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A pop critic takes on the 'Ring': A little pit of punk with 'Siegfried' at Los Angeles Opera

June 14, 2010 | 10:00 am
Rotten-siegfried

"I want to be anarchy!" So sang Johnny Rotten in "Anarchy in the U.K.," the debut single by the Sex Pistols and, for many, punk rock's definitive 3.5-minute attack. The shocking blond hellion whom John Lydon became fronting that band is a very different character from the golden hero of "Siegfried," the third of the four "Ring" cycle operas now in rotation at Los Angeles Opera. Yet the mad twinkle in heldentenor John Treleaven's eyes -- not to mention his neon-yellow wig -- brought Johnny Rotten to mind, as Achim Freyer's reinterpretation of this classic hero's journey did something really unexpected, establishing a link between Richard Wagner and punk.

The leap may not be intentional. Freyer is 76, a bit old to have been absorbed in punk the first time around, although his daughter and co-designer, Amanda, was at school in the 1990s, when the genre enjoyed a healthy rebirth. Nonetheless, the comic-book imagery the Freyers mine for this turning point in the  "Nibelungen" epic was also inspirational to many punks. By employing it, they've emphasized how Wagner's version of the familiar Germanic myth rips down the ideal of hazy hero worship even as it rides forward on the energy of the hero's quest. 

In some ways, that's what punk did: pushed pop culture forward with a relentless energy, trashing sentimentality and old ideals as it moved. Freyer's Siegfried does something very similar. The character's costume truly establishes the character. In a garish muscle-suit and bearskin, with a painted face and that electric-socket hair, this protagonist is a cartoon character of a particular sort. Hammed up to the hilt by the very game Treleaven, he seemed less like Superman than George of the Jungle or Mighty Mouse -- half god, half joke. "He's the Tick," said my companion. Is it possible that the Freyers belong to the cult of that absurdist superhero with the tiny head and big blue chest?

Brunnhilde Maybe not, but Freyer's entire project smacks of the Jungian, and archetypes have a way of resurfacing. The world of comics is one place where myths survive in the contemporary world; the Freyers are hardly the first highbrow artists to dip into their bright ink. Wagner's saga has also left a mark on the history of comics (a connection my colleague David Ng explored in a recent article). So it's not a shock that the culture of "Kapow!" is as influential on this realization of the Ring cosmology as are puppets or the Jedi of "Star Wars."

What worked for me in this reimagining of "Siegfried," though, was the way that the tilt toward the comic -- and the comics -- invoked the spirit that connected avant-garde movements such as Dada and surrealism, which have clearly also inspired Freyer, to punk. This outlandish Siegfried is what the critic Greil Marcus might have called a punk "negationist," a man on a mission to rip down the falsehoods with which he's been raised because without that act of ripping up the world, it can't start again.

In his program notes, Freyer calls Siegfried a destroyer. He's an innocent of the adolescent variety, rebelling against both his adoptive and biological kin as he progresses on his unstoppable search for kicks. Wagner's first act easily assimilated Freyer's undertone of chaos: Siegfried spends its squabbling with his evil foster father, the dwarf Mime, and the manic edge that Treleaven and the tenor Graham Clark brought to their duets must have rung true to any parent in the room with a sassy child.

By embracing the humor seemingly written into Wagner's clattering score, Freyer and his singers set up a quest for Siegfried that could never be sentimentalized. Act Two dragged on somewhat -- one Wagner devotee with whom I chatted at intermission said that this is often the point at which one wonders if the Ring cycle may, indeed, prove unending -- but the hero's battle with the dragon Fafner (a tiny green thing) and his murder of Mime upheld the idea that these triumphs had their ridiculous side. Within the highly pitched romanticism of Wagner's music, a new note appeared: an almost parodic edge, suggesting that even as he crafted opera's greatest tale of gods and monsters, the composer knew that sometimes all of this agony and ecstasy could be a bit much.

This interplay of intense emotion and cleansing (or contemptuous) laughter is so punk. The Sex Pistols spat out jokes with the seriousness of assassins. Nearly two decades later, Nirvana did the same thing, making huge music that undercut itself to ribbons. For much of this "Siegfried," a similar mood prevailed.

In the last act, the duet between Siegfried and his awakening love, Brünnhilde, changed things. One reason why the reference points of comic books and punk worked well for the opera's first two acts is because virtually no female voices enter into them. While women certainly have played a role in punk, it's not a place where the conventional feminine thrives. The Brünnhilde who would have done well in this world is the one in the breastplate, kicking out the jams on the battlefield.

Abandoning her outsize strength to unite with Siegfried, Linda Watson's Brünnhilde brought vocal beauty to the stage, but in many ways her presence calmed the energy the opera had until her emergence. The production gained a poetic beauty through her performance, and Treleaven, though increasingly rough of voice, was finally able to stop mugging and show some tenderness. Still, this part of Freyer's "Siegfried" was less intriguing, because it felt more familiar. Johnny Rotten had left the building. Good thing he did some damage before departing.

Next: "Götterdämmerung"

-- Ann Powers

Walkure

RECENT AND RELATED:

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A pop music critic takes on Wagner's 'Ring' cycle. First up: 'Das Rheingold'

Mission accomplished: L.A. Opera's 'Ring'

Critic's Notebook: 'Die Walküre' and the shifting sands of dramatic restraint

Critic's Notebook: 'Siegfried' via Brecht's alienation effect

A lover of theater braves Wagner's world of the 'Ring'

Photos: (top left) Johnny Rotten. Credit: Joe Mahoney /  For The Times

(top right) John Treleaven as Siegfried. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

(bottom) Linda Watson as Brünnhilde. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times


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