By Jonathan Caves
On the last night of the first complete Ring Cycle at Los Angeles Opera Symbolism took the lead: from the moment the curtain dissolved and the stage lights came up we were presented with an array of symbols from across the whole cycle. Loge: hanging over the stage foreshadowing the inferno to come. The Tarnhelm: reminding us that no one is exactly as they seem. Nothung: a symbol of power that is ultimately impotent. These symbols remained in place all night as a constant reminder of the grand themes of the Cycle. There was a rising tension and a sense of inevitability about this production of Götterdämmerung – it was thrilling to watch. When Act I of Götterdämmerung flies by you know you are in for a great night at the theatre.
The Norns told their tales with minimal fuss and some great singing – my only issue was the rather strange costumes – if one of them fell they wouldn’t have stopped until they took out the cello section in the pit.
The Rhine journey was beautifully and simply portrayed – one of the advantages of such a minimal staging is that you can produce very effective scene changes in full view of the audience. No banging and crashing behind the curtain. The journey left the stage split in two between the world of men and Brünnhilde’s rock (Brünnhilde’s avatar stayed seated where Siegfried left here). Between light and dark. Between the nighttime love of Brünnhilde and Siegfried and the bright daylight of the real world. It as all very Tristan und Isolde.
It is clear in this production that Hagen is the real force behind the Gibichung throne: Gunther and Gutrune are anonymous non-entities. It is Hagen who controls events using his remote control. But behind Hagen is Alberich who, in this production, is very clearly still alive and still desperate to get the ring. In fact Hagen is almost portrayed as a puppet controlled by Alberich.
Siegfried was a child lost in the World of Men – given the costume and the makeup he truly looked bemused by everything going on around him. Only during the hunting scene at the start of Act III did he look relaxed and in his element.
A lot of the singing was superb and the big vocal moments shone – Hagen’s Watch, Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?, The Vengeance Trio – all were thrilling to listen to. The LA Chorus finally got their moment to sing.
Linda Watson as Brünnhilde started slowly but she quickly rose to the occasion and by the Immolation Scene her voice was soaring out over the orchestra. Michelle DeYoung sang a beautiful, impassioned Waltraute (and the 2nd Norn). Eric Halfvarson was a dark, menacing Hagen without ever resorting to shouting. Alan Held and Jennifer Wilson were effective, though rather anonymous, as Gunther and Gutrune – but that maybe in part due to the distancing effect of the masks they wore (they just looked like poorly formed non-entities). Richard Paul Fink made the best of his one scene – as usual he was dark, precise and powerful. The Rhine Daughters were sweet, in tune and balanced.
Do I have the right to criticize a singer? Singing a lead role in a Wagner opera is extremely hard and for a tenor the role of Siegfried is one of the toughest around. There just aren’t that many singers who can even approach the levels of stamina and vocal prowess that this role requires. I am in awe of these people. But, I am sorry to report, John Treleaven just didn’t seem to be on form last night. In the quieter, more lyrical, moments he sounded sweet and beautiful – but there aren’t many such moments in Götterdämmerung and at the end of Act II I really thought he was having serious issues both with control and with pitch. I really felt for him – I hope this was just a bad-night and that he finds his form in the later cycles.
The full Brechtian Distancing Effect (Verfremdungseffekt) was on show at the end of the opera – we were left in no doubt that we had just spent the last week sitting in a theatre. It was both a powerful and beautiful image and a fitting conclusion to a great Ring Cycle.
The final curtain call was loud and raucous – Richard Paul Fink got a bit carried away clicking his heals and fell flat on his face, one of the Norns tripped and had to be helped to get up again. James Conlon looked exhausted but got a huge round of applause and, in a nice touch, they projected the orchestra on to the front scrim so we could see who we were applauding. And finally Achim Freyer made an appearance: yes there were some boos but they were easily drowned out by the applause and cheers that greeted him. He looked genuinely touched by the reception.
This is not a Ring for everyone. If you like to see trees, rocks, swords and winged helmets then this is probably not the production for you. But it is an important production that really does stick to the libretto. On several occasions I’d see something acted out or presented on the stage and I’d look at the supertitles and realize that there was a line or phrase in the libretto that I hadn’t noticed before. It is also a strangely beautiful production – yes it is very abstract and some of the costumes were just plain weird (I hope Michelle DeYoung didn’t look in a mirror when she was dressed as Waltraute) but some of the images presented were stunning in their simplistic beauty.
I wholeheartedly congratulate Los Angeles Opera on this production: it took a lot of courage – I just hope that, financially, it doesn’t cripple them (there were again a lot of empty seats last night). If you love Wagner and you are in the area you should go and see this cycle – or even just one of the individual operas.
Thank You one and all.
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