Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Like a Record, Baby

April 05, 2009

Linda Watson as Brünnhilde and Anja Kampe as Sieglinde
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

That’s the thing about opera. Once in a while, it's pretty amazing. Take LA Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre which opened on Saturday in the second installment of a new cycle directed and designed by German theater legend Achim Freyer. It's a truly unique production and most impressive in that it rivals the complexity of Wagner's work with a visual system all its own that offers an immense amount to think about on numerous levels. It is a production that is often exciting, epic and generates actual I-can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens-next anticipation. And it is almost as often starkly beautiful. It builds on the techniques laid out in last month's Das Rheingold with a minimal set and characters stationed around a large, steeply-raked, circular platform that serves as a locus for all the activity as well as a symbol in its own right. There is frequent use of doubles for the major characters as well as a broad array of masked and carnivalesque figures that participate in the action. Most of these folks wield one of a variety of light poles at some point to represent swords, spears, or other implements. Every so often the whole stage takes off and rotates. All of this takes place behind a giant scrim used for video projections of racing clouds and colorful washes. The production will probably continue to cause a small cadre of people to write missives IN ALL CAPS on the Los Angeles Times' “Culture Monster” blog threatening to cancel their subscriptions. But, I doubt we'll be so lucky. Artistically, Freyer's vision is a huge success with stunning and engaging visuals and a nearly impeccable musicality.

There are some noticeable changes over the approach used in Das Rheingold that are worth mentioning, however. Where Freyer was focused more on totemic imagery for the primary characters in Rheingold, here he places much more focus on the primary relationships between characters. In both Act I, with Siegmund and Sieglinde, and in Act III, with Wotan and Brünnhilde, Freyer allows for the performers to completely leave their stations around the circular stage and simply interact with one another directly. Wotan and Brünnhilde's interaction in Act III is both beautiful and heartbreaking - just as Wagner intended. Just as Wotan prepares to circle his daughter in a ring of fire, huge arms reach out from either side of the stage toward her only to pull away at the last minute as he does in pain over his decision to punish her for acting out his own will. Freyer provides a real intensity and dare I say humanism in the midst of an aesthetic that can be arch and obtuse at times. It's not all melodrama, though. In perhaps the most remarkable sequence in Act II, Wotan relates the events of Rheingold to Brünnhilde while they are seated in the center of the large rotating stage. During the extended monologue, all of the characters from the previous opera, as well as many of those yet to come, including Siegfried, appear and circle around the pair creating a dreamlike sequence full of foreboding. It’s spectacular. There are so many gripping and whimsical images, it’s almost impossible to take it all in - from the backward running clock taking up the stage in Act I to the upside down bikes that serve as horse sculptures for the Valkyries in Act III.

As with Rheingold, the singing is surprisingly good throughout. Of course the big star is Placido Domingo in his almost death-defying turn as Siegmund. His ability to sing this well at this age is simply astounding. Vitalij Kowaljow returns as Wotan and seemed noticeable stronger and more assured here. It’s often said that Wagner thought he was writing bel canto vocal lines for his characters, and hearing Kowaljow you’re likely to agree with him. His voice is supple and frankly lyrical more often than not. Michelle de Young also seems increasingly assured as Fricka here never turning shrill. Then there is Linda Watson as Brünnhilde. Now I’ve complained on prior occasions that she may not be the most exciting Wagnerian around, but her Brünnhilde is significantly better than her Isolde, and she gave a sincere, solid and pretty performance with no shrieking. Sieglinde was handled masterfully by Anja Kampe who has done well here in recent seasons as Fidelio and Giorgetta in Il Tabarro. She received a heroic ovation at the curtain call for her beautifully sung performance this evening. But most of all, as before, James Conlon is at the center of this success with an admirable and extremely high quality performance with the orchestra. They may be buried beneath the stage, but they’re doing the heavy lifting and doing it wonderfully.

This is turning into quite a cycle and it is a testament to Freyer and everyone involved that one can sit through five hours of this opera and leave overwhelmed and yet sad that you can’t immediately carry on with more of the story and the next chapter in these characters lives. The production runs through April 25th and most of the weekend performances are sold out so hurry. Please note the last two performances will not feature Mr. Domingo. However, they will feature British tenor and Wagner specialist Christopher Ventris who is also imminently worth seeing and a surprisingly good choice for a replacement during the run. The whole run and especially the weekend performances are heavily sold, so you may want to hurry if you don't already have tickets.



I'll be seeing the Wednesday matinee performance and I can't remember the last time I felt such a strong sense of anticipation to see an opera.
I agree with your article! I'm loving this Ring Cycle and both Placido Domingo and Linda Watson stood out Sunday night. Everyone in the cast had remarkable voices, but hearing Domingo sing so well STILL was a joy and Watson almost made me cry.

I also enjoyed the 8 other Valkyries - there is no way to explain the sound of 8 women singing with so much volume and fullness over a rich orchestra.

And those giant hands...very cool.
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