ring, it is a performance that gained strength even as Wotan loses his mojo with each successive opera.

Richard Paul Fink’s rich, deep-toned Alberich continues to eat up the scenery at his every appearance. What a find for the LA Opera; he had joined the cast only after the initial stand-alone runs and is just here for the three full cycles. Bring him back!

Eric Halfvarson’s Fafner makes his own last stand after a menacing, fire-breathy run for the gold. Sorry, Fafner, but no (Alberich) cigar.

Stacey Tappan chirped prettily as the Forest Bird. Jill Grove as Erda made another try at imparting her richly toned wisdom to that heedless family of doomed gods.

-- more to follow --

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Ring of Freyer (I)

LA Opera launches Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre

Das Rheingold--------------------------------Photo: Monika Rittershaus

James Conlon, conductor
Achim Freyer, Director/Designer
Achim Freyer, Amanda Freyer, Costume Designers
Achim Freyer, Brian Gale, Lighting Designers
Grant Gershon, Associate Conductor/Chorus Master
(Cast members appear as each opera is considered below)

Overview by Rodney Punt

Wieland Wagner had made it dark and dingy. Patrice Chereau dammed its river Rhine in the Industrial Revolution. Wadsworth-Lynch etched it as eco-friendly. The Danes classified its family as something rotten in the 20th Century.

With a fascist-tainted history of pictorial realism to be avoided at most houses, every variant to its original staging had seemingly been tried. What could Los Angeles possibly say new about Richard Wagner’s colossal Der Ring des Nibelungen?

When the lights blinked on from behind the scrim of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion a week ago, taking us to the undulations of the river Rhine, what it initially said in Achim Freyer’s visionary production was plenty. It was also disorienting. At least it didn’t aim for overly weighted profundity or freighted importance.

Challenging all our preconceived notions about the Ring was a toy-box of objects and creatures in riotous color, accessible enough - on the surface - to be understood by a child. It even seemed aimed at a younger set, as if the 76-year-old German from the former East Berlin were telling his grandchildren a morality tale while he conjured up characters wacky enough to rival the illustrations they see in Marvel Comics.

The comics-derived imagery would prove to be Freyer’s greatest strength - and occasional challenge - as the Ring traversed wide mood-swings of Wagnerian imagination, from a fantasy world of odd creatures in Rheingold, to the complicated, humanly frail adults of Die Walküre, the innocence and hubris of Siegfried, and the tragic delusions, destruction, and ultimate restoration of natural order in Götterdämmerung.

Freyer never lets us fully forget he is telling a story. We will see his body-stockinged stage hands slowly move about throughout the four operas, helping realize his intentions, or silently aiding the protagonists with their props. They are the painter's surrogates as he comes to grips with Wagner's story. A Brechtian device also for "distancing" us from the action? Perhaps. Perhaps not. We had seen these stage hands a few years ago in Freyer's Bach Mass in B Minor, and we now understand that they too were "painting" Bach's great work.

Freyer's make-believe world is unusual, to say the least. But he is mostly true, in his own manner, to the tiniest details of Wagner’s stage action. (Where he diverges can be jarring - more on that later.) Interestingly, seeing this version has the effect of lightening up Wagner’s musical textures. Colorful characters - his daughter Amanda assisted with costumes - highlight the many droll and jocular elements in the score, often glossed over in de rigueur “serious” productions.

Getting used to the transition from an adult to a child-like world order is the hardest part of experiencing the LA Opera’s Ring Cycle. It is an effort requiring patience, even repetition, but it is worth pursuing, especially in the incident-rich Rheingold and Siegfried segments, where fantastical elements find their most compatible habitats.

Aiding overall legitimacy of the off-beat concept was how uniformly well-sung the first two installments of the tetralogy were, how tautly the musical forces were led by the indefatigable James Conlon, who not only conducted an ever more assured orchestra in the pit, but also gave all the pre-performance lectures with his customary intelligence and humor.

Incidentally, the orchestra pit was as fully open as the production could allow, given the need to shield the music-stand lights from throwing a reverse glow on the back-lit scrim. The “covered” Bayreuthian experiment of last year's pit was modified in favor of gratefully maximal sound projection in the large, sound-swallowing Chandler Pavilion.

