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.


  1. Most intriguing, an almost altogether revised reaction from what was discussed outside the DCP after a Götterdämmerung dress rehearsal several months back. More, more..!!

  2. The main adjustment is, of course, in the viewer's perception. Once one scales critical judgment to match the vocabulary Freyer uses, the "shock" of his approach melts away. I don't think I will trade the fairy tale for the myth just yet, but now I can appreciate its contribution to the full understanding of Wagner.

    Stay in touch! Rodney


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