Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A Wagnerian Sneak Peek

September 24, 2009

 
From Act III of Siegfried
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LA Opera 2009

On Wednesday, I was lucky enough to see the final dress rehearsal for L.A. Opera’s new production of Siegfried. And while it may not have been in the same form it will be in by Saturday’s premiere, I can already tell you that it’s super exciting. The contents of the staging by now should be no surprise to anyone who has seen either of the first two installments of Achim Freyer’s staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle. There are lots of neon light tubes and the stage is filled with black clad mimes and vocalists in colorful, primitive costumes. The action, which takes place entirely behind a neon-framed scrim, careens from profound to comical and back. What’s new in Siegfried is how all of these elements are beginning to gel into a world all of their own. The video elements are expanded and nearly constant this time and Freyer’s own visual leitmotif system is now clicking into its own internal rhythm. The stage can be filled with performers engaged in all kinds of different activities, but strangely all focused on the content of the libretto at the very same moment. At times it can be overwhelming. Act III alone may be the most beautiful moment in the entire cycle so far with its ever present Norns circling above the newfound lovers amidst another sea of red fabric and an ocean of stars (or is it rain) sweeping across the video screen.

Certainly, there will continue to be angst over some of the staging’s elements. John Treleaven, who plays Siegfried, appears in a giant blue muscle suit wearing trousers made of white bear skin. His taxi-yellow mini-dreadlocks can make him look as much a cartoon character as a hero. But he projects youth and daring in this get-up in a way I’ve not seen from any number of middle-aged guys dressed like Barney Rubble in bad blond toupees common among Siegfrieds elsewhere. But the factor you’ll be reading about in Monday’s paper, assuming it isn’t changed between now and then, is the dragon. On Wednesday, when the dragon first spoke in Act II, it is from offstage. Eric Halfvarson’s voice is amplified from back stage as red houselights are brought up on the audience. Freyer follows this ominous lead in with one of the production’s many jokes as a flying four-foot tall stuffed toy dragon spewing battery-operated fire accosts Siegfried. Siegfried grabbed onto the tiny dragon shaking it and inspiring lots of laughter in the preview audience. The dragon then disappears as the rear portion of the circular stage rises. Siegfried pierces a hole in the elevated stage with Nothung and when the stage is later lowered, Fafner the giant is revealed, impaled on the same neon sword. Even though it was a bit of a big switch in tone, I appreciated the possible overtones of the directorial choice of a comic dragon. It’s a clever move that reinforces the dragon's appearance not as the audience perceives him, but more as Siegfried does given his total lack of fear. But it’s a risky choice for an audience expecting something a little more predictable.

I’m not going to comment on the vocal performances other than to say even in the dress rehearsal Graham Clark’s Mime was first rate. He does as much with his arms and hands as other actors do with their whole bodies. I’m also increasingly partial to Vitalij Kowaljow who seems to grow into Wotan with leaps and bounds. Music director James Conlon continues to be the biggest highlight of the show, and the orchestra sounded just great. There are only five performances in the run, which starts Saturday, so plan ahead.

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I am really looking forward to this- got my tickets for Siegfried, Gotterdammerung and The Stigmatized yesterday. I was stunned to see that even "Opera War Horses" praised it.
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