Achim Freyer Polishes Off Wagner’s “Ring” with “Götterdämmerung” in LA


Photo by Monika Rittershaus.

LAO Completes Achim Freyer’s “Ring” with Götterdämmerung” (Text and Music by Richard Wagner).
Review by David Gregson: Los Angeles: Sunday, April 4.

It was the greatness of Richard Wagner to transform mythological gods and heroes into fully dimensional human beings. It is the genius of Achim Freyer to turn them back into two-dimensional cartoon characters.

An exceptional cast of singers and a first-rate conductor and orchestra are currently presenting the final installment of Los Angeles Opera’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen project just prior to three complete “Ring” cycles to be offered in May and June. It is the physical production, however, and not the music drama that is getting most of the critical attention and all of the controversy.

Director/ designer Achim Freyer and his daughter, Amanda (co-costume designer with her father), were greeted by lusty boos at curtain call following the opening matinee performance Saturday afternoon (1 pm to approximately 6:25 pm, including two intermissions). Confronting his numerous noisy detractors, Freyer defiantly strode downstage and struck an arrogant pose, exulting in the mix of jeers and cheers. These cheers gradually edged out the booing — but it is safe to say, the audience was as thoroughly divided overt this ”Ring” as our nation is over the current health care legislation.

The strengths of this often risible but admittedly extremely intriguing and intermittently effective production were the singers, although all of them had to communicate through their voices alone. All the performers were encumbered by outrageous costumes and by strictly choreographed gestures that transformed them into singing automatons for the great all-seeing, all-knowing Puppet Master Freyer.

As I understand it, Freyer’s narrative goal is alienation (similar to Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt – or “distancing effect”) which is intended to focus our attention on ideas and political/social commentary at the expense of dramatic identification, the standard audience response to most theater and opera.

Photo by Monika Rittershaus.

The obvious problem with Freyer’s concept, of course, is that beyond his mythological scaffolding, Wagner is among the least alienating of composers. His music is dramatically intense and the characters reveal themselves through the some of the most profoundly emotional music ever written. One feels empathy for beings that were once the stuff of legend. Freyer turns all of this upside down. Freyer interprets Wagner’s plentiful ideas in Freyer’s way, forces that Freyer concept upon us, and doesn’t give a damn about truly serving the music or the drama. It’s a gaudy oversized art installation with Wagner’s “Ring” as an accompaniment. There are certainly ways to stage Wagner in which the composer/librettist’s intended ambiguities and provocative ideas are left up to us, not to the producer.

That said, there are far worse “Rings” and far less interesting ones than this Freyer creation available out there on DVD. Also, the “You’ll either love it or hate it” cliché doesn’t really apply. Freyer does several memorably striking things – especially the super-Verfremdungseffekt finale in which light banks descend to glare in our eyes, the singers’ prompters are suddenly revealed to have been sitting on stage all the time (hidden behind two big cut-out ravens), and all the Freyer scenic wonders previously revealed over the past umpteen hours fly about like so much outer-space flotsam and jetsam. The LAO undertaking may soon be regarded as the most interesting of the Regietheater Wagner desecrations now (and in the future, too, as we anticipate with dread what Robert Lepage will do at the Met next season), and the cast is as good as one would be likely to find anywhere in the world today.

Linda Watson, for instance, is a particularly fine Brünnhilde. On opening day, she started out a tad pallidly in her duet with Siegfried, but she gained strength as the opera went on through the scenes of betrayal, and by the end she turned in a really fine immolation scene.

Watson’s was one of the more poetic and introspective final scenes I have heard or seen. It conveyed much less dramatic impetus than I would have preferred, but much of that had to do with conductor James Conlon’s consistently leisurely approach to the music all afternoon. His overall achievement was admirable, of course, and the playing very fine, but Wagner’s many moments of dramatic urgency do not seem to interest him. The score’s many thrilling theatrical passages all seemed relaxed and less than ideally emphatic. The partly covered orchestra (at least from my vantage point rather close up) seemed to dim the cutting edges of the brass passages, making the whole sound less than ideally brilliant. This was a Götterdämmerung of moderate visceral thrills. Think the opposite of Sir Georg Solti – the recording standard, I fear, for my generation.

Photo by Monika Rittershaus.

