ON a weekend when Los Angeles flexed its popular-culture muscles, filling its sports stadiums with epic struggle and its streets downtown with epic-scaled rock music, Orange County set its sights on achieving high culture's most coveted epic. Friday night, it began the first part of Southern California's first major "Ring" cycle, with a great deal of hoopla and a great deal of help from Russia's Kirov Opera and its mesmeric conductor, Valery Gergiev.
In Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" -- four operas (and three of them exceptionally long) typically spread over six days -- the coveting of magical jewelry makes otherwise normal gods, giants and misshapen dwarfs crazy enough that they change the course of world history. Likewise, this tetralogy makes opera companies and performing arts organizations equally acquisitive, to say nothing of well-off "Ring" heads who travel the world to chalk off cycles or those of us who have shelves sagging under the weight of "Ring" CDs, DVDs and literature (Wagner being the most written-about composer in history).
The Kirov "Ring," which began Friday with "The Rhinegold" and continued Saturday with "The Valkyrie," is the showpiece of the Orange County Performing Arts Center's two-week Mariinsky Theatre festival of opera, concerts and ballet. That festival, meanwhile, is the centerpiece of the center's opening events for its new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.
So desirous is such a "Ring" that it matters little that the operas are actually being staged in the old Segerstrom Hall, now pretty much an opera house, or that neither the stage nor pit is ideally large enough for the striking Kirov production or its equally striking orchestra.
But so eager for a "Ring" is Los Angeles Opera that it hoped to upstage OCPAC by mounting two separate press conferences in recent weeks to announce its own upcoming "Ring" cycle. It did, though, lend the Kirov Placido Domingo, who appeared as Siegmund in "Valkyrie" on Saturday night.
And so desperate for a "Ring" was the Kirov that it cobbled together a nonsense production and then, through a combination of charismatic conducting, energetic singing and copious amounts of chutzpah, more or less pulled it off.
Originally, Gergiev hired a German team for what would be his first "Ring" at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, which he runs, and something the conductor could also take on tour. After a production of "Rhinegold," the partnership fell apart. Pressured for time and money, Gergiev and the Russian designer George Tsypin came up with a concept, which is basically a look, and started over.
Enough with the Germans, this would be a primitivist "Ring," a Russian "Ring" in which strange, bulbous semihuman creatures loom large overhead. Funny little doll-like figures that glow eerily would populate the stage.
No director is credited for the production. The Kirov is something of a factory. The programs list mostly different singers for each opera. With Friday night's "Rhinegold," the relatively brief, 2 1/2 -hour prologue, the sense was that the company was basically relying on Tsypin's mysterious set and Gergiev's conducting to whip up dramatic excitement.
That happened, but the singers, picked seemingly at random and put into Tatiana Noginova's flamboyant costumes, appeared on their own. The stage looked cramped compared with photographs of the production from St. Petersburg. The elaborate lighting didn't feel capably handled. The orchestra, like the cast, proved uneven.
Yet the sheer Russian-ness offered significant attractions. Gergiev creates a unique orchestral sound. He dotes on bass instruments. "Rhinegold" begins in the depths of the orchestra, representing the depths of the Rhine River, so from that first deep E flat, Gergiev was in his element. But his conducting was not atmospheric and the orchestra seldom lush. He could linger long on a soulful passage, but he was often impatient, slashing through the drama, all of which suited the inexplicable primitivism on stage.
The singers, though, were much more inclined toward naturalistic acting and great heaps of show-off Romantic singing. On the deepest level, the "Ring" is a family drama. Wotan, the king of the gods, driven by lust and power, makes bad bargains and then is forced by his wife to contend with their consequences, losing control of the world in the process. And these Russians, more Chekhovian than Wagnerian, were well aware of what makes a family fall apart.
The casts for "Rhinegold" and "Valkyrie" were considerably different from the listings in the program. Mikhail Kit, the Wotan both nights, was not vocally commanding, but he suffered heroic depressions very well. In "Rhinegold," Vasily Gorshkov stood out for his over-the-top heroically sung Loge, the normally wily god of fire. The evil dwarf Alberich, sung by Edem Umerov, became a kind of slimy Nosferatu.