Thursday, July 1, 2010

Too raked over coals?

Freyer, offstage drama made
for a memorable LA Ring

Das Rheingold~(photos courtesy Kimberly Henshaw, LA Opera)

By Donna Perlmutter

It’s all over now, including the shouting. Three cycles of Wagner’s tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, performed over a month of marathons, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera. And was there shouting.

More than ever, today’s media have their tongues hanging out for scandal-loaded sensationalism. So it’s no surprise that the arts-side of coverage got mere shadow attention by comparison. And so it was with this momentous production, a one-of-a-kind for the history books.

No matter the side show, we cannot forget what’s most significant: That artist-designer-director Achim Freyer gave us an original, iconic vision of the 17-hour epic, one that stands with the likes of Patrice Chereau’s 1976 staging at Bayreuth, for instance. Also that he forged characters of contemporary pop-culture sensibility wired to avant-garde puppetry and new agey images – all of them profoundly targeting the story’s moralism: absolute greed leads to absolute destruction; it conquers all, love included. And he did it brilliantly. Bertolt Brecht meets Superman meets Neo-Expressionism.

Bridge over troubled Tochter--LA Opera's Die Walkü

But what drove the headlines were old-hat protest rallies – one faction railing against Freyer’s non-traditional approach (gone were the winged helmets and breast plates of Norse legend, the naturalistic play of characters); the other camp trampolining on the “Wagner is a Nazi anti-semite” meme (he died in 1883, six years before Hitler was born; in other words, no matter what a disreputable cad Wagner was as a human being, his ingenious music dramas stand on their own merit, for all but those who cannot embrace such an idea.)

Add to that the budget – it came with a $31 million price tag, which needed and got the county’s $14 million bridge to ease cash flow. For antagonists the loan was like gasoline being poured on the protest fires. (“What? The government bailing out that Jew-hater’s scenario of übermenschen and üntermenschen?”)

And then came the understandable, though endless, L.A. Times coverage. Hang around backstage long enough, as a team of reporters did, and you’re sure to get a story – now I ask you, what could be juicier, as opera scandals go, than cast members dissing the director, complaining about how miserable it was to deal with Freyer’s steeply-raked stage floor (which they had to clamber over like goats on a craggy hillside). Not to mention the cumbersome head masks and assorted other production details that made life harder.

But a lot of this telling-tales-out-of-school also served to ward off bad performance notices in what everyone knows is a larynx-testing marathon. Okay, the singers couldn’t resist -- anymore than could Gen. Stanley McChrystal sniping at his civilian bosses under the seductive surround of a Rolling Stone reporter stuck with him in Afghanistan during air-borne volcano dust. What Angelenos at large didn’t know, though, was that these disaffections are not unusual.

Siegfried Follies--LA Opera's Siegfried

When L.A Opera signed the then-hot (Lion King) Julie Taymor to direct Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, the cast was so incensed by her ignorance of what it takes to belt out big lung-busting arias – she actually wanted the title character to walk down a narrow gangplank while singing his big number – that they threatened mutiny. Backstage at the final curtain one member handed her a bottle labeled “Bitch Begone.” Before that, amid a roar of audience booing, someone actually threw a tomato at Taymor.

As for the Ring, everyone eventually recovered and even took great pride in this historic achievement for the company and the city. So did the audiences erupt in in “bravos.” But the director himself had to make compromises. Caught at an intermission, he lamented that fact. Yes, the giants Fasolt and Fafner wanted more time tummeling downstage, so he relented – mostly gone were their original representations, those 30-foot arms and hands famously, terrifyingly, grasping their prey in a way no others have illustrated so creatively. “And the rehearsal time,” he added, “I couldn’t get more than an hour for Rheingold while preparing for the full cycle.” And there was more. The difficulties of doing opera, he said, made his life as a simple, autonymous painter seem like heaven. Well, welcome to the asylum, Herr Freyer.

But his monumental gift to us will not be forgotten. Not only does its creation represent a high water mark, but its scope, depth and imagination make this Ring unique.

LA Opera's Götterdämmerung

No comments: