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OPERA REVIEW

Grab this 'Ring' for a bumpy ride

In Long Beach Opera's condensed version, the Wagner cycle veers between being inept and, toward the end, surprisingly moving.

January 17, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Might not a reviewlet serve a "Ringlet"? What Long Beach Opera offered over the weekend, after all, was Wagner's almighty "Ring of the Nibelung," a four-opera mythological epic, abridged for the company's purposes and capabilities to nine hours of music instead of 18.

Saturday afternoon, "Rhinegold" offered next to no hope: inadequate singing, dopey staging, an ill-tuned and puny-sounding chamber-sized orchestra. A woolly Wotan (Rod Nelman) and a desperate-housewife-with-a-riding-crop Fricka (Jessie Raven) made Andrew Porter's English translation all but unintelligible. The concept seemed to be to treat the story of gods who lose control over humans as a postmodern prehistoric fable.

Saturday night brought considerable improvement in the cast for "The Valkyrie," including, seemingly out of the blue, a Brunnhilde of one's dreams. Deidra Palmour Gorton proved not only a bouncy baton-twirler but a terrific actress who could also toss off yo-ho-to-ho's with silvery ease. A couple of camp elements were welcome comic relief.

No one moons over Mime, the awful little dwarf who is one of Wagner's more blatantly anti-Semitic characters, but John Duykers made him shockingly human in the opening scene of "Siegfried" on Sunday afternoon. An ingratiating hippie Siegfried, in plum-colored tie-dye, was sung with plenty of testosterone and good tone by Dan Snyder. A new Brunnhilde, Suzan Hanson, awakened on her rock like a zombie from a low-budget '50s sci-fi film. Hormones, usually so slow to enter the bloodstream of Wagnerian lovers, were breathtakingly fast-working.

Finally, during "Twilight of the Gods" on Sunday night, genuine drama began to take hold. At the end, neither an orchestra on the verge of falling apart nor a bit of sentimental hokeyness could destroy Hanson's hard-won but commanding nobility in her immolation.

That hokey touch was Siegfried and Brunnhilde rising from their pyre, united in eternal love beyond death. I can't believe I fell for it, but I did. It seems that despite everything, Long Beach Opera served up a large enough dose of Wagner to soften brain tissue. So maybe a reviewlet won't suffice.

This version of the "Ring" is a skillful surgery by the British composer Jonathan Dove, best known for his opera "Flight." The musical cuts are so harmonically smooth that they never distract from the flow. The chamber orchestra reduction cuts a Wagnerian orchestra down to nearly quarter-size, and this too is done with taste and style. But as with plastic surgery, no matter how artistic, some measure of personality is inevitably lost.

There is a great deal of repetition in the "Ring." "Twilight of the Gods" begins with a long recapitulation of what happened in the first three operas. This version sensibly cuts it, but without the ritual of repetition, the opera moves along like a movie, all plot-driven. In "Valkyrie" and "Twilight of the Gods," three acts become two. "Siegfried" was done in a single two-hour swoop.

In the 850-seat Center Theater of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, where there is no pit, the musicians were placed behind a scrim at the back of the stage. Andreas Mitisek, the company's artistic and general director, conducted with his back to the singers (who saw him on monitors around the hall). This has worked in the past, when the company regularly used the venue. But for such a complex undertaking as the "Ring," Mitisek was forced to focus his energy on beating time rather than shaping the drama.

The set and costume designs by Danila Korogodsky included a disk surrounded by sand on the stage floor that served as everything from bed to mountain to funeral pyre. Lumpy headless torsos came and went as decor. A chandelier with skulls was raised and lowered. The costumes looked to be out of a Victorian caveman S&M bad dream.

The ring itself was a complex affair of ring, bracelet, assorted jewelry and long, nasty pick that extended from the ring finger. Siegfried had to resort to hacking off two of Brunnhilde's fingers with his sword to get the contraption off her.

Jonathan Eaton's production tried just about everything under the sun and succeeded when the singers took things into their own hands. Why Freia (also sung by Hanson) twitched her way through "Rhinegold" was anybody's guess. Wotan, through three operas, was a big lump. Fasolt and Fafner, the giants, were the twin baritones Eugene and Herbert Perry, who make a strong impression onstage (the latter was also Hunding in "Valkyrie").

Gary Lehman, the impressive Parsifal stand-in for Placido Domingo at Los Angeles Opera last month, impressed once more as Siegmund.

Karen Driscoll was a capable Sieglinde and, later, Gutrune. Nathan Bahny was not a disturbingly evil Alberich, but Dean Elzinga brought nuanced nastiness to Hagen.

Demareus Cooper (Erda) was earth mother and then some. Daniel Cafiero (Loge) and Jessie Raven (Fricka, Waltraute) sufficed. The Rhine Maidens, who also stood in for the Valkyries, did not.

No "Ring" is perfect. Still, I can't imagine another one encompassing such extremes or going from the ridiculous to within distance of the sublime in such a short time.

*

`The Ring of the Nibelung'

Where: Center Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach

When: "The Rhinegold," 2 p.m. Saturday; "The Valkyrie," 6 p.m. Saturday; "Siegfried," 2 p.m. Sunday; "Twilight of the Gods," 6 p.m. Sunday

Price: $250 to $450

Contact: (562) 439-2580 or www.longbeachopera.org

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