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Review: 'Die Walkure' at L.A. Opera

April 5, 2009 |  4:03 pm

Walkure There are many fine reasons for the popularity of “Die Walküre.”  It is springtime in the “Ring,” and this, the second of the four-opera cycle, boasts not only Wagner’s famously exuberant martial music -- “The Ride of the Valkyries” (cue the "Apocalypse Now" helicopters) – it also contains the most tender and lyrical moments in this huge operatic enterprise.  

Beautiful sister and heroic brother glory in romance, and music transcends the cringe factor.  A warrior god, Wotan, forsakes a beloved warrior daughter, Brünnhilde, and the long opera ends in elegiac, radiant poignancy.  Fire consumes the stage.  Its light and warmth heat the heart.  A great Wagnerian glow such as is this is like none other.

At Los Angeles Opera on Saturday night, among the sonic embers of said glow, one heard another sad, if not unexpected, sound at the end of “Die Walküre.”  Somewhere in the rear of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a lonely booer (maybe more than one) valiantly tried to be heard over loud bravos when the German artist Achim Freyer, the designer and director of the company’s first and supposedly controversial “Ring” cycle, came on stage for his bow.

This Freyer production is not to everyone's taste; no production of any merit, confrontational or conventional, is or should be. Wagner’s world is highly provocative, shockingly banal, morally offensive, emotionally transcendental, astonishingly wise and, when wrong-headed, dangerously so.  Accept it all on face value, and you may want to keep company with Hitler.  Engage in meaningful dialogue with it, and you may discover something new.

In Freyer’s weird “Walküre,” some of the curiosities of his “Das Rheingold,” which opened the cycle beginning in February, begin to be explained.  We have already spent something like a full workday ensconced in a vision, and it begins to feel less strange.  Many more hours are to come with “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” next season, followed by the full cycle a year from now.


Who knows how anyone will feel by then?  But Saturday Freyer's critics were at least temporarily drowned out.  Perhaps they didn’t dare argue with Plácido Domingo, who, as the company’s general director, hired Freyer and who, as the evening’s ardent Siegmund, boldly and persuasively put his mouth and celebrity where his money was.

Everyone will, of course, once more be talking about the Domingo miracle.  The tenor turned 68 in January and you can’t turn him off.  He might these days need a bit of time to warm up.  His vocal comfort mode is stentorian; he doesn’t have the dynamic flexibility of a young singer, which is to say he doesn’t sing softly anymore.

But he stood his own against a theatrically intense and vocally resplendent Anja Kampe -- Siegmund's  twin and lover, Sieglinde.  Both were glorious.

Stand is the right word.  Freyer’s stage throughout the cycle will be dominated by a huge circle.  At the opening of "Walküre," as brother and sister met, still unknown to each other, they remained apart on opposite sides of the stage, and there they long remained.  On the circle a neon spear slowly revolved like the hand of a clock.  In the “Ring,” divine time becomes human time as death supplants immortality.

Freyer’s circle also has further connotations of circus tent and dinner table.  Around it were strange creatures who wandered back from “Rheingold” like curious guests who came to dinner.  Dressed half black, half blue, Siegmund and Sieglinde were day and night needing to be joined.  

There are fewer whiz-bang special effects in this production than there were in “Rheingold,” and the masks and puppetry no longer dominate.  We have left the appalling realm of cold gods, malicious dwarfs and small-hearted giants.  Love replaces gold-lust and power as a theme.

Wotan returned in his striped costume and Michelin Man headgear.  Fricka’s arms were long as ever, her hands still glow.  But they argued like real husband and wife.  Brünnhilde and her sister Valkyries were frightful birds of prey.

As in “Rheingold,” the stage is a work of art, and often a messy one.  Neon strips illuminate the top and bottom.  Projections on the scrim create amazing effects of perspective. Color and light are applied in painterly fashion.  The mountaintop on which the Valkyries have their ride is a ghastly place.  Dead heroes litter the ground like carrion.  The Valkyrie steeds are wire sculptures of horse's head with bicycle-wheel tail.  An eye, the one Wotan lost in the pre-history of the cycle, peers down throughout from above. 

Vitalij Kowaljow and Michelle DeYoung, Wotan and Fricka, were strong and convincing in “Rheingold” and grow more so in “Walküre.”  Kowaljow does not have an overpowering voice, but he was full of warmth in Wotan’s great farewell to Brünnhilde.  Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde will become increasingly important as the cycle progresses and perhaps she will rise to the challenge.  She seemed still finding her way Saturday, impressive in her lower range but steely and uncertain above it.

