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Review: 'The Ring' begins

February 22, 2009 |  1:40 pm

Ring2

“The adventure,” Los Angeles Opera promises in its ads for “Das Rheingold,” “begins.”  And so Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the first opera in Los Angeles’ first complete staging of Wagner’s epic tetralogy, “Der Ring des Nibelung,” began.

So did the weirdness.  And the discussion.

Achim Freyer -- the visionary, Brechtian, Postmodern if you will but ultimately unclassifiable German painter and theater artist –- is at the helm as director and designer.  We’ll be in the grip (whether gratefully or argumentatively) of Wagnerian and Freyerian extravagance for a long time, what with the three remaining operas to be spread out over the rest of this season and next, culminating in three “Ring” cycles and a citywide festival in spring 2010.

Rheingoldgallery This “Ring” has been a decade in the planning.  In the making is a production with a degree of imagination and daring not unheard of in Europe but previously unknown in America, where “Rings” tend to be tame and, too often, lame.  A lot would have been riding on the rise of the curtain Saturday had there been a curtain to rise.

At the start, neon at the top of the proscenium and the bottom framed a huge expanse of darkness.  What happened within, for the 145 uninterrupted minutes of “Rheingold,” which is a mere prologue to the “Ring,” was a theatrical cabinet of wonders. 

The first challenge in what is ultimately 15 hours’ worth of challenges is reproducing Wagner’s concept of the Rhine, which has been variously described as a symbol of primordial consciousness, of the womb and of unmolested nature.  At the bottom of the river rests a pile of gold. Leave it alone, and the world hums along in elemental bliss.  Forswear love, fashion a gold ring (the wearer of which rules the world) and all manner of disruption will occur.

Gods contest with dwarfs and giants.  Families fall apart.  Incest engenders a hero.  Undifferentiated time and space take on meaning.  Free will and determinism are questioned, as are the philosophical issues of good and evil.

Using a scrim, on which there were occasional projections, Freyer made the Chandler stage appear enormous.  The orchestra remained hidden, deep in its pit like a dragon in its lair, covered by dark fabric.  Conductor James Conlon, the company’s music director, remained unseen.

Freyer uses technologies modern and ancient.  A huge disk in the center of the stage, rife with computerized, hydraulic functions that make it as malleable as a microorganism, will be a constant throughout the cycle.  The Rhine, however, was fabric set flowing by human hands.  There are many hands available for many tasks, since Freyer has  created an acting company of 12 to join in the bedlam.

The Rhinemaidens didn’t frolic but stayed put, their heads popping out of the fabric.  The effect, brilliantly lighted, was unbelievably beautiful, and it is but one of hundreds of anti-Wagnerian, even anti-operatic, devices that Freyer adopts throughout the evening.  His mission is to create a dissonance to Wagner that enhances rather than disrupts the drama and the music.

What that means is that characters are bizarre creatures that have recognizable elements in fanciful disarray.  Wotan, the king of the gods, gave up his eye to win Fricka.  That is an eyeball that glows on occasion downstage.  The Nibelung, the dwarfs who live underground, wear large masks, which means all expression has to come exclusively from their singing.  The costumes, co-designed by the director and his daughter, Amanda Freyer, are hand-painted, flamboyant art objects in their own right.  Puppetry is used, in an ever-fluid concept.  Characters might be doubled by puppets, replaced by puppets, even attached to them.

There are elements of burlesque and circus (Freyer famously staged Mozart’s “Magic Flute” at the Salzburg Festival as a clown show).  Loge, the god of fire, is a kind of carny devil, with two extra hands.  At big moments when special effects might be used, Freyer relies on corny carnival tricks of curtains and mirrors.

Fricka has doll-like, long floppy arms and hands that light up, Robert Wilson-style.  The giants are a couple of construction goons who put magnifiers in front of their heads.

The production looks amazing, but there were acoustical problems Saturday.  The orchestra lacked presence, and the stage was booby-trapped with dead spots.

The singers coped well but are still clearly learning to live in Freyerland.  Vitalij Kowaljow was a refined Wotan, expressive and subtle if not especially commanding.  Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka also probably needs more time to find a sensible center in an eerie environment, but she too was expressive.

Gordon Hawkins as Alberich, the dwarf who steals the ring and hopes to run things, puffed his cigar like a big-shot plutocrat behind his big mask, still in search of a character.  But Graham Clark, as Mime, Alberich’s beleaguered dwarf brother, was a vibrant, colorful voice behind his mask.  Arnold Bezuyen was an athletic, confident Loge.  Ellie Dehn wailed loudly, as she should, as Freia, the goddess the giants demand as payment for building Wotan his castle, Valhalla.

Those giants (Morris Robinson and Eric Halfvarson), as well as the gods Froh (Beau Gibson) and Donner (Wayne Tigges) and the Rhinemaidens (Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Beth Clayton) all had the misfortune to be placed upstage and were at a major acoustic disadvantage.

Conlon conducted a respectful, sweeping performance.  He got lush and lovely textures from the orchestra, but the deep pit was his enemy, making the players sound as though they were in another room.

But the adventure has, indeed, begun.  The ambitions and promise of this “Ring” are immense.  With a $32-million budget, it could break L.A. Opera.  But the production could also prove an incredible artistic stimulus for Los Angeles.  To be continued …

"Das Rheingold," Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. March 5; 2 p.m. March 8; 7:30 p.m. March 11; 2 p.m. March 15. $20 to $238. (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: "Das Rheingold" onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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