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The Ring in L.A.: Freyer's "Die Walküre"

It’s one thing to get upset at a stage director who imposes absurd action on a helpless opera. It’s another to get upset at a stage director whose interpretation is the result of intense creative thought about a piece. Achim Freyer, whose “Ring” cycle is currently playing at the Los Angeles Opera, is definitely in the latter camp. His “Walküre,” seen last night, is uneven, but it’s the work of a serious artist grappling with the material, and at its best it transports you into another world.

It’s not for everybody, though. And I wondered whether I would have reacted with the same general enthusiasm had I not talked to Freyer about the production for this article (and these blog posts) in 2009. The result is extremely stylized -- the singers sport large costume pieces and heavy makeup -- and yet deliberately homemade: this is an artist’s “Ring,” not a slickly high-tech one. Freyer is looking for a visual language to support a mythology. His “Ring” bears the same relationship to real life as a Byzantine icon does to Renaissance perspective: it wants to serve a representative function rather than a naturalistic one.
(read more after the jump)

Act One was to me brilliant, because Freyer left enough room for the music to play an equal role to the visual elements. The center of the stage was a huge circle, like a clock face, with a bar of light circling like a minute hand while the characters stood and sang on the periphery, sometimes sending Doppelgänger into the action like emissaries. Later, the circle was filled with reenacted memories -- as Siegmund sang of past battles, the fighters wielded more colored light-bars as weapons -- while the minute hand circled counterclockwise, moving into the past. The action felt slow, and yet it matched the pacing of Wagner’s music so well that the first act flew by. It also also let the music do the telling: Siegmund and Sieglinde stood at opposite sides of the stage, but James Conlon and the orchestra surged up to illustrate all of the feelings and tenderness between them. Freyer’s direction, indeed, let one focus on the voices -- one reason that people at intermission kept commenting that the opera was very well sung.

It was, but the first act was a weaker link in that regard -- though Plácido Domingo, who sang Siegmund, is a miracle of nature; with his punishing schedule, he is still producing a respectable Siegmund at 69. My only issue is with something I’ve observed in him for 20 years: he tends to sound like he hasn’t warmed up at the start of the evening, and this did him no favors here since his highlights come in the first act, and he didn’t sound fully in voice until the second. Michelle de Young did not entirely convince as Sieglinde; her upper notes sounded pale and tight.

In Acts Two and Three, when the gods got involved with the action, they brought in their own visual iconography, and the stage started to get crowded. Wotan and Fricka had insect-like carapaces and sang with anything but insect-like voices: Vitalij Kowaljow made a fine rich sound like honey as Wotan; Ekaterina Semenchuk was a strong Fricka, with exaggeratedly long arms. Linda Watson, in a body-painted dress and enveloping cape so large it was less a costume than a set, was sometimes clarion, sometimes tender, once a little flat, and generally perfectly respectable as Brünnhilde. Her sister Valkyries, in capes of their own (equipped with death masks) mounted wire horses while the central circle revolved like a merry-go-round; the horses later became the illuminated flames that surrounded Brünnhilde on her rock.

If these acts didn’t add up as neatly as Act One did, they weren't supposed to: they are, after all, setting up the action for the following opera, “Siegfried.” But even the orchestra seemed to flag; there were a couple of exposed bad patches from the brass at the end of Act Two and the start of Act Three.

This is not a a “Ring” about individuals; it’s a “Ring” about archetypes and projections. Some of the singers have had difficulty with this. As Freyer ruefully observed in a public talk in the afternoon, when the singers complain the news goes around the world, but nobody actually takes the time to figure out what the production was all about. He also mentioned the difficulty the singers had in letting go of their preconceptions. The tenors who play Siegfried, he said, think they are heros. “No,” Freyer replied, “you are not a hero. You are a singer.” It’s actually an important distinction; and a real singing artist, though he may not like it, should benefit from grasping it.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 11, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  national , opera  
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Comments

I have only the YouTube video posted with the piece, but it appears that the production distracts attention from both the music and the drama. I know we are supposed to be suspicious -- even contemptuous of past practice -- but can anyone give a rational reason why Wagner's own detailed directions for producing The Ring should be ignored? Today's major opera houses are much better equipped to follow them than those of Wagner's own time or even a century ago.

Posted by: wsheppard | June 11, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

If you've read all of them wsheppard, its probably because they're be mildly ridiculous to most audiences. And if the composer's stage directions are sacred for Wagner, why not Handel (that would be a dull night at the theatre)? Or Mozart?

