Achim Freyer’s Rocky Horror Ring takes over Los Angeles!
Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen
LA Opera, May 29, 30, June 3, 6 2010
Conductor – James Conlon
Director/Designer – Achim Freyer
Costume Designers – Achim Freyer Amanda Freyer
Lighting Designers – Achim Freyer Brian Gale
Woglinde – Stacey Tappan
Wellgunde – Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde – Ronnita Nicole Miller
Alberich – Richard Paul Fink
Fricka – Michelle DeYoung
Wotan – Vitalij Kowaljow
Freia – Ellie Dehn
Fasolt – Morris Robinson
Fafner – Eric Halfvarson
Froh – Beau Gibson
Donner – Wayne Tigges
Loge – Arnold Bezuyen
Mime – Graham Clark
Erda – Jill Grove
Siegmund – Plácido Domingo
Sieglinde – Michelle DeYoung
Hunding – Eric Halfvarson
Wotan – Vitalij Kowaljow
Brünnhilde – Linda Watson
Fricka – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Gerhilde – Ellie Dehn
Helmwige – Susan Foster
Waltraute – Erica Brookhyser
Schwertleite – Ronnita Nicole Miller
Ortlinde – Melissa Citro
Siegrune – Buffy Baggott
Grimgerde – Jane Dutton
Rossweisse – Margaret Thompson
Mime – Graham Clark
Siegfried – John Treleaven
The Wanderer – Vitalij Kowaljow
Alberich – Richard Paul Fink
Fafner – Eric Halfvarson
Forest Bird – Stacey Tappan
Erda – Jill Grove
Brünnhilde – Linda Watson
First Norn – Jill Grove
Second Norn – Michelle DeYoung
Third Norn – Melissa Citro
Brünnhilde – Linda Watson
Siegfried – John Treleaven
Gunther – Alan Held
Hagen – Eric Halfvarson
Gutrune – Jennifer Wilson
Waltraute – Michelle DeYoung
Alberich – Richard Paul Fink
Woglinde – Stacey Tappan
Wellgunde – Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde – Ronnita Nicole Miller
Dressing up in a monkey suit is a time-honored profession in Hollywood. Many is the young actor or layabout who has earned a few dollars by dressing up as a gorilla — or Batman or Chewbacca — and gone out into the streets with pamphlets to spread the good news about some new deli or used car lot or strip show. For a while, gorilla suits were popular in the studios as well. (That’s a whole genre that’s almost entirely forgotten today.) I reflected on this, as, on the eve of Das Rheingold, I drove along Sunset Boulevard, observing the crowds of tourists in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, along with a group of people dressed up as comic book heroes who were available to pose with the visitors. I wondered if any of them thought about the impoverishment of the imagination that these comic book figures have brought to the movies. Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, and Bette Davis all created characters in their own way, even if they remained recognizable as themselves in their parts. We know what to expect from Batman and Darth Vader simply by their costume, their design, or merely the outline of their shadow on a fictitious pavement. Characterization and acting are superfluous, even though some of these characters have human vehicles, who are dutifully provided with origins, relationships, and dilemmas, by screenwriters who know that they can only sink so low.
During one of the many dull moments in the LA Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Ring, I wondered if, out of their $31 million dollar budget, they had to pay royalties to anyone for the Joker-like “design” into which Loge was strait-jacketed. Post-modern referentiality can get expensive, if it involves something truly commercial, as Andy Warhol discovered long before the advent of the Postmodern, when Campbell’s Soup sued him for copyright infringement. Never mind the way Achim and Amanda Freyer’s designs cover or distort the actor’s primary tools, the face and hands. Never mind how difficult it is to sing in static costume shells or dangerous it may be to navigate Freyer’s steeply pitched set. Never mind how hideous nearly everything and everybody appears in this production. Never mind how perversely the staging worked against the theatrical conventions Wagner consciously and deliberately adopted for his artwork of the future, or how dismal the effect of the production on the psyche. Every evening, I left the Chandler Pavilion depressed and on edge.
