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Monday, August 23, 2010

Consummation (on the LAOpera production of The Ring Cycle)

by Douglas Messerli

Richard Wagner Das Rheingold / LAOpera, performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles (the production we saw was on June 18, 2010)

Richard Wagner Die Walküre / LAOpera, performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles (the production we saw was on June 20, 2010)

Richard Wagner Siegfried / LAOpera, performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles (the production we saw was on June 23, 2010)

Richard Wagner Götterdämmerung / LAOpera, performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles (the production we saw was on June 26, 2010)

Over several afternoons and nights from June 18th to June 26, 2010, Howard and I attended the entire 16 hours of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Los Angeles Opera.

Much has been written about Wagner's overwhelmingly brilliant, often mocked, and sometimes hated achievement, and I do not care here to wade into the complex stories, myths, and psychological sloughs surrounding the work. The Ring, no matter what is thrown at it, is quite simply a marvelous human accomplishment, never quite matched in the all the years since its creation. Its mess of a plot, sometimes ridiculous characters, and forests of inexplicable riddles does not, somehow, diminish this work, and I think anyone—saintly or evil—who loves theater, music, and spectacle cannot help but admit to admiring it.

What I would like briefly to focus on, instead, involves another kind of quagmire of sorts regarding the extravagant costumes and sets by the notable designer-directors, Archim and Amanda Freyer and the musical direction by the much beloved Los Angeles Opera conductor, James Conlon.

Nothing I might write in connection with these issues is easy. For I highly admire the decision, which was strongly argued for, I have heard, by Conlon and General Director Plácido Domingo, to attempt this production. I also applaud their goal of bringing a completely new look and feeling to the great opera. That the company was almost destroyed in the process of bringing Wagner's four operas to the stage brings more blame, perhaps, on today's audiences and the high cost of such an undertaking than any misjudgment by the producers. It was and remains a noble act to present this work in a city always hungry for art, theater, and music, but not always appreciative of the particular manifestations of such.

Yet all that said, there are some important questions to be brought up regarding this version.I swore to myself not use my variation of Dickens' tired antithesis to describe my feelings about the LA Opera's Ring, but it continues to summarize my feelings: "It was the best of operas, it was the worst of operas."

The first evening began swimmingly enough with the Rhine Maidens dressed in the billowing robes of water which is their home. The Freyer's highly raked stage worked nicely to create a sense of the swelling water, undulating in time to their joyful teasing of the ridiculous Alberich, dressed in this production, as a masked troll. The combination of the grotesque and whimsy in Alberich and the Niebelungs later nicely fit a world where they are entrapped in the process of refining gold.

But already in the scene in Valhalla, we begin to become somewhat distracted by the costumes. Fricka's constantly outreaching hands may indicate her major activity of pleading with her husband Wotan, but to keep her character locked away in this position seems to allow no subtlety. She is, after all, not always pleading, but righteously correct her assessment of Wotan's own laws. The powerful giant brothers, Fasolt and Fafner, seem inexplicably to be alternating between dwarves and the incredibly tall construction workers by which the work defines them.

Wotan's head, locked in a square-boxed helmet, with his facial image reflected upon it, seemed to diminish the power with which the character is defined. Of course, he is a conflicted image, a God who is tempted, again and again, away from obeying the laws he has himself established. And there is no question that Freyer's costume implies this tension between his mind and apparition. At certain times, particularly when he stood at the top of the stage, however, the audience could hardly hear Wotan's (Vitalij Kowaljow) declarations, let alone tremble at the vocal power of his angry proclamations. At other times, Fricka (Michelle DeYoung) seemed somewhat distraught in her permanently outstretched position. Only Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) and Mime (Graham Clark) seemed comfortable in their dress.

By the time of Die Walküre—easily the most brilliant of the LA Opera productions—the problems of direction, costume, and set became more obvious. In some ways, Freyer's attempts to create his own series of private leitmotifs, helped the audience—particularly those who had never before encountered the complex series of characters Wagner presents—recognize and define them. But by so thoroughly defining them, he also took away most of their "humanity," stripping them of any empathy we might feel for their human-like achievements and failures and leaving them afloat in a mythological world that separated them from us. A student of Brecht, it is clear that that was, in part, what Freyer was seeking. But in a work such as The Ring, which has already built into it a sense of separation from our daily experiences, the actors and director must work even harder to, in some ways, to make us feel that these figures resemble ourselves.

James Conlon is a dedicated and highly committed director. And his lectures before each the four operas were filled with beautiful descriptions of how Wagner's music brought us into the action both emotionally and intellectually. In my encounters with this director, however, it appears that he prefers sublimity over the barbarous. He is not the kind of director, I feel, to do justice to Stravinsky or Berg. And here, although he described the dreadful power of certain of Wagner's refrains, we seldom heard them. The music (perhaps in part because of the near-burial of the orchestra beneath the stage) was often beautiful, but seldom intense, let alone earth-shattering.
Linda Watson sang and performed marvelously as Brünnhilde, but the constant dressing and undressing of her, as Siegfried later rips her gown away patch by patch, was more a distraction that an amplification of any substantive meaning, visual or otherwise.

By the time we had reached Siegfried we had lost touch with this world, strangely at the very moment when we encounter the most human character of the entire masterpiece. Like LA Times music critic Charles McNulty I suddenly felt I had entered a California amusement park instead of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Admittedly Siegfried is a kind of bumbling idiot, a true innocent whose only major attribute lies in his powerful muscles. But to portray him simply as a kind of blond-headed Michelin Man is to destroy any possibility of human redemption. And that is ironically, why Wagner vested so much power in this figure. In his innocence, he even seeks fear, without comprehending what might lie behind it. In the course of the work, Siegfried discovers love, treachery, hate, and even death. He is of a new race, and as such, to close him off as a laughable stereotype does a terrible injustice to the entire work.

For all that, the costumes and sets, even the ridiculous tilt of the stage, did create some memorable moments: among them the nightmarish underground world of the Niebelungs and the great battles (achieved through dozens of colored light sticks) of Götterämmerung. Perhaps I had simply grown more use to Freyer's methods by the last long work, but it seemed to me that the positioned costumes into and out which Gunther and Gutrune stepped well-fitted the mould of these opportunists. The orchestra itself, moreover, seemed to come alive and, still without the shattering thrill of sound one hopes for in Siegfried's death—a death which, as our opera-loving friend Bob Orr, in his deep Alabama accent, described it, signifies the end of the whole Teutonic universe—performed ably and even memorably. The audience, many of whom had never before seen a Wagner opera, was clearly thrilled. Despite my stated doubts, I too applauded joyfully with tearful eyes.

This is clearly a production that should be seen again.

Los Angeles, August 19, 2010

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