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Opera review: 'Siegfried' at Los Angeles Opera

September 27, 2009 |  3:33 pm


When indefatigable Los Angeles Opera music director James Conlon began his engrossing pre-performance talk before “Siegfried” on Saturday, a blazing midday sun was directly overhead at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. By the time he finished conducting the long opera, day was done. The sky had reddened but not brilliantly enough to compete with the glow lingering from director Achim Freyer’s carnival of light inside or from Wagner’s music.

Los Angeles Opera’s ring around the “Ring” has come to the third opera of the tetralogy and the one most challenging to make convincing on stage. For five hours, a know-nothing hunk attempts to figure out a thing or two. Take “Siegfried” out of context, and you might think that testosterone is all that is needed to master the world.

Yet there are marvels in this opera. Nature purifies. Wotan, the self-centered ruler of universe, achieves enlightenment, understanding the cyclic makeup of existence and ceding power. Love emboldens Siegfried and his new bride, Brünnhilde, to laugh, live, bless the light and vow to protect the environment.

L.A. Opera has come down on the side of marvels. Its “Siegfried” is not without problems (what “Siegfried” is?), but it is wonderful. Freyer's "Ring" is singular spectacle, part circus, part eccentric art project, part light show, part historical panoply and part ineffable philosophical exercise. And the company’s $32 million investment in it clearly is beginning to pay off.

Freyer received boos Saturday, just as the German artist had for his earlier "Ring" productions of "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walküre." But he also got cheers, and they were adamant. Traditional Wagnerians have reason to be bewildered. Those of us who have admired Freyer’s grotesqueries for many years have equal reason to be bewildered. It all boils to how much you value bewilderment.

Freyer envisions this opera as a sort of go-East-young-man pageant of penetration. The first act begins with characters on a racetrack, with a signpost giving the direction of Ost (German for east). Siegfried forges an invincible sword, which he uses to slaughter Mime (the dwarf who raises him) and the dragon Fafner (who guards the hoard of gold and magic ring) and shatter Wotan's spear. Siegfried's ultimate incursion is into the fire-surrounded mountain where the former Valkyrie and now mortal Brünnhilde sleeps.

Every character in this production is weird and full of symbols, some easier to read than others. Siegfried is a clown. He has Harpo Marx’s yellow hair, Jack LaLanne’s midriff (comic book muscles in violet that turn red with the discovery of sex) and pants of bear-hide.

I won’t ruin the delightful surprise dragon, but much of this odd crowd we’ve seen before. The dwarfs, Alberich and Mime, wear masks, forcing them to convey expression exclusively through voice and body language. A woodbird, who tells Siegfried what’s what, is here part of Wotan. Erda, the primal Earth mother, and her daughter Brünnhilde share the same outlandish Afro, although their figures are pneumatic in different ways. The hand-painted costumes designed by the director and his daughter, Amanda Freyer, are magnificent works of art.

The lighting amazes. Siegfried’s sword is a glowing blue tube, which can change colors. The stage is littered with other light tubes on a large turntable, and they are also are used like batons by a troupe of a dozen actors in black body suits.

These light tubes (which are improvements over earlier version thanks to new flexible LED strips and an inventive L.A. Opera shop) are also used by lighting designer Brian Gales in color choreography with Freyer’s projections on front and back scrims to create a three-dimensional wonderland of luminosity.


Heavy costumes, the steeply raked and moving turntable as well as flashing lights are all obstacles for singers. Furthermore, Freyer provides little in the way of sound reinforcing surfaces. This is not, essentially, a singer’s “Ring,” which is one more upset to traditionalists. But then the Chandler is not an acoustically apt space for Wagnerians, who happen to be an endangered species, anyway.

John Treleaven and Linda Watson, who had not been impressive in the company’s “Tristan und Isolde” in 2008, pretty much came through Saturday. Treleaven compensates for lack of projection with a lyricism that is an attractive quality in a heldentenor. Siegfried is an impossible role. After wearing himself out, a singer is faced with a half-hour duet with Brünnhilde, who is fresh as a daisy.

Treleaven’s exhaustion showed by the end, but Watson was considerate and did not upstage him. The soprano, who had had pitch problems in “Walküre,” was more secure here. Both singers seemed to have risen to the occasion.

Graham Clark was a marvelous Mime, funny and almost sympathetic. The scene between Vitalij Kowaljow’s Wanderer (Wotan come to earth) and Jill Grove’s Erda was powerful and deeply moving. Oleg Bryjak, a new Alberich, was dark and nasty. Eric Halfvarson’s Fafner, the dragon, was loudly and effectively amplified. Stacey Tappan was a gorgeous-sounding Woodbird.

Conlon, who conducted a lovingly spacious performance, has improved the pit. For earlier “Ring” productions, it had been covered in light-absorbing material that also seemed to suck up sound. Now partly opened, the arrangement allowed the orchestra much more presence.  That means the orchestra sounds muffled only when Conlon, in consideration for his singers, holds back.

With each “Ring” opera, L.A. Opera grows taller.

-- Mark Swed

"Siegfried," Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 17 and 17; 2 p.m. Oct. 4 and 11; $20-$260; (213) 972-8001. Running time 4 hours, 50 minutes.