Freyer’s use of the stage in all its three dimensions remains a treacherous trap for the voice.  The Chandler’s imperfect acoustic means that only the strongest and most focused sound can carry from points above ground.  The situation seems somewhat improved over “Rheingold,” but the effect is still of the audience sitting in one room, the singers working in another and the the orchestra, deep in its pits, sounding to be in yet a different room.  James Conlon conducted a wonderfully realized account of a great score, but the orchestral impact was not powerful.

The company needs to raise millions more to pay its “Ring” bills, and I know it won’t want to hear this at a time when money is scarily tight and bean counters rule the Music Center roost.  But it also needs to hire an acoustical consultant and either construct expensive sound baffling devices or -- dare I say it -- explore electronic sound enhancement on a highly sophisticated (and really expensive) scale.

There is a long way yet to go and there are enormous obstacles to overcome.  But L.A.’s first “Ring” could achieve greatness.  Imperfect as it is, this “Walküre” shows the way, and it is a pretty terrific show all by itself.

-- Mark Swed

"Die Walküre," L.A. Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 1 p.m. Wednesday, Sunday and April 19; 6:30 p.m. April 16, 22 and 25;  $20 to $250; (213) 972-8001; running time: 4 hours, 35 minutes.

Photos: Linda Watson (Brünnhilde) and Plácido Domingo (Siegmund), top, and the cast of "Die Walküre." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

Comments () | Archives (45)

The very fact that Swed endorses such mutilations such as "electronic sound enhancement" devices illustrates that he is not at all concerned with the composer's work and destroys the credibility of his review. Such devices are invariably imperfect in replicating the sound of the ochestra and the result is simply muddled and artificial. Anyway, the natural sound of the orchestra is part of what sets the experience of a live performance apart from listening to recordings. Even in a mediocre acoustical environment, I, along with most lovers of great music, would much rather hear the performance without the interference of cheap amplification systems. Perhaps Mr. Swed should purchase a pair of hearing aids if the volume bothers him, but I still maintain that great music does not necessarily have to be overpowering in volume.
James Conlon himself explains the reasons for his choice to cover the orchestra pit in an interview posted on the website of Los Angeles Opera; I recommend that Mr. Swed listen to it. Conlon's reasoning is that a full scale Wagnerian orchestra overpowers the voices of the singers. Thus, many conductors have had to "restrain" the orchestra so as to allow the singers to be heard; the result is, unfortunately, a drastically different tone quality which differs from what Wagner intended. Conlon reasons (much as Wagner himself did in planning the Bayreuth theatre) that the act of covering the pit allows the orchestra to play with full intensity without the negative side effect of drowning out the singers.

I trust no one at the opera house will heed Mr. Sved when he rants about "electronic sound enhancement." I attended many opera performances at the New York State Opera House (housing the excellent New York City Opera) and the experience was depressing! I sat in the lower balcony where the sound should be at its best -- warm, blended, and vibrant. Instead I listened to performances there as though I were hearing opera on a cheap Motorola of 1950 vintage. You wouldn't believe what "enhancement" did to great voices like Lauren Flannigan's.
My suggestion: LEAVE THE SOUND ALONE AT THE DOROTHY CHANDLER PAVILLION. I attend every production there, will see all the Wagner this year and next as well as the complete Ring (it will be my 16th Ring Cycle).
The sound is fine. I thought Das Rheingold blazed from where I sat upstairs, Row B, which I consider the best seats in the house for listening.

P.S. When the Ring Cycle bills are paid , aren't we ready for a new "Die Meistersinger?" It's not beong done anywhere and I'm sure Maestro Conlon
would go wild over this idea.

Mine was the BOO referred to in the review. I had flown in from Chicago to hear and see this production in spite of having heard the negative reports of the previous Rhinegold. I, too, have seen countless Rings all over North America and Europe, some good, some terrible, some provacative and a very few that could be called great.

As mentioned in the review, the singing, with the exception of Watson, was quite good. I had no trouble hearing all the voices where I sat in the loge. The balance between orchestra and singers was good. In general I thought Conlon conducted very well, although there were a number of purely orchestral moments where he rushed through instead of taking the time to play them as written and to bring out the beauty of these passages. His 45 minute preview was both informative and very entertaining.

I wish I could say the same for the production. I shudder to think how much money was spent on this fiasco at a time when funds for the arts are in such short supply. How management was hoodwinked into giving responsibility for this production to Achim Freyer is a story that may emerge some day. Much was just childish, such as the clock that moves forward when singers sing of the present or future, and moves backwards when telling of the past. Doubles and characters from Rheingold wandered in and out of the set adding nothing and simply distracting from the moment.

