Road report: LA Ring, Die Walkure

By Jonathan Caves
Last night’s production of Die Walküre as part of the LA Opera Ring Cycle vividly brought home to me a couple of unique aspects of this production.

No one I have talked to seems to be able to agree on what to call the supernumeraries who appear as part of this production – actors, or avatars, or shadows, or projections? I am going to just use the term avatar – which I think captures well how they interact with the singers. As I watched the end of Act II of Die Walkure there crept into my mind an image of how the idea of using these avatars may have evolved. It was clear that Achim Freyer’s idea (or vision) for this scene was that when Sieglinde collapsed she would roll down the stage (which is, remember, very heavily raked), furthermore when she awoke (or at least had her nightmare) she would wildly contort her body as she imagined Hunding’s dogs ripping Siegmund apart. Then reality intruded: no singer is going to throw herself down that stage and no singer (especially a Wagnarian soprano) can twist her body into such impossible positions. So the idea of using an avatar was born … these are actors who shadow the singers but take over the acting side of the performance when things get a bit too physical. Of course you just can’t have an actor walk on to the set and have the singer walk off: in a lot of cases the singer needs to continue to sing the role. So the avatars are on stage for a lot of the performance, shadowing their actor and taking over at the appropriate moment. In Act II last night the avatars for Siegmund and Sieglinde performed what looked like a slow waltz around the stage while the real SIegmund and Sieglinde got through the preliminaries. Then at the appropriate point the couples moved through each other like in a complicated dance and in the middle Sieglinde and her avatar changed partners – if you blinked you would miss it: it was very effective. It wasn’t always that smooth especially in the case of the characters like Siegmund who have to hand over a sword as well. But overall I think it worked really well – even if it did distract me now and again from the performance. My quizzical mind was always wondering how they would manage the change back.

Note: I am certain that a lot of directors have hit similar collisions between their vision and the reality of what opera singers can or cannot do and in most cases it is their vision that is adapted to the abilities of the singers. You have got to applaud Achim Freyer and The LA Opera Company for not giving in that easily.

The other thing that struck me about last night’s production was how much symbolism there is this production. A very strong symbolic theme for most of Acts I & II was Time – it flowed forwards and, when a back story was being told (or retold) it flowed backwards. It sped up when Spring arrived and froze when the Gods were on stage (I presume because they are outside of time) – it was very simple and effective: though what it meant I am not 100% sure, it seems to be an invention of Achim Freyer, but I did not find it intrusive. I have to say though that I really felt for the supernumerary (she was all in grey so I don’t count her as an avatar) who’s job it was to make time move – that must have been a tough job on such a raked stage.

The other symbolic technique that Achim Freyer used last night was, I think, rather more controversial. When characters, like Wotan, are describing events that have happened or will happen avatars representing the characters in those events appear on the stage. So during Act II last night we saw most of the characters from Das Rheingold (I think Mime was the only one missing) as well as Siegfried complete with the Ring and Nothung. I am on the fence about this particular addition – I know some Wagner purists feel that the director should just let the leitmotifs in the music do the talking but I did not find the appearance of these characters distracting and it did help to emphsis what was being sung.

The procession of the weird “curse” characters also makes a reappearence and I am still trying to work them out. One is definitely Hagan’s mother, Grimhilde, as this time the procession was joined by a character that represented the young Hagen in his prame. Oh: and Achm Freyer definitely has a thing for breasts.

There was definitely much more emotion on show than there was during Das Rheingold but I still didn’t see two characters actually touch let alone embrace. Wotan came oh so close to embracing Brünnhilde but at the last second he pulled back. This is an aspect of this production that I do disagree with – these are people who deeply love each other even when they are rejecting each other. I still prefer the way that Stephen Wadsworth staged these scenes.

The end of Act II was really impressive – even if it was difficult to keep track of the singers and their avatars (especialy given that I counted five Wotans) – the final image was beautiful. Though I would drop the flying Wotan.

Plácido Domingo: I thought he sang beautifully: his cry of Wälse was long, powerful and full of emotion: but to be honest I think he may have put too much into it – to my ear he definitely sounded very tired at the end of the Act I: though he did recover and he sounded fine in Act II. And yes it was him who fell to the ground and slid down the stage: at least I think it was him the singer/avatar changes happened so fast and so often at the end of that Act that I may have been mistaken. During Act I the prompters were very noticable – both visibly and, I am certain, audibly. It seemed to be all for the benefit of Domingo – they did not appear to be used in subsequent Acts. The prompters boxes are on either side of the stage hidden behind a couple of ravens – a nice touch. I also found out that the cover for Plácido Domingo is Jay Hunter Morris who was, I believe, the cover for Siegfried in Seattle last summer. I really hope he gets to sing one of these roles soon.
The Valkyries were very impressive – they are hearlds of death: if you saw one of these ladies it was NOT good news. So they had a dark, somber, scary costume that really comunicated their role. There was not a horned hemet in sight though there was the “idea” of a shield. The bicycle/horse thingys while they initially looked silly did grow on me.

The final Immolation Scene was impressively done – at least when judged against other productions that don’t use real fire. Once you have seen a production that uses real fire then everything else looks second best.

For a lot of this opera there was a swirlling cloud projection playing on the front scrim – I found that this became very annoying after a while especially when it ran in reverse (I called it the Black Hole) as it was very hypnotic.

Vitalij Kowaljow sang and acted well as Wotan but to be honest he really didn’t leave that much of an impression. Michelle DeYoung was powerful as Seglinde – she certainly is a good vocal partner for Plácido Domingo. I liked Ekaterina Semenchuk as Fricka (the role DeYoung sang in Das Rheingold) and the rest of the cast performed admirably if rather anonymously.

The orchestra again sounded clear and together though I heard a couple of false notes from the horns (sorry: it is just that false notes from the horns really stand out) – James Conlon really drove the score along, the opening storm, was powerful – but the quieter passages especially at the very end were beautiful – as usual it is the music and not the singing that almost brings me to tears.
Finally Linda Watson: what to say – she sounded great. I found last night that her voice had a lovely clarity to it. Her acting was basic: at some point it seemed that Achim wanted her to mirror Wotan’s actions (probably to emphsis that she is Wotan’s Will) and the best she could do was a very stange and comical stance which looked like Rodin’s The Thinker – it did not mirror what Wotan was doing and just looked plain silly. She seemed to have no problem moving around the stage though she did spend more time than a lot of the cast singing from a small unraked platform in the middle of the stage. I really don’t see what she was complaining to the press about – we’ll have to see how the rest of the cycle plays out.

The young girl beside me was back again – and she start sighing, yawning and shuffling in her seat before even Hunding had made his entrance. There were more empty seats than at Das Rheingold but most of them were filled at the first intermission – by a mixture of late comers and people looking for a better seat.

I thought that the applause, while loud and sustained, was less enthusiastic than for Das Rheingold – again Achim Freyer did not make an appearence.

I now have almost four days to wait until Siegfried – but I am going to try to fill the time by attending a few lectures and there is a recital be Christine Brewer tommorrw night at The Disney Hall.

Jonathan Caves is a Seattle Wagnerite, opera buff, and technology aficionado.  His blog can be found at http://jonathancaves.posterous.com.

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