Weighed Down Upon the Swanless River
[Lohengrin at Los Angeles Opera]

Lohengrin Swan 1888
    "There was no swan, there never is these days . . . ."
    Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times


No, there is no swan for the Knight of the Swan in Los Angeles Opera's new production of Lohengrin.  There is very little in the way of emotional, historical, or practical logic in it, either.  It sounds—with some qualifications—marvelous, and it is not the full-blown "turkey" that it was declared to be in Mark Swed's review linked above.  It is entirely possible to enjoy this Lohengrin and to derive ample satisfaction from it so long as you, figuratively at least, pay no attention to what is going on when there's no curtain in front of it.

A Synopsis

First, a synopsis of the opera* Wagner actually wrote:

The German states have been at war with Hungary, until a 9-year truce was agreed.  King Heinrich of the Germans has used the time to rebuild and fortify his realms, and is now traveling about gathering armies to march on Hungary when the truce comes to its end.  This brings him to the Duchy of Brabant, where all is not well.  The Duke of Brabant has died. His heir, young Gottfried, has gone missing and the Regent—Friedrich von Telramund, who would not object to becoming Duke of Brabant himself—accuses Gottfried's sister Elsa of having murdered her brother.  Elsa protests her innocence, in all things.  The King declares a trial by combat, Telramund to face whoever will champion Elsa.  Elsa has had a vision of an unknown champion and, just when all hope seems lost for her, he appears.  A shining knight arrives riding upon, or in a vessel drawn by, a great swan.  He will champion Elsa, and more, on condition that he must never be asked to reveal his name, his birth or his origins.  Elsa promises. The knight promptly defeats Telramund, casts him out to meditate on his bad deeds, becomes engaged to wed Elsa and declares himself Protector of Brabant, ready to march with King Heinrich to inevitable victory over the Hungarians.

Of course, it ends in tears.  Telramund's wife, the pagan sorceress Ortrud, successfully plants the seeds of doubt in Elsa's mind.  What can warrant all this secrecy, wheedles Ortrud, but some Dark and Horrible Secret in the knight's past?  Elsa succumbs: on her wedding night she demands to know her husband's name, birth and origins.  Telramund chooses this moment to attempt to slay Elsa's knight, but is himself slain.  The knight summons the people and answers, as he must, Elsa's questions: He is a knight of the Holy Grail, sent by the Grail to defend Elsa's innocence.  His father is Parsifal, who rules in the Grail castle in far Monsalvat.  He, as we have known all along, is Lohengrin—and having answered these questions he is obliged to leave, to rejoin the service of the Grail in the earthly paradise of Monsalvat.  The great swan returns and Lohengrin makes to depart.  Ortrud, having lost a husband but otherwise gained the upper hand, exults.  Just to show her, Lohengrin produces the missing heir Gottfried, who was not killed but transformed by Ortrud's sorcery into, yes, a swan.  Elsa, from grief over her error and loss, falls lifeless. Fin.

Some Thoughts on Directorial Choices

So, Lohengrin is a cautionary Holy Fairy Tale, built on the classic device of the Question That Must Not Be Asked or its variant, the Door That Must Not Be Opened.  ("What a woman does is open doors," as Joanna Newsom would have it in her Bluebeard song, "Go Long".)  With that as a given, how does one go about staging it?  Count, if you will, the ways:

  • Even today in our jaundiced and knowing age, it is possible if you are an opera director to stage a fairy tale as such, and to take the magical and mystical elements at face value.  It happens all the time with, say, Magic Flute.  [Afterthought: As an even better example, it also happens all the time in productions of Tristan und Isolde.]
  • If that sort of literalism doesn't set well, you can adopt a contemporizing approach that will still build on and work with the themes and ideas that are actually there. 
  • You can even get fairly radical about that sort of thing while still maintaining high respect for the material, as I contend Achim Freyer did in his tremendous Los Angeles Opera Ring cycle.
  • If you don't particularly care about the material, or if you have some Point of Your Own that you really want to make using the opera at hand as a mere excuse to make it, or if you have no higher calling than offending and annoying the audience, you can as an opera director perfectly well do that as well.

Or you can set Lohengrin in a field hospital constructed in a bombed-out cathedral at the end of World War I, with a hero sporting an unexplained silver-armored right leg and an overall look that crosses M*A*S*H with Les Miz. . . .


. . . as director Lydia Steier has done in Los Angeles.

It is not an offensive production.  It is not an abusive production.  It is not a production in which the director has Something to Say and is Gonna Say It.  It is a production, I fear, without an idea in its head other than "Let's set Lohengrin in the First World War."

