Placido Domingo’s east coast company, Washington National Opera, has postponed the Ring cycle it had already begun. On the west coast, Domingo’s Los Angeles Opera forges ahead, although next season will see the shortest season of subscription productions ever for the company — just 6. Three full rounds of the Ring cycle will end that season.
Seen on Sunday, March 8th, the Das Rheingold designed and directed by Achim Freyer reinforces the boldness of the company’s venture. Freyer’s style is much more about design and “performance art” than conventional narrative, which even a non-traditional staging such as Cherau’s at Bayreuth keeps as a foundation. When Freyer brought his staging of Bach’s Mass in b minor to the Dorothy Chandler some years ago, the audience strongly disapproved of the stylized pantomime of mummy-like figures, played out behind a scrim. However, a couple of seasons later Freyer came back to present Berlioz’s La Damnation du Faust, in a colorful, energized production that could fairly be called a hit.
The best sections of Freyer’s Rheingold shared some of the positive characteristics of that Berlioz, but there were worrying passages that recalled the distancing, overly clever worst of the Bach affair. Freyer seems most inspired by the outsiders to Valhalla. Loge is the only character who doesn’t either wear a mask or spend most of the performance hiding behind a fabrication of some sort. In fact, throughout most of the performance Wotan appears suspended in a box-like representation of his royal self seated on a throne, with only Vitalij Kowaljow’s face visible (and occasionally his hands). Alberich and Mime wear oversized face masks, which appear much more substantial than they are revealed to be when the singers doffed them at curtain. The design manages to brilliantly capture the troll-like nature of the Nibelungen and still allow the singers to project as if unencumbered. Freyer cleverly suggests the height disadvantage of these characters with an effect of huge platform shoes. The giants Fasolt and Fafner, on the other hand, appear both in the form of the singers, who sometimes raise huge magnifying glasses to their faces, and as oversized doubles — but only doubles of their construction helmets and their huge hands, when they reach out for Freia. Doubles fascinate Freyer; even the Rhine maidens have mirror-image doubles, waving their arms like synchronized swimmers, perhaps as water reflections would.
On Sunday the opening scene never quite pulled together, as Freyer doesn’t permit Alberich to interact with the Rhinemaidens who are, after all, trapped upstage in a huge billowing cloth. When we meet the future Valhallans, they are spread around the circumference of a center platform, and they hardly move from those initial positions. Freyer’s design here strongly suggests he sees Wotan and family as stiff, flat characters, who imagine themselves masters of their destiny but who are actually acted upon. The result was dry and uninvolving, prompting some worries about the later installments of the Ring, which focus on these characters and Wotan’s offspring.
However, it is not unusual for Das Rheingold to be dominated by its Loge, and such is the case here. Arnold Bezuyen actually got to move, in fact, to hop and gambol and even, with the help of some more doubling (and tripling), glide across the stage. Bezuyen has a great voice for Loge, lean yet muscular, and from the time he hit the stage the production came to life. Then Freyer’s magic started to work, as the lower half of the circular platform rose to reveal Alberich’s mines, and Graham Clark appeared as Mime. Such is Clark’s irrepressible stage presence that even behind a huge mask he created a character within seconds. For once, the cartoonish stage effects as Alberich turns himself into a snake and then a frog conveyed a sense of the ring’s power, and the imaginative stroke of having the magical helmet be a golden top hat really paid off when a tiny version appeared on Alberich transformed as a toad.
Freyer’s lighting effects (designed with Brian Gale) did allow for a suggestion of a rainbow bridge, but Valhalla never appeared as more than a sort of floating castle turret. The Rhine reappeared as a blood-red stream at the end, a probable foreshadowing of the carnage to come.
The Rhinemaidens were sung with liquid (forgive me) purity by Stacy Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Beth Clayton. Gordon Hawkins seemed a bit stifled by the staging of the first scene, but he was very impressive once he’d acquired the Rhinegold. Judgment will have to be reserved on the Wotan of Vitalij Kowaljow — the voice is sonorous enough, but it would take a singer of rare charisma to create a character when he spends most of the opera as a face sticking out of a hole in a cardboard facade. Michelle de Young interacts with her consort from across the stage, her movement restricted to a few waves of her oversized arms. Jill Grove’s Erda also sported an extra set — or two — of lengthy limbs. If the staging restricted the creation of characters, it seemed to concentrate both Grove and de Young’s vocal energy, and they both sounded great. Morris Robinson and Eric Halfvarson, as Fasolt and Fafner respectively, almost matched Bezuyen’s Loge for strong singing matched with memorable characterization. In their brief moments, Beau Gibson’s Froh, Wayne Tiggs’s Donner and Ellie Dehn’s Freia all made impressive contributions.
Los Angeles Opera covered the pit for this performance, and of course without the appearance of James Conlon at the dimming of the lights, many in the audience had to be shushed into silence as the low rumble of the first chord seeped out. The sound was surprisingly warm and detailed under the circumstances. Conlon supported the singers, while allowing the orchestra to ramp it up for the descent to the realm of the Nibelungen and the approach to Valhalla. At curtain most of the cast ran on and off stage fairly quickly, but Conlon took a diva-like bow, bathing in the adulation of the besotted LAO audience. Wonderfully, a camera then panned over the LAO orchestra, projected onto the scrim. That’s an innovation worth adopting on a routine basis.
Freyer’s artistry is dynamic and thought-provoking. However, much of the Ring is good old-fashioned story-telling. To what extent Freyer’s style and Wagner’s creation actually work together will perhaps be revealed in the upcoming Das Walküre.