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

Los Angeles “Ring” continues to amaze

It’s three down and one to go in the first-ever staging of Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen at Los Angeles Opera. Following the premiere of Siegfried, the third installment of this epic work of music theater, it’s clear that director/designer Achim Freyer is a hands-down winner.

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]


The audience that packed 3,600-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the September 26 afternoon event, was even more wildly enthusiastic about Feyer’s work than it had been at the end of Rheingold and Walküre that launched this $32-million project last season. (True, there were “boos,” but they were almost totally inaudible against the bravos heaped upon Freyer and his production team.) Yet one must ask whether Freyer’s Wagner is as great as it seems. Has the director, whose theory of theater was shaped in his native East Germany in Bert Brecht’s Berlin Ensemble, really found a — if not the — key to Wagner’s genius or has he rather created a spectacle that awes his audience into breathless admiration?

Although Freyer is clearly a winner, the bigger question is how well Wagner fares under his hand. Every director — even in this age of overheated Regieoper — claims to do what the composer wanted done to realize his intentions. Let’s start with Freyer’s most obvious triumph: he leaves one with the desire to see the segments of this Ring again — an opportunity that will be available when LA Opera stages three complete cycles of the tetralolgy in 2010. Freyer brings an immense amount to Wagner; he makes every moment an overlay of meanings involving symbols impossible to absorb and interpret in a single exposure. Yet his approach to Siegfried, compared to his two earlier installments of the cycle, is relatively minimalist. The stage is uncluttered, and largely absent are the mammoth doubles of the major characters. The staging relies heavily on effects achieved through sophisticated lighting.

Siegfried, although rich in event with the forging of the sword, the slaying of Dragon Fafner and the launching of the love story that will dominate Götterdämmerung, is by far the most difficult of the Ring operas to stage. Wagner, viewing the four-part work as a symphony, suggested that this third chapter is a scherzo, and that has prompted some directors to introduce all sorts of funny-bone nonsense into the staging. Freyer — happily — goes in another direction. Nothung, the sword, is forged vocally without the trappings of the Village Blacksmith, and Siegfried runs Fafner through with only a blue-lighted tube. Indeed, the dragon that dwarfs the stage in many productions is an understated Disneyesque dwarf in top hat.

LAOpera_Siegfried02.jpgScene from Siegfried [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of LA Opera]

One is relieved at the removal of such hackneyed attempts at “realism.” Freyer keeps a tight lid on the scherzo idea. Humor in Wagner? One recalls the waggish observations that Pfitzner’s monumental Palestrina is Parsifal without the jokes.” The one line in Siegfried that gets a laugh in this age of surtitles is the hero’s observation as he removes Brünnhilde’s armor: “That’s not a man!” Wagner hardly expected to split sides with that!

Young Siegfried is — like young Parsifal — a pure fool with everything to learn and only four hours to do so. It’s a heavy trip, and Freyer offers all the help he can in hints and images to get the hero to his goal. It’s the goal — Siegfried’s awakening of Brünnhilde and the great duet that follows - that is most problematic in this staging. Brünnhilde, despite heavily incestuous intimations on the part of Father Wotan, is still a virgin. In terms of sexual enlightenment, however, she is light years ahead of Siegfried who has spent his early years tumbling about the woods with only bears as companions. In the duet a huge distance is yet to be covered in only half an hour of music. It’s here that Freyer offers so much help that Wagner’s music suffers.

The wealth of imagery, lighting effects and those “invisible” imports from Kabuki drama that move slowly about the stage are a study in excess. Text is all important here, and as the curtain fell one wished for a concert performance of the duet to underscore this fact. Freyer’s decision to hide Brünnhilde in a haystack — plus a towering Afro and billowing gown — offered little help. Indeed, although Freyer is out to illuminate text and explain the story, he often detracts from the musical excellence of this production. That excellence is largely the work of music director James Conlon who knows this score note by note and has built an orchestral second to none to do his bidding. His cast, furthermore, is without weak links. True, John Treleaven and Linda Watson, his Siegfried and Brünnhilde, are best viewed as adequate singers, who work with intelligent sensitivity to realize Freyer’s intentions.

Superb, on the other hand, is Graham Clark’s portrayal of Siegfried’s guardian dwarf Mime, a role to which he has claimed almost sole ownership for two decades. As Wotan disguised as the Wanderer Ukrainian Vitalij Kowaljow makes his mark as the most promising young singer to tackle this role in recent seasons. Jill Grove’s Erda is definitive.

What is most strange about this Siegfried is that it is without emotional impact — and perhaps Freyer wants it that way. His teacher Brecht, after all, was out to put feelings on ice and make people think in his didactic theater. The viewer is all too absorbed by Freyer’s approach; he keeps one thinking — or guessing at least. He is demanding, and it’s impressing that the audience responds as positively as it does. Yet an occasional goose bump would provide welcome relief.

A final observation: Freyer grew up secured from the decadence of Hollywood by the Anti-Fascist Protective Wall (the official East German designation for that structure). Yet in Los Angeles one is always aware that Hollywood is right next door, and there is much in Freyer’s Ring — the streaming of colored patterns, the choreography of lighted tubes — that brings that proximity to mind. On the other hand, had Wagner had this technology at his fingertips, he — like Bach at a Bechstein — would have gone bonkers. He would have abandoned his insistence upon “real” trees and rocks and lost himself in the imagination in which Achim Freyer indulges himself perhaps a bit too freely.

Wes Blomster

Götterdämmerung, which completes the Los Angeles Ring, plays from, 3 to 25 April, 2010. Three cycles of the Ring will be on stage between May 29 and June 26, 2010.

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