Unanswered Questions

That and other directorial choices lead to an evening of head scratching. In the text, King Heinrich emphasizes how powerful and ready the German people now are after nine years' preparation to take on the pesky Hungarians, and boasts of all the fortifications he has constructed in that time.  Why are we performing surgery in a ruin after nine years of peace?  Were there no earmarks for the reconstruction of Brabant?  Why, for that matter, are the Brabantian citizens so darned fond of King Heinrich, and so happy to march off in his support, when his troops—including his noble Herald—delight in raping and beating the populace every time the King's back is turned?

What's up with the armored leg anyway?  Where did the homeless population of Brabant find the materials to weave colorful banners, half of them adopting the leg as their symbol and the other half adopting the (otherwise unseen) swan?  Where do they attach that impressive chandelier, given that snow has been falling on everyone throughout because the cathedral has no roof?  

Heinrich's army seems to carry only swords: where did Lohengrin find the gun with which he kills Telramund?  Is that what the leg is really for?

And wait: these are all Germans.  In World War I.  Aren't the Germans generally counted as the Bad Guys in that war?  And weren't they allied with the Austro-Hungarian Empire?  One could go on and on.


Basic blocking and stage business often gets muddled.  I have it on excellent authority that a patient dies in a tent during the Prelude to Act I following the amputation of his leg, suggesting that Lohengrin may have manifested by occupying the dead man's remains.  At least on the night I was there, the incident was so subtly performed, and so underlit, that I am certain most of the audience missed it completely.  Not a positive, if indeed it was meant to set up the entire premise of the production.

There are some vitrues to the physical production.  The ruined church looks very good, for a ruin, and the use of an enormous turntable to expose different angles is particularly effective when Ortrud and Telramund plot their revenge in Act II.  

Ah!  The Music!

The redeeming features—which are sufficiently redeeming that I would recommend seeing one of the remaining performances on December 9 or 12—are all musical.  The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra under James Conlon is simply tremendous in this performance.  Maestro Conlon is a huge enthusiast for Wagner's music, deeply knowledgeable of how it works, and he and the orchestra provide full measure of satisfaction.

Among the principal singers, this production belongs entirely to the women.  Elsa is something of a one-dimensional character—she's pure and innocent, don't you know—but she has been given some purely gorgeous music while she is about it.  Soile Isokoski sings that music with warmth, point and precision, and is a joy to hear.  As Elsa's nemesis Ortrud, Dolora Zajick carries all the conniving, dissembling, menacing force one could wish.  Other than Maestro Conlon, it was Zajick who received the most enthusiastic response come the curtain call.  Lohengrin was the last work Wagner structured around a large chorus, and both men and women shone.

Ben Heppner's Lohengrin is problematic at this time, despite being his signature role for the past two decades.  I am given to understand that last night's performance was perhaps his best of this run, and there were stretches of real strength and impact, but one never knew when a note would suddenly be not quite there, or not quite the note that was intended.  It was not an outright bad performance, by any means, but it carried a sad air of disappointment about it.

Proposal for a New Production of Lohengrin

I will close with my own production concept, which came to me during Act II last night.  Make of it what you will.

In my konzept, Elsa is an allegorical figure representative of the Great and Good American Public.  Her unknown knight, bearing with him the promise of hope and perhaps even change, is eventually revealed to be Barack Obama.  Telramund and Ortrud are, of course, John McCain and Sarah Palin.  By their carping, scheming and innuendo, they persuade the saintly Elsa to demand The Birth Certificate.  His secret revealed, the nation's potential savior must instead return to the ether from whence he came, leaving us chastened and bereft.



Crazy?  Yes, but it just might work.  This is Opera, after all.

* Wagnerian purists distinguish between Wagner's "operas" and the later/greater "music dramas."  Lohengrin is the last of the operas, opening the door to the music dramas to follow.  Wagner was already contemplating the Ring cycle as he worked to complete Lohengrin, and hints of the musical advances to come gleam through, particularly in Act II.

Top Illustration:  Stage machinery for a proper Lohengrin swan of the old school, from "Behind the Scenes of an Opera House" by Gustav Kobbé, Scribner's Magazine, volume 4, Issue 4 (1888), via The Wagner Library.  In 1888, Lohengrin (1850) was a more recent and contemporary work than the songs of the Beatles or Jesus Christ Superstar are today.

Photos: by Robert Millard, courtesy Los Angeles Opera.

Lohrengrinicon by the blogger, via Obamicon.me



I never said all actors are cattle.  What I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.

-- Alfred Hitchcock

If you want respect, give them Art.  If you want to make the front page, give 'em gossip.

