Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” at the Long Beach Opera

New review by David Gregson.

It’s so much more than a magical gold ring. This one is also a wrist band and hand decoration that terminates in a sort of long, curved claw. It looks a bit like a fashion accessory for Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street. But nothing is ever exactly normal in Long Beach.

Famous – some might even say infamous – for its adventurous explorations of obscure repertory and its innovative productions of more familiar works, Long Beach Opera (LBO) continues to venture where angels fear to tread. This time it’s Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, ordinarily such a monumental undertaking that it is still in the planning stages at the Los Angeles Opera (where it has never been done before), and the kind of spectacle you’re never likely to see again at the San Diego Opera under its current administration, although that company can boast doing almost the whole cycle in four installments between 1974 and 1977. (I seem to recall the Norns were missing in Götterdämmerung – and there were numerous other cuts as well throughout. The cycle was sung in English.)

The LBO, of course, cannot possibly match the resources of these larger companies, nor would these companies ever consider doing a trimmed down version of the cycle – one that takes about 10 hours to perform (instead of the usual 15 to 17 hours, depending on conductors and other variables); one that eliminates a whole bunch of noisy Valkyrie sisters and decimates the evil Hagen’s merry band of retainers; and one that uses a tiny orchestra consisting of a mere 25 players.

The Ring also presents scheduling challenges that place a special burden on performers and audiences alike. The Bayreuth model is officially crafted as festival that takes an entire week to experience. One might see Das Rheingold on a Monday, Die Walküre on Tuesday, Siegfried on Thursday and Götterdämmerung on Saturday. Wednesday and Friday would be the ‘rest” periods (for everybody involved, but especially the principal singers.) Variations of this plan are almost universal, although the extra-long intermissions may be harder to find outside of Bayreuth. The LBO plan, however, was a single Saturday-Sunday weekend, with (in English) Rhinegold from 2 to 4 p.m. and The Valkyrie from 6 to 9 p.m. on the first day, and with Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods in the same time slots on the second day. A total of two cycles were offered: January 14 -15, and January 21 – 22. I attended the second of these.

The venue, one that was in the past used extensively by the LBO before it moved to its newer quarters at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts on the campus on Long Beach State, was the 820-seat Center Theater in downtown Long Beach. This is a three-quarters-round, thrust-stage arrangement, so intimate in nature that the small orchestra for this Ring needed to be placed upstage behind a transparent loose-hanging scrim. The wall in back of the players was painted with an enormous red, ring design. In effect, this entire area of the stage, players included, became part of the production’s mise en scene. The audience could see both the singers and musicians at all times.

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While much of this may sound very odd, the Ring adaptation itself is not brand new. The skillful chamber ensemble adaptation was originally conceived in 1990 by composer Jonathan Dove and stage director Graham Vick for the City of Birmingham Touring Company. The mini-cycle was afforded a tremendous critical reception in the UK. The LBO version, however, has fanciful sets and costumes by Russian designer Danila Korogodsky, stage direction by Jonathan Eaton, and is a collaboration with Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh another “shoestring company,” to quote the LBO’s charismatic young artistic and general director, Andrea Mitisek. Eaton has been the Pittsburgh’s artistic director for the past five seasons.

Musically, Mitisek has accomplished a great deal with the LBO since the beginning of his tenure in 2003. Observing him conduct Dove’s adaptation (which virtually anyone in the audience could do by simply looking at the stage or at one of the several TV monitors circling the auditorium), one saw a man immaculately beating time (sans baton), his attention riveted to score. Presumably a more impassioned, expressive approach, full of florid Leonard Bernstein-esque body language, would have distracted visually from the singers downstage. Still, what one heard was hardly lacking in emotional impact – and the orchestrations are so skillfully crafted that in such a small theater, one was often able for long stretches at a time to forget Wagner’s much more substantial sound. It’s amazing what a magnificent noise can come out of a handful of skilled brass and wind players!