For 16 hours, on four evenings over eight days, this alternate-universe staging would consider the origins and ultimate tragedy of human existence. As a by-product, a revolution in Wagner’s Ring Cycle would launch for the 21st Century.

Das Rheingold

Alberich----------------------------------------Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Woglinde, Stacey Tappan
Wellgunde, Lauren McNeese
, Ronnita Nicole Miller
, Richard Paul Fink
, Michelle DeYoung
, Vitalij Kowaljow
, Ellie Dehn
, Morris Robinson
, Eric Halfvarson
, Beau Gibson
, Wayne Tigges
, Arnold Bezuyen
, Graham Clark
, Jill Grove

Saturday, May 29, 2010, 7:30 pm, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles

Review by Rodney Punt

If Wagner thinks cosmic, Freyer’s Rheingold thinks cute.

Wagner’s myth becomes Freyer's fairy tale, as filtered whimsically through images of a child's Brechtian Theater. Where myths incorporate a supernatural cosmos, fairy tales have lots of magic tricks. The scale of awe adjusts up or down the spectrum according to your perspective.

In Freyerland, Wagner’s heavenly rainbow becomes a bulbous prop airplane, with a Snoopy-like painting pilot at the stick. It is also Froh's color-coded squeezebox. The terrifying thunderclap of Donner is a cymbal-clapping wind-up toy. Awesome Wotan turns into the bug-headed, flange-shouldered alien commander in a Flash Gordon B-movie.

The primary stage device is a large revolving floor disc (“ring”), set at a steep rake, the effect of which is to elevate all the action to a more vertical plane for the four tiers of audience seating in the cavernous Chandler Pavilion. Further reinforcing verticality are objects suspended above the stage, interacting at critical moments with the grounded action below.

When Wotan invokes Loge's help to trick the ring from Alberich, that stage opens up in the front diameter to reveal Nibelheim and its inner workings. It is where we meet, among others, Alberich's half-brother, Mime.

The disc will remain for the rest of the cycle the central springboard. And, as the media reported prior to production, its raking will involve a certain risk-taking, and no little grief, for some of the singing actors on stage. (On opening night, both Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich and Arnold Bezuyen’s Loge would briefly trip on the disc’s litter-strewn slope.)

Engaging and enigmatic, Rheingold is as fascinating to look at as a Juan Miró painting, with its curious creatures floating in a strange, enchanted tank of a stage setting. Costumes and objects appear at first as disconnected and arbitrary, but there is always a plan behind the whimsy.

Freyer establishes his visual images as shorthand symbols, in the manner of Wagner’s musical leitmotifs. The most potent is the coiled ring projected onto the permanent scrim, which breaks up at every suggestion of trouble, as when swords - or promises - are broken. Others:

When Alberich meets the Rhinemaidens, his entreaties are advanced with a red bulb of light ("love") offered to each of them, but tossed back in teasing rejection. His alternative is to purloin the gold, from which he fashions the ring of power, represented for the rest of the story as the same bulb in pure white. It will fatefully pass between the hands of successive owners.

Hands themselves become symbol for overreach. Fricka’s long-arms have pleading hands that grasp for her husband’s attention and for the big, secure Valhalla home she wants to keep him in. The hands of Alberich, later huge and disembodied, seek his lost ring. Hands, often in bright colors, will return as symbol for all those tainted with the ring's possession.

For Wotan and Fricka’s illusory Valhalla, Freyer floats above his stage a tiny drawing of a medieval castle turret, on the round bottom of which will eventually appear the hour hand of doom. When gods enter into the action, they do so symbolically as puppets or props from the flyaway "sky" even as their performing selves work on stage.

Wotan---------------Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Wotan’s “empty” wire-mask crown telegraphs his impending loss of prestige, eventually his power. As the much put-upon husband of hectoring Fricka, Wotan has already compromised himself, and his moral vision, with the loss of an eye.

Freyer seizes upon that eye as potent visual leitmotif. It issues from Wotan’s head in four stages, simultaneously illustrated, growing from small to huge as it rests on the stage. Disembodied, this “wandering eye” will follow the action for the rest of the story, summoning its master to intervene in human behavior, with ever-decreasing effectiveness until Wotan’s power is shattered by Siegfried.