This morning's Los Angeles Times Page One features this juicy piece in which two of the principal singers in Los Angeles Opera's new Ring cycle give vent to their displeasure:

In separate interviews, British tenor John Treleaven, who plays the hero Siegfried, and American soprano Linda Watson, who plays Brunnhilde, said German director Achim Freyer's avant-garde staging — which features a steeply tilted stage, bulky costumes and oversized masks — interferes with their acting and singing and poses excruciating physical burdens. 
'I'm not going to pull any punches here, and I want to tell it like it is. This entire production has been a trying and difficult time,' Treleaven said. 'The character development that I bring to the part is almost expunged by this clown-like makeup,' he said, adding that he has sustained two minor injuries on the angled stage. 
Watson called the set 'the most dangerous stage I've been on in my entire career.…Your whole neck is tipped wrong. It's very painful to do it for hours.' 
The soprano said that at one point, she became so frustrated with the production's lack of character development that she told Freyer to 'buy one of my CDs and put it on instead of me.'

And it just goes on from there.

Not to downplay either the challenges that are undeniably posed by the physical requirements of Achim Freyer's production or the priority that should be given to performers' safety in any production, but Ms. Watson's and Mr. Treleaven's real complaint here seems ultimately to be: "This production is not sufficiently about me."  

They're right: it isn't.  It isn't really about Achim Freyer or his directorial "vision" either.  To Freyer's credit his production is, for all its eccentricities, very much about the Ring as Wagner wrote it.  The layering of symbols, the expressionist/expressionless masks, the outré costuming, the doubling and tripling of characters, all of it serves as an elaborate mechanism for "getting at what Wagner was getting at."  Figuring it all out is a challenge for the audience, but the necessary effort and attention pays off and, paradoxically, out from all the clutter emerges a remarkable clarity.

Nor is this a production that has no place for "character development," if by that we mean what is usually meant by the term, rather than using it as a synonym for artistic self-regard.  A number of other performers -- who may have their own complaints, but who have had the tact not to spill them to the press -- have turned in performances of both musical and dramatic subtlety.  Vitalij Kowaljow's Wotan is one prominent instance, but perhaps the best example is that of Eric Halfvarson, the only principal singer to appear in all four dramas of the cycle (two Fafners, a Hunding, and a terrific Hagan). 

I have no idea what Achim Freyer really thinks about actors and singers, but the Hitchcock quote above is a relevant one.  Just as the best Hitchcock films are perfect clockwork mechanisms in which the actors are just another bit of the escapement, Freyer's Ring is a contraption in which every element, whether musical, scenic, or human, is coordinated toward the end goal.  This is a gesamtkunstwerk we are talking about after all.  

Out West Arts has some similar thoughts on the Times article.  

And while we're on the subject of contraptions, take a look at this preview of Robert Lepage's upcoming new production of the Ring for the Metropolitan Opera.  If you thought Freyer's raked stage was challenging, just wait until it gets cross-pollinated with a Tilt-a-Whirl:


UPDATE [051510]:  A.C Douglas comments at Sounds & Fury.  I have a final look back at Freyer's Ring in general, and his Gotterdammerung in particular, in the works, which will likely further address some of ACD's points of interest.


Photo: Monika Rittershaus via Los Angeles Opera.


Siegfried: To Be Young, Gifted, and Blue


As with Harry Potter books, so with the Ring cycle of Richard Wagner: as the story unfolds, each part goes on far longer than the part that preceded it. 

The Nibelung's Ring Episode III: A New Hope -- better known as Siegfried -- clocks in at roughly five hours, and the endurance required of the tenor in the title role is the stuff of legend, especially given that the most challenging singing is required of him in the final thirty minutes.  On Saturday evening, in the closing performance of Los Angeles Opera's new production of Siegfried, John Treleaven frayed noticeably in those final pushes to the vocal heights.  Treleaven's unfortunate, if understandable, exhaustion was one of the few drawbacks to this installment of Achim Freyer's staging of the saga.

The Freyer Ring continues to astonish and impress, with its constantly shifting perspectives, its multiple points of view, and its deployment of theatrical tricks and trumpery old and new.  Siegfried was not so immediately "wow"-filled nor so readily embraced as Rheingold and Walküre, but the fault lies as much with Wagner as with Freyer.  Siegfried as a character has less inner life than most any other hero in literature. He performs some remarkable deeds -- slays a fearsome [sic] dragon, smashes the staff and ends the power of the reigning god, walks through and extinguishes a sea of magic fire, wins the hand of the most desirable maiden in the world -- without the slightest idea that those deeds are remarkable and without the slightest reflection on the consequences of his actions, which come freighted with all manner of personal and cosmic significance.  In Freyer's conception, Siegfried is a sort of Incredible Blue Hulk, musclebound, clownish, with a head of hair seemingly borrowed from Harpo Marx.  He is a lunk and a dolt, a lumbering Wagnerian McGuffin whose real purpose is, unwittingly of course, to place Brünnhilde in position to purge and renew the world at the still-distant end of Götterdämmerung.