Achim Freyer has stated that he is primarily a visual artist. For that reason I thought I might learn something by looking at his art, some of which is now on view at the ACE Gallery in the Wilshire Tower. (I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to see this exhibition during our visit to Los Angeles.) Achim Freyer’s website is a good place to survey his more recent work. There you will see that, apart from being extremely prolific, he works in several styles at the same time. While his visual language is predominantly abstract and modernist, the sources of his forms and compositions are clearly marked. As one browses, one can see a bit of Joel Shapiro here, and bit of Sam Francis there, Pollock, Mondrian, Barnett Newman, and more. Why am I citing so many Americans? Has Freyer been using his time in Los Angeles to immerse himself in American art? Did his interest arise earlier? Of course Richter and Polke are also present. I must confess that I know nothing about Achim Freyer the painter’s consciously adopted models. Never mind: while there is an inherent solipsism in modernist abstraction, Freyer’s likes company. He presents his forms in an allusive, post-modern way.
In his Ring designs he worked in a similar way, although with a different set of references, among which the Surrealists are in the foreground. We see de Chirico in Wotan and Fricka. Loge is a visitor from pop culture. Freia is all lips (three to be exact), and Man Ray’s Lips over Hollywood makes an appearance — an irresistible, if somewhat arch allusion in the context. (If the painting was used in the advertising for the Rocky Horror Picture Show, how could it be absent from the Rocky Horror Ring?) From more recent generations, Philip Guston makes an appearance in Hunding’s peculiar family arangement, which I shall describe later. And then there are the ubiquitous fluorescent tubes, which have become an especially tired cliché in opera, since Robert Wilson’s Lohengrin at the Met, and that may have had its own sources. In the fight between Siegmund and Hunding the tubes are used in the same way, as stationary, untouched weapons floating over the combatants. (Of course Freyer, like other designers, has found other applications for the tubes.) With this one really begins to wonder whether Freyer is showing off his post-modern cleverness or merely looking through his own private museum of worn-out ideas for imagery. On the other hand, the masks and costumes were moulded, cut, and painted with true artistic flair, nothing of which was visible from my fairly close seat. The press photographs show the sets and costumes at their best. In fact Freyer’s inventions appear much more effective in these rehearsal photos than to the audience during the course of an actual performance.
The entire production was covered by a scrim, so that projections of Freyer’s symbolic spirals and other shapes could hover over the action on stage. These were executed with perfect polish and, both conceptually and practically, were among its most effective features.
In any case the focus of the LA production is on Freyer’s iconographic inventory and not on the characters of the Ring. In creating his art work of the future, Richard Wagner did not take up everything the ancient Greeks had to offer. He chose to ignore the Greek precedent of masked actors and to adhere to contemporary practice: his singer-actors expose their faces and their arms and use them to act. (Katherine Syer, in a fascinating lecture she gave at the LA County Museum—soon to appear in the Review—discussed Wagner’s early interest in masks and puppets — one he never implemented in his mature work.) Wagner paid a great deal of attention to the details of how this dramaturgical convention functioned in production. A director is ill-advised to throw such a thing out casually, without thinking of just what an effect masks and heavy makeup will actually create on stage in the specific context of Wagnerian opera, or of the transition between unmasked and masked actor-singers. Even in modern productions of Greek drama, masks have never really caught on, while in unbroken theatrical traditions like the Japanese, masks are an inherent part of a company’s working conventions. Noh and Kabuki plays were written for masked actors and Japanese audiences expect it. When Freyer’s mentor, Bertolt Brecht, adapted Sophocles’ Antigone, he made only selective use of masks, leaning on Asian traditions, from which he developed important aspects of his Verfremdungseffekt. When he used masks more extensively in his Kaukasischer Kreidekreis, it set off intense controversy among both the audience and the critics. Not only is Brecht’s theatrical aesthetic, above all, the Verfremdungseffekt and didacticism, alien to Wagner’s illusionistic dramaturgy, it is antagonistic in the extreme. As Professor Syer has pointed out, this is not the first time Brechtian techniques have been applied in a Ring production (she showed haunting images from Ruth Berghaus’ Frankfurt Ring), but Freyer uses them as if they were self-justifying and able to function by themselves. As a loyal pupil, Freyer fails to realize that Brechtian theatre today as a theatrical method belongs to history. It has run its course both in Europe and in America, lacking above all the Marxian ideological community for which Brecht’s theatre was intended. From what I’ve read of the writings of Herr Freyer, who left the DDR in 1971, I see very little interest in the political and social concerns that motivated Brecht’s theatrical endeavors. There is nothing avant-garde about Freyer’s Ring; it is rather an overblown, punked-up throwback. Germans may be able to enjoy Brechtian theatre directly as DDR-Nostalgie, but for serious and honest stagework it must be mediated and consciously placed in its historical context, just as we should approach Kiss Me Kate, Journey’s End, or The Importance of Being Earnest. I wouldn’t a priori be against a Brechtian Ring, but I’d say that it takes considerable finesse to toss that particular salad in our times.
