Götterdämmerung and The Ring Cycle
By Richard Wagner
Conducted by James Conlon
Through June 26, 2010
You could go home, after having seen “Siegfried,” believing that Siegfried and Brünnhilde went forth and multiplied; created the human race; and lived happily ever after. But this is Wagner, so you should know better. In the words of conductor James Conlon, the final opera in “The Ring” cycle, “Götterdämmerung,” is, roughly speaking, “the morning after … [or you] could conceptualize it as the apocalypse.”
“Siegfried,” the third and penultimate opera of Wagner’s epic “Ring, ended in an orgy of exultation and ecstasy. Siegfried penetrated the ring of fire to reach the sleeping Brünnhilde, exiled from the realm of the gods by her father, Wotan, and together they discover the joys of love and sex in a passionate duet.
“Götterdämmerung” translates as “the twilight of the gods.” Gods and the holders of power do not give up easily in myth or reality. Brünnhilde and Siegfried do not make their appearance again in a 19th-century German version of “Leave It to Beaver.” No, in “Götterdämmerung” their end is tragic, as is that of almost all the “Ring” protagonists. Only the Rhinemaidens (guardians of the gold at the bottom of the Rhine), Albrecht (who as a dwarf gave up all hope of love and lusted for the gold and power instead), and possibly Gutrune (a mortal woman whose brother gives Siegfried a potion, erasing his memory of his commitment to Brünnhilde, out of greed, which in turn causes Siegfried to marry Gutrune, sacrificing her virginity) survive the final immolation. This, the final opera of the cycle, is the longest (five and three-quarter hours). It introduces new characters and, despite the fact that it is perhaps the most convoluted, ties up most of the loose ends from the previous three. It also incorporates several long and notable orchestral segments.
In “Götterdämmerung,” John Treleaven, whose voice was far too weak in much of “Siegfried” to convey a hero with more brawn than brains, sang fully and convincingly. Although his movements again did not add up to a brawny adolescent, he managed to convey the silliness and the superficiality of his character. Bass Eric Halfvarson, despite a last act loudspeaker announcement saying he was “indisposed,” soldiered on and was a splendid Hagen (another dwarf who is also the son of Albrecht and a manipulative force for greed), full-voiced and very expressive. The apple does not fall far from the tree; Hagan is the character you love to hate. Amazingly, earlier on in the cycle, Halfvarson had also played Fafner (the giant who helped build Valhalla, then stole the gold for himself), another personification of evil. Obviously, to play both a dwarf and giant, convincingly within the same story, takes serious acting ability in addition to a splendid voice. He clearly was assisted by some very cleaver costuming.
The LA Opera, in this, its first full staging of “The Ring,” presented three full cycles. This review of Götterdämmerung,” as well as my reviews of the other three operas, is based on the final cycle.
Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Cycle: A La Achim Freyer and the LA Opera
Now that it is finished, it is appropriate to step back from the individual operas and look at this unusual production. Achim Freyer is not for the traditionalist or the faint of heart. He is primarily a painter, and a wonderful and prolific one, as can be seen currently at Ace Gallery Los Angeles (not Ace, Beverly Hills) through Aug.14, 2010. Staging a “Ring”cycle of its own was a major step toward world recognition for the LA Opera. This production puts LA Opera squarely on the international opera map. It was also an important act for the city of Los Angeles, which is often underestimated as a cultural center. Arts venues around Los Angeles rallied to stage various events in conjunction with “The Ring,” the Ace Gallery show being one of them, helping to make LA Opera a company that cannot be passed over lightly.
Although Freyer was a disciple of Bertolt Brecht, and has staged operas as well as theatrical productions, it is his painterly side that deserves the most kudos in this production of “The Ring.” An arresting photo could be made of the stage at almost any instant in any of the four operas. Would you recognize the photo as possibly being from “The Ring”? Unlikely, unless you had seen this production or the many pieces that have been written about it. But painterly? Absolutely.
