The first two chords of Götterdämmerung—known to motive-o-philes as Brünnhilde's Awakening, or simply Awakening—are justly revered. When that bald Eb-minor chord, a heartstopping bellow in the brass, resolves to the most languid of Cb-major arpeggios, with its seemingly endless ascent into the stratosphere of the upper strings and winds, the effect is ravishing…like a flock of birds taking flight in slow motion.
Most conductors leave little or no space between the two chords, so as to emphasize their mediant-tonic harmonic relationship and the resolution of the leading tone. In the final installment of Los Angeles Opera's first-ever complete Ring cycle, however, conductor James Conlon went for a different effect. He drew out the space between the two chords, highlighting the bar line in a kind of aural version of the painterly effect known as figure-ground reversal. In other words, he let silence tell its own tale.
It was a poignant echo of the aesthetic of isolation that has dominated director Achim Freyer's new production. Throughout the cycle, characters rarely touch and almost never make eye contact; props are dissociated from those who wield them; the gods and Gibichungs are trapped behind exoskeletal costumes; the long-awaited chorus, decked out in Close Encounters-style alien headgear, rotates rigidly in place as though welded to the stage. Landscape is absent, as are all vestiges of naturalism; all that remains are disconnected psyches, in a tragedy of solipsism that infects even the more mobile characters Siegfried, Mime, Alberich, making them come off as defamiliarized and false.
It is fitting, then, that those two chords with which Götterdämmerung begins should themselves be prevented from joining together in any meaningful way. Music, like the story as a whole, ends up a series of disconnected moments—a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing, even as it wallows in its own immediate signifying power.
In a way, the aesthetic of isolation leaves LA Opera's Ring as "disaggregated" a cycle as the Stuttgart production of 1999-2000 (mentioned in my review of Die Walküre), in which each of the four operas was given to a different director with no attempt to link the tetralogy together with a unifying vision. Freyer, too, presents us with a jumble of imagery, some of which is startlingly simplistic, while other elements beckon multiple readings. The awkward oscillation between these two interpretive registers makes for a frustrating viewing experience: almost no one I know of who has encountered this production can either wholeheartedly endorse, or completely dismiss, Freyer's vision.
The allegorical pile-up extends even to Götterdämmerung's apocalyptic finale: on the one hand, the collapse of the lighting fixture onto the set from the loft is one of many ho-hum Verfremdungseffekten that Brecht (and even The Who) have done better; on the other hand, the way the chorus appears to be destroyed in the Armageddon along with everyone else raises the intriguing question: who's left to be our ancestors? Freyer's production faithfully reproduces, in other words, the sense of impasse that virtually every Ring staging since 1945 has managed to project. But it doesn't wear its politics on its sleeve the way so many other postwar stagings have done; it has far more in common, in fact, with Otto Schenk's thirty-year-old traditionalist Ring (recently retired from the Met) than with any of its contemporaries.
Such "post-postwar" Rings as Schenk's and Freyer's say a lot about the American appetite for Wagner; but the jury is still out on the Los Angeles experiment. Whether this production goes into the LA Opera's repertory will depend in large part on whether ticket sales manage to recover from the dismal projections of a $1-1.5-million loss. And John Treleaven (Siegfried) certainly didn't help to sell this production. Though I tried to overlook what I knew of his public complaints about the staging, he still seemed utterly disconnected from his colleagues, appearing to care more about hitting his marks and waiting for his cues than inhabiting a role. His singing, too, seemed labored, particularly in the higher passages.
Treleaven only really came into his voice during the oath on the sword in Act II and his Act III remembrance narrative, although even then, his imitation of the Forest Bird was a bit cringe-inducing. Linda Watson (Brünnhilde), however, continued to project total commitment to her role, even though she too has critiqued the production in the press. She blazed all the way through the evening, even to the last moments of her exhausting closing monologue, with superhuman stamina, focus, and verve.
The Gibichung siblings were quite impressive, although Jennifer Wilson (Gutrune) had little to do besides be a pawn of others' machinations. Alan Held (Gunther) embodied a painful wretchedness behind his chilling humanoid mask; when after Siegfried's murder Gunther asks Hagen, "Was tatest du?", Held pitched the line just a hair sharp, with an accompanying blank, vibrato-free tone that cleverly underscored the character's horrified paralysis.
Eric Halfvarson, already a capable Fafner, pretty much stole the show as Hagen, particularly in his thrilling "Hoiho" episodes. He seemed to base his performance on Othello's Iago, emphasizing Hagen's desperation and moral disease, with a touch of a father complex thrown in for good measure. Michelle DeYoung has been the rising star of this production, filling in as a last-minute Sieglinde in Die Walküre after an excellent turn as Fricka in Das Rheingold, and she continued her intrepid tour through the mezzo roles in the Ring as a fearsome Waltraute and one of three perfectly matched Norns (the other two being Jill Grove, Rheingold and Siegfried's Erda, and Melissa Citro, previously heard as a Valkyrie).
We are on the cusp of a new era in Wagner reception. The last of Richard's grandchildren, Wolfgang Wagner, died on March 21 of this year; and his daughter Katharina—one of a contentious pair of half-sisters now helming the Bayreuth Festival—directed a Meistersinger in 2007 that was, for Bayreuthians, shocking in its iconoclasm. But Los Angeles is a long way from Bayreuth. And that geographical, cultural, and political distance can cause a Ring at the 46-year-old Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to appear at once more forward-looking and more conservative than one at the 134-year-old Festspielhaus located in the heart of the Wagner cult.
At many of the talks and symposia that surrounded this first Los Angeles cycle, cultural figures ranging from Bill Viola and Peter Sellars to Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou were falling over themselves to reclaim Wagner as an artistic icon, a prescient philosopher, even a moral guide. But this provocative turn toward nineteenth-century Wagnerism is by no means a sure bet. Some of the ardent Wagnerites who would have been most likely to agree with Viola, et al., were dismayed by the liberties taken in Freyer's production. Other Angelenos were incensed at the presence of such a politically contaminated work in a city with a larger Jewish population than Jerusalem.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle to the Ring cycle gaining an enduring foothold in Los Angeles is simple apathy. Hollywood is saturated with cinematic blockbusters, so that even the most expensive operatic blockbuster will appear somewhat quaint in comparison. The Los Angeles Times quoted one attendee: "I thought with all the money and time put into it that there would be more to see on stage," she said, as though the singers were pro bono. Perhaps San Francisco, which in 2011 will premiere its own eminently NoCal take on the Ring, will attract a more easily bedazzled audience.
Photo credits: Monika Rittershaus