Each act contains one or two great moments which should greatly affect the viewer. When spring comes in Act 1 the doors are usually thrown open to reveal the spring night. Here, as there were no doors, a little bit of something backstage was opened a few feet for a moment and then closed. Not very effective. And picking up the neon light tube (the sword) from the floor isn't quite the same as pulling it out of an ash tree. These emotions are all there in the music but were certainly not there in this staging.

The final scene of act 2 is one of the most difficult scenes for a director to stage. Things happen very quickly, the fight, Brünnhilde protecting Siegmund, Wotan shattering Siegmund's sword, Hunding killing Siegmund and Wotan killing Hunding. Chéreau managed it superbly in Bayreuth but here it was a shambles, lacking in focus, tension, precision and emotion. So many people were doing so many things that I doubt if many in the audience actually saw Siegmund killed. Wotan has just been forced to help kill his son and yet he showed no reaction to the situation. With all the money that was spent why couldn't they at least get this critical moment right.

The opening of Act 3 with all the slightly mis-timed lighting cues of the "star wars" light sabers was both silly and tedious. (The sign in the back with the arrow which read "OST" was clever.) The act ends with the most emotional moments in the opera. Wotan must abandon his favorite daughter and she must part from her beloved father. Wagner wrote music here that is so overwhelming it can reduce you to tears. Not here, however. Contrary to what the stage directions (Wagner's) say and the music (Wagner's) say, Brünnhilde sits down and she and Wotan neither look at each other nor embrace. He almost touches her shoulder but then thinks better of it. Some emotional parting!
The less said about the "magic fire" the better. It looked more like the lamplighter in Rosenkavalier, Act 3. Usually the director goes all out in order to make this a spectacular scene. Perhaps the money finally ran out here.

I wish LA Opera well with the rest of the Ring. I hope that it does not bankrupt the company and that they will choose future directors with more care.

As with "Das Rheingold" before, Swed has written less a review than an apologetic.

What else can one conclude from his inclusion of such axioms as, to paraphrase, Hey, Not Every Work Of Art Is For Everyone?

When one's summary of a dramatic work is that "a long way yet to go" remains before the work can even be heard properly, with "enormous obstacles to overcome," it's code for, "Damn, this sucks hard, but I love opera and don't want to diss it too much." It's like reviewing a horrible film by a beloved actor; ever seen any reviews of Tom Hanks in any of his recent clunkers?

Rsst assured, Mr. Swed, I understand your meaning all too well.

This production is a disaster. There is no other way of describing it. In light of the many so called "innovations" which Freyer utlizes, it nearly seems as though the work is no longer Wagner's ring cycle, but rather a sort of bizarre circus. I am not a supporter of the suppression of creativity, however it is my opinion that Wagnerian operas must be staged as the composer inteded in order for to have full (or even half) effect. There is a reason why the composer published so many guides to the staging of these works: so as to ensure that the manner in which they are performed is the best possible.
But unfortunately, Los Angeles Opera seems to have forgotten that the paying public of Los Angeles may have wanted to see Der Ring des Nibelungen, rather than Der Freyerringzirkus, and that is why it is critical that audiences remind the company that they do not want to see their donations squandered in such a manner. Placido Domingo was the one who chose Achim Freyer as the director of this production; he even claims so himself. Nonetheless, despite all of the quiet complaints about the failure of this production to do justice to Wagner's masterpiece, he still maintains a distorted opinion about the public's reaction to the performance. In an interview posted on the website of Los Angeles Opera, he refers to the peformances of Das Rheingold as being "successes". Obviously, this shows that he has lost touch with both the composer and the audience. Thus, in order to show him that his decision to bring in Freyer was not a good one, I propose that the audience boo Domingo after each performance of Die Walkure. As I said in a comment following the review of Das Rheingold, Domingo is a skilled enough singer to know that if he is booed, it is not because of his singing. By booing him, the opera lovers and Wagnerites of Los Angeles can actually directly display their displeasure with the production and encourage him to reevaluate his choices in the future. There are many comments here on this website expressing displeasure and disgust with Freyer's production, however, it must be remembered that neither Domingo nor other Los Angeles Opera executives probably read the comments here. Thus, the only way to show Domingo that continued decisions such as this one will not be tolerated in the future is to boo him after the performance. It is not worth wasting time attacking Freyer; he will not change his style, no matter how much people boo or complain. It is Domingo who has the power to decide in which direction Los Angeles Opera moves and it is to him that we must direct our complaints and displeasure.

Beautiful music, terrible production. Even the indescribable beauty of the magic fire music was cheapened by the silly spinning horses. The cheers from the crowd for Mr. Freyer were a shock. Come on people: pretentious and ugly doesn't make it good.

