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Mission accomplished: L.A. Opera's 'Ring'

The company has overcome considerable obstacles to render the Wagner works in notable fashion.

June 08, 2010|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Sunday, midnight, Los Angeles Ordinance No. 181069, which is meant to close down numerous medical marijuana dispensaries around town, went into effect. No police, however, needed summoning to the Music Center. Los Angeles Opera shooed away its regulars by 11. Nine days earlier, the company had begun dispensing a drug with the street name of the "Ring" (short for its pharmaceutical appellation, "Der Ring des Nibelungen").

This opiate, invented in the 19th century by one Richard Wagner, is not, strictly speaking, a chemical substance. But it operates on the central nervous system like any other narcotic, altering perception, consciousness and sense of time. And, yes, it is highly addictive.

So law or no law, a clientele will return Tuesday when the second of three "Ring" cycles will begin. Once more the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion will become a darkened den in which "Ring" junkies while away the hours in the dreamy fantasies of Achim Freyer's fantastical production. The women are buxom. A hero's bulging pecs are blue before sex and red after. A parade of primeval improbabilities entices us and warns us. Steal from Nature, this saga makes evident, and she will destroy you.

L.A. Opera has now accomplished what it set out to accomplish. The company has stubbornly overcome considerable musical, theatrical, acoustical and fiscal obstacles and mounted a notable "Ring." Not all dubious Wagnerites are Freyer converts, but when the director and his team took their bows Sunday night, they were greeted by bellowing bravos, underpinned by a significantly dimmer low-pitched roar of boos, which created a purposefully textured chord. The cast was cheered and cheered.

This "Ring" went well. There were no significant mishaps that I could detect. Wagner made his operas for huge voices powered by huge egos, for intrepid singers willing to surmount their physical limitations. Freyer, himself no small ego, takes a new step, requiring the singers to subsume their egos in his theatrical action paintings. Singers confronted by the steep rake of the stage, by cumbersome costumes and an unfriendly Chandler acoustic, seem to have negotiated their peace with the production and the place.

Wagner expected the "Ring" to be performed in a festival setting where for a week audiences would exchange normal lives for immersion in his fantasies. The hardy (and well-off) perfect Wagnerites still go to Bayreuth for that. In a sacrament of kinky public masochism, the most devout bring blindfolds to blot out the horrors of modern stagecraft.

The L.A. "Ring" better represents the cosmopolitan art world. Freyer's "Ring" is a vision and dialogue with Wagner and it will be known and long discussed as such. While there were plenty of musical pleasures — enough so that the "Ring" can be responsibly broadcast on radio, as KUSC is doing — a blindfold in the Chandler would have meant considerable sensory deprivation.

Central to Freyer's concept is time. With overly ambitious hopes for tourism (and reportedly the requests of singers for some two-day recovery periods), the L.A "Ring" is spread too long over nine days (six would be more like it). But that still was a condensed enough period to allow for the complicated unfolding of time in Wagner's long operas to be felt as a powerful force.

Taking place before the dawn of historical time, "Das Rheingold" is a light fair populated with curious creatures. In "Die Walküre," love-centered, characters can only be in the present when they touch circular time. Played out on a farfetched racetrack, "Siegfried" presents a hero in competition with his environment. Entropy takes over "Götterdämmerung." When the world collapses, Freyer breaks down the stage and leaves a mess.

Freyer had time on his side. The hours a "Ring" audience spends in his fantasy realm add up to the better part of a day, and many told me that after getting used to strange imagery the drug began to take effect.

Since each opera was individually produced over the past two seasons, the strengths and limitations of the cast were no surprise. In "Siegfried" and "Götterdämmerung," John Treleaven and Linda Watson are also beneficiaries of time. I found myself having grown fond of their voices. Treleaven finally fully throws himself fearlessly into comic book Siegfriedery. Watson is an unflappable Brünnhilde. Perhaps her ability to express righteous indignation is directed Freyer-ward (given some of her public comments), but maybe we have the director to thank for bringing out that essential part of Brünnhilde's character. Her strong "Immolation" scene moved me.

Seeing these operas together also helps account for the multiplicity of Freyer's dramatic techniques, be it masked characters needing to use their bodies and voices in ways to get beyond facial expression or all the magical symbols that may or may not have specific meaning.

James Conlon conducted as tirelessly as he bounces around town talking up Wagner. The orchestra fatigues more easily but should settle in better during the next two cycles.

We're not done yet. But the milestone has been reached. L.A. Opera has made an L.A. "Ring," a Freyer "Ring." The Wagner drug has a significant new formula.

But if this "Ring" is to also be appreciated as a new Los Angeles and Wagner landmark, it must be filmed for DVD, and so far we have found no sponsorship for that to happen. The "Ring" is about time, and time, which is far more tyrannical than Ordinance No. 181069, in this crucial regard has almost run out.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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