In writing and presenting his Ring, Wagner humanized his gods and dwarves, and the more directly audiences can relate to the singers as actors in the realistic style, the more completely one has achieved Wagner’s aims. This was immediately to be seen in the severely limited possibilities in characterizing Alberich and Mime. Richard Paul Fink and Graham Clark were restricted to the crudest, most childish sorts of gestures, which might get a laugh from first-time Ring-goers, but which tell us little about the nature of the two malevolent brothers. It was hardly better for Arnold Bezuyen with his Beeblebroxoid tangle of multiple heads and arms. Vitalij Kowaljow was similarly hampered in Das Rheingold, in which he was constricted within an unmoveable outer shell for most of the opera. Only Alan Held and Jennifer Wilson as Gunther and Gutrune seemed able to act effectively behind masks, but again, Freyer had dumbed their characters down into feeble, if amusing caricatures. This is Brechtian, of course: in creating socially significant types, the subtleties of characterization are sacrificed. Subtle character development is bourgeois obfuscation, in any case, isn’t it?.
Quite a lot of publicity (see below) attended the revolt of Linda Watson (Brünnhilde) and John Treleaven (Siegfried) against the aesthetics, discomfort, and danger of Freyer’s staging, and what one saw on stage proved them right, not to mention their own superb performances, which relied on operatic values totally alien to Freyer’s notions. It looked as if Watson was relieved of more of her disfiguring makeup than Treleaven. The red clown makeup she referred to in her statement was not to be seen, while Treleaven seemed to be wearing the Freyers’ “full Cleveland,” unless it was much worse to begin with. While Siegfried did indeed look and act like a clown, Brünnhilde in her massive fright wig resembled a nymph in a pornographic fantasy illustration, and, with her helmet-like short black hair, a particular type of imperious arts patroness much dreaded by curators and other arts functionaries. At other times she resembled Raymond Burr in one of his early villain roles. Brünnhilde begins as a blood-thirsty ghoul on a motorbike and never quite loses it. Once a Goth always a Goth. In fact it came in handy at the end, The End, Das Ende. What a contrast to Linda Watson’s noble singing in the grand tradition of Leider and Flagstad!
An exhibition at LACMA, one of many supporting enterprises presented in the Los Angeles area as part of the impressive Ring Festival, showed drawings and mockups for the Valkyries and Brünnhilde in the context of late nineteenth and early twentieth century German illustrations of mythology, folklore, and witchcraft. The specific parallels here did not strike me as much as the literal allusions I have mentioned, but they presented a background, which may have, as part of Freyer’s artistic culture, inspired him in his grotesqueries. It is above all quite distinct from the production tradition of the RIng, which eschewed the ugly and grotesque, except where it was literally necessary, as in Alberich and Mime. In fact, in Josef Hoffmann’s drawing for the first scene of Das Rheingold in the 1876 Bayreuth production, Alberich looks more like a mildly unattractive Hephaestus in the Renaissance tradition.
The composition and the Rhinemaidens seem to come from Boucher and other French sources through 19th century intermediaries. Of course it’s always important to consider the performance tradition as far back as one can, but in this case, it’s healthy to remember the radical contrast between the Bayreuth Uraufführung and the wild imaginings presented in the show. Based on the mid-nineteenth century taste typical of Moritz von Schwind’s generation, this visualization — which even Wagner recognized as inadequate and has been as much the object of derision, as it has been a source of comfort since then — adhered to the beauty of nature and the nobility of the “light” characters (as Freyer calls them), in contrast to the mildly caricatured “dark” characters. Most productions remain true to that model even today.
