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Das Rheingold Circles the Ring

Los Angeles
Los Angeles Opera
02/21/2009 -  & 25 February, March 1, 5, 8, 11, 15, 2009
Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan), Arnold Bezuyen (Loge), Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), Graham Clark (Mime), Michelle DeYoung (Fricka), Jill Grove (Erda), Morris Robinson (Fasolt), Eric Halfvarson (Fafner), Ellie Dehn (Freia), Wayne Tigges (Donner), Beau Gibson (Froh), Stacey Tappan (Woglinde), Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), Beth Clayton (Flosshilde), Laurie Baron, Shell Bauman, Chris Bonomo, Nicholas Bonora, Richard Bulda, Katerina Goode, Emily S. Grosland, Nathan Hedrick, Stephen Hues, Chris Mendez, Tara Page and Eric Underwood (Ensemble Members)
Stuart Canin (Los Angeles Opera Concert Master), Grant Gershon (Associate Conductor), James Conlon (Conductor)
Achim Freyer (Director and Designer), Achim Freyer and Amanda Freyer (Costume Designers), Brian Gale and Achim Freyer (Lighting Designers)

G. Hawkins (front), S. Tappa, B Clayton, L. McNeese (rear)
(© Monika Ritterhaus)

Hypothetically, if The Motion Picture Academy awarded an Oscar to the composer in the category, “Most Ambitious Opera on a Grandiose Scale”, the award would, hands down, be given to Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung)(1876). On the matter of scale the Ring surpasses anything imaginable by way of artistic and majestic scope, taking some 28 years for Wagner to write and massage into the final format that found its way to the stage at the Bayreuth Festival almost 133 years ago.

The Ring is a cycle of four dramas, based on subject matter garnered from the Middle High Germanic poem, Nibelungenlied, the Scandinavian myth, Prose Edda and narratives of Völsunga Saga and Thidreks Saga. Wagner’s goal was to weave gods and mere mortals into an amalgam of mythological prowess. Today we see opera houses around the world perform the Ring as a sign of significant achievement, a pinnacle of their success. Regardless of what form it takes, it is an accomplishment that warrants respect and admiration.

Los Angeles Opera’s original attempt to stage Wagner’s epic work dates back to 2000 with an anticipated production that paired the forces of director Peter Mussbach of Germany with the special effects of the Hollywood director George Lucas, but those plans were cancelled due to the economic gyrations stemming from 9/11. Fast forward a few years and we find Plácido Domingo, then artistic director, in partnership with director and designer Achim Freyer on two projects: The Mass in B Minor by Bach in 2002 and Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust in 2003. Thronged amidst controversy and admiration of these two productions, Mr. Freyer remains unfazed, remarking with affability, “Not my problem.” Then on September 28, 2006 it was announced that Achim Freyer would spearhead the directing and designing of a new Ring scattered across two seasons.

Freyer is not a household name in the United States, but he is highly regarded as a visionary in Europe with his insights into theater using bold abstracts and provocative imagery. The first of four parts, Das Rheingold, opens the Ring at The Dorothy Chandler that exemplifies his hallmark.

Los Angeles Opera remains true to the original physical formatting that Wagner decided upon when outlining the structure of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre: the orchestra is invisible and a double proscenium draws the audience’s attention toward the characters on stage. James Conlon’s keen command of his orchestra is superb and supports all cast members without usurping their vocalism.

When the curtain rises we first see the three Rhinemaidens, Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde singing sufficiently by Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Beth Clayton, situated upstage and floating along a silky burgundy cloth to imitate the river’s shimmering water. This technique is handled by a corps of young men and women who are situated under the sheet while later act in creating the impression of the gold lying under the water with flashlights.

Scene II reveals a round stage set on a forward tilt that becomes the focal point of all action within the opera. Occasionally moving, the circle’s periphery plants the principal singers dressed in bigger-than-life costuming of surrealistic proportions. Whenever specific characters are engaged, the action moves to the center of the platform while the others watch, eliciting a “stage within a stage” feeling.

Plácido Domingo taps a pool of seasoned artists to assume leading roles. This year a handful of principals make their LA Opera debut including Arnold Bezuyen as the manipulative god of fire, Loge, renowned mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Wotan’s wife, Fricka, and Gordon Hawkins’ splendid rendition of the evil dwarf, Alberich. Also making her debut is the gifted soprano Ellie Dehn as the goddess of youth.

Among returning cast members are the vibrant Vitalij Kowaljow hailing from Ukraine as Wotan, king of gods, the talented Graham Clark who plays Alberich’s brother, Mime with a powerful punch while the goddess of the earth, Erda, rises to the stage from the subterranean with interpretive authority sung by the accomplished Jill Grove.

In the last scene we find the pair of brothers, Fasolt and Fafner, singing with gargantuan bass inflections, portrayed by the brilliant Morris Robinson and the compelling Eric Halfvarson. Completing the troupe is
Wayne Tigges who succeeds in his handling of the role of Donner while the god of the fields, Froh, is sung by Beau Gibson.

Accompanying Achim Freyer is his daughter, Amanda, who co-designs the costumes in brilliant colors and for some characters’ exaggerated faces (especially Alberich and Mime looking strikingly similar to the features found in Salvador Dalí’s The Dream). They are on the border of being grotesque and revolting yet add to the “shock value” of the production.

Achim Freyer and Brian Gale’s lighting techniques play a pivotal part in the Ring with an interesting result. The sense of mythological chicanery is awesome yet the props such as the Valhalla castle turret with a neon lit line, a flying Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-like airplane, wire wrapped cocoon suit, oversized papier mâché hands and ruler measuring the height of the gold pile left by the Nibelungs, are too whimsical and compromise the seriousness of this Das Rheingold.

The forte of the production lies primarily in the gifts of all singers who are strong and solid. The orchestra supports those that are situated on stage. If you are a traditionalist, you may want to think twice about this Ring. If, on the other hand, you are open to new inventions, over embellishments, gadgetry and saturated “eye candy”, this may be for you. You choose who will win the Oscar.

Christie Grimstad



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