Even more so than in previous installments, the principal characters in this Siegfried are surrounded by a tireless silent ensemble, sometimes "invisible" in black, sometimes doubling or tripling the characters on stage or events referred to in Wagner's recurrent recaps of what has gone before.  There seems always to be one or more silent figures stepping slowly, slowly from stage right to left, usually bearing one or more significant objects, so that the story takes place as if awash in a stream of shifting, drifting symbols.  (Achim Freyer is at least as fond of slow, meticulous crosswise movements as is Robert Wilson.)  

Sadly, Siegfried marks the last appearance in the Ring of Wotan, here in his guise as the slouch-hatted Wanderer.  Vitalij Kowaljow has sung the part in all three productions thus far, and has only gotten better as he has gone along.  He brings all the necessary gravitas and sadness to the god who, having sought to preserve his power and the reign of the gods by possessing the ring, has only triggered the gods' inevitable downfall. He is last seen trudging slowly, slowly away, the symbol of his power shattered by his own heedless grandchild.

Siegfried has been raised for the task of slaying Fafnir, the giant who possesses the Rhine gold, the powerful ring, and the Tarnhelm, the magic helmet -- here a magic golden top hat -- that grants its wearer the power of invisibility and transformation.  The better to guard his hoard, Fafnir has long ago transformed himself into a dragon, and every production of Siegfried must answer the question: how do we bring this dragon on stage to be slain?  Freyer does it with strings attached.  Dragon-Fafnir is, until he transforms back into a giant after receiving the mortal blow, a marionette about four feet tall and wearing that golden top hat. Siegfried's core character trait is that he is literally without fear, and I am inclined to accept the going theory that this most unfearsome critter is meant to evoke just how trivial the task of dragon-slaying must seem to such an oblivious hero.  You can see and not be scared by Mr. Dragon at 2:29 in the official promotional video below:

Each of the two prior productions in the cycle worked well as a stand-alone piece.  Siegfried counts as a success in terms of moving the drama forward using the stylistic grammar that Freyer has established in those previous installments, although I suspect that a viewer thrown into Freyer's Ring-world for the first time with Siegfried could easily get lost trying to "learn the language" and to figure out how that world works. Los Angeles goes without the Ring until April, when the cycle concludes with Götterdämmerung, a tawdry domestic melodrama that incidentally brings about the end of the world.  Despite knowing how it all comes out, I wouldn't miss it.


Disclaimer: The Star Wars reference in my second paragraph above is not an endorsement of the lazy "sci-fi Ring" description adopted by Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times.  That mistaken view, with other offenses, recently earned Tommasini the scorn of Out West Arts as "the most ridiculously out of touch writer working for a major media outlet today".


All photos by Monika Rittershaus, via Los Angeles Opera.


Drive-In Saturday:
Siegfried Season

Siegfried - I am going to Eat You

Los Angeles Opera's new Achim Freyer production of Wagner's Siegfried opens this afternoon.  I won't be seeing it until the closing performance of this run, on October 17, but favorable reports (and rumors of an amusing toy dragon) have already emerged from the dress rehearsal via Out West Arts and Alan Rich's happily returned SoI'veHeard. (Alan's post also discloses that the promised live recording of the LA Philharmonic's world premiere of Arvo Pärt’s Fourth Symphony ("Los Angeles") from this past January will finally see release via iTunes next month).

LAO has not released any video thus far from its Siegfried, so I will fill the gap with two prior tellings of the tale.  First up, Siegfried defeats a thirsty dragon -- not a transformed Fafnir, since this version is adapted by Thea von Harbau from the Nibelungenlied rather than from Wagner -- in Fritz Lang's 1924 Siegfrieds Tod.

By way of contrast with Lang's impressive-for-their-day physical effects, this next video shows off a 2008 production of Wagner's Siegfried staged in Valencia, Spain, by director Carlus Padrissa and the Catalan theatrical group La Fura del Baus, with hyper-elaborate video projections by Franc Aleu.  Zubin Mehta conducts.  It is difficult to say whether this production ultimately tromped on or deferred to Wagner -- the former is probable, given its apparent Mad Scientist overtones -- but as sheer eye-poppery (in conjunction with That Music) it does not fail to impress:

This is best appreciated at full size and in high definition on Vimeo, here, where it was posted by Martin Inda, who handled video post-production on the project.  Oooo, sparkly.


Illustration: a conventional sort of a Siegfried in Opera Stories from Wagner by Florence Akin (1915).


An LA Times Story With a Familiar Ring To It


Christopher Smith of the Los Angeles Times went to see Los Angeles Opera's Walküre the other evening, and lays claim to an Important Insight into its director-designer's methods:

I was equally eager to see director Achim Freyer's staging and designs, which have led critics, bloggers and impassioned local Wagnerians to whip themselves up to near-hysteria.