The depiction of the Tarnhelm as Golden Top Hat is a clever nod to the free-wheeling plutocrats of the Weimar Republic. A symbol of the “transforming” power of moneyed wealth, it will prove a favorite cameo appearance as the action progresses. In Rheingold, its place on top of Alberich’s huge dragon and, in a miniature form, on his frog, reinforces the comic-book nature of the production, and the many playful parts of the Ring.

For all the props, masked costumes, and brilliant lighting schemes, Rheingold remains an opera of character, not just characters, and it demands singing actors, not just singers.

Richard Paul Fink dominates the stage as Alberich. Despite an apt but cumbersome dwarf mask obscuring his facial features, Fink’s powerful, dark-hued vocalization and adroit gestures brought menacing determination to the dwarf in his inability to attain love from the teasing Rhine maidens or retain the compensatory power of the ring he forged from their lucre.

Alberich’s pinstriped suit and lit cigar, like many costumes in this production, has its origins in German plutocracy, a favorite Brechtian foil. In platform shoes on a raked stage, Fink moved like an athlete, gaining considerable mobility from his first outing last year.

Vitalij Kowaljow imbued the fatally flawed Wotan with majestic dignity, his high, dramatic baritone a commanding presence. Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka proved strong enough in character and voice to convince as a counter force to Wotan's will. Ellie Dehn took on the sweet-voiced Freia when DeYoung switched to Fricka for the full cycle production.

Loge with Alberich as frog-------------------Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Arnold Bezuyen lent apt cynicism to the trickster, Loge, his bright, character tenor the perfect voice for an interlocutor role with the gullible Alberich. We had seen Loge’s devil costume in its rudimentary form in Freyer’s earlier production of La Damnation de Faust, but it is now augmented with clever “under-handed” arms, just the tools needed.

As the two giants, the love-struck Fasolt of Morris Robinson was stentorian and the Fafner of Eric Halfvarson of sufficient vocal menace to savagely prevail over his brother. The Rhinemaidens warbled prettily, Ronnita Nicole Miller in particularly rich tones. The Froh of Beau Gibson and the Donner of Wayne Tigges delivered fine versions of Nature's power.

As Alberich's half brother Mime, also with a dwarf mask, Graham Clark’s character tenor assumed a jaundiced pose that will have more to say later on. Jill Grove’s Erda gave deep, resonant reason to fear for the future.

Die Walküre

Siegmund and Sieglinde--Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Siegmund, Plácido Domingo
Sieglinde, Michelle DeYoung
Hunding, Eric Halfvarson
Wotan, Vitalij Kowaljow
Brünnhilde, Linda Watson
Fricka, Ekaterina Semenchuk
Gerhilde, Ellie Dehn
Helmwige, Susan Foster
Waltraute, Erica Brookhyser
Schwertleite, Ronnita Nicole Miller
Ortlinde, Melissa Citro
Siegrune. Buffy Baggott
Grimgerde, Jane Dutton
Rossweisse, Margaret Thompson

Sunday, May 30, 2010, 6:00 pm, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles

Review by Rodney Punt

At the premiere of composer Arrigo Boito’s opera, Mefistofele, another man of the theater, Giuseppe Verdi, observed of his once and future librettist, “He aspires to originality but succeeds only at being strange."

Achim Freyer succeeds in strangeness too, particularly in works like Damnation of Faust and Magic Flute. His talent illuminates a work like Rheingold, so full of fantastic incident. Staging “strangeness” may be Freyer’s forte, even his genius, but it can also be a clue to his limitations.

The Ring’s narrative enters a grown-up world in Die Walküre. Framing it as a fairy tale – a myth without hormones – would not realize its full psychological dimension. Adultery and incest exist on another plane from the tricks of Rheingold’s frustrated dwarfs and arrogant gods. In this setting, Freyer’s freakish designs tend to paint him into a corner.

To be fair, long before Freyer’s involvement, Die Walküre was the odd man out of the four component operas in the Ring. The other three have a great deal of magical incident and external narrative. Except in a flashy scene or two, this one is an intense, internalized tragedy, a life and death struggle. It defies whimsy.

Freyer responds by attempting to shift gears in this opera. He will go abstract. The color blue predominates, initially for purity of intention and later, perhaps, for the depressive emotional atmosphere.