Unfortunately, with only eleven (!) strings at Mitisek’s disposal (three first violins, three seconds, two violas, two cellos and one double bass), many of the opera’s most ravishing passages failed to come off – a fact made worse by the fact that the slightest intonation problems would cause everything to sound sour or Looney-Tune-ish. Needless to say, the “end of the world” music that climaxes Twilight of the Gods seemed terribly puny – and famous orchestral passages (the Forest Murmurs, the Ride of the Valkyries, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Funeral Music etc.), were either eliminated, or reduced to a few measures, or glossed over very quickly, or simply inadequately played. In any event, the audience seemed willing to accept all the reduced score’s obvious limitations, and most ears gradually adapted.

All four operas were extremely well cast. Virtually everyone looked plausibly like the characters they were playing, and if some of the voices were perhaps not truly ready for prime time at Bayreuth or the Met, they were certainly more than suitable for this chamber version. Take for instance the case of the wonderful tenor, Dan Snyder, who played Siegfried in the final two operas. Nothing in his past experience or in the sound of his voice at present suggests a career as Wagnerian Heldentenor. Yet, in many ways he was the best Siegfried I’ve ever seen and heard (and I am a veteran of several Rings). No, he was not a muscle-bound L’il Abner type: in fact, he looked and acted a bit like a petulant punk rock star. But, act he did – and with a passion. He was not your usual aging singer impersonating a young man. He exuded youth and exuberance – and, of course, foolishness. The voice, by the way, had a very fast vibrato, and he seemed like he would be a marvelous lyric tenor in French repertory.

Susan Hanson as Brünnhilde. Photo © Keith Ian Polakoff.

We also got two terrific Brünnhilde’s – the first, Deirdra Palmour Gorton (who very well could go on as a Wagnerian), tearing up the stage as a tomboy warrior and twirling her spear in a threatening manner (the Rose Parade goes leather!), and singing with confident beauty; and the second, Susan Hanson, a perfect embodiment of the more feminine side of the Valkyrie maiden, at first meek when stripped of her magic, then furious as a woman scorned. There was a marvelous bit of stage business in her famous awakening scene. Somehow she’s been death-sleeping in a prone position (rigor mortis?), and when Siegfried awakens her, she suddenly collapses into a rock crevice, then claws her way upward toward the sun – which she hails in ecstasy, of course, in the well-known passage. Siegfried is out of sight, thank goodness. Sometimes it’s staged so the soprano seems to be ignoring him.

That overarching sun, by the way, was a sort of multi-purpose chandelier – a disco ball full of symmetrically projecting wires onto which were stuck lumps of gold that looked suspiciously like skulls. Alberich stole the gold from this thing, and the Rhinemaidens returned it thence later. I have a theory that this permanent fixture of the LBO ring design – a fixture that glowed and raised and lowered significantly as needed — was a parody of the Metropolitan’s chandeliers. Alberich, by the way, was impressively acted and sung throughout three operas by Nathan Bahny, although he was never quite as scary as his half-mortal son, Hagen, bald and handsomely evil in the interpretation of Dean Elzinga.

And while we’re discussing the Nibelungen family, it’s necessary to mention the outstanding character tenor John Duykers, flawlessly cast as Mime. Although his character was left on the cutting room floor in Rhinegold, we got plenty of his delicious nastiness in Siegfried. The Rhinemaidens, by the way, looked less like mermaids than like ragamuffins costumed for an English Christmas pantomime, but they sang quite well. The Norns looked similarly silly, but their big scene at the beginning of Twilight was cut – so they qualified as mute roles. They would pop up whenever Erda was around (which was quite a bit, really) – and that Erda made an excitingly massive vocal and physical presence thanks to the fabulous Demareus Cooper.

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Wearing a sort of wedding frock at first (Fricka is the goddess of marriage, after all!), and acting quite the floozy, was Jessie Raven, a marvelous, multi-faceted wife for Wotan. She seemed to take on new and deeper dimensions of character as the action went forward. She was also wonderful as Waltraute in Twilight. The Perry twins – Eugene and Herbert – made a marvelous Fasolt and Fafner, dragging behind them (on long pink sashes) gigantic distorted effigies of their characters. Herbert doubled as a fine Hunding in Valkyrie, while Eugene was memorable as Fasolt – if only for actually being on stage in human form instead of being the usual offstage ventriloquist projecting his resonant bass onto some lifeless puppet prop supposed to be the dying dragon. Daniel Cafiero made an excellent, although somewhat perky Loge, a butch Richard Simmons in oxblood leather – if you can image such a thing.

