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Opera review: 'Götterdämmerung' -- a new beginning at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

April 4, 2010 |  3:35 pm
Gotterdam
The End.

Saturday afternoon, a bit before twilight, “Götterdämmerung” (“The Twilight of the Gods”) reached its final, transcendental moments at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The multitudes of singers, musicians and stagehands passed their endurance tests. Breathlessly conducting nearly five hours' worth of music, the energetic James Conlon never flagged. With the last and longest opera of Wagner’s tetralogy, Los Angeles Opera proved it could complete a “Ring” cycle.

That the company had the artistic capability to mount this Everest of the opera world it had for so long strived to conquer was never in any doubt. Far lesser operatic outfits put on the “Ring” cycle all the time. That L.A. had the vision to produce a unique “Ring” had been clear for quite a while, once Achim Freyer’s provocative but singular concept began unfolding in the earlier operas last season.

GOTT330 You never know whether all the singers will come through, but they did. Freyer’s production has not been universally loved, but Wagnerites love to complain, so this wasn’t about to keep them away. Even the scary challenge of raising the money -- and keeping within the multi-million-dollar budget -- was, in the end, nothing to worry about. Los Angeles’ first “Ring” cycle was too big to fail, as Los Angeles County, with a bailout loan last fall, acknowledged.

What could not be anticipated before Saturday’s final curtain (a term I use metaphorically, because there is no curtain in Freyer’s fanciful staging) was just how much this “Ring” might matter. Wagnerism operates on a sliding scale, measured, in part, by how much in this epic work -- in which greedy gods, greedy dwarfs and greedy giants destroy themselves so that mankind can have a crack at ruining things -- that you don’t object to.   

Yet in one of the most glorious and moving instances of stagecraft I have ever witnessed, Freyer in the final scene of his “Ring” strips away all theatrical illusion. He had plenty to strip away, given the radiantly goofy globe he had created. In doing so, he destroyed innocence and simultaneously demanded it. “Götterdämmerung,” I thought, never had it so good. Not everyone -- given a beet red-faced, vein-popping booer near me – necessarily agreed.

Most opera goers brace themselves for “Götterdämmerung.”  It typically begins in late afternoon with a dinner break after the two-hour prologue and first act. L.A. Opera took but two short intermissions, and Conlon moved things along, which meant a mere (everything in Wagner is relative) commitment of five and a quarter hours in the theater.

Still, a lot can happen in that time and does. I won’t bother you with most of the plot. Siegfried and Brünnhilde having met on a fire-surrounded rock in the previous opera, “Siegfried,” now make their way in the treacherous land of the Gibichungs and come to grief.

Norns warn us of the fate of the gods and recall what you may have missed in the earlier operas (and if you miss that, other characters chime in with their own recalling), and Freyer sets this scene with the women coming out of globulous skirts, yet another glimpse into the German director and artist’s gloriously odd-ball painterly universe.

That opening notwithstanding, Freyer’s “Götterdämmerung,” at least until its unforgettable “Immolation” scene, is more conventional (everything is relative with Freyer as well) than had been the case in the earlier operas. But Wagner’s libretto (which was written first, he then worked backward on the first three operas) is the most narrative-driven (and poetically ham-fisted) of the cycle. Everyone may be once more funny-looking, but Freyer does not abstract himself from the plot and uses masks with less abandon.

Eric Halfvarson’s deliciously evil Hagen, the son of Alberich (who stole the Rhinemaiden’s gold and forged a magic ring three operas earlier), comes close to stealing this show, as did his throne made in part of a kneeling, red-shod nude. His ineffectual half brother and sister, Gunther and Gutrune, convincingly portrayed by Alan Held and Jennifer Wilson, were masked throughout, yet their singing created the striking illusion of facial expression.

The opera is played out on a postmodern parquet floor, crisscrossed with the light tubes that Freyer so enjoys. Symbols from earlier operas hang from the ceiling. The lighting is elaborate and arresting.  Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) as the nasty, crusty financier hangs around even more than Wagner’s libretto suggests.

The L.A. Opera budget, however, may have prevented a couple of big scenes from being properly staged. Siegfried’s “Rhine Journey,” for instance, is no more than a slow, murkily lit set change.  Then again, maybe this is just part of Freyer’s anti-establishmentarian way of doing things.

John Treleaven (Siegfried) and Linda Watson (Brünnhilde) were uneven earlier in the cycle, but here they rose to the occasion. Their first duet was vocally underpowered, as if they were saving themselves (they were also placed on an acoustically dead spot of the stage). Treleaven’s voice is not large, but he compensated with expressivity, overcoming even his comic-book costume to reveal himself as a cartoon character who can feel.  His death, minimally and powerfully staged, felt profound.

Watson also gradually built in power and stature, in her case becoming a towering Brünnhilde by the end.  Her coolness also served as perfect foil for the effusive Michelle DeYoung when, as Waltraute, she tried to persuade Brünnhilde to give up the ring and save gods, as well as take another opportunity to tell of the back story.

The chorus of Gibichungs, masked men with Freyer's light sabers, looked and sounded impressive. A few of the funny people who have paraded through the previous operas return to parade a final time through this one, enthralling and inexplicable as ever.

In “Götterdämmerung," Freyer might have been expected to sensibly tie all these images together, but his  genius is to do what you least expect. So at the end, he robs images of meaning on his path to ultimate disillusionment. Props are set into unsettling, swirling motion. Light fixtures come down, blinding the audience and revealing the backstage. Cut-out figures of ravens "fly" away revealing prompters at their desks cuing singers.

Conlon, who received the evening’s loudest ovation, conducted in service of the drama. But he became expansive at the end, and the orchestra, fine all night, turned resplendent. No set, I suspect, has ever been torn down more memorably or movingly.

And now we start all over again. Ring Festival LA is gearing up and the first of three full cycles, presumably full of Freyer refinements, begins at the end of May. With Wagner, all endings are beginnings.

-- Mark Swed

“Götterdämmerung," Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 1 p.m.  April 11, 17 and 25 and 5:30 April 21. See www.laopera.com for casts. $20 to $260. (213) 972-8001. Running time: 5 hours, 15 minutes.

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Opera review: 'Siegfried' at Los Angeles Opera

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Opera review: 'Das Rheingold' at Los Angeles Opera

Photo: The final scene from Achim Freyer's production of Wagner's “Götterdämmerung.” Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times

[For the record: An early version of this review misidentified Waltraute as Flosshilde.]

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