Critic's Notebook: Götterdämmerung’ -- twilight of a hypnotic spectacle
The end of the first complete cycle of Achim Freyer’s staging of the “Ring” for the Los Angeles Opera left me simultaneously energized and exhausted late Sunday night, as though I had just undergone intense hours of dreaming without the restorative benefit of sleep. This innovative production may not have been the gesamtkunstwerk that Wagner envisioned (or the one that L.A. Opera patrons were best prepared to appreciate), but it was a bold 21st century approach that felt as defiantly untraditional as the city that produced it.
Last week I dropped by the Hammer Museum to the see the Carl Jung "Red Book" exhibit before it closed, and I couldn’t help making connections between the images of this occult work and those of Freyer’s equally out-there multimedia extravaganza. Both attempt to represent figures and forces of our collective unconscious; both seek to enter into communication with the non-rational mind, to break through the bunker of logic into something more fundamental; and both succeed as often as they fail in trying to pass off the arcane as something universal.
Freyer’s production worked best when his singers were able to stand toe-to-toe with his spectacle. When Eric Halfvarson’s baleful Hagen -- terrifyingly costumed as a misshapen dwarf -- hits his Germanic consonants with a diabolical musical fervor, “Götterdämmerung” becomes more than just visually mesmerizing. Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde also has her incisive moments -- the sight of her in that black dress marked in red with an arterial design is made all the more harrowing by the clarion strength of her soprano. And the ghostly masks of Gunther (Alan Held) and Gutrune (Jennifer Wilson) seem so much more poetically human when their wearers are majestically intoning Wagner's score.
What I appreciated most about Freyer’s aesthetic palette, domineering as it can be, is its remarkable flexibility. The style is almost bullyingly comprehensive, yet it’s not the straitjacket that I feared. “Das Rheingold” convinced me that all the Brechtian talk was overdone; “Siegfried” showed new uses for the alienation effect. “Die Walküre” kept the focus on myth and fate; “Götterdämmerung” had me thinking politically. During the apocalyptic finale, hastened by corporate greed and deceit, I wept as images of the ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico flashed privately in my mind.
The steep rake of Freyer’s set allows for stunning tableau effects, but the trade-off is motion. Theater shouldn’t be this static, particularly for a work this inordinately long. What’s more, an audience shouldn’t be distracted by worry for an actor’s safety. How dangerous was the staging? Put it this way, more perilous than Wagner’s apocalypse was the “Götterdämmerung” curtain call, in which a couple of actors took a tumble and one furiously kicked aside some lighting equipment that was ready to trip her up.
But I have no regrets about my visit to this otherworldly “Ring,” a sentiment that seemed to be shared by my fellow audience members, who were cheering far louder than they were booing. As a theater critic beset with time-capsule revivals that are utterly divorced from developments in the other arts and that seem willfully ignorant of a century of innovation in contemporary stagecraft, I applaud Freyer’s audacity and wish I had the opportunity to encounter such robust experiment at our leading theaters. This kind of work will never pass muster with strict traditionalists, but it leans forward into the future rather than backward into a phony past.
I confess that I told my companion on the drive home that I doubt I’ll ever do another entire “Ring” again. But I recall uttering something similar about another interminable work, Marcel Proust's “Remembrance of Things Past,” which I eagerly reread in a new translation last year. Theater auteur Robert Lepage’s “Ring” staging gets underway next season at the Met, and to tell you the truth, if there’s a way for me to swing it, I will.
Previously:Critic's Notebook: 'Die Walküre' and the shifting sands of dramatic restraint
Photos: Bottom: Top: John Treleaven, Alan Held and Linda Watson. Bottom: Eric Halfvarson. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times