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.
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