Of course this ugliness comes from Brecht as well, who saw it as his mission to counteract the “culinary” qualities of opera (see my review of the TMC production of Mahagonny). Audiences go to the opera to savor the highest art in singing, a first-rate orchestra, and refined production values, as if they were going to a fine restaurant, looking forward to a series of beautifully prepared courses and superb wines. (In fact I’ve always thought that cooking is a healthy discipline for artists of any kind. No matter what peculiar inspiration you may have, the meal has to please and nourish your guests.) Brecht believed in the elimination of sensual pleasures from the opera of his new society, which in fact never came into existence, just as he hated the lush landscaping of the houses he and his fellow exiles had to inhabit during their exile. In this way Freyer was inspired to undermine the beauty one expects to see and imagine in the Ring. He heads us off before we can visualize Wotan’s decaying dignity or Brünnhilde’s beauty and valor. In fact we see nothing of Wotan’s face but a charcoal-like presence under the American football-shaped globe that surrounds it. (And Kowaljow acted so well with his rather handsome face as the younger Wotan in Dresden!) In both her divine and human guises Brünnhilde has black hair and wears a black costume, recalling constantly her grim duties in battle. The romantic allure Wagner gave to these characters and to Siegfried are perhaps not the most universally interesting of their traits, and they nourished the clichés that began to encrust the Ring soon after the Uraufführung. Another part of this baggage is nationalistic. This was what caught Brecht’s attention in Wagner, and he rejected nationalism offhand as out-of-date and worse. In any case Brecht and his disciple would not have the audience distracted by such superficial appeal, and it is eliminated in the LA production.
Freyer’s gods and dwarves not only wear masks over their faces, they stand behind full body masks as well, which at first appear fixed to the floor, making it necessary for the singers to stand motionless for long periods of time. One should also remember that Brecht considered heavy makeup to constitute a mask, bringing Siegfried, the Valkyries, and, to a lesser extent, Brünnhilde into the masked fold.
To stress the Verfremdungseffekt the singers occasionally — at key moments — removed their masks to reveal their faces, and then put them back on again. The body masks in some cases, as in Freia’s, were toppled, to reveal that they are only flimsy screens, behind which the characters hide. A prominent element in the gathering of the gods in Das Rheingold, the device returned again in Götterdämmerung to characterized the principles: Gunther, Gutrune, Siegfried, and Brünnhilde. In Das Rheingold, I thought both singing and acting were severely hampered by the masks. Kowaljow was quite inexpressive, and, as I mentioned, Alberich and Mime were confined to the stupidest sort of clowning. The masks were of light construction, and the acoustic difference they made was fairly subtle. It was the physical encumbrance that proved inhibiting, as well as the problems they presented for hearing. In her lecture, Katherine Syer mentioned a Mexican production, in which the singers were eventually able to get used to their masks. Some of them felt that their performances were the better for the added struggle. If that was true in LA, I saw no evidence of it. Wagner’s theatre rather lapsed into the theatrics of the gorilla suit.
Overall the dramatic effect of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried was inert, even dead. Götterdämmerung was better, although it had its own problems. Apart from the constraining effect of Freyer’s apparatus, he added in his own ideas about the structure of time in each work, most often expressed by the turning of the circular center stage, and the enormously irritating intrusion of supernumeraries who were made to process across the stage at their own pace, to be more precise, a different gait and style for each, not totally unrelated to the beat in Wagner’s score, but not quite directly. Through much of Die Walküre, a shadowy figure trudged around the perimeter of the central stage, dragging along a fluorescent tube, as if it were the hand of a clock. This element of regularity, suggesting the pace of time, in fact, worked against Wagner’s music, introducing an entirely unnecessary and fundamentally distracting rhythmic subtext to many scenes. When we enter the opera house for the Ring, we enter into the musical cosmos of Wagner’s score. His own measures and tempi, often rendered by conductors with considerable flexibility, as they follow transitions and mold the pulse to the action and mood, predominate. Whatever Music Director James Conlon could achieve in this was steadily accompanied — and undermined — by these errant stagehands.
A further disturbance in Wagner’s flow of music and time was Freyer’s insistance on overriding the entrances and exits with which Wagner punctuated his story-telling. Characters and costume-changes often appeared proleptically, in the scene or even act before Wagner’s indication, and they remained on the stage throughout the act, creating nothing more than a sense of stasis. This disturbed the progression of events in time, undermining Wagner’s straightforwardly linear narration. Following the example of Homer, as Daniel H. Foster has most recently reaffirmed in his Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the Greeks (Cambridge University Press, 2010), he spun a forward-moving thread of story, not a multi-temporal fabric, and the many monologues relating past events are presented as continuing parts of this thread. Siegmund and Sieglinde’s fragmentary reminiscences lead to the climax of Die Walküre, Act I, their sexual union. Siegfried’s story of Mime and Fafner both delays and facilitates his murder, which, as the audience already knows, has been planned and which, thanks to Brünnhilde’s collusion, is unlikely to fail. Hence it is not obtuse to conclude that Freyer is privileging Brecht and his own conceits about time in the Ring over Wagner’s text and score.
