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Technical glitches bedevil L.A. Opera's multimillion-dollar 'Ring'

March 9, 2009 |  1:52 pm

The fire god, Loge, pesters Mime the blacksmith and his fellow Nibelungs in the gold-mining scene from LA Opera's Das Rheingold

If only the U.S. banking system were as easily fixed as L.A. Opera's malfunctioning gold mine.

The third scene of "Das Rheingold," the opening installment of the company's $32-million staging of Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle, is set beneath the ground, where a once-happy race of subterranean dwarfs, the Nibelungs, has been impressed into hammer-and-pick-swinging slavery by the opera's megalomaniacal upstart, Alberich.

Director-designer Achim Freyer's rendering of Nibelheim (above), as the opera's netherworld is called, involves a semicircular slice of the stage that opens like the top half of a giant clam shell, revealing the Nibelungs slaving away. But in Thursday's performance, it was a no-go: As the scene was about to begin, says Christopher Koelsch, L.A. Opera's vice president of artistic planning, a "computer glitch" resulted in a warning signal that there had been a failure in one of the two hydraulic lifts that raise the clam shell.

A quick decision was made to dispense with the device and have the Nibelungs perform at stage level instead of in the malfunctioning cavern. "For safety reasons, it lifts very slowly, and we had enough advance warning so we could just punt" and redeploy the dwarf-miners to the surface without interrupting the flow of the show, Koelsch says.

By the next performance, Sunday afternoon, the Nibelungs and their crew chief, Mime, were back in the underground pit where they belonged, framed by the semicircle that had lifted as designed.

Giants Fasolt (left) and Fafner (right) build Valhalla behind goddess Freia in LA Opera's Das Rheingold

Another mechanical malfunction in Thursday's performance -- this one involving a platform that rose and descended near the back of the steeply raked stage -- resulted in an apparently fretful moment for singer Eric Halfvarson as Fafner, the giant who winds up with all the gold.

From her perch in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's loge, Times researcher Maloy Moore reports, Halfvarson appeared to be "distracted ... looking off to his left," and she could see workers' hands moving and hear banging as emergency repairs were made. At one point, she says, Fafner's brother giant, Fasolt, "discreetly motioned, like, 'Come over to my side of the stage.' "

Koelsch, the opera's artistic planning executive, says the lift was supposed to lower Fafner to the ground backstage when the scene ended -- but it had risen too high when delivering him to his performing station and had slipped out of its track. Technicians had to verbally warn Halfvarson about the problem, Koelsch says, and the banging came as the device was manually hammered back into its proper position -- in time for him to descend as planned instead of by using the backstage staircase available as a backup.

A similar malfunction had occurred during dress rehearsal, Koelsch says. Now a new "catch system" has been put in place so the platform -- which also will be used next month in "Die Walküre" (The Valkyrie), the second installment of the four-opera "Ring" -- can no longer overshoot its mark and slip off-track.

"Das Rheingold" will conclude with two more performances, Wednesday evening and Sunday afternoon.

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: From top, the Nibelheim scene from L.A. Opera's "Das Rheingold"; giants Fasolt, left, and Fafner build Valhalla behind goddess Freia in the opera. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho /Los Angeles Times

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