In a word: dangerous. Los Angeles' first-ever complete staging of Wagner's Ring cycle, directed by Bertolt Brecht protégé Achim Freyer, hangs on the edge of a knife—and the fiscal, cultural, and political, stakes for the West Coast are exceedingly high.
The stage says it all. Chiefly composed of a rotatable disc banked at a precipitous rake, it required a special dispensation from Actors' Equity, the labor union representing American theatrical professionals. It has been the object of intense debate in the press ever since LA Opera began rolling out Freyer's stagings back in April 2009, and has even been complained about publicly by at least two of the principal singers. And the steep stage is by no means the only physical obstacle faced by the cast. In Saturday's first installment of the cycle, the immortals remained confined within imposing exoskeletal "textile sculptures," emerging only at moments of high drama. The dwarfs, the giants, and the ensemble cast of dancers moved about the stage more freely, but despite stepping gingerly, the occasional stumble kept the audience in a perpetual state of anxiety. This, in other words, was white-knuckle theater, eliciting the somatic effects of circusgoing even as it evoked the visual trappings of the big top.
Freyer is in attendance for this cycle, and one imagines his eyes twinkling at the physical peril to which he has subjected his cast, at the inevitable disconcerting effect on the audience, and indeed at the various controversies that have been swirling around this cycle for months. After all, Los Angeles is the world capital of the popular music, television, and film industries—in short, it's big game for any artist still attached to the mandate "épater les bourgeois."
At the same time, the production seems ideally poised to "accueillir (accommodate) les bourgeois" of Los Angeles, and not just because of the burlesque and video elements in its staging. The cycle is being absorbed into a widely promoted Los Angeles Ring Festival that claims to be, not just the biggest, but "the first significant citywide cultural festival since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival." A hip-hop Ring, a country-western parody, a theme night at the Griffith Astronomical Observatory, and a dizzying number of other exhibits, performances, lectures and symposia (some of which will be reported on by this correspondent in the coming days), make this not just a colossal but a uniquely West-Coast endeavor, as much about demystification and cultural translation as it is about asserting parity with the venerable theaters across the Atlantic.
Both the cycle, then, and its attendant promotional juggernaut aim to appeal to a number of Los Angeles' favorite pastimes: being scandalized out of one's "seen-it-all" disenchantment, being compelled by a well-financed publicity machine, giving an antihero a chance at a comeback, and plugging in to a momentous cultural happening. "More is more" in this town, so Wagner should be right at home.
But every Ring must start with its Eb major chord. This time around, Wagner's Ur-triad was less, well, cosmogonical than one would have hoped. Conductor James Conlon is committed to a refreshingly light, chamber-orchestra texture, and his musicians are bringing out individual lines with delicate precision; but he may have erred too much on the side of delicacy at this particular moment. Some intonation problems in the French horns magnified the hesitant feel, though the brass soon recovered to fulfill the rest of their evening's duties thrillingly (minus one sloppy Sword motif in the trumpet during Scene 2).
The Rhinemaidens—Stacey Tappan (Woglinde), Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), and Ronnita Nicole Miller (Flosshilde)—executed their roles with clarity, though they have the unenviable task of being first out of the gate with Freyer's deliberately stilted blocking, relentless frontal address, and the physical doubling of the immortals with mirroring dancer-doppelgängers. Once they began to rejoice in the Rheingold, their familiar clarion trio dazzled.
In his tortued interactions with the Rhinemaidens, Richard Paul Fink's Alberich seemed to burst forth from the large face mask behind which he was concealed. Both he and Graham Clark, as the similarly masked Mime, compensated handily for the loss of facial expression with an outsize physicality and commanding vocal production. The overall effect of costumes, makeup, and choreography—here as throughout the production—made for a successful contravention of the audience's own familiarity with the texture of our hair, the proportions of our limbs, the muscles of our faces, even our corporal integrity; in short, to convey a sense that these characters, in contrast, are truly superhuman.
The realm of the gods had a Babes-in-Toyland feel, with Froh and Donner resembling slow-motion wind-up dolls. Every time the Valhalla motif was heard, it would appear to originate from a pair of cymbals held by Donner and a rainbow-colored accordion in Froh's hands (later to do double-duty as the rainbow bridge). The timbral disconnect between these animatronic instruments and the brass chorale in the pit served to gently undermine the motif's solemnity, in an audiovisual complement to the flimsy, diminutive model of Valhalla hanging from the loft. A similar effect took place at the opening of Scene 3, in Nibelheim, where the ensemble of masked dancers mimed the hammering of the Nibelungen's anvils slowly and evenly, in pointed disregard for Wagner's briskly pattering rhythm. The disorienting effect was enhanced by the anvils (actually a set of customized brake drums, pipes, and scrap metal) being miked in a separate rehearsal room and projected into the house in a surround-sound effect. These kinds of audiovisual dislocations seem thoughtful rather than merely gratuitous.
As Donner and Froh, Wayne Tigges and Beau Gibson proved capable, if largely unremarkable, while Vitalij Kowaljow's Wotan was also rather restrained, the somewhat absent axis around which the more colorful characters were allowed to orbit more freely. Principally among these was, of course, Loge, which has become tenor Arnold Bezuyen's specialty ever since his Bayreuth debut in that role in 1998. His (rather predictable) Mephistophelian tuxedo fits him well: Bezuyen looks like he was made at least partly of fire, he lights across the stage as though dancing over hot coals, and the Scene 2 account of his travels was delivered with verve and even a touch of pathos. At Rheingold's end, as he stands witness to the unheeded cries of the Rhinemaidens and the consumption of the entire set in a tempest of red fabric, he appears confounded, almost mournful.
Ellie Dehn's Freia, appropriately, was the first of the gods to break away from their carapace-like costumes. Tumbling downstage in a baroque-inflected corset and pannier, her soprano was equally underdressed, a refreshingly husky antidote to the poised repartee of her fellow immortals. Michelle DeYoung was a sincere Fricka, and she did a remarkable job of emoting within what was perhaps the most restricted physical vocabulary of all the cast members. Her gestural "leitmotif," a sideways extension of her hyper-elongated arms in a half-pleading, half-accusatory motion, would not have been out of place in Nijinsky's Rite of Spring.
Morris Robinson proved a heartbreaking Fasolt, undermatched in Eric Halfvarson's Fafner—though the latter bass would hit his stride the following night as Walküre's Hunding. Finally, Jill Grove (Erda) had, in a Mozartean sense, the most deceptively difficult role of all: her prophecy consists of a mere fifty measures of music, most of which outlines a c# minor triad sitting squarely on the staff. It takes an electric contralto to pull off this outwardly simple music, and Grove, though focused, did not quite plug in—though perhaps she will glow more brighly in Siegfried.
Altogether, it was an auspicious beginning for Conlon and Freyer's Herculean endeavor. As the Ring continues to unfold over the coming week, a number of anxious observers will be watching the critical and fiscal bottom line—not least the executive staff at San Francisco Opera, which has planned to mount its own cycle in 2011, and has just announced a commensurate festival.
Photo credits: Monika Rittershaus