NEW REVIEW, FEB. 27: Los Angeles Opera “Rheingold” Dazzles and Perplexes

Los Angeles Opera Embarks on Wagner Ring Project’
First up — Das Rheingold

Ingenious stage directors and their simply brilliant productions so often come first in reviews these days, it might be nice for a change to start with the singers.

In fact, the best that can be said of Los Angeles Opera’s Das Rheingold, the two-hour-and-forty-minute “curtain raiser” to the entire Ring cycle to be presented in 2010, is that it is exceptionally well sung. Arnold Bezuyen is about the finest Loge in the Ring business today, and as the trickster god of fire, he – dare one say – blazes here despite the production’s innumerable dazzling distractions. Michelle DeYoung makes gorgeous music as Fricka, goddess of marriage and Wotan’s quarrelsome spouse. Singing manfully (god-fully?) through his obscuring costume, Vitalij Kowaljow works hard to make an impression as Valhalla’s mastermind, but as excellent as he is, the cumbersome costume seems to defeat him somewhat. Graham Clark is a superlative Mime, and Gordon Hawkins, invisible beneath his Alberich-cum-Monopoly-banker getup, sings more mellifluously than one might expect from an evil Nibelung dwarf who renounces the love of mankind in general and the Rheinmaidens in particular. The latter, singing with special sweetness, their heads peeping out of miles of fabric, are Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, and Beth Clayton. Meanwhile, the tragedy of the Fasolt and Fafner Vahalla Construction Company is superbly portrayed vocally by Morris Robinson and Eric Halfvarson. Hefting an effigy of herself bursting with golden apples and bosoms, Ellie Dehn sings an especially lovely Freia, goddess of youth. The gods of thunder and spring are very well represented by Wayne Tigges (Donner) and Beau Gibson (Froh), and Jill Groves makes an impressive showing as Erda while rising and inflating to much greater proportions than the famed “green faced torso” described in Anna Russell’s parody.

Over and literally under all this (in a Bayreuthian evocation of instrumental invisibility ) is the excellent Los Angeles Opera Orchestra enjoying the capable leadership of James Conlon. The sound of the unseen musicians is, not surprisingly, somewhat muffled — but I have always felt the sound at Bayreuth itself – after all, the House that Wagner Built – is also muffled. Conlon seems to be enjoying almost universal approval for his reading of the score, but I personally felt an incisive bite was missing in the many dramatic moments that demand energy and excitement. Nonetheless, one leaves this Rheingold highly impressed by the overall musical treatment

The word “disconnect” has recently invaded the English language. One sees and hears it incessantly – no doubt an important sign of the times. Nowhere is the term applied more appropriately than to the efforts of the innumerable stage directors working in opera today. Robert Wilson sets the bar high in this area, his beautiful stage pictures often defeating dramatic clarity and perversely contradicting the intentions of the composer and librettist. To create his often stunning stage pictures, singers become living sculptures moving about in strict choreographic patterns while maintaining rigid poses. Impressive to see, the results can, at the very least, be confusing or unintentionally humorous; they can also be stultifying. In order to understand the relationships between characters, spectators must be well acquainted with the text in advance. When the music indicates rapid movement, the visuals may be utterly static; when the music indicates any sort of action on stage, the visuals may stand in contradiction.

The work of Achim and Amanda Freyer resembles Wilson only in achieving fairly static stage pictures – although “static” is an apparent oxymoron when, indeed, there is lots and lots of movement. What moves, however, is not so much the singing actors, but their effigies, their literal double-goers (and triple-goers and more), and the light-and-video scrim projections, the billowing fabrics, the suspended statues and decorations, and a huge bag of assorted gimmickry. It’s all a kind of modernist puppet show. Dazzling and fun to watch, but allegedly Brecthian in its attempt to achieve alienation – or what Brecht called a Verfremdungseffekt – a “distancing effect.” If such distancing is what is intended, the Freyers certainly achieve this in spades. The visual distractions make it almost impossible to notice what Wagner, the most descriptive of all composers, is saying in the orchestra. On the other hand, Brecht’s intention was politically didactic – and Brecht did not want one to be moved by the music supporting the verses to his songs. Wagner certainly does not want us to think only about issues – or eternity or “the planes of the elements, horizontal overlapping” or the double-talked thesis as stated in the program essay. He certainly intended an affective response.

How Wagnerites will bear up under these often amazing distractions for an entire Ring remains to be see. "To be seen," I fear, is the operative phrase. We see the singers only through their puppet incarnations, most of which restrict their body movement so severely that one simply cannot talk about acting in any traditional way. With natural gestures impeded, the production loses much of the deeply human dimension that interested Wagner. We are left with Freyer’s cartoonish images and something to talk and think about – but we are also left cold.

Saturday February 21, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday February 25, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Sunday March 1, 2009 2:00 p.m.
Thursday March 5, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Sunday March 8, 2009 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday March 11, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Sunday March 15, 2009 2:00 p.m.
WOTAN Vitalij Kowaljow
LOGE Arnold Bezuyen*
ALBERICH Gordon Hawkins*
MIME Graham Clark
FRICKA Michelle DeYoung*
ERDA Jill Grove
FASOLT Morris Robinson
FAFNER Eric Halfvarson
FREIA Ellie Dehn*
DONNER Wayne Tigges
FROH Beau Gibson*
WOGLINDE Stacey Tappan
WELLGUNDE Lauren McNeese
FLOSSHILDE Beth Clayton
CONDUCTOR James Conlon
DIRECTOR AND DESIGNER Achim Freyer
COSTUME DESIGNER Achim Freyer and Amanda Freyer
LIGHTING DESIGNERS Brian Gale and Achim Freyer
* LA Opera debut.

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