Freyer’s program notes are more persuasive — and interesting — than the production itself. In the midst of a perfectly sound synopsis of the Ring, Freyer inserts some personal interpretations along with his theories about the temporal scheme of each evening. No one can argue with his assertion that the Ring is “grand world theater — not to disregard the distinctiveness and internal unity of each individual opera.” In it “the story of humankind takes its fateful course in this dramatic, timeless world spectacle.” He continues: “The overarching themes for Das Rheingold are pre-history without time, the planes of the elements, horizontal overlapping. For Die Walküre: divine circular time and immortality, pursuit and escape, circle and spiral. For Siegfried: parallel and perspective timelines as paths, mortality, waiting and beginning. For Götterdämmerung: racing inertia, super-space and -time, multiplication and overlapping of all dimensions.” While Freyer has perceptively expressed his concepts in visual terms (e.g. “the planes of the elements, horizontal overlapping”), and his way of philosophizing through images is impressive in itself, I’m not convinced they have more than a conceptual relation to the operas — certainly not enough to justify interrupting Wagner’s flow and distorting his original dramaturgy. We can meet Freyer at least halfway as we witness a production free from his interventions. It is hardly obscure that Die Walküre is a story of chase, pursuit, and the hunt. I believe his abstract visual imagination led him beyond the business at hand. In that work the naive viewer is struck by anything but the circularity of time: one thing leads to another in this quintessentially tragic opera. “In this chapter of the Ring, as in the others, the layers and levels of oppositional pairs — future and past, desire and weakness, loving and killing, models and realities, image and object, delusion and reality — exist at all times. The spectator will look for and recognize himself in the doubling of the characters on the stage.” He says that “Timelessness was Wagner’s dictum for the Ring.” Whether that is true or not, it does not make Wagner’s chronological narrative disappear. Then Freyer goes on: “The phenomenon of time-alienation shows parallels to Brecht and his alienation theory in order to call attention to the new, the political arch-type. The spectator decides creatively which truths contained in the exemplary strange figures and worlds exist for himself.” Now this most romantic of operas is reduced to the mental masturbation of each individual, unconnected member of the audience. Freyer reveals himself as a loyal Brechtian, but the tedium of his production reveals him to be more a slavish Brechtian than a practical theater artist who understands — or cares — whether the eggs he has just fried will be enjoyed by his guests. Freyer has created not so much the effect of alienation (more accurately, “distancing”) as alienation itself.
Siegfried is the most absurd — and absurdist — of the productions with the hero appearing with a clown face and a heavy musculature, painted on a blue jersey — reminiscent of the only slightly less ugly costume of the male gods’ in the Paris Rheingold. Like all of Freyer’s portrayals, it became tedious and irritating after it had made its initial effect. (No one can deny that Siegfried isn’t very bright.) The problem is that you have to look at his caricatures for a LONG TIME. After they have conveyed their message, which takes only a minute or two, they become boring. Only John Treleaven’s deeply humane interpretation of Siegfried overcame this, although he was incessantly opposed by the clowning Freyer demanded from him.
A film director might have introduced a metaphor or a parallel in a passing shot of a few seconds and then moved on. Freyer is stuck with his gorilla costumes for the duration. To add to this, Freyer conceived “The stage [as] a running track for all of the ring-lusting figures, a spatial model of human time made of horizontal lines with time-measuring, flowing verticals, portraying mortality.” And we see that literally, as small platforms on which the characters, above all Siegfried (who doesn’t really know where he’s going through much of it) run in place, grinning like an moron all the time. It would not be politically correct to compare Siegfried’s social skills to those of a gorilla in our Meadian times. Oh, and what about time? “Siegfried destroys the old time structure and forges perspective time, which is aimed against nature and toward the victory of man(kind).”
As I have said, Götterdämmerung seemed to me to be the most successful of the productions, but that doesn’t mean that I thought it truly successful. The masks of Gutrune and Gunther, which resembled inchoate, bandaged faces (You’ve seen plenty of those in the movies, surely?) were the most intriguing of all. These personae, unlike any of the others, captured my imagination, and I continued to make associations with them as the opera unfolded. On the other hand I thought it a mistake to cast their subjects in the same image. The people aren’t quite the same as their rulers, and a sea of mummy masks weakens the effect of G. & G.’s. With the Gibichungs, Freyer committed his customary sin: they came too early and they stayed way too late. I especially missed an exciting and colorful entrance of the chorus and a conventionally dramatic presentation of their role in all the intricacies of the marriages. I was very pleased by Freyer’s display of an array of idols of the gods in the background, as Brünnhilde was being forced into the conventions of the vile Gibichungs. That suggested a Götzen-Dämmerung along with the Götter themselves. And Nietzsche’s work of 1888/89 is indeed relevant after the fact. But again, those idols wouldn’t go away, and they remained on stage long after they had made their point and were no longer pertinent in the action. One can argue whether their presence behind the hunt scene and Siegfried’s death was helpful or not.
