Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Love Potion No. 9

April 04, 2010

Richard Paul Fink as Alberich and Eric Halfvarson as Hagen
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2010

On Saturday it came to pass that Los Angeles and its opera company finally have their own Ring cycle. With the public opening of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the company has completed a major achievement by mounting a totally unique and artistically ambitious production of one of the true masterpieces of Western culture. They did it on their own without the help of a co-sponsoring institution and with just about everything being built from scratch under the guidance of director and designer Achim Freyer. They have gone their own way, and I would argue, have a great deal to show for it. With the size of the undertaking to date and the three excellent opera productions that have preceded it, this Götterdämmerung runs the risk of being an afterthought. It is not; however, it may, admittedly, be the toughest to like.

Götterdämmerung is by far the most doctrinaire of Freyer's Ring operas in terms of his fondness of Brechtian theater principles. He relies on many of the same tactics he has throughout the cycle. All of the Gibichung, including Gutrune and Gunther, are masked throughout the whole show. There is an irreverent sense of humor at times. When Siegfried drinks Hagen's love potion, his boorish traits rise to the surface. He lunges at Gutrune, who like the rest of the cast stands behind a life-size cut out of her costume, pulling down the front of her dress and exposing the molded breasts underneath. This "Gutrune Gone Wild" moment doesn't stand alone, however, and the juxtaposition of the primitive and cheap with the highest of high tech provides many more such moments. There were still technical problems at times, particularly with the video feed, but this haphazardness is, in part, by design. Freyer seems more wary of spectacle this time around. Götterdämmerung is the most static of his Ring stagings with the cast largely at the foot of the stage throughout and the large central turntable only firing up once in the whole five and a half hours. The stage is dominated by the large white, neon lit floor of the Gibichung Hall. The first Act takes place largely behind a diagonal split screen with Brünnhilde waiting on the mountain top concurrently with Siegfried's initial meeting with Hagen and Gunther. And if your desire for spectacle is tempted by the opera's big end-of-the-world conclusion, you should be warned that this global conflagration is more of the whimper than bang variety.

Musically, this was a very satisfying evening. Conductor James Conlon continues to be the hero of the show leading a rock solid performance from the orchestra who sounded great. With the exception of Waltraute's narrative, things never dragged. And with a stage full of big voices, everyone pulled their weight. Linda Watson's Brünnhilde is superbly acted and consistently well sung. Treleaven, the Siegfried, seemed a little slow to warm up, but was delivering by Act III. Eric Halfvarson, who sang Hagen, and Richard Paul Fink, as Alberich, were perhaps the two strongest performances in the whole cast and provided a stirring start to Act II in Hagen's dream of his father. I would also be remiss not to mention the wonderful Alan Held who managed to given a convincing performance with his face covered throughout the whole show.

But, as important as all these artistic contributions were, it's hard to ignore Freyer's stamp on the proceedings. He arrived at the final curtain call without an ounce of timidity. He was greeted with the loudest response from the audience that was equal measures of bravos and boos. He left the cast line, approaching the foot of center stage soaking up the response with what appeared to be great satisfaction. He should. He's produced something here alongside James Conlon that may be many things, but it is far from boring or irrelevant. There are four more performances in April before the full cycles are staged in May and June.



One correction and one quibble: the first performance was on Saturday, not Friday. Moreover, I thought Waltrude's scene was absolutely gripping. To each his (or her) own ...
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