Siegmund and Sieglinde, two hapless souls, a brother and sister long separated, find themselves in an X-rated entanglement. Siegmund arrives on the scene wounded, disheveled, and exhausted. Sieglinde will tend to him.

But Freyer has Siegmund arriving on stage neatly dressed in a blue uniform like that of his father, Wotan. Sieglinde is similarly attired. They stand in opposite corners of the disc, in touch-me-not static postures that could have been lifted from a Robert Wilson staging.

Freyer’s stocking-clad “stage hands” silently and slowly walk time on the central disc, now a clock with the hour hand moving forward or back depending on the characters in live action or reflective mode. The scrim's symbolic coil breaks up at every hint of danger.

The twin siblings are painted as halves seeking a whole, bodies divided into dark and light. The visual metaphor is obvious, yet we must endure their divided selves long enough that their eventual unity seems anti-climactic.

Meanwhile, we listen to Wagner’s profound love music for Siegmund and Sieglinde, anticipatory of Tristan und Isolde. Freyer’s theatrical objectivity here is sincere, but diverges from Wagner’s subjective, embracing music. The highly stylized costumes, including rather odd conical hair-do's, do not match the psychology of the music or situation, and alienate empathy for the Ring’s most sympathetic characters.

Most of the Act II action has a similar dark blue color cast, tending to deaden the senses. The endless arguments between Fricka, Wotan, and Brünnhilde need Freyer’s imagination. On this occasion it flagged. Freyer's virgin Valkyries, dressed in deathly black, are The Prim Reapers. An unintentionally funny moment: Siegmund addresses Brünnhilde as "young and fair."

The Valkyries------------------------------Photo: Monika Rittershaus

The famous Ride of the Valkyries might have been more effective. Freyer’s generally skilled use of the flyaway, particularly for the arrival of the gods, was entirely missing in this most famous cloud-hopping arrival. The black-clothed messengers of death are simply sitting on their freaky black bicycles, rotating in a circle on the disc, their arms extended, fluttering their trailing trains. Vocal strain was apparent on opening night as the eight ladies yelped their battle calls.

(The use of flying bicycles is by now a dated reference. Remember Margaret Hamilton in the cyclone before Oz? Or, that extra terrestrial, ET? The ones here don't even fly.)

Brünnhilde's banishment does however, rise to a kind of emotional potential. The silent stage hands, usually in the background, now interact by stripping the valiant Valkyrie of her armor piece by piece (here each is a fabric veil), revealing hand marks on her "violated" body, forced into human vulnerability. "Hands" as leitmotif in a return engagement.

The abandoned bicycles become mounts for Loge’s toy flames as he builds Brünnhilde’s ring of fire. They seemed more expedient than inspired in that capacity.

In one of Freyer’s public lectures, he related off-handedly how the composers whose works he sets - Mozart, Bach, Berlioz - come to him in his dreams and “correct” his work. When he awakens, he fixes the sections they tell him to fix. But, according to Freyer, Wagner never visited him in his work on the Ring. The "composer's" collaboration might have helped with much of the action in this opera.

Wotan and Brünnhilde--Photo: Monika Rittershaus

The vocal performances were fine. Plácido Domingo as Siegmund was in ringing voice, particularly in the plangent moments. When required to sustain piano passages, his 69-year-old vocal chords showed some wear, including a hint of wobble. As an actor, he gamely spun around when the action required, looked ever heroic, at least as Freyer’s costume and painted face allowed.

Michelle DeYoung, coming off the previous evening as Fricka, was a supple-voiced, urgent Sieglinde, some strain at the top notwithstanding. Eric Halfvarson’s dark-voiced Hunding was positively scary.

Vitalij Kowaljow’s Wotan took on new interpretive shades of emotional color as the conflicted leader of the gods who must take leave of his favorite daughter. Ekaterina Semenchuk found the role of Fricka a handy one for her LA Opera debut.

Linda Watson's Brünnhilde may not be the ultimate steely-voiced sky god, but she has enough power, dramatic persuasion, and stamina to inhabit the role. Her fall from grace was accomplished with dignity.

As with Rheingold, James Conlon’s orchestral forces in Die Walküre sounded like born-again Wagnerians. The brass blared majestically in the Ride of the Valkyries; the woodwinds murmured suave colorations. Even the reduced strings managed to sound plush enough to give shivers now and again.

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.