-- Mark Swed

Related stories:

Review: 'The Ring' begins

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

Achim Freyer is consumed by 'The Ring of the Nibelung'

Photo: (top) John Treleaven as Siegfried in Los Angeles Opera's new production of Wagner's opera. (below) Linda Watson as Brünnhilde.  Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (12)

My goodness, no comments on the performance or the review?! I was looking forward to a spirited discussion. If you saw opening night, please opine.

The reason there is no "spirited discussion" here yet, is probably the fact that demographics of those who attend operatic openings and those who read blogs and comment on them are quite different and there is very little overlapping between the two. Maybe some opinions will show up after a few more performances. If anyone is interested in my thoughts about the production, i can share my feelings about the final dress rehearsal that i attended, but this is not exactly the same as opening night and you would have to keep it in mind.

If you want to read something really spirited, read the review of "Siegfried" at www.OperaOnline.us.

I saw today's matinee. Of the three productions, Siegfried has been the most interesting and, not surprisingly, the least complicated. The singers were outstanding, especially Kowaljow and Clark. Clark, in particular, sang his heart out from beginning to end. His battle of wits with Kowaljow in Act 1 was the most memorable part of the show. The only weakness, as the reviewer stated above, was Treleaven's lack of projection. At times, it seemed like the orchestra drowned him out. To top it all off, he had to be helped off the stage and for curtain calls after Act 3. Apparently, he hurt himself physically during the performance. Nonetheless, he finished the show and the audience gave him a hearty applause for his effort.

As for the dragon. I found what they did to be cute and not surprising, but some in the audience, as I picked up from conversation during intermission, were not impressed. Nonetheless, this Ring seems to be growing on me. I can't wait for Part 4 next April

Hi, it's me, "The Lonely Booer," as Mark dubbed me.

I have rebutted his "Siegfried" review extensively here:

For a different opinion about this production, take a look at a well-written review by Carie J. Delmar on the " operaonline.us " website.

Thank you, Rip Rense. I've read your link sumbitted here as well. Cannot agree more. Mark Swed is not sincere here, I am afraid. This RING in LA Opera IS A REAL DISASTER...

Freyer's Ring is far from a disaster either artistically or financially. The houses have been fuller, and the first and last cycles next year are nearly sold out.

Meanwhile this comment area has become little more than a complaint space for the small number of the disgruntled, shocked by anything the least bit out of the ordinary. Apparently, many of these folks have created their own poorly designed spaces around the internet to post their equally shoddy writing on the topic. It's nice to know Ms. Delmar has an outlet for her opinions following her failure to derail LA Opera's Ring festival through her connections with the County Board of Supervisors.

If you want to read decent writing from the blogs about LA's Siegfried and the Ring cycle so far you might want to read one of the national opera and music blogs like Out West Arts. Here - http://outwestarts.blogspot.com/2009/09/wagnerian-sneak-peek.html or here - http://outwestarts.blogspot.com/2009/10/wrong-left-coast-perspective.html

Quotes from the New York Times review:

"But time after time, the staging just looks tawdry."

"The main problem is not its weirdness but its often cheap and sloppy look."

"Yet the material looks raggedy, and the stage trick seems not a triumph of artifice but an awkwardly executed and lamely pretentious idea."

I agree.

Read the review here:


There is nothing wrong with taking a new look at an opera and i am as much a fan of many modern productions as anyone, but this staging, apart from a few visually effective moments, was full of cheap and silly - actually, ridiculous - cliches, literal to a fault and unattractive too. The overall impression was of a production intended for little children and designed by people with small minds and no respect for the wonderful music of this opera.

"Freyer's Ring is far from a disaster either artistically or financially. The houses have been fuller, and the first and last cycles next year are nearly sold out."

Actually, I have noticed that there have been many empty seats at the performances. On the day of the last performance of Siegfried, I purchased a student rush ticket less than ten minutes before the box office ceased to sell them, yet still ended up with a seat in the second row of Orchestra about half way to the center (the best student rush ticket that I have ever gotten). There were a multitude of empty seats throughout the level. Los Angeles opera has released 100 rush tickets (the maximum number) for every single performance of Siegfried except for the opening night. Especially considering that there were some performances of Das Rheingold that had sold out, if this is not an indication of declining ticket sales, I do not know what is. Finally, the summer performances are not even near sold out. As of a few weeks ago approximately one third of the seats had been sold. (source: Los Angeles opera box office)

Whether or not the production is an artistic disaster, I have realized, simply depends upon whether one prefers Freyer's art or Wagner's art. This explains the rift of opinions which the production has created. However, since what appears on stage is more Freyer's work than Wagner's I think that false advertisement is a valid accusation which can be presented against Los Angeles Opera; if instead of announcing a production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen Los Angeles Opera had advertised it as Der Freyerringzirkus (with the music of Richard Wagner), how much support would the company have gained?

"It all boils to how much you value bewilderment."

My gosh, Mr. Swed, you have out-Bernheimer'd Martin Bernheimer's old tricks.

Since you brought the topic up, in a next review it would be interesting to learn just how much you value bewilderment. Apparently more than we have come to expect. Bewildering....


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