In one of the conferences that make up part of the gargantuan Los Angeles Ring Festival already underway as LA Opera moves through its first complete Ring cycle, a telling point of contrast was registered between this production and others more familiar to Continental audiences. David Levin, professor at the University of Chicago, was discussing the Götterdämmerung from Stuttgart Opera's "disaggregated" Ring cycle of 1999-2000. He quoted Klaus Zehelein, Stuttgart intendant at the time, who introduced his "four operas, four directors" conception with the following rhetorical question:
"What does it mean today to tell, through the Ring of the Nibelung, a story from beginning to end, when both a beginning as well as the teleology of history—this goal-oriented nature of historical development—have become so questionable?"
After reading this quote aloud, Levin remarked on how incongruous it is to us in the United States to think of an intendant promoting a new production by questioning its very right to exist. American opera, he intimated, is not nearly so outwardly skeptical of its own ends. He then drew an off-hand contrast between Zehelein's remarks and the executive line on the LA Ring, which he summarized as going something like: It's big, it's amazing, go see it. An uncomfortable chuckle of recognition rippled through the audience.
Levin's not far off the mark: both conductor James Conlon's and director Achim Freyer's notes in the programs maintain a willfully apolitical, even deaestheticized, attitude toward the material. All that matters is story and character: Die Walküre is about "forbidden love," "pursuit, search and escape," Brünnhilde's "rite of passage," Wotan's paternal sorrow. It sounds like a Hollywood pitch—and the production often comes close to an "Idiot's Guide to the Ring," perhaps most excruciatingly so in Act I of Die Walküre. Siegmund and Sieglinde's costumes, hair, and makeup make them not only twins, but two halves of a single whole. When Sieglinde adds the sleeping potion to Hunding's drink, its inner light changes from blue to green. Get it?
But these moments of Mickey-Mousing and aides-mémoire are balanced out by others that present a real interpretive position, something suggestive with the potential to actually enlarge our understanding of the work. For example, when the door flies open on the siblings, shining a springtime light into the dark of Hunding's house, that shaft of light remains even after the door closes, joining the slow procession of dancer and neon-rod clockhand around the raked disc that dominates the stage. The Valkyries' steeds, skeletal horse-bicycles, are transformed into the flames that surround Brünnhilde's rock—as though her sisters continue to protect her even in absentia. During Wotan's Act II monologue recapitulating the events of Das Rheingold, the same slow parade of debased children's playthings that we saw in that earlier work reappears, a kind of carnivalesque "horsemen of the apocalypse."
Such elements in the staging work like a visual leitmotif technique, in the sense of building up an irreducible web of referents. Yet the very sincerity of this symbological approach mark's Freyer's Ring as a defiantly traditionalist one. Fidelity is already established in Die Walküre's very first moments: the startling opening D-minor-tremolo Storm motive is accompanied by a light-switch-speed replacement of the virtual curtain digitally projected onto the scrim with a live scene showing Siegmund hunted by a pack of wolves. The image, in other words, acts as the music's double, in a way a traditional curtain-raising could never have done. The effect often resembles the ubiquitous on-stage doubles in leaving an impression of redundancy.
Not one to be outdone in this or any respect, Plácido Domingo (Siegmund) had twice as many doubles as everyone else: one for his body and one for his voice. The celebrity tenor, who has been serving as LA Opera's General Director since 2003, was in full voice but apparently not full memory, requiring a distractingly loud prompter to guide him through most of his longer passages. But this was easily forgiven, especially when he drew the audience in with a stage-whisper as Siegmund dolefully named himself "Wehwalt." Domingo could have gotten away with phoning in this performance altogether, but to his credit, he submitted wholeheartedly to the restrictive and occasionally awkward blocking, and his lovestruck renunciation of Valhalla was quite moving.
Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, on the other hand, deserves special kudos for stepping into the soprano role of Sieglinde on a day's notice, after Anja Kampe pulled out of the production. Seen just the previous night in Rheingold as Fricka, DeYoung made for a stunning Sieglinde, with a warm, buttery tone that betrayed no sense that she was out of her preferred range. When her Sieglinde gave Siegmund his name, DeYoung's floodlit execution was little short of an aural apotheosis. Her replacement Fricka, Ekaterina Semenchuk, had a reliable, powerful mezzo, but did not seem to make much of an effort to match DeYoung's actorly take on the character. While DeYoung's Rheingold Fricka was, on the whole, conflicted and genuinely rueful, Semenchuk toed the nagging-wife line in Walküre, all histrionics and machinations.
The almost pointillist textures in the orchestra during Sieglinde's first encounter with Siegmund were deftly handled by Conlon and his players. And once again, the winds shined particularly brightly, especially the low brass, whose Hunding motifs were without exception exhilarating in their power. Eric Halfvarson must have thought so, too, for his Hunding roared—particularly at the moment of his double-oath, to shelter Siegmund for the night and then to do battle with him on the morrow.
As for Act III: a Valkyrie chorus is only as good as its weakest link, and one or two of the sopranos were unfortunately not in full voice. I pity the singer assigned the role of Helmwige: she has to execute the same vertiginous upward glissandi we've already heard from Brünnhilde, drawing inevitably unfavorable comparisons, and this time was unfortunately no different. Linda Watson, however, was a revelation. A Brünnhilde veteran from such recent Ring cycles as the Tankred Dorst/Christian Theielemann production at Bayreuth and the Otto Schenck/James Levine Met production, Watson was in radiant form here. Her scenes with Wotan were particularly poignant, like the Act II monologue, which the still-too-reserved Vitalij Kowaljow paced excellently and to which Watson offered a magisterial reaction.
For all his futuristic effects, Freyer leaves a ragged hem around the edges, a sense of DIY and the traveling-show: the clockhand, for instance, is dragged around the disc by a dancer rather than by some invisible machinery. As the cycle continues, it will be interesting to see how—indeed, whether—this scenic modesty manages to counterbalance the production's top note of Wagner-worship, and whether the West Coast can prove itself a legitimate new locus of Ring reinterpretation.
Photo credits: Monika Rittershaus