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

June 4, 2010 |  3:20 pm

Siegfried 1

Confession: I finally had my Achim Freyer fit. It was during the first act of the Los Angeles Opera's “Siegfried,” but for a moment I feared I might have taken a wrong turn that led me to some perverse Disneyland.

Donning a deranged yellow wig and your ordinary lavender-hewed muscle suit, Siegfried (John Treleaven) looks like the Incredible Hulk’s foppish younger brother. Meanwhile, this freakish Mime (Graham Clark), the dwarf who raised Siegfried in his plot to steal the ring from Fafner (Eric Halfvarson, sharing the role with a miniature dragon), was clearly banished from Snow White’s entourage.

The raked stage kept the movement slow and perilous, the light sabers suggested a video game and the flashing colors on the scrim lent the impression a fish tank. But before I continue in this vein, let me add that I was eventually won over.  Admittedly, the first 90 minutes were quite a struggle, and the idea of another seven or eight hours of this larky "Ring" was daunting. 

Sige real 2 Audiences come to Wagner expecting a banquet of haute culture. Freyer doesn’t indulge this sort of snobbery. His visual imagination makes no distinction between high and low. Postmodernism has conditioned us to be more comfortable with this practice. The question is whether Freyer’s liberties deepen the opera experience or detract from it?

I'm withholding a final verdict until after the fires of "Götterdämmerung." But my impatience with the opening act of "Siegfried" may have ultimately been less directorial than dramaturgical. The incessant recap between Mime and Siegfried and Mime and the Wanderer (a.k.a. Wotan) (Vitalij Kowaljow) can be trying, especially since many of us have already clocked quite a few hours watching it all unfold!

As a theater critic who has come upon some bizarre auteur experiments—Hamlet as a ganja-smoking island dude, a “Macbeth” with flying saucers—I’ve trained myself to go beyond my initial impatience. What could the director be trying to accomplish here?  When there’s confidence in the aesthetic mind at work—and Freyer is clearly an artist to be reckoned with—it’s reasonable to assume that the point isn’t simply an extravagant exercise in audience torture.

While coping with the inevitable Wagnerian longueurs, I started thinking more about Freyer's connection to Brecht, who defined the “alienation effect”—one of his core theatrical principles—as a representation that “allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.” Brecht didn’t want our critical faculties to be short-circuited by fiction, so he devised a performance style that would call attention to the masquerade.
The figures in Freyer's “Siegfried” don’t encourage the usual suspension of disbelief. Mime repeatedly lifts up his mask and Siegfried adopts poses that are like parodies of a burly nature boy. The effect at times is akin to watching a puppet version of the opera—something Brecht would have heartily approved of, as it encourages spectators to intellectually take in the overall shape of the narrative.
The tale of the “Ring” is rife with ambiguity and contradiction. It’s not easy to grasp the meaning behind the march of mythological events, guided by a god (Wotan) who’s all-powerful yet seemingly at the mercy of something larger (let’s call it fate). Here, the action is estranged so that we have a better chance of contemplating its tricky curve.  

Freyer, unlike Brecht, seems more interested in metaphysics than politics. Yet like his early mentor, he also knows that without a story you have nothing. Critical interpretation requires an object. But more important, audiences need to be engaged. Brecht’s plays contain fascinating yarns—they just don’t allow you to be blinded by their fascination. Freyer entices us with plot to proceed on the trek that will lead to the mountain top where Brünnhilde is sleeping within a circle of fire. His method of storytelling, however, can make it seem like a board game.
Yet despite the relentless whimsicality, the production preserves enough passion between this cartoon Siegfried and his creature-feature aunt (who occasionally brings to mind a cross between Morticia Addams and Cher). The grand passion of the finale, performed in a sea of red, was captivating to behold. But even as the music lured us deeper into the fatalist romance, Freyer ensured that shadow of "Götterdämmerung" could be dimly discerned in the distance.  

--Charles McNulty



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Top: John Treleaven. Bottom: Graham Clark and Vitalij Kowaljow. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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Wagner’s Siegfried?
Comment by Jane Alexander Stewart, Ph.D.

Why is Siegfried a comical blonde curly-headed sub-adolescent with furry pants left over from his days playing with animals in the forest when he awakens the goddess Brunhilde in L.A. Opera’s Ring Cycle? And why is Brunhilde a larger than life symbol of femininity with pendulous breasts and a scratchy vagina placed high on a pedestal even after having come down to earth from her father’s heavens? Is this a joke? Or a psychological portrayal of a man’s worst nightmare of what happens when he falls in love? He wakens a princess to discover his mother? Where’s the mythology of a young man opening up to his vulnerability, coming into a sense of the divine within himself and the fire of love he feels? And where’s the mythology of the young woman awakening to the joy of life on earth, being human and becoming an individual in her own right after leaving her father’s house where she could only exist as his inner eye? And where is their mythology together, a love being born, brought into being by these two miraculous transformations of a boy into a man, a girl into a woman? Not on the stage in this production of Siegfried, that’s for sure.
In fact, Siegfried is a man who has it all. He’s born to a line of gods, been raised in tune with nature and at odds with a step-father with bad intentions for him, exudes confidence and lacks fear of what strikes terror in the hearts of others, feels great about himself, comes into the awesome phallic power of his god-father’s sword, slays the mythical dragon of despair and takes its hoard of gold, the lost ring of power and a magical helmet of invincibility, receives direction from a guiding angel, climbs the mountain, crosses Wotan’s vengeful fireline around Brunhilde and instigates a reunion of opposites -- man and woman, conscious and unconscious, earth and heaven, good and evil. This guy is definitely a hero but he’s not the guy running around on the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion!!
And it wouldn’t hurt if Brunhilde would come down to earth a bit and instead of singing her head off, sang from the pleasure and delight of being awakened to a love she longed for but could not imagine. If she were looking at the Siegfried, the mythical hero of one transformation after another of his own and benefactor of consciousness to many, she would be singing from the true voice of awakening Wagner meant for her. Her awakening, the awakening of the feminine sensibility of all things connected that reaches out, draws Siegfried into a full embrace of the complexities of love on earth that daunt the gods and requires the best of both of them is the moment of celebration. Humans are now taking what previously existed only in the realm of the gods. What mess is made of it, Wagner left to the rest of us. It is a shame that this production of Siegfried turned such awesome stuff into such silliness that we were laughing, not gasping for breath.


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