An incomplete list of comparison points for the design of the opera mentioned online include 'Star Wars,' a carnival, 'Wheel of Fortune,' the circus (both the regular and Cirque varieties), puppet shows and 'The Twilight Zone.'

But the opera was less than 10 minutes old when I realized it was I who had discovered the true, secret coda [sic] powering Freyer's vision. A post-performance trip to the Internet confirmed this revelation, which is clear, indisputable and undeniable, and which you can see above [in Smith's post].

(Emphasis added.)

If you click through to discover Smith's Revelation, you may wonder along with me whether his "trip to the Internet" might have included this revelatory, if unacknowledged, blog post.


Photo: Placido Domingo, as Siegmund, is stabbed in the back; it runs in the family. Photo by Monika Rittershaus via Los Angeles Opera.


Ave Atque Walhall
Los Angeles Opera Isn't Making This Up, You Know

I listened closely during the curtain calls at Sunday's matinee performance of Das Rheingold, and I did not hear any of the booing that has been reported by some other correspondents.  Which is as it should be. 

Los Angeles Opera's first venture in to Wagner's Ring is certainly not perfect -- no staging of the Ring ever is -- but for all its eccentricities, it is unquestionably the Real Thing.  Brazenly theatrical and strongly marked by its director's particular stylistic tics, the LAOpera Rheingold nevertheless stays true to the task at hand: telling the story that Wagner actually wrote, letting the work speak for itself and not imposing some external idea of what it means or, in the director's mind, "should" mean.

As has been said again and again, Wagner conceived his enormous Ring des Nibelung not as a mere series of "operas" but as a Gesamtkunstwerk, roughly a total artistic expression of a fundamental mythic story presented through a unity of music, poetry, movement, and the visual arts, each element spectacular not for the sake of spectacle but in the service of the total tale.  Such a thing is ultimately impossible to achieve in practice, but Wagner himself pressed the technology of his time about as far as it could go in his effort to accomplish it.  (Because of the time necessarily involved in moving elaborate scenery and effects about, Wagner was occasionally obliged to write extra music, most famously in Parsifal, to fill what he intended to be seamless transformations between scenes, turning a bug into a feature.)

Achim Freyer, directing the Ring for the first time, imposes himself in matters of style in this production, but not in matters of substance.  It looks like an Achim Freyer production from beginning to end, but Freyer is directing the work that Wagner actually created, not some entirely different work that he wishes Wagner had created.  Because the tale is set in a distant and supernatural world, the unusual appearance of objects and characters makes more sense than it would in a more "realistic" work such as, say, Eugene Onegin.  The gods are gods, the dwarfs are dwarfs, the giants are giants, and magic is magic.  The Tarnhelm -- the magic helmet that allows its wearer invisibility or transformation in to creatures large and small -- looks like a golden top hat here, but it is still a magic helmet.  The Ring itself is easy to follow around the stage, as it is represented by a glowing orb.  Let's take a look, shall we?


Here we see Wotan, chief among the gods, holding the Ring aloft as he debates with himself whether to take the advice just given him by the earth goddess Erda (not seen here because she has descended, with her many arms, back into the depths of the planet) to rid himself of the (literally) cursed thing.  With him are his wife Fricka, with her perpetually yearning/clinging/pleading arms, and her brother gods, Froh and Donner.  The Tarnhelm floats atop the pile of gold at the rear.  The pile is being measured (hence the large ruler) to see how it stacks up compared to the goddess Freia, who stand before it and will be returned to the other gods by the giants Fasolt and Fafnir if only Wotan will add the Ring to that pile of gold (which he will eventually do).  The giants have taken Freia as collateral for the unpaid construction loan on Wotan's new godly fortress Walhall.  The other gods would like her back, because only Freia supplies the golden apples that keep them all young.  They are dressed in black here, as they have been since they began rapidly aging in Freia's absence.  When Freia is returned to them shortly, it will immediately improve their condition and they and their costumes will become both brighter and, in some cases, larger.   (A photo of Freia after her return, with an appearance by the aforementioned giants, is in the extended portion of this post.)

You may ask, "What is that on Wotan's head, a bishop's mitre or a parrot cage?"  Actually, that is his head, or a framework mask representing his head.  Wotan has only one eye, having sacrificed the other before the opening chords in order to win wisdom and Fricka.  His mask-head also has only one eye, as does the head of the much larger version of Wotan in which the singer is sometimes encased.  Masks and puppetry are a large part of Achim Freyer's stagecraft, much as they were for Julie Taymor in Los Angeles Opera's Grendel.  The gods are portrayed by only one singer each, but there are sometimes multiple representations of each character on stage simultaneously. 

