Saturday, June 05, 2010

Wild Weekend IV: Götterdämmerung at LA Opera

(Wild weekend III will appear this weekend, I hope.)

LA Opera has been rolling out its Ring production, the first in its 25-year history, over the last year or so. The production design and direction are by the German artist Achim Freyer. He has directed opera in Europe but this is the first I've heard of him working on the west coast and perhaps in the United States. It's been an enormously expensive enterprise, something like $32 million to produce the four operas. A couple of months ago, LA Opera had to take out a $14 million loan from LA County in the form of bonds guaranteed by LA County to stay afloat and pay their bills. There's no reason to think they won't manage to pay it back, but, to say the least, yikes.

The production has gotten both raves and brickbats, with the most recent brickbats coming from two of the principal singers, Linda Watson (Bruennhilde) and John Treleaven (Siegfried). This is rather astonishing: the singers complained on the record to a reporter between the final stand-alone Götterdämmerung and the first of three complete cycles.

(The photo is the story is from the Blutbruedershaft duet in Act I. Note the blood, actually bright red fabric, flowing from their arms. Both are wearing masks, but prior to this scene, Siegfried was not. The mask is part of how Freyer represents Siegfried's transformation from independent hero to one of the Gibichungs.)(All production photos I link to are by Monika Rittershaus; I cannot persuade &*$()@ Blogger to embed them here.)

Discussion at Parterre Box, 185, no, more, comments deep:

Discussion at the OC Register Arts Blog, where Tim Mangan, the Register's critic and a fan of the production, calls the two singers crybabies:

They have since apologized, sort of, to the LA Opera, saying that they were quoted selectively and in a biased fashion and that they fully supported the Opera. They did not say they had been misquoted.

I have seen only Götterdämmerung, but I would give the production an almost-completely-unqualified rave. I found it riveting, unusual, exceptionally deep both intellectually and emotionally, stimulating, mysterious, witty, and beautiful. I cannot possibly describe every scene in detail, and normally I do not focus particularly on production details when I write about peformances, but this one is so individual I will take more space than usual on the physical production.

You should know, first of all, that the entire production is done on a steeply raked stage, supposedly with a 14% rake, and behind a scrim. The latter can be visually wearing, I know, and there were moments when I wanted a clear view of the stage, but the scrim is used extremely effectively, for projections and sundry lighting effects. It certainly helped set and maintain the atmosphere of mystery, providing a bit of distance and enhancing the many moods of the piece. Mostly, I forgot it was there and simply accepted it as part of the scenery.

The opening Norn scene is typical of how Freyer dresses the characters and handles them on stage. There's a photo here that shows the stage and the three Norns, but bear in mind that they moved around the stage a fair amount, albeit slowly, and the stage colors shifted more or less continuously.

As you can see from the photo, the singers are mostly enclosed within gigantic balls, with their arms and heads protruding - except that one of the heads is a puppet head and that Norn's arms are puppet arms. I could only tell this when I used my binoculars, even though I was sitting in the orchestra section, row N. Their thread was represented by a triangular construct of some kind of piping that was flown in. During the scene, it went up, it went down, it rotated, it broke...Various other props and constructs hanging into the set also changed colors, were lit up or not; there were also sundry projections on the back wall of the set and on the scrim.

All of the characters were costumed in a stylized and almost puppetlike fashion. Hagen wore a brilliant yellow formal suit that had very short legs that were puppet legs; Eric Halvorson, playing Hagen, had his own legs dressed in black and carried around the yellow-costumed legs in front of him. Thus was Hagen's dwarf ancestry acknowledged. Photo here.

That's Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) with him, in the striped suite and wearing his own mask. During Hagen's Watch, the entire stage was filled with the vassals, frozen in place with light-sabres (yes, really) in front of them. At the beginning of the scene, Fink and an identically-costumed supernumerary glided slowly around the stage, mirroring each other and sometimes interacting a bit. It was as if you were staring straight into his mind. The entire scene with Hagen was as creepy and hair-raising as can be, with Halvorson sometimes sleeping on Fink's shoulder.

Gunther (Alan Held) and Gutrune (Jennifer Wilson) were both masked, wearing large, almost featureless white pape-mache masks complete enclosing their heads. Photo here.

Siegfried and Brunnhilde were not masked, though both wore stylized makeup and costumes. When Siegfried drank the potion and pledged blood brotherhood to Gunther, he took off his distinctive blue shirt and put on a colored garment much like those of Gunther and Gutrune, making him visually one of the family.