As Freyer says: “Siegfried’s stagnant journey ends in the future “Moderne” created by dwarfish world rulers: a wheelwork of manipulation, sublimest greed and despotism, drifting toward the zero hour, in which time becomes immeasurable through measureless, infinite measurability.
Time becomes ‘racing inertia’ (Paul Virilio). All events in the world can be simultaneously experienced in all places. The superlative multiplication of all elements leads to overheated density.”
Another even more questionable detail of Freyer’s Götterdämmerung is the way he presents Hagen. Wagner’s vision of Hagen, Gutrune and Gunther’s half brother through their mother, whom Alberich corrupted with his gold, is one of his most powerful inventions. (It has escaped stereotype most wonderfully.) This tall, dark brooding fellow looks like his half-siblings and is partly one of them, but he is mainly given to his dark brooding and unfriendliness. The magnificent nocturnal scene between Hagen and Alberich reveals Hagen to be an independent consciousness and agent, although he is blindly influenced by his lineage. Freyer’s clever way of ruining that was to make Hagen a yellow-clad ventriloquist’s dummy who alternates between a place on Gunther’s lap and that of Alberich. Through the course of the action he becomes more and more rooted to Alberich’s lap.
Not only Alberich arrives early and stays late. Freyer has already visualized Alberich with a ring of devilish creatures straight out of an Ensorian or German Expressionist nightmare: a king, a hell-dog, a Babylonian whore and others. (These apocalyptic figures relate to Brecht’s moral-didactic use of the Protestant Biblical tradition.) This whore becomes Hagen’s mother. When Hagen sits on his father’s lap, her figure (rather the part of her between her dangling jugs, bare fundament, and red high heels) is built into the Gustonian throne on which his father is seated. In this way Hagen is bound to a particular position on stage, and he is transformed into a Brechtian caricature of a corrupt moral type. (I’d be even more saddened to see Freyer’s version of Hamlet or King Lear.) There was cleverness here, too much of it, and its effect doesn’t last long. Ach, Scheiße!
The biggest joke of this production was Freyer’s statement about Die Walküre that “The spectator will look for and recognize himself in the doubling of the characters on the stage.” At the time, not a trace of that crossed my addled mind. I could only imagine that a newcomer to the Ring, hoping just to understand what’s going on and a bit of what it means, would be totally confused by the doubling, tripling, and quadrupling of the characters. Did I mention that the Wanderer appears as a huge, empty costume with an exceedlingly hairy hat and cloak — early, late, and in multiples? How on earth can any sane person identify with that? I may play the Philistine, but this is one obvious way in which the LA Opera, in hiring Achim Freyer to produce their debut Ring, has let their public down. The massive PR and educational campaign associated with the production makes it clear that James Conlon and his associates are fully aware that most of their public will be seeing the Ring for the first time, like the very pleasant gentleman, an ophthalmologist, who sat beside me. I suggested to him that he might go up to Seattle in a year or so when they present a much more accessible Ring — and a most excellent one. He replied that he didn’t think he’d have recovered from this one by then. The international Wagnerian crowd—the Japanese, Brits, French, Italians, and Germans—were less in evidence than usual at the Ring, and didn’t spot a single Hollywood type, although the publicist led Quentin Tarantino around a press party. I should add that there were a surprising number of empty seats, which increased as the cycle went on. It’s too bad, because some of those quitters micht have enjoyed Götterdämmerung a little more than the earlier ones. This spectacular flop wouldn’t have happened, if the public and Wagner had come first.
A production like Freyer’s might well blend in better in Germany, where the Ring has been produced often in recent years, even in small houses with modest means. One can only admire the ingenuity with which producers have attempted to offer the Ring within tight budgets, also striving to re-imagine it for changing times. These can annoy Wagnerians and confuse newcomers just as much as the LA production, but they are presented with much more modest expectations. In theory, and in a context where the Ring Cycle is familiar, one can only applaud the plethora of new invention and technology that reinvents a work which didn’t even satisfy its creator, as it was first performed. Wagner had gone far beyond the physical capabilities of the late 19th century theater, even his own Festspielhaus. The LA Opera fiasco was a product of bringing a director, who is somewhat stuck in the antiquated theater of Brecht, putting him in the wrong place, and giving him too much money. A limited budget of the sort Freyer would have received in Europe, would have cut the artistic losses as well.