When the LA Opera first staged this production, it was done over two seasons and widely spaced. The thought of seeing all four in a few days time was not enticing. Freyer, somewhat reluctantly, made some changes; all were to the good, if memory serves me. However, there are still sections that have all the thrill of watching paint dry. One image that crops up in several places is that of the black leotard-clad dancer/stage hands walking, widely spaced apart, in straight lines, across the stage for what seems like an eternity. Yes, they indicate the inexorable passage of time, but unless the excruciating pace of Butoh dance, an acquired taste, is your thing, it is boring, distracting, and overdone.
Some would, and have, quibbled with Freyer’s imagery. It ranges from the abstract, to the shocking, to the absurd. There are references to other art, such as in the final scene of ” Götterdämmerung,” when almost all fall dead, the image on the scrim a direct tribute to Magritte’s paintings of tophatted men falling like rain from the sky. Freyer’s is definitely not a classic, 19th-century interpretation. Taken at a concrete level, the storyline of the Ring is absurd. I am not particularly offended by the abstract and contemporary approach, nor by the cartoonish imagery. On the contrary, it is intriguing and helps the work remain relevant to contemporary audiences. Wagner sought to break tradition. I believe he would have approved of this ultra-modern production with very German sensibilities.
What is bothersome in Freyer’s design occurs when what you see is at odds with text, such as lovers expressing their passion without looking at each other, or, more importantly, when imagery interferes with performance. For example, the stage is, at all times, raked at an extremely steep angle. It makes for easy viewing from the audience, but clearly is difficult for many singers to negotiate. hey are not acrobats, nor do we want them to be. In places, to overcome the impediment of the raked stage, singers are placed on what look like starting blocks from a race, directly facing the audience. It is a trade-off: static versus clumsy. Neither is great. Masks obscuring singers’ faces present another, even more serious, problem. Wonderful as they and the other headpieces look, they are an additional impediment to a singer’s performance. Understandably, at least one refused to wear one. Even the ever-present scrim between the stage and the audience felt like an impediment adding to a feeling of remoteness and inaccessibility.
In the first two cycles, the orchestra came in for some criticism; however, in the third cycle, it was splendid. Mark Twain’s famously said, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”; played by the LA Opera orchestra, it sounded great. The orchestral sections in “Götterdämmerung,” especially, were moving, and in all four operas of the final cycle, the orchestra seemed to lift the voices along. When the operas were first produced over the previous two seasons, the orchestra played partly tucked under the stage and partly covered with some sort of heavy black screen. It definitely did not enhance the score. That was one of the things remedied when finally all four were played together. In the last cycle, conductor Conlon entered at the beginning of each opera, and the start of each act, to ever-increasing applause. As an aside, his pre-performance talks illuminated the operas as well as the production. Conlon is the professor anyone would want for Music Appreciation 101. He is entertaining without sacrificing content, and very clear.
Los Angeles, as everyone must know, is dependent on cars. A sense of community is difficult to foster. In conjunction with “The Ring” cycle, the Music Center set up a biergarten on the plaza with long tables where you could partake of beer and wurst during the intermission. This fostered much conversation between patrons, creating just such a community and enriching the experience of attendance.
Conceived prior to the recession, “The Ring” nearly broke the LA Opera. It ran seriously over budget even after some relatively last-minute trimming. Contributions were less than expected and advance ticket sales were weak. An event that takes place over nine days in a pricey city to visit probably gave pause to more than one would-be international visitor. However, with some purse tightening, a loan from the city, and surprising (if discounted) last-minute ticket buying, the LA Opera did more than pull through. The final cycle was close to a sellout. Perhaps most importantly, as word of mouth spread, many locals who had never been to an opera flocked to “The Ring.” I would not recommend it as a place to cut one’s opera teeth, but it is to be hoped this dramatic production will have cultivated some new opera fans.
Some hold Wagner’s work as sacred. Among devotees, I am certain, there are those who find the humorous touches overdone, and the abstract modern imagery offensive. Others, with whom I agree, find it thought provoking. Seeing the four together, albeit over nine days, brought much of Freyer’s interpretation into focus. At the final curtain the applause for the cast, the orchestra, and, most strikingly, for Freyer, was deafening. In the end, the LA Opera “Ring” must be counted as a success.