Sunday, April 12, 2009

OPERA: Wagner's Ring (the first half)

Having now seen two of the four installments in Wagner's Ring Cycle, I can understand the appeal of seeing the whole cycle in succession, although the idea of taking in four Wagner-magnitude operas in one week seems insanely daunting. We saw Das Rheingold and Die Walküre two weeks apart, and that's about perfect. Opera on that scale is the most grandiose of art forms, a culmination of voice, orchestra, dramatic story-telling and magnificent staging, and I think one needs some time to let one sink in before taking on another. Two weeks was sufficient recovery time, but close enough that the previous installment was still fresh in mind. Alas, now we'll have to wait a year for the third and fourth parts. But based on what we've seen, we'll be eagerly awaiting. The first two have been magnificent. Wagner's music, of course, is a marvelous experience in its own right. His dramatic flourishes and vivid leitmotifs (the shimmering Rheingold, the lumbering giants, the regal fortress) would inspire great stories in one's imagination just from listening. Even if you think you're unfamiliar with this justly famous music, much of it would sound familiar from having been used in film scores (and not just Apocalypse Now). And then there's the epic story. Drawn on Norse myths and sagas, it's a riff on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (well, actually, vice versa), complete with gods, giants, dwarves, heroes, magic gold, and a ring of terrible power.

The particular staging put on by Los Angeles Opera is by German artist/director/designer Achim Freyer, and has been controversial, if you read the reviews (and judging by some booing mixed with the applause when Freyer appeared for the curtain call at the close of Das Rheingold). While it's unabashedly modern and at times abstract, which will not be to the liking of traditionalists, I've been favorably impressed. In Das Rheingold, Freyer has realized this epic world with larger-than-life costumes for all the characters, and even larger doppelganger representations of the gods and the giants. I'd read complaints of the singers not being able to project from under all the weight of these oversize costumes, but perhaps they'd solved that problem by the time we saw it, because bass Vitalij Kowaljow projected Wotan (the Zeus-like ruler of these gods) strong and clear, and likewise for the others. I thought the larger-than-life visuals were appropriate for these larger-than-life gods and giants, and Freyer's stage, topped by a "sky" decorated with symbolic objects like Wotan's eye and a cartoon Valhalla, conjured a magical world (even if it was a bit reminiscent of Space Mountain at the same time). His visual motifs suited the grand gestures and motifs of Wagner's music. Admittedly, some of the symbolism eluded me completely (like the vintage aircraft thing), and others (like Fricka's freaky-long arms) were quirky, intriguing, and memorable, even if puzzling. Perhaps Fricka (goddess of marriage and wife of the filandering Wotan) is eternally reaching for something beyond her grasp. Her arms reminded me of that allegory of heaven and hell where people's arms are too long to feed themselves. But I think most of the visual motifs worked well to make characters readily recognizable. In the special effects department, you can't expect the operatic stage to compete with motion picture special effects, but when the dwarf Alberich transformed himself into a dragon, it was quite visually impressive.

In Die Walküre, where we first get some human characters mixing with the gods, the visuals get a bit more abstract. The humans have normal size costumes, but they also sport symbolic body paint. Siegmund and Sieglinde, twin brother and sister separated since youth, are signified by both being painted half black and half white (but on opposite sides, kinda like that old Star Trek episode). Swords and spears, which figure prominently in this part of the saga, are represented by long neon shafts (i.e., Star Wars-style light sabers), conveniently color-coded as red for the Huns, white for the immortals, and blue for the magic sword that the hero Siegmund pulls from a tree, where it had been stuck like Excalibur waiting for the right hero to be able to pull it out. The tree is left entirely to the imagination, and the blue sword is just standing on end in the center of the stage at the start of Act I, the hub of a giant circle that figures prominently in the staging. In Act I, a white neon tube lays on the floor, anchored to the center of the circle, and a shadowy figure slowly, methodically, relentlessly pulls it around, like the hand on a clock. Indeed, this is meant to symbolize time (and perhaps that we're seeing mortal characters for the first time in the saga), and when Siegmund and Sieglinde meet and start to exchange stories of their past, the clock hand moves backwards when they're relating a past event. Also, as they relate stories, mimes appear on the wheel symbolizing the characters in the story, including doppelgangers of the two speakers. When the dialog returns to the present, the mimes disappear like a dream upon awakening, and the clock hand starts going forward again. When the two meet, the abstract staging has them placed on opposite sides of the stage, separated by the giant abstract clock, even though they are talking face to face. Just as when we meet someone special and time stands still or goes real slow, this is conveyed in this abstract symbolism by their interactions being surreally separated by the clock. At one point, when he's thirsty and she gives him a drink of water, she hands the water glass to the shadowy time keeper, who carries it slowly from her position at "3 o'clock" to his position at "9 o'clock". As they become more and more caught up in one another, they slowly move toward each other and toward the center stage, when finally they're both together when he pulls out the magic sword. It's a very surreal and creative way of visualizing the inner dynamics of these two apparent strangers discovering their once and future connection. Freyer keeps the staging minimal and cerebral, letting Wagner's voluptuous music in this act speak the emotional volumes. (Yes, we are talking about a twin brother and sister falling in love, but that's the saga, and you just have to go with it.) And of course we were all eager to see whether Plácido Domingo (age 68) still had a Wagnerian hero in him, and indeed he did.

In Act II, I couldn't help but be distracted by the strange echoes of Prop 8 rhetoric when Fricka harangues Wotan about how the sanctity of marriage must be upheld. (Nothing intentional there, and the metaphor is inapt; it was just an odd juxtaposition with current events.) But thanks to Freyer's visual motifs, and having Das Rheingold fresh in mind, we immediately recognize Wotan the one-eyed and Fricka the long-armed when they appear, and we recall their backstories. (Opera is much more enjoyable when you don't have to struggle to keep the characters straight.) Finally, the much anticipated Act III delivered on the heightened expectations. It opens with the famous Ride of the Valkyries (now cue the Apocalypse Now helicopters and napalm), with the semi-immortal daughters of Wotan looking a bit bride-of-Frankenstein-ish and riding metallic steeds, half skeletal horses and half Harley-Davidson. But somehow that's appropriate for these fearsome demi-goddesses who haunt battlefields and gather the bodies of fallen heroes. In the end, when the most spirited Valkyrie Brünnhilde must be punished for disobeying Wotan's command (even though she did what he really wanted her to do), the circle of flames that surrounds her enchanted sleep is symbolically spectacular. No real flames, as other productions do, but bright red cartoonish flames suited this abstract staging, and they enchanted my eyes. In a final inspired touch, we see Siegfried (the foretold hero of the latter half of the saga, readily identifiable thanks to Freyer's visual motifs) cross the circle of flames, foreshadowing the next installment. I eagerly await.

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