After all this, I have to say that there was one further, more important, and certainly more surprising disappointment in James Conlon’s leadership of the orchestra and cast. I have always admired his work — especially with under-recognized composers like Zemlinsky and Schreker. However, he conveyed little sense of the Ring’s narrative drive and architecture — which is far more important than anything put on the stage, because the orchestra is the narrator, the voice of the bard, who is of course Wagner himself. (One could even argue that the Ring is in a way a first-person narrative: Wagner has a tendency to pull his audiences into his head.) In any case Conlon’s direction in this first iteration of the cycle was weak. He only seemed to engage the music of the first three evenings as segments, not even meaningful components of entire acts. A few moments shone, especially lyric ones, which seemed to appeal to Conlon, then the focus dissolved. The orchestra, occasionally playing quite beautifully, regularly defaulted into autopilot. To hear a Ring without a forceful architectural form understood in the scenes, acts, and music dramas doesn’t amount to much. Götterdämmerung had a more cohesive flow than the others, but it was still only part of the way to a full orchestral realization. Perhaps Conlon was distracted by his many duties, which included pre-performance lectures. At first I thought that the maestro was repressing the primacy of the score in favor of Freyer’s arrhythmic staging, but what I heard had all the traits of a weak orchestra being stretched beyond their limits. If the musicians are unfamiliar with the score, and it is difficult for them, some conductors will concentrate on what they consider to be the most important passages — which is all they can accomplish in a limited time. There were also some lapses in intonation and and ensemble — most egregiously in the massed violins at Brünnhilde’s awakening in Act III of Siegfried. If the LA Opera and Conlon had waited a few years, and used some of that $31 million to improve their orchestra first, they would have had the foundations of a good Ring. On the other hand there was every chance that the orchestral problems would improve in the second and third iterations.
The most notable feature of Conlon’s approach were extremely slow tempi, sometime painfully slow. This made the opening scene of Das Rheingold seem inert and aimless. The enormous, stage-filling fabric through which the Rhinemaidens’ heads poked, and the vast distance between them already neutralized the action. Conlon seemed slower than Knappertsbusch, but Kna used his slow tempi to bring out significant details in the inner voices — which the Bayreuth Festspielorchester could execute magnificently. And Levine, who also favors slow tempi, produces the same wonders from an orchestra he built himself over many years. The sound of the orchestra, which seemed to emerge partly from the stage itself, was not at all muffled, but their textures were not especially clear. Conlon showed rather a predilection for massed strings with selected wind passages emerging above them. There was none of the openness and transparency I’ve recently heard in Seattle, Dresden, and Paris. This is not to say that there weren’t some excellent, even magnificent moments in the performance. The “Ride of the Valkyries,” quite deliberate in tempo of course, was splendidly realized, a credit to the fine Valkyries as well, and the great orchestral set pieces of Götterdämmerung were very fine. (Of course these are the parts every orchestral musician knows the best.) This is an indication of the potential that was never fully or consistently realized in LA.
The singing was very uneven, but a few outstanding contributions made this the best aspect of the production. The voices projected well from the much-maligned tilted stage and were never overwhelmed by the orchestra, but the singers seemed to find it an effort to sing in this acoustic. Fatigue was often an issue, as it was for Alfred Bezuyen in his last scene in Das Rheingold and most impossibly for Richard Paul Fink and above all Graham Clark, who were distressingly ragged in Siegfried. It was sometimes hard to tell whether Mr. Clark had reverted to the outmoded caricatural interpretation of Mime, with its nasal, half-falsetto vocal distortions, or was simply close to his limit.
As I have already said, Vitalij Kowaljow was too hemmed-in by his costume to accomplish much in Das Rheingold, but later he was able to do powerful work in Die Walküre and especially Siegfried. Kowaljow is no sentimentalist. One shouldn’t expect to be moved in the last act of Walküre as one is by Hotter. But the production was not conducive to this effect in any case.
Eric Halfvarson gave strong characterizations and sang well as Fafner, Hunding, and Hagen, an interesting concatenation of roles, which are connected only by their villainy. Alan Held and Jennifer Wilson sang splendidly and also entered most effectively into Freyer’s concept and costumes of all the singers.
