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Linda Watson (Brunnhilde), John Treleaven (Siegfried) [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of LA Opera]
25 Oct 2009

Achim Freyer's production of Wagner's Siegfried at Los Angeles Opera

Saturday October 17th found the Los Angeles Dodgers out of town for the weekend, but traffic still clogged the freeways leading to their stadium.

Richard Wagner: Siegfried

Graham Clark: Mime; John Treleaven: Siegfried; Vitalij Kowaljow: Wanderer; Oleg Bryjak: Alberich; Eric Halfvarson: Fafner; Stacey Tappan: Woodbird; Jill Grove: Erda; Linda Watson: Brünnhilde. Los Angeles Opera. James Conlon, conductor. Achim Freyer, director/designer.

Above: Linda Watson (Brunnhilde), John Treleaven (Siegfried) [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of LA Opera]

 

After all, those same freeways lead to the Music Center and its Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, home of Los Angeles Opera. Those commuters who made it to the house for the 5:30 curtain had their vehicular efforts rewarded. In the last of five regular season performances of Wagner’s Siegfried, Achim Freyer’s performance art aesthetic and conductor James Conlon’s mastery of the music and his orchestra combined for a riveting, charged evening of operatic theatre.

Freyer’s approach to Siegfried built on motifs and designs already established in the Das Rheingold and Die Walküre seen last season. A circular platform serves as the foundation for eerily costumed figures who play out the action of Wagner’s narrative in a limbo of archetypes (and their doubles). Outlandish limbs swivel like tentacles; giant heads top the dwarf figures; a furry jacket, embedded with keys and the size of a woolly mammoth, stands for Wotan’s enlarged ego. Wotan himself appears most often almost immobile in a stiff, dirty white-and-gray-barred outfit, as if jailed by his own ambition and hypocrisy. But when Wotan as Wanderer meets his match in Siegfried in act three, a shrunken double (perhaps a child?) straggles despondently across the stage, clutching the broken remnants of his “light-sabre” staff.

And Siegfried himself is literally the muscle-bound clown that many observers consider Wagner’s hero to be. With an outrageous blond wig of tight curls like so many pigtails and a blue muscle shirt chest above the furry pants apparently made from the bear referenced at his entrance, this is a Siegfried who may be laughable at times but who is always resolute in his focus. He wants to know who he is and where he came from, so that he can discern where he is going.

Freyer’s set seems inspired from a line near the end of the opera about “the race being almost run” (paraphrasing, obviously). So white lines divide the set into track lanes, and the singers often position themselves on starter blocks. This interpretation doesn’t really open up the opera to any new insights, but it does bring a degree of coherence to the action. What really matters is that Freyer’s imagination keeps the stage picture continually alive, a quality especially appreciated in an opera that takes a very long time to tell not really all that much story. A couple of moments disappoint, however. The crucial confrontation when Siegfried uses Nothung to shatter the Wanderer’s staff is awkwardly handled, with Wotan simply turning to a figure clad in a black leotard (one of several omnipresent staging facilitators) to exchange his long white light sabre for a clutch of fragmented light sabers. The dragon is played more for comic effect, with a Godzilla puppet that only reached to Siegfried’s knees. It’s funny, and considering Siegfried’s oblivious response to this supposedly mortal threat, that works. But when it comes time for the fatal blow, Siegfried turns to face the back half of the revolving disc, which has risen up with a small opening through which smoke billows. Siegfried casts his Nothung/light sabre through there, and the giant Fafner stumbles through, mortally wounded. It’s as if Freyer had two ideas for the dragon, both of which he liked so much he couldn’t choose one or the other. Well, better too many ideas than too few.

Where Freyer really succeeds is in making the connections between all the themes and characters. An impressive example in this Siegfried came at the end, when the huge Wotan coat stood in for the rock on which Brünnhilde slumbers (and perhaps her armor as well). Just as Siegfried the hero will break her free from her father’s domination, he pushed aside the jacket to release her. Their long duet became as much as hymn to freedom as an erotic celebration, producing the happiest moment in the cycle.

John Treleavan and Linda Watson have sung Wagner before for Los Angeles Opera, but neither was impressive in a recent season’s Tristan und Isolde. They both needed more beauty to their tones for the long passages of heroic lyricism of those doomed lovers. As Siegfried, Treleavan’s penetrating timbre, like that of a beefed-up character tenor, seemed fearless and inexhaustible (although he did eventually struggle with a final high note near the end of the duet). Watson doesn’t wield her substantial instrument with much subtlety, but she can make exciting sounds, and appearing only at the climax of the opera means a certain stridency in her delivery doesn’t wear out her welcome. Her upcoming Götterdämmrung appearance may be a different matter.

Vitalij Kowaljow continues to impress as Wotan. His costuming makes it all but impossible to evaluate him as an actor, but the voice has a most impressive combination of authority and attractiveness. His Wotan will be missed in the last of the cycle. Graham Clark has always been an athletic stage presence, and his hunched, big-bottomed Mime scrambled and sprawled across the stage. No one expects a Mime to sound pretty, and Clark probably couldn’t if he wanted to, but this is a characterization to treasure - repellent, and yet creepily sympathetic. Stacy Tappan’s Forest Bird sang from inside Wotan’s coat, with little claw hands grasping a branch. Her sweet-toned soprano has surprising resonance. Erich Halfvarson returned briefly as Fafner, sounding better when not over-amplified (as he was in his first off-stage lines). Oleg Bryjak will be back in Götterdämmerung as Alberich, and his solid performance Saturday night makes that a very good thing. Jill Grove’s Erda rose up from below stage in an inflating, globe-shaped dress, and Grove’s voice seemed as expansive as her dress. This scene can drag in a tepid production, but Freyer’s stagecraft and Grove’s artistry made it surprisingly exciting.

Hidden away in a closed pit, the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed like heroes and heroines for James Conlon, who conducted like a giant. He let the musicians loose for the instrumental passages, producing a rush of sound that would probably shake the rafters if the pit were open. Of course the singers were always supported, and Conlon’s theatrical sense of pacing contributed a great deal to the success of Freyer’s staging. This is world-class work, and more than makes understandable the LAO’s audience besotted infatuation with their music director.

The first two productions of Freyer’s cycle had many inspired moments, but neither evening quite pulled together as this Siegfried did. Anyone not sure about the complete cycles, to run in early summer next year, should be reassured - Freyer’s eccentric but potent vision is powerful theater, and should only get stronger in effect as all the performers get accustomed to his approach. Before that, in April, comes the first look at Freyer’s Götterdämmerung. Those few who left the Siegfried after the end of act one Saturday night - probably at the absence of an anvil - should return their tickets so that opera goers who love both Wagner’s masterpiece and an innovative, committed performance can grab onto them.

Chris Mullins

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