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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