The fantastical costumes, the constantly, slowly shifting stage, props, lighting, and projections, the makeup - all served to create a unique physical world. I found it all extremely persuasive, the kind of production that I would love to see several times over a decade or more because of the brilliant world-building and psychological insights. There were only a few points when I thought, no, not quite right, doesn't work for me: Hagen's remote control, which evidently controlled the sword used to kill Siegfried and Gunther; the moment in the Immolation when the rear projections were long lists of numbers (I initially thought this must be a malfunction, but OC Register critic Tim Mangan mentioned it in his review, so....); and one misstep that definitely ought to be corrected. During almost the entire opera, a pair of large, cutout ravens sit on opposite sides of the set at the very lip of the stage (not visible in the photos on the LA Opera web site). At "Flieg heim, ihr Raben!" in the Immolation, they disappear from view....and in their places, you can see the PROMPTERS and their music. NO NO NO NO NO. It's just too big a break from what we've seen.

On to the musical aspects of the production. So, not knowing what his previous experience with Wagner is, I came away from the performance with mixed feelings about James Conlon's grasp of the score. I would have to call it adequate; everything was done competently, but there were no revelations. He does not yet have the full architecture and the ebb and flow of the music under control; the whole was flatter than it ought to have been and sometimes lost tension and forward movement. The proportions aren't quite right and he doesn't fully project the quieter and more introspective parts of the score. (This week, I've been listening to Furtwangler's RAI Ring, and, well, there is a conductor who gets the proportions exactly right and makes every last note sound important and an important part of the fabric. No, you cannot go wrong with live Furtwangler and Wagner.)

As for the singing. Best of all were Richard Paul Fink's brief, riveting, and sharply articulated appearance as Alberich; Michelle DeYoung's gorgeously voiced Second Norn and dramatically apt Waltraute; Eric Halvorson's Hagen, who was both dominant and abject, a much more complex character than the usual snarling villain.

Jill Grove was in far better voice as the First Norn than in her 2008 SFO appearance as Erda, to my relief. The Rheinmaidens were excellent. Alan Held shouted too much as Gunther; where was all the subtlety of which he's capable? Jennifer Wilson has a good voice but seems an unfinished musician who doesn't yet know how to phrase Wagner. [minor deletion in this paragraph on 6/18 because I had Wilson confused with a different singer]

Melissa Citro was alarmingly bad as the Third Norn; acid, stressed, and generally unpleasant in tone. She has a couple of roles in the upcoming SF Ring: argh.

As for Treleavan and Watson: sigh. While I'd love to see this Ring production in its entirety, the prospect of listening to him for four hours in Siegfried is not really pleasant. He can get through the music and sometimes phrases well, but the sound is leathery and worn and sometimes badly squeezed. I know what Wolfgang Schmidt sounded like in the 1999 SF Ring and 1998 Tristan, and Treleavan is headed that way. Watson is better, but all over the map vocally, from worn and pressed to sounding really beautiful. The inconsistency is alarming, and of course you just don't know what will come out of her mouth from one scene to the next.

They both coped well enough with the physical and dramatic demands of the production, but....there are definitely better Brunnhildes (and possibly Siegfrieds!) around. Irene Theorin got better reviews at the Met last year; upcoming debutante Nina Stemme will be excellent, I am sure; and of course: Christine Brewer, the greatest Wagner soprano now singing.


Mark Berry said...


Thank you very much for the excellent report! My experience of Freyer has been mixed: a superlative Magic Flute in Salzburg, but a few years later a more perverse Eugene Onegin than I could ever have imagined in Berlin. (I saw it again a little over a year later, just to check, but couldn't change my mind!)

Treleaven was simply terrible when he sang Siegfried at Covent Garden (2007). Whatever the merits or otherwise of Freyer's production, the complaints seem a bit rich, coming from someone apparently incapable of singing as opposed to shouting, and even of shouting in tune...

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ah, yeah, his comments seemed more than a little injudicious! I would love to see a complete transcript of the interview, or to have been a fly on the wall.

I'm not a big fan of Onegin. A perverse production of it could be fun!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Reader Bob Thomas emailed me this and has given me permission to quote it:

"For the record: Los Angeles County did NOT loan LA Opera $14 million. It guaranteed bonds issued by a bank so they could be issued at a low interest rate. Unless LAO defaults on the bonds (and, like you, I don't think that will happen) the County will not have put one penny into this deal."

He is entirely right, I got it wrong, and the distinction between making the loan and guaranteeing the bonds is significant.

Mark Berry said...

This might have been right up your street then: set amongst a joyless troupe of clowns, performing strange acts with chairs...

Paul Muller said...

Thanks for the report - well done.

The costumes are spectacular - the LA Opera should get in touch with McDonalds about glasses or Happy Meal prizes. Might help pay back the bond...

Henry Holland said...

Lisa, thanks for the clarification of the bond/loan issue, it removes one hammer for people that didn't like the production that I've seen (i.e. "My tax money went in to this?!?!"). My take was more "My tax money went to save an opera company?!?!"; I felt the same way when they wanted to use tax money to fund a football stadium downtown near Staples. Still a lot of debt floating around LAO though....