In addition to those centuries-old theatrical tools, Freyer uses the most contemporary technology: the entire production is staged behind a scrim, which serves as a screen on which high definition video effects are projected.  Perhaps the most effective use of video comes near the conclusion when the gods walk over their rainbow bridge to Walhall: the rainbow's spectrum is projected on the scrim to create the illusion that the entire stage space has been suffused with mist, tangible light, and color.  Next slide, please.


Here, we return to the opening scene, in which the dwarf [Nibelung] Alberich is attempting in vain to win the affections at least one the three Rhinemaidens in the depths of their river.  The watery ambience is a combination of stage lighting and a blue video tinting of the scrim, with the Maidens partially obscured by rippling cloth being shaken by hands in the wings.  The upright Maidens are the three singers performing the parts, with their inverted "reflections" provided by three of the dozen or so dancer-mimes who round out the Company.  Not yet revealed here is the Rhinegold itself, which is represented by very bright handheld lights -- all right, flashlights -- underneath the fabric "river," which allows the gold to move magically about like a phosphorescent school of fish.  Forswearing love in favor of the gold's promise of ultimate power, Alberich clambers beneath the fabric himself and emerges with a large glowing Ring-colored lump, soon to be forged into the large glowing Ring we have already seen.

One more photo, featuring a character not yet discussed: the sly trickster fire god, Loge.


Loge is referred to but never actually appears in the remaining three parts of the Ring, although there is at least one photo from design rehearsals suggesting he will have a non-singing manifestation when the time comes to surround Brunnhilde with magic fire in Die Walkure.  (If so, he will probably recur at the conclusion of Episode 4: Gotterdammerung, when Literally Everything goes up in flames.) 

The character is so engagingly written that a well-performed Loge -- which Los Angeles emphatically has in the person of Arnold Bezuyen --  often steals the show in Rheingold.  As designed by Freyer and sung by Bezuyen, Loge is flame, devil and fast-talking lawyer-salesman all in one plaid zoot-suited package.  (Wotan only entered into the Freia-swapping contract with the giants on advice of counsel: Loge assured him there would be a way out of the deal later.)  Loge here has at least four arms and one hand seems always at his breast, because you know you can trust him, eh?

While Bezuyen's Loge received the most enthusiastic applause for any of the singers, the loudest ovation of all was reserved for conductor James Conlon and the orchestra.  (The musicians were hidden beneath the stage throughout and never seen; for the curtain call, a camera panned across the pit and the orchestra was projected on to the scrim to receive the crowd's huzzahs.)  I am not qualified to judge where Conlon and the Los Angeles players fall in the pecking order of properly Wagnerian playing, but I can say that the musical elements of this production were as compelling and effective as one could reasonably ask.  As he demonstrated in last season's remounting of the David Hockney Tristan, Maestro Conlon loves his Wagner, and his desire to do well by the composer shines through.

In summary, then: Freyer's approach to the Ring is by no means literal, but is genuinely honorable in its intention to present Wagner at Freyer's expense and not vice versa.  It is absolutely not boring and no matter how off kilter its surfaces may appear it is no betrayal of the work.  Beyond Bezuyen's terrific Loge, and Graham Clark's splendidly put upon Mime, the singers are entirely sufficient but not stunning.  I suspect that Vitalij Kowaljow's Wotan and Michelle De Young's Fricka will both be more compelling as those characters' complexities play out in Walkure next month and in the complete cycles next year.  The orchestra under James Conlon is better than sufficient and also likely only to get better.  Los Angeles can rightly claim that it has an authentic Ring to it.



A.C. Douglas' Sounds & Fury serves as a one-stop depositary for other's reviews of the L.A. Ring, to which I can add Fine Arts LA's report, which went up at about the same time as my own.

All photos by Monika Rittershaus via Los Angeles Opera.  Ms. Rittershaus is not the usual Los Angeles Opera photographer, but is instead an associate of Achim Freyer.  Her photos of other Freyer performances can be seen on the site of the Freyer Ensemble.

Post title derived in part from Anna Russell's much beloved explanations of the Ring:

  • Part 1 [most of Rheingold]; 
  • Part 2 [remainder of Rheingold through Walkure through the first half of Siegfried]; 
  • Part 3 [remainder of Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, including la Russell's famous catchphrase]. 

Continue reading "Ave Atque Walhall
Los Angeles Opera Isn't Making This Up, You Know" »

Launch the Wotan Torpedoes

Tonight is the night, as Los Angeles Opera launches Achim Freyer's staging of Wagner's Ring with Das Rheingold.  For the occasion, the company has released these video excerpts in to the wild:

I must await the March 1 matinee before seeing for myself, but whatever else may ultimately be said about this production it certainly appears not to be dull.



There is little more than a week remaining before Los Angeles Opera launches the first of its new productions of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen under the direction of Achim Freyer.  Photos that have emerged from the design and rehearsal process have borne all the hallmarks of a Freyer production -- large expressionist headmasks in particular -- but have given few hints of how Freyer actually intends to approach the Ring. 