I will see the last two because it is an immense work of art and we are lucky to have it in our backyard. Bravo to LA for making the effort but tickets to Seattle just to wash away the taste of Brünnhilde's paper mache breasts and Fricka's blinking hands is very tempting.

This is the first review I've read that referenced the audience's truly visceral reaction to this unique (and may I concur ridiculous) production. My friends & I attended the opening night of DAS RHEINGOLD, and while singers & conductor were enthusiastically acclaimed & received, the entrance of Achim Freyer & his wife during the curtain call ellicited dozens & dozens of "boo's" from the mezzanine. My companions & I turned to each other in shock, as never in our attendance at ANY theatrical event in Los Angeles - be it opera, play, musical or concert - have we seen such an occurance. We were even more surprised when Freyer returned for a second bow and to even more "boo's" than before. No doubt reviewers in the orchestra or loge were oblivious to this reaction - indeed, opening night is usually a time for celebration despite the quality of the music - yet for many viewers at the Dorothy Chandler that night, this production of the Ring was (in their opinion and in my own) a self-indulgent exercise in tedium. My companions & I have tickets to the closing night performance of DIE WALKURE and have decided to give the production one more chance. However, if "what is past is prologue," then I doubt we will be purchasing tickets to the final 2 operas to be performed next season - which is a shame, as Ring's are generational, and if I were LA Opera, I'd feel insulted to have paid $32 million for a new production of Wagner's masterwork that is as singularly ridiculous as this one.

Los Angeles Opera's peception of what is desired by the public is certainly distorted and that is why it is especially important to make it clear that we do not want any more Freyer ring cycles or Wilson Madama Butterflies. That is why we must boo Placido Domingo.

I think the production is inventive, risky, and brilliant. I love it!

'exuberant martial music -- “The Ride of the Valkyries” (cue the "Apocalypse Now" helicopters)' ??? What are you talking about?

It's not martial music -- and never was, even if it was used as a soundtrack over military helicopters.

Martial music is in 4/4 time. The Ride of the Valkyries" is in roughly 3/4 tempo -- you know, like a waltz?

I'm certainly hoping past is prologue. I saw the Rheingold twice and loved it. We are very lucky to have someone as intelligent, thoughtful, and inventive Fryer designing and directing our LA Ring cycle. I will be seeing Die Walkure on Wednesday afternoon. I already have two friends who have seen it, found it stunning, and can't wait to go again.

The singing: overall it was excellent. Anja Kampe stood out in a great cast. Unfortunately Mr. Domingo, apparently encased in a costume that prevented him from bowing during curtain calls, muffed his line when he tried to walk upstage (30 degrees up on this stage) to grab the sword. Not enough rehearsal time? Mr. Swed chose not to notice this. Otherwise, one can only say that he performed remarkably well, considering his age. I enjoyed his performance while at the same time wondering how well his replacement will do.

What Mark Swed Didn’t Say Part 2: most people have commented on the trivial, distracting and childish staging of Mr. Freyer, but let’s spread the wealth a bit. The revolving stage is noisy - at times it makes very loud clanks. There is constant fan noise. The Valkyries’ horses are flimsy enough that as they revolved during the Magic Fire music they made occasional noisy scraping contact with the stage. Finally, between acts we are treated to all the stagehand’s activity and singers' positioning themselves because there is no curtain, and the scrim is translucent. So, when the ‘curtain rises’, especially in Act III, there is no gasp of discovery from the audience.

What Mark Swed Didn’t Say, Part 3: a most serious musical mistake was the light-speed tempo in Wotan’s final monologue, “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar,”. This should be the moment when we are most deeply affected by Wotan’s emotional farewell to Brunnhilde. The score is marked “poco rallentando” (slow down a little) and then “Langsam.[er]” (slower). Maestro Conlon conducted it as though he was late for dinner. Mr. Kowaljow was hard pressed to keep up. Perhaps Conlon was trying to make up for the extremely slow tempo required at the end of the opera in order to make the music last until Brunnhilde’s vertical coffin could be lowered over her vertical sleeping (right!) body. Well, whatever. As if Freyer’s comic-book costumes and stage direction hadn’t sucked enough drama out of the opera, this removed what little emotional value remained. I’m still trying to understand why Conlon made this choice.

For the person who keeps on suggesting that the audience "booo" Domingo:
Why don't you get involved in Los Angeles Opera and make your voice heard in a meaningful way? Boooing will only disturb your fellow audience members who may have actually enjoyed the performance. Don't be so juvenile.