Praise is also due to anyone who sings Siegfried and manages it at all well: John Treleaven gets through the role admirably, even if he is not quite up to moments like the hero’s vocal cord wrenching “Hoiho! Hoiho! Hoihe!” called out to Hagen just after the Rheintöchter have had their say. I have rarely heard a Siegfried with a voice I would call truly beautiful and Treleaven is no exception to the rule. Fortunately, he seems comfortable and assured in the part and he really delivers most of what Wagner requires of the role.

The other men were superb, without exception. Alan Held is probably the most impressive sounding Gunther ever (with a voice that rather belies Gunther’s sissified status in the story); Eric Halfvarson is marvelously evil as the nasty, ever-plotting Hagen; and Richard Paul Fink (just heard here in San Diego in Verdi’s “Nabucco”) was excellent as the nasty dwarf who, way back in the beginning of Das Rheingold, started the whole mess by stealing the gold from the bottom of the river. All three men are gifted with beautiful voices that are perfect for Wagner.

The one female Gibichung of note is, of course, Gutrune, Gunther’s sister (Hagen, the dwarf Alberich’s son is their half-brother), and she is sung with greater sensitivity and beauty of tone than one usually hears by soprano Jennifer Wilson. All the Norns and Rheintöchter (listed below) were worthy of high praise – especially Michelle DeYoung who doubled the Second Norn with the very important and relatively long part of Waltraute, Brünnhilde’s Walküre sister. DeYoung made her action-delaying visitation to the rock of magic fire a pleasure to listen to.

It will be interesting to see how the upcoming cycles register with the public. The LAO has so much invested in this “Ring,” and a whole cultural festival has been created for the occasion.

A note on the “Ring” and its symbols: I have noted in some past reviews that Achim Freyer’s symbolism, far from being as mind-bogglingly obscure as some people have suggested, is often totally obvious to anyone with knowledge of the opera and of Wagner’s own symbolic vocabulary of leitmotivs. Some things baffle, to be sure (I have yet to fully work out a consistent theory about those recurring circus performers and the dog-like creature with a huge phallus). The Norns look like big, black unmarked billiard balls rolling about awkwardly under a triangular rack. That seems like an appropriate image for capricious Fate to me, if a bit ridiculous. Hagen wields the latest model Apple universal remote control and uses it as a crystal ball and magic wand. OK. I get it. When can I buy one?

Some other things: Brunnhilde gets covered with black palm prints and then tears out her hair. Makes sense to me. She’s been manhandled (although why her coif looks like Louis IV’s wig, I cannot say). The ring looks like a big snow globe. Rosebud anyone? Somewhere in that globe is the thing everyone really desires – or thinks they do. Gutrune’s cartoon boobs pop out when Siegfried looks at her. (Men! Really! They all want the same thing.) Siegfried looks like a fake muscled moron in bearskin trunks and turns red and blue. (The cartoon Li’l Abner in his many moods.) Dopplegängers and shadow selves come and go. (Read your Jung.) All the weapons are trendy light sabers, and the masks depersonalize fulfilling the alienation concept. The downstage collapsed pillars of the Gibichung hall put our current heroes on comic pedestals, whereas in the back upstage, the gods are given their little symbolic statues.

As for the experience as a whole: those who hate it will probably love hating it, and those who love it will be in heaven. I’ll take the middle ground.

Photo by Monika Rittershaus.


SIEGFRIED: John Treleaven
GUNTHER: Alan Held
HAGEN: Eric Halfvarson
ALBERICH: Richard Paul Fink
BRÜNNHILDE: Linda Watson
WALTRAUTE/2ND NORN: Michelle DeYoung
1ST NORN: Jill Grove
3RD NORN: Melissa Citro
GUTRUNE: Jennifer Wilson
WOGLINDE: Stacey Tappan
WELLGUNDE: Lauren McNeese
FLOSSHILDE: Ronnita Nicole Miller

CONDUCTOR: James Conlon
COSTUME DESIGNER: Achim Freyer and Amanda Freyer
LIGHTING DESIGNERS: Brian Gale and Achim Freyer

Saturday April 3, 2010 1:00 p.m.
Sunday April 11, 2010 1:00 p.m.
Saturday April 17, 2010 1:00 p.m.
Wednesday April 21, 2010 5:30 p.m.
Sunday April 25, 2010 1:00 p.m.

For more info see Los Angeles Opera website


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