In an article in the current issue of Opera News, "Painting with Music," the OC Register's Timothy Mangan provides the most detailed report yet just what the designer-director is up to: 

'I am a painter, and this is a profession with the whole man,' [Freyer] says.  'And when I do theater I divide myself.  And this is very interesting, because it’s schizophrenic.  And it’s very different.  But the person’s the same.  And the person learns from theater for painting, and from painting for theater.  But it is nicht Absicht [not on purpose] — it is mein Schicksal [my destiny].'

* * *

'I do not want to do what Wagner wants,' he says.  'I want to do a concept to show what Wagner wants. You understand?'  In his conception, he doesn’t intend to provide a visual copy of the music and text.  Wagner’s poetry alone is a masterwork, he says, and the music is yet another masterwork.  Freyer wants to stay out of the way, allow Wagner’s art to speak for itself.  'My conception is not to [duplicate] this.  I do the third [thing].  And the third is the room in which I hold the music and the text and bring it to the public.'

In other words, realism is boring — too literal.  Besides, Freyer says, Wagner isn’t realism: 'Wagner wanted timeless persons.  It is the mythos and not the history.  It is not historical, it is a vision of the beginning and the end of the world.  And this I want to do with figures and with rooms and lighting that you have never seen.  That’s very important.  I think I do music theater in the sense of Wagner but do not use the materials of Wagner from the time 200 years before.  I do it in this time — the revolutionary theater.'

Freyer interprets the characters in the Ring as 'quasi' persons, or split personalities.  They do not exist in a single way.  Some of the costumes, therefore, are mere façades, and the singers can come out from behind them.  'Wotan can come out, and I can show, "I play this person, Wotan, and I am a singer."  The singer can come out from the costume, the illusion is broken, and a new idea is coming: "Ah, that’s the sense of Wotan that comes out and tells us this."  Or Wotan has a shadow, and the shadow does a different thing than Wotan tells.  Or he has a double, a mirror of Wotan, and the mirror remembers the past and goes back.

If Freyer's doubling and distancing puts one in mind of Brecht and his Verfremdungseffekt, it should come as no surprise: Freyer's early years in the theatre in the mid-1950s were spent in Brecht's master class in East Berlin.  Until I see what he has done for myself, I am happy to take Freyer at his word that his konzept is an attempt to show us "what Wagner wants," rather than an imposition of "what Freyer wants."  It all sounds very promising at this point.


Last November, LA Opera announced that the full stagings of the entire Ring cycle scheduled for 2010 will be accompanied by a countywide Ring Festival of cultural and scholarly events.  Among these, unsurprisingly, will be at least a few panels and symposia looking at the most unpleasant side, not of the Ring itself, but of the Ring's creator.  A creative genius but a frequently repellent human being, Richard Wagner was possessed of a deep-dyed and unapologetic anti-Semitism.  Wagner died before Hitler was born, but the Führer's embrace of Wagner's music is well known, as is the Wagner family's own embrace, both philosophical and literal, of the Führer.  (Alex Ross gives an excellent account of the uses Hitler and the Wagners made of one another in The Rest Is Noise.  A major theme of that book is the degree to which the best of 20th Century music is essentially unthinkable without the contributions of those -- Jews and homosexuals -- that Hitler most desired to disappear.)

The combination of Wagner, anti-Semitism and the Nazis has been known to fuddle the thinking of even well-intentioned commentators, and the presence of that combination in the Ring Festival promptly generated this letter to the editors of the Los Angeles Times, in which fuddlement (or worse) has plainly gotten the upper hand:

Why politicize 'The Ring'?

Re 'Ring Festival Is Already Packed,' by Diane Haithman, Nov. 4:

I am curious why the Ring Festival has to have a seminar conducted at American Jewish University regarding the use of Wagner by the Nazis, and who pitched it. Are any taxpayer dollars funding this?

Wagner died in 1883, and while he may have held [sic] 'anti-Semitic' views, his work should be allowed to stand alone, and without all the Holocaust political hoopla, as one of the greatest artistic works in European history.

Should we not also censor Jewish-Israeli artistic works and demand seminars on illegal West Bank settlements, violation of Palestinian human rights, and the 'wall'?  When do responsible people leave their politics at the door so the rest of us can view and enjoy a great work of art on its own merits?

I have wanted to see Wagner's 'Der Ring des Nibelungen' for years.  But not now, and not in Los Angeles.  It seems that if some people cannot completely destroy the reputation of the artist, they will attach their unresolved psychosis of hate to the festival and the showing of the work of art itself.

David Seaman
Long Beach

I leave a full accounting of the fuddles and misprisions in this particular missive as an exercise for the reader -- no, not that reader -- and move on with a low moan and a mild shudder.

