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Music Review

A carnival of light

L.A. Opera goes for the marvels in a flawed yet spectacular

September 28, 2009|Mark Swed | Music Critic

When indefatigable Los Angeles Opera music director James Conlon began his engrossing pre-performance talk before "Siegfried" on Saturday, a blazing midday sun was directly overhead at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. By the time he finished conducting the long opera, day was done. The sky had reddened but not brilliantly enough to compete with the glow lingering from director Achim Freyer's carnival of light inside or from Wagner's music.

Los Angeles Opera's ring around the "Ring" has come to the third opera of the tetralogy and the one most challenging to make convincing onstage. For five hours, a know-nothing hunk attempts to figure out a thing or two. Take "Siegfried" out of context, and you might think that testosterone is all that is needed to master the world.

Yet there are marvels in this opera. Nature purifies. Wotan, the self-centered ruler of the universe, achieves enlightenment, understanding the cyclic makeup of existence and ceding power. Love emboldens Siegfried and his new bride, Brunnhilde, to laugh, live, bless the light and vow to protect the environment.

L.A. Opera has come down on the side of marvels. Its "Siegfried" is not without problems (what "Siegfried" is?), but it is wonderful. Freyer's "Ring" is singular spectacle, part circus, part eccentric art project, part light show, part historical panoply and part ineffable philosophical exercise. And the company's $32-million investment in it clearly is beginning to pay off.

Freyer received boos Saturday, just as the German artist had for his earlier "Ring" productions of "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walkure." But he also got cheers, and they were adamant. Traditional Wagnerians have reason to be bewildered. Those of us who have admired Freyer's grotesqueries for many years have equal reason to be bewildered. It all boils to how much you value bewilderment.

Freyer envisions this opera as a sort of go-east-young-man pageant of penetration. The first act begins with characters on a racetrack, with a signpost giving the direction of Ost (German for east). Siegfried forges an invincible sword, which he uses to slaughter Mime (the dwarf who raises him) and the dragon Fafner (who guards the hoard of gold and magic ring) and shatter Wotan's spear. Siegfried's ultimate incursion is into the fire-surrounded mountain where the former Valkyrie and now mortal Brunnhilde sleeps.

Every character in this production is weird and full of symbols, some easier to read than others. Siegfried is a clown. He has Harpo Marx's yellow hair, Jack LaLanne's midriff (comic book muscles in violet that turn red with the discovery of sex) and pants of bear-hide.

I won't ruin the delightful surprise dragon, but much of this odd crowd we've seen before. The dwarfs, Alberich and Mime, wear masks, forcing them to convey expression exclusively through voice and body language. A woodbird, who tells Siegfried what's what, is here part of Wotan. Erda, the primal Earth mother, and her daughter Brunnhilde share the same outlandish Afro, although their figures are pneumatic in different ways. The hand-painted costumes designed by the director and his daughter, Amanda Freyer, are magnificent works of art.

The lighting amazes. Siegfried's sword is a glowing blue tube, which can change colors. The stage is littered with other light tubes on a large turntable, and they are also used like batons by a troupe of a dozen actors in black body suits.

These light tubes are also used by lighting designer Brian Gale in color choreography with Freyer's projections on front and back scrims to create a three-dimensional wonderland of luminosity.

Heavy costumes, the steeply raked and moving turntable as well as flashing lights are all obstacles for singers. Furthermore, Freyer provides little in the way of sound-reinforcing surfaces. This is not, essentially, a singer's "Ring," which is one more upset to traditionalists. But then, the Chandler is not an acoustically apt space for Wagnerians, who happen to be an endangered species, anyway.

John Treleaven and Linda Watson, who had not been impressive in the company's "Tristan und Isolde" in 2008, pretty much came through Saturday. Treleaven compensates for lack of projection with a lyricism that is an attractive quality in a heldentenor. Siegfried is an impossible role. After wearing himself out, a singer is faced with a half-hour duet with Brunnhilde, who is fresh as a daisy.

Treleaven's exhaustion showed by the end, but Watson was considerate and did not upstage him. The soprano, who had had pitch problems in "Walkure," was more secure here. Both singers seemed to have risen to the occasion.

Conlon, who conducted a lovingly spacious performance, has improved the pit. For earlier "Ring" productions, it had been covered in light-absorbing material that also seemed to suck up sound. Now partly opened, the arrangement allowed the orchestra much more presence. That means the orchestra sounds muffled only when Conlon, in consideration for his singers, holds back.

With each "Ring" opera, L.A. Opera grows taller.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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'Siegfried'

Where: Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 2 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 11; 5:30 p.m. Oct. 7 and 17

Price: $20 to $260

Contact: (213) 972-8001

Running time: 4 hours, 50 minutes

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