The Valkyrie, by accident or design, ended up with a first-rate pair of incestuous lovers. The Siegmund was tenor Gary Lehman, famous locally for stepping in for an ailing Placido Domingo in LA Opera’s Parsifal only a few weeks go. He may be performing as a Heldentenor for the first time, but it probably will not be his last. The Sieglinde (later a feisty Gutrune instead of the usual shrinking violet) was Karen Driscoll, just about ideal for a production like this one. Meanwhile, the imposing Wotan through all of this (and, of course, the Wanderer in Siegfried) was dark toned Rod Nelman, though a spread and wobble opened up in the voice frequently under pressure.

The poor old lighting designer usually gets overlooked in reviews like this one – a shame. Lighting is terribly important. What a job Christopher Kittrell had, especially considering the quirky set design which relied a great deal on headless Giacometti-style statues moved into various configurations, and large glowing charcoal boulders that turned green and red and lowered onto the headless torsos from time to time. Such symbolism always borders on the ridiculous. My favorite image was of the Valkyries going around like a highway cleanup crew stabbing papier-mâché skulls with their picks.

And there were a few costume misfires. Poor Donner looked absurd (Why the forked hairdo?), otherwise Erik Nelson Werner was quite fine. At one time Alberich looked like Saint Nicholas in a silken red cap.

In the Poetics, Aristotle talks about “magnitude,” a quality in art that dictates its size. There’s no way one can do a mini-Ring without somehow betraying Wagner’s intentions. It’s like turning Michelangelo’s David into a paperweight, Tolstoy’s War and Peace into a two-hour movie, or Rembrandt’s Night Watch into a college dorm wall poster. This LBO production was an interesting experiment – but much about it was also exciting, rewarding, and even revelatory. It was engrossing dramatically. And most of the time you could actually understand what the characters were saying — depending on where you sat the and way they were facing.

Whatever its shortcomings – this was an extremely enjoyable and very impressive achievement.

The Ring of the Nibelung

Production Photos © Keith Ian Polakoff.
Conductor: Andreas Mitisek

Director: Jonathan Eaton

Scenery and Costume Designer: Danila Korogodsky

Lighting Designer: Christopher Kittrell

The Rhinegold

Cast:

Wotan: Rod Nelman

Donner: Erik N. Werner

Loge: Daniel Cafiero

Fricka: Jessie Raven

Freia: Suzan Hanson

Erda: Demareus Cooper

Fasolt: Eugene Perry

Fafner: Herbert Perry

Alberich: Nathan Bahny

Rhinemaidens: Diba Alvi,

Charlene Canty,

Elizabeth Saunders

The Valkyrie lboring/lboring2.jpg

Cast:

Wotan: Rod Nelman

Fricka: Jessie Raven

Siegmund: Gary Lehman

Sieglinde: Karen Driscoll

Hunding : Herbert Perry

Brünnhilde: Deidra Palmour Gorton

Valkyries: Diba Alvi,

Charlene Canty,

Elizabeth Saunders

Siegfried

Cast

Wanderer: Rod Nelman

Erda: Demareus Cooper

Alberich: Nathan Bahny

Mime John: Duykers

Siegfried: Dan Snyder

Brünnhilde: Suzan Hanson

Fafner: Herbert Perry

Woodbird: Diba Alvi

Twilight of the Gods

Cast:

Siegfried: Dan Snyder

Brünnhilde: Suzan Hanson

Hagen: Dean Elzinga

Gunther: Erik N. Werner

Gutrune: Karen Driscoll

Alberich: Nathan Bahny

Waltraute: Jessie Raven

Rhinemaidens: Diba Alvi,

Charlene Canty,

Elizabeth Saunders

Gibichs :John Atkins,

Roberto Gomez,

Dennis Rupp

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