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A pop critic takes on the 'Ring': Sweating through 'Götterdämmerung'

June 17, 2010 |  3:18 pm
  GOTT
"Singing is physical elasticity, nothing else," wrote the German vocal teacher Franzisca Martienssen-Lohmann in 1923. Her description was prosaic, meant to remind vocalists that limbering up is a key to preserving their instrument. Yet the phrase "physical elasticity" also has a poetic ring, getting at the magic of great singing, which is clearly a bodily act, but seems to bend beyond normal human limit.

The Guns 'n' Roses front man W. Axl Rose had another way of talking about what happens when a singer gives a crowd his all. "I usually have to have someone stand beside me when I come offstage, because I can't even tie my own shoes," he once told an interviewer. The idea that a performance could imperil the artist in this way -- pushing them so hard that they're trembling and nearly incoherent --  is what makes certain kinds of pop music exciting. James Brown ritualistically collapsed at the end of every show. Elvis Presley passed out handkerchiefs christened in his sweat.

Here's where opera really meets pop, or at least the ecstatic popular music of the rock and soul era: at the point where decorum dissolves in the frenzy of bodily self-expression. Achim Freyer's production of the four-opera "Der Ring des Nibelungen" with Los Angeles Opera makes intense demands on its artists, and never so much as in "Götterdämmerung," the longest and most melodramatic of the cycle's works.

Hagen Wednesday, the bass Eric Halfvarson felt so drained that he requested an announcement be made during the second intermission that he was indisposed, though he'd keep on singing. And who could blame him? Reportedly fighting off a throat infection, he was also on his third role and fourth opera of the week.

Halfvarson sounded fine to me. I was more concerned about his limp, though that was apparently just part of getting into the character of the nasty dwarf Hagen. I wouldn't have blamed any of the principals, however, if they'd asked the audience for a little sympathy. Freyer's staging demands much more than the already considerable challenges of the text. Some of the principals have complained.

What is performance at this highest level, though, if not a chance for greats to continue exceeding expectations? It's presumptuous of a critic to speak for performers; nonetheless, I'm going out on that limb to say that the singers in this "Ring" should be honored to endure the rigors that Freyer demands.

His gauntlet  -- the steeply raked stage, the constrictive costumes, the cumbersome props, and most of all, the masks that many principals wear  -- makes their success all the more impressive. I was deeply affected by Vitalij Kowaljow's resonant heartbreak as Wotan in the first three operas -- all the more so because of the cage-like headgear he often wore and sang past. In "Götterdämmerung," the giant widow spider costumes worn by the Norns made their slightest movement seem like magic. And for all the flying light sabers and screen-projected flames, nothing dazzled more than passion that the principals conveyed beneath cumbersome wigs or through gimp masks.

Rhine About those masks: One source of wonder throughout this staging of the "Ring" is Freyer's blurring of the human, the monstrous and the divine. From the first image of the Rhinemaidens, their living reflections hovering beneath them, to the final scenes in which the enormity of Siegfried's death is embodied by his soot-black doppelganger lying on the stage like so much trash, the images Freyer created with his cast and crew raised fundamental questions about nature and reality.

Never mind being transported to a realm of myth; what affected me was the experience right there in the theater, in the real world, of seeing the foam-headed Alberich communicate such intense rage and hunger, or feeling every ounce of Brünnhilde's despair when raped by a disguised Siegfried, though that assault was portrayed merely by the laying-on of a host of anonymous black-clad hands.

Many of these effects were pulled from the trick bag of experimental theater, but in their rawness and ramshackle immediacy, they also reminded me of how rock shows often transform theater into something riskier and perhaps more visceral. Rock-era performers have embraced and even courted risk or adversity as a way of increasing the tension and ultimate release music stimulates. The main difference, of course, is that the audience is often involved. At times during "Götterdämmerung's" long unfolding, I wished that we weren't all so still out in the crowd. I longed for the chance to get on my feet or to dodge a stage-diving Brünnhilde.

Still, bodies are hurled about during "Götterdämmerung's" immolation scene.The flames may have been only projected on a screen -- thank Wotan or whatever higher power to whom you defer (the fire department?) that Freyer wasn't able to light real fires -- but their heat convinced. Did any beads of sweat fly off the stage and into the front row? Probably not. But under Freyer's spell, I could imagine them.

-- Ann Powers

Photos of "Götterdämmerung," from top: the opening scene with the Norns, Alan Held as Gunther and  Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, and Ronnita Nicole Miller as "Rhinemaiden" Flosshilde.Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.

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