Das Rheingold, LA Opera

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Das Rheingold

Richard Paul Fink (center) as Alberich in LA Opera’s “Das Rheingold”
Photo by Monika Rittershaus

By Richard Wagner
Conducted by James Conlon
Design and direction by Achim Freyer
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
“Der Ring des Nibelungen” through June 26, 2010
(see video clip below)

You may hate it or you may love it, but one thing is for certain: you are unlikely to emerge from seeing Achim Freyer’s conception of “The Ring” cycle, at least as illustrated in “Das Rheingold,” the first of the four operas, with tepid feelings. Freyer, a master student of Bertolt Brecht, has put a unique stamp on Wagner’s fifteen-hour, four-opera epic for the LA Opera.

A confession: after seeing all four performed singly over the LA Opera’s past two seasons, I had trepidations about subjecting myself, for the entire cycle, to what I feared would be an excruciatingly static marathon, with singers struggling on an almost unchanging, and precariously raked, stage.  With costumes and masks obscuring the singers’ identity and expression, I wondered how they must feel. They wear clothes that verge on puppetry and defy human proportions and anatomy; some must project voices and emotions through mesh head-enveloping contraptions, almost like a Disney production for grownups.

And then there are the larger physical models of the characters and, on top of that, actors who at times act out the characters’ emotions.  Other singers are garishly made up and seem to have German Expressionist faces from Freyer’s background as a painter.  No performer’s actual expression can be seen.  The production struck me as deconstructionist at its most literal, emphasizing conceptual systems over expression of an author’s intention.

What a welcome surprise to see and hear “Das Rheingold” again in its full “Ring” cycle reincarnation. The stage is still precariously raked. The costumes are still constructed more like props than like clothing, as they were a year ago, yet this is a revised production infused with life and wit.  Watching and listening to “Rheingold” this time, static was a word that did not cross my mind.

Wagner viewed the four-opera “Ring des Nibelungen” cycle as a single work.  Seen thus, it is the longest work of classical music ever written.  Boiled down to a single theme, it is the conflict between power and love; lust for power destroys love; conversely love quenches the thirst for power. The complete cycle traverses world history from the dawn of time to an entire civilization’s downfall, all through mythological imagery.

In a sense, “Das Rheingold” functions as a prelude to the grand epic of the entire “Ring,” an epic Wagner worked on over the course of 30 years.  A combination of Norse and Teutonic legend, it spans the distance from the underworld, the Nibelheim, to the realm of the gods and the castle, Valhalla, with many earthly and mythological detours between.  It is almost impossible to find an adequate, or even comprehensible synopsis of the labyrinthine tale and, at least to me, somewhat unnecessary to the enjoyment of this “Rheingold.”  Freyer’s deconstruction brings the glory of the music forward.  And the LA Opera orchestra under the baton of James Conlon is fully up to the challenge.

The father of the Rhine maidens has given them the job to guard the gold at the base of the river. They are the voices of light, and all is at peace with the world until the dwarf Alberich first lusts after the maidens and then contrives to steal the gold when they mock and rebuff him.  It is not politically, or morally, correct to mock dwarfs now, but in the 19th century they were fair game.

Baritone Richard Paul Fink manages to project his wonderful voice and a nasty, mischievous arrogance through the seemingly impossible Freyer mask and costume construction for the dwarf Alberich.  He sings, acts, and cavorts as easily as if he were wearing an ordinary costume.  His performance is a seemingly effortless tour de force that he is enjoying as much as the audience is.

The raked circular stage yawns open and effectively reveals an underworld of slave dwarfs and his oppressed brother Mime, all of whom are also wearing expressionless headgear.  On their anvils they are fashioning the ring of gold that will embody power over the world. Somehow, this time out the costumes enhance and the dwarfs are entrancing.  In this grandiose tale encompassing good and evil, Freyer’s staging interjects a wry note.

Symbols abound — the god Wotan’s single eye, a circling Sopwith Camel suspended above the stage, Freia’s multiple engorged breasts, etc. — some are easy to understand and interpret.  Others — am I missing something?  Will they become obvious?  Time will tell.  In the initial production two seasons ago, the symbols seemed labored and the characters emotionally detached.  In the reincarnated “Das Rheingold,” there is much more vitality and the story as well as the symbolism are more coherent.  It is hoped the rest of the cycle will be as satisfying. The next eight days will tell.

“The Ring” is a form of religion to many serious operagoers.  Some boast of the number of Rings they have seen; double digits are the norm in this crowd, and I have heard figures as high as in the eighties. It is a bewildering competition to an outsider.  Although there have been Freudian, Marxian, and Jungian (to name a few) interpretations of “The Ring,” the LA Opera’s own production breaks new territory. To be taken seriously, an opera company should probably mount a “Ring” cycle and, by extension, to be taken seriously, a city should have an opera company (plus theater, an orchestra, at least one dance company, museums, and teams for the major sports).  About to celebrate its 25th season, the LA Opera has helped to cement the reputation of the city as well as itself.  Like Los Angeles, Freyer’s concept will be jarring and unnavigable to some.  Then there will be others, more adventurous, perhaps, or just looking for the next new trend, who will find it inspiring and fresh.

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