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Critics from national (read: Eastern) press were MIA from L.A.'s `Ring' cycle

July 2, 2010 | 12:06 pm


 If a new American "Ring" cycle rises in the Wagnerian forest and critics for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the Associated Press all but ignore it, did it make a sound?

Culture Monster suspects those publications all will pick up in some form or other on the news (read it here first) that Los Angeles Opera finds itself having to try to dig out from under a $6 million deficit from its "Ring," as ticket sales fell far short of goals and hoped-for donations failed to materialize in time.

But what about the classical music press's obligation to provide a first draft of music history -- which will be missing for those who turn to these media Goliaths?

If we at Culture Monster could have a buck for every time we've heard that the "Ring" experience is best and most validly measured by witnessing a full cycle performed in the compressed period that Wagner himself specified, we could kick a tidy sum to L.A. Opera to help with the deficit.

Perhaps the absence of critics from the above-mentioned publications during the culminating cycles -- apart from the Washington Post's thumbs-up for one-fourth of the work, "Die Walkure" -- says more about the "Gotterdammerung" facing the mainstream media, especially its arts critics, than it does about the significance of the first homegrown L.A. "Ring."

That's how F. Paul Driscoll, editor of the monthly magazine, Opera News, sees it. "It's not a reflection on the production. I think shrinking [news] budgets had more to do with it."

Indeed, Driscoll said he passed on the expense of reviewing a culminating cycle of the L.A. "Ring," although, unlike the above-mentioned publications, Opera News did review all four of the stand-alone segments that L.A. Opera staged over 14 months starting in February, 2009 (reflecting the divided opinions about Freyer's "Ring," Carl Byron, West Coast reviewer for Opera News, hated the first two parts; Driscoll said that Byron couldn't make it to the next two, which got raves from stand-in Margaret Sharp).

The New York Times turned thumbs-down on stand-alones of "Die Walkure" and "Siegfried" and didn't return for the whole thing. Writing June 23 in the Wall Street Journal, David Littlejohn, a West Coast contributor, excused the Journal's absence from L.A. by saying that, after having seen one stand-alone each, he and the paper's lead opera critic, Heidi Waleson, "compared notes and agreed that neither of us could bear sitting through all 17 hours of Mr. Freyer's `Ring.'"

Mike Silverman, classical music critic for the Associated Press, reviewed "Das Rheingold," the short (by Wagner's standards) stand-alone prelude piece of the L.A. "Ring," in 2009 and didn't return, having found what he did see "for the most part frustratingly static and inert."

Silverman, who is based in New York, reviewed all four stand-alones of director Francesca Zambello's "Ring" in Washington, D.C. from 2007 to 2009 -- ending with a "Gotterdammerung" done as a concert rather than a full production because Washington National Opera (led, like L.A. Opera, by general director Placido Domingo) had run out of money.

Silverman turned up in San Francisco in June for another look at Zambello's "Die Walkure," rolled out as a stand-alone by its co-producer, San Francisco Opera, in advance of next year's "Ring" cycles. He didn't drop down to L.A. to catch the concurrently-running full "Ring."

In an e-mail this week, Silverman said he regarded the San Francisco production as "a major event" because it was Swedish soprano Nina Stemme's first "Die Walkure" as Brunnhilde. He said his schedule didn't allow him to review the Los Angeles "Ring," although "I would have been interested in seeing how Freyer developed his ideas through all four nights."

Gary Murphy, director of communications for L.A. Opera, said writers or broadcasters for 40 media outlets, as well at least 25 bloggers, had come to at least one performance during the concluding "Ring" cycles -- enough, he said to ensure "a really healthy legacy" of published opinion about the L.A. Ring.

For the complete story on how the "Ring" fared financially, click here.

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Scenes from L.A. Opera's staging of Richard Wagner's "Der Ring Des Nibelungen." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times