To busytimmy, I'm a big fan of booing and actually wish there was a lot more of it. Why can't an audience member display his or her extreme dissatisfaction audibly?

I agree with him that urging people to boo Placido Domingo because of his administrative choices, as "fan of Wagner's works" suggests, is in fact juvenile.

I see no problem in booing a truly miserable musical performance. Luckily this isn't a problem at the LA Opera.

I am reading this from a distance - Washington, DC, where the Domingo-led Washington National Opera canceled next season's Ring as conceived by Francesca Zambello, for financial reasons. I can accept some of her ideas - like Alberich as a 49'er and Rheinmaidens as saloon girls in Das Rheingold, and Sieglinda and Hunding living in a hut straight out of "Deliverance", in Walkure. Some of it is tired or silly - Wotan as a captain of industry, and the Valkyries as Girls of the Luftwaffe. Siegfried premiers in a few weeks - so we'll see how that one goes. In the end, though, the production isn't insulting and the music and story overpower all. What you seem to have going in LA, however, appears to be bizarreness for its own sake, and I don't see how that can be overcome.

The irony of all this is that most popular, and conservative, Ring in this country, Otto Schenk's at the Met, is coming to the end of its twenty-year run. And Domingo is singing in it.

In fairness, and as an addendum to my prior comment,

the OC Times reviewer lurrrrved this "Walkuere." (Not trying to give the LA Times's competitors links but rather to give an alternative view.)


As for me, after checking with my wife, we decided today to donate our tickets to charity -- and to keep an open mind about seeing the 2010 production if its reviews show sufficient improvement.

I attended the performance of Die Walkure yesterday and I saw Das Rheingold in March. There are no saloon girls or Luftwaffe here....Freyer's Ring has so much
imagination and creativity. Ultimately, the characters represent themselves.
I appreciate the some of the criticism of the stagecraft. Yes, some of it doesn't work - literally and figuratively. But most of it is clever and interesting.
The singing is fine. The orchestra is steady.
Don't miss this production of the Ring!

Everything about this production, from the costumes (which reduce the characters to the ontological status of cartoon characters), blatantly artificial sets (the central circle is a device rippled off from a Weiland Wagner Bayreuth production in the mid-50'), "light sabers," the outrageously dark lighting as well as the remarkably blanded-out tonal paleltte of the orchestra, seemed deliberately calculated to discourage any emotional connection with, or visceral reaction to, the opera. None of which would necessarily be a bad thing if the intention were to present a cerebral Ring that compelled the audience to think rather than feel. But there was no evidence of any new intellectual "take" on the Ring by Freyer. This was little more than trashy "po-.-mo." hokum of the worst sort . I wouldn't dream of booing Domingo, but Freyer richly deserved all the catcalls he got, and he would have gotten plenty more from an audience of more savvy Wagnerites than we seem to have in LA. And he would have gotten rougher handling from a more savvy reviewer too.

An alternative to booing Domingo would be to boycott Los Angeles Opera productions and to withhold contributions; nonetheless, this could easily be misinterpreted by the company as a sign of the recession, rather than an act of rebellion by the patrons of art. Therefore, I also suggest that every single person who did not enjoy Freyer's circus write a letter to the company explaining their reasons for choosing not to attend the performances of the remainder of the ring cycle. Los Angeles Opera cannot operate without the support of its patrons and such a demonstration of displeasure, if it is on a large enough scale, may be enough to convince them to stop presenting nearly exclusively post-modern, avant-garde productions. It is such a tremendous shame to see the evident musical talent between the singers, the conductor and the orchestra go to waste in such a manner.

Anyway, I am still attempting to comprehend those whom this production pleased. Any of the symbolism on stage is presented in such a manner that it could only possibly be interpreted by one particularly familiar with the work. But, for someone who already knows so much, is this symbolism even necessary to convey the overall meaning of the work? If it is not, then how could it add to anybody's experience of the opera? This seems to be the huge paradox surrounding these modern productions in general which I cannot seem to understand.

Also, a note about the sound:

The Dorothy Chandler Pavillion seems to have a notorious reputation for having bad acoustics. Having sat multiple times on all four levels of the theatre, I have found, strangely enough, that the very front of the Balcony A and Loge levels seem to have the best orchestral sound. Even with the covered pit in these performances, the sound is clear and striking. All of the complaints which have been given about this seem to apply only to those on the Orchestra level. For those who still would like to see these performances in order to enjoy the sublime music, I would recommend the slightly less-expensive upper levels. Even though not all of Freyer's sets can be seen from the Balcony level, the sound quality is dramatically better (anyway, who wants to see Freyer's designs?).

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