Posted by: ianw2 | June 11, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

The Valencia "Ring", as seen on DVD, is incredibly distracting at times, primarily because the production team got carried away with projections. But that "Ring" stays true to the saga and there are some dramatically powerful scenes, e.g., the Siegfried/Wanderer encounter in Siegfried, Act III, where elements adapted from Japanese cinema and theatre enhance the action.

Given today's technology, "Ring" production are apt to be ever more individually distinctive. It's up to the theatregoer to decide whether a given intepretation is apt to be pleasing. In L.A. there was bad buzz and ticket sales have lagged.

Certainly, I'm looking forward to reading about and attending the complete Francesca Zambello-directed cycle next year in San Francisco, i.e., the cycle originating in Washington. (The AP just posted a SFO "Die Walkuere" review; might even be better than gianduja.)

The Met's new cycle, which launches this fall with "Das Rheingold", sounds ever more intriguing, especially after the mouldy cycle the company previously staged.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | June 11, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

This production has excited so much comment from so many quarters that I'm especially grateful for this report. Since I can't attend a performance, I rely on other, trusted eyes and ears, and a fully functioning critical apparatus. Anne Midgette has given me some sense of what I'm missing, and she's given me a great deal to think about, as well.

Posted by: WilliamMadison | June 11, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Meanwhile, in other opera news, Ioan Holender may become the new Intendant of teh Budapest Opera:
http://austrianindependent.com/news/Culture/2010-06-11/3090/Holender_rumoured_for_Budapest_job
or search Google news for Ioan Holender and there are a lot of articles from the Austrian press.

The question is: WHY? Holender could have stayed in Vienna, he was offered an extension and he turned it down. And in previous interviews he said that to do all the things he wanted he would need a lifetime.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 11, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

(I’d respect Ioan Holender's personal reasons for wanting the Budapest Opera position after twenty years in Vienna. At about 75 years of age, perhaps he wants to bring the Budapest Opera up to Vienna Opera standards in the remaining decades of his life. [Maybe in a decade he will move on to the Bucharest, Kyiv, Minsk, Odesa, or Tel Aviv opera, and bring one of those highly promising, presently smaller, opera houses up to exciting Vienna Opera standards.]

I would be interested to see if Mr Holender immediately injects some energy into the Budapest Opera, and the Budapest classical music scene in general, by staging some major contemporary operas such as Peter Ruzicka’s "Paul Celan", Peter Eötvös “Three Sisters”, Aribert Reimann's "Medea", or Ruzicka’s new and not yet titled opera slated for 2014 (but not necessarily György Ligeti's "Grand Macabre", which I disfavor). I also would hope that Mr Holender might commission an opera from György Kurtág, from Valentin Silvestrov, and several new operas from younger Hungarian and Central European composers.

Perhaps his presence will have some consequences for Iván Fischer, as well.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 11, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Regarding the first link on this page ("helpless opera"), I actually enjoyed the Hans Neuenfels production of Verdi’s Nabucco, which I saw the same month in Hamburg that I saw an excellent Aichim Freyer production of Magic Flute. Each to her own.

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 11, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

@JerryFloyd1:

I've been going to the Freyer Ring (I was at last night's Walküre performance), and I also have seen most of the Valencia Ring in movie theaters. I think the two productions are comparable, both in the musical quality and in the effect of their unusual visual style. Everything you said about Valencia ("distracting at times", "true to the saga", "some dramatically powerful scenes") applies equally to the LA production.

The difference is that Valencia flaunts its technology, with all those amazing digital animated images, while LA (which must be pretty high tech behind the scenes) tries to look more hand-made arts-and-crafts puppet-show.

The "bad buzz" has been really unjustified, and if it led to low ticket sales, that's pretty sad. There hasn't been the money to film this production, so when it's over I'm afraid it will leave only memories for the people who managed to see it, and otherwise vanish into legend.

Freyer is 75, and I imagine he might think twice before taking on anything like this again, or even remounting this. Still, I hope he's gratified by the response he's getting in LA -- you should have seen the mob around him after last night's performance.

Posted by: srgordon1 | June 11, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

I saw the production of Goetterdamerung last April, and found myself, like Anne, focusing on the voices and the orchestra. Yes, some of the staging is obscure, maybe even silly, but, in the end, I was won over.

Now, if only the acoustics in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion could be improved - it was hard to hear the voices when the singers were to the rear of the stage. But, the avocado green carpets and gold trim do give it a rather funky sixties vibe.

Posted by: GRILLADES | June 11, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

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