John Treleaven and Linda Watson held up the roof with their very fine performances as Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Treleaven does not have the strongest voice among Siegfrieds. His wide vibrato often sounds more like a wobble, but his musically good taste and fine characterization compensate for it more than amply. I have already come to terms with his strengths and weaknesses in his Covent Garden Siegfried, and he was even better in Los Angeles. His Heldentenor has vulnerable, soft contours which recall Peter Pears in a way. He acts with a clear awareness of the general outlines of his character and a sensitivity to Siegfried’s passing moods and feelings. His Siegfried is very much a sentient creature who lives in the moment — hardly the monstrous clown depicted by his costume and makeup, to which he voiced strong objections on record (“A ‘Ring’ divided,” by David Ng, Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2010).
Linda Watson may well have the finest vocal gift for Brünnhilde among singers active today. The voice is rich and full throughout, supported by an exceptionally impressive lower register. She used this to create a performance one might consider “traditional,” as both her vocal strength and her ability to understand and project godly dignity recall Flagstad and the greats of that generation. Her massive costumes and wig allowed her little mobility, leaving her few options other than grandeur, and this made its way through Freyer’s visualization and apparatus, which made Brünnhilde more a figure of horror. Watson and Treleaven were the most outspoken of a cast who were reported to be largely unhappy with Freyer’s treatment.
Although there were other excellent singers, Placido Domingo also played a special role in saving the show, when he did his well-known turn as Siegmund, projecting his usual elegant musicianship and deeply humane understanding of character through an array of irrelevant, distracting, or simply silly activities on stage. He also provided just the right support for Michelle DeYoung, who gave the best of her several roles as Sieglinde. With Conlon’s leaden tempi her Rheingold Fricka was overcareful. She mouthed her words one by one pedantically, as if she were trying to teach the audience to memorize them. (The same could be said of Jill Grove’s Erda.) DeYoung’s Waltraute was very fine, although still somewhat marred by slow tempi and over-careful diction. But what a fine thing it was to see the General Director himself on stage, accomplishing much in turning things around! The young American soprano Ellie Dehn stood out as Freia. Not only did she sing the part beautifully, she presented a Freia who is rather more conscious and less passive than usual. Ms. Dehn is clearly a singer of exceptional intelligence, seriousness, and vocal gifts.
At one point in the rehearsals Linda Watson, as she became so “frustrated with the production’s lack of character development, […] told Freyer to ‘buy one of my CDs and put it on instead of me.’” Before I read this, it occurred to me that this Ring might have been less painful for the participants and more rewarding for the audience (at least they would have paid less), if it had been designed as a puppet show accompanied by a recording. (I mean this not in sarcasm: one of the best productions I’ve seen of the Zauberflöte was a puppet show.)
The Ring was supported by a most impressive LA Ring Festival, which offered a vast array of exhibitions, screenings, lectures, symposia, etc. at over 100 venues all over the County. I have already mentioned LACMA’s contribution. There were few, if any, cases of dumbing-down in the program, and that should set an example—I hope. There was even the American premiere of Wagner’s first completed opera, Die Feen, which, as Katherine Syer has shown, is interesting and important for Wagner’s development in Lohengrin and the Ring. The Los Angeles Times also previewed and covered this whole Big Wagner Carnival with wit, variety, and intelligence — truly impressive for a daily newspaper. It was both popular in tone, informed, and smart. I especially enjoyed Ann Powers’ perceptive essay, in which she discusses the relation of Freyer’s Ring to punk and comic books rather as I do, but much less peevishly and certainly more knowledgeably. (I scrupulously avoid reading the reviews of others before I have finished my own work. While I do read reports, like David Ng’s, as part of my research, I avoided the rest until addressing these concluding paragraphs.) The LA Times rocks!
The LA Opera’s Ring was not the first in the city: L.A. Opera scooped by 1930 ‘Ring’ at the Shrine
I’d also like to make special mention of the Hammer Museum for the substantial lectures and conferences they offered, some of which is available online and well worth hearing — not least for Leon Botstein’s wry comedy and sound advice.
Wagner and Anti-Semitism, with Leon Botstein, David J. Levin, Kenneth Reinhard, and Marc A. Weiner
Not everything was on this level, but at least there wasn’t a crew of monkeymen jumping around on street corners in Siegfried, Fricka, and Freia outfits — at least as far as I know.