Lest anyone should be concerned that Achim Freyer is permitting unfortunate Nazi iconography to slip in to his production, I offer this rehearsal photo from next season's Götterdämmerung, in which it appears that the Führer's favorite, the Great German Hero, Siegfried -- surely the most dunderheaded Hero in all opera, but never mind -- is presented as some sort of goat-legginged anime lobsterman: 


Seriously: I can't hardly wait.


Opera News link via the OC Register's Arts Blog.

Illustrations via Los Angeles Opera.  Top: Costume Sketch [Donner] by Achim Freyer.  Middle: 2008 Walkuere rehearsal workshop, photo by Monika Rittershaus.  Bottom: 2008 Götterdämmerung rehearsal workshop, photo by Monika Rittershaus.

Wystan Waxes Waggish on Wagner

LAOpera Ring Poster Los Angeles Opera will launch Achim Freyer's staging of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in May next month, and this weblog can be expected to turn sporadically and spontaneously Wagnerian as the day approaches.  Let's begin with a bit of affectionate jeering at the Meister, shall we?

When I hunted up W. H. Auden's "New Year Letter" for incorporation in my recent New Year's post, I was only able to turn up an excerpt or two online.  Wanting to take a look at the whole thing, I swung by my local bibliotheque and checked out the Collected Poems

The "Letter" is a lengthy contraption in Swiftian couplets, written in the wake of the German aggressions of 1939.  While it begins naturally enough with a focus on the pall that has fallen over Europe, later segments of the poem focus on American concerns, and particularly on the self-absorbed brand of individualism that was and is an American hallmark, and for which Auden had little patience.  Near the end of the poem, we find this Tristan-inspired jab:

The genius of the loud Steam Age,
Loud Wagner, put it on the stage:
The mental hero who has swooned
With sensual pleasure at his wound,
His intellectual life fulfilled
In knowing that his doom is willed,
Exists to suffer; borne along
Upon a timeless tide of song,
The huge doll roars for death or mother,
Synonymous with one another;
And Woman, passive as in dreams,
Redeems, redeems, redeems, redeems.

All together: "It's funny because it's true." 

At least he likes the music.

To return to the LA Opera Ring: some intriguing hints of what this production will look like in performance can be seen in this video in which Placido Domingo, who will be singing Siegmund in Walküre, expresses his enthusiasm for what Herr Freyer has in store for we unsuspecting Angelenos.

Alberich in Wonderland

These CDs cost far less than downloads from the internet, and unlike downloads they are things, which I prefer.  When you drop a Wagner opera on CD on your foot, it hurts. That's what I call real value.

-- Brian Micklethwaite

I am off this evening to see Howard Shore's and David Cronenberg's much maligned The Fly at Los Angeles Opera; my own opinions of the thing should appear here tomorrow.

For many, including myself, the major attraction of this LA Opera season is the launching of the company's first production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, under the direction of Achim Freyer.

When the Opera's website was first updated for the current season, these graphics gave a vague hint of what the LA Ring will look like:



Recently, the Opera has begun to release additional photos, although it is unclear whether they represent work in progress or final production decisions.  Here are the three that are currently up (albeit well hidden) on the Opera's website.

From Das Rheingold:

Strange women lying in ponds may be no basis for a system of government, but similarly unusual dames basking about in a river make a perfectly acceptable jumping off point for a vast music drama. Welcome if you will Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde, the Rhinemaidens:


Meanwhile, toiling beneath the earth in an entry-level position in the mineral trade, this must certainly be if not the Nibelung at least a Nibelung:


From Die Walküre:

I am thinking this final photo represents the climactic confrontation between Wotan (note the single eye, best seen in the full size version on the Opera site) and recumbent Brünnhilde, who may already be undergoing a course of magical sleep therapy, witnessed by the horses that she and her sisters rode in on:


From these photos, it appears that all of the expected hallmarks of a Freyer production -- expressionist flamboyance, enormous papier-mâché heads -- are in place.  Also apparent is that Freyer is setting his production in a recognizable version of the world that Wagner actually wrote, not in some politico-feverdream "commentary" on that world.  No hydroelectric dams, no skinned rabbits, no steamboats, no explosives belts, just gods, dwarfs, and flying horses -- with sewing machine bobbins on their heads, but let that pass. 

Achim Freyer is a genuinely interesting theatrical figure and the purely musical components of this production are in good hands, so I remain essentially optimistic and continue to look forward to the premiere run beginning in February.


Photos by Monika Rittershaus, via Los Angeles Opera.

Additional credit where due: Out West Arts shared small versions of these photos back on Sept. 9, along with several others whose source I haven't yet traced.  I am particularly intrigued by the shifty gent in the red-checked trousers -- who can only be Loge, right?