(Los Angeles, CA - Feb. 21, 2009) Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen is a monumental experience that tells a unified story, drawn from Norse mythology, over the course of four complete operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. It's a portrayal of a legendary war between gods and mortals for control of the earth. The plot concerns an epic struggle to win control of a magic ring that gives its bearer the power to rule the world. Created by the evil dwarf Alberich, the ring is successively possessed by Wotan, the king of the gods, then by the dragon Fafner, and eventually by Wotan's grandson, Siegfried. Ultimately, the ring comes into the possession of Siegfried's widow Brünnhilde, who returns the ring to its source, thus ending the reign of the gods.
Das Rheingold is the opening installment in the four-opera sequence that's become known as the Ring Cycle, the largest work in the history of Western music. Over the next year, LA Opera plans to mount all four operas culminating in a big festival in the summer of 2010, for a total cost of approximately $32 million. In the world of opera, director-designer Achim Freyer, well known in Europe, is considered the most brilliant interpreter of the Ring. And LA's own music director, James Conlon, who has conducted the Cycle in Europe to great acclaim, is leading his first American Ring.
Georja: As a disclaimer, I think it is important to say that Gerald and I are neophytes in Wagnerian opera. We have been opera buffs for many years, but we tend to favor and frequent the great Italian works by Puccini, Verdi, Rossini, and others and after that, the French and Spanish. (Although we also adore Mozart.) The few other Germanic pieces we have seen have not touched us in the same way.
Gerald: Like a lot of people, I first have to get over my revulsion for Wagner the man, who was a virulent anti-Semite. And it's no great secret that the Nazis, including Hitler himself, found inspiration in Wagner's operatic themes. Conlon admits, "Wagner was one of the greatest creative geniuses of Western civilization. And I think he was a perfectly horrendous human being." I found it unsettling in this production that the dwarf Alberich looks to me eerily like Nazi cartoons of Jews in the 1930s.
Georja: Unlike a few of the other German operas we have seen, I did not find the language to be an irritant. The music and the voices themselves are so lovely that it totally overcomes harsh Teutonic plosives. The orchestra is sweeping, vast and thrilling.
Gerald: Wagner is perhaps best known for his giant orchestral melodies, such as "The Flight of the Valkyries," which many listeners know as the opening music from Apocalypse Now. In fact, the Ring myth is one of the most often told in all of Western literature, when you consider that it's essentially the same story as King Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail, the Golem's lust for the magic ring in Lord of the Rings, and the mythology that underlies Star Wars.
Georja: The sets and imaginative renderings of the characters are eye-popping. If you like to see beings with six arms, giant characters with heads in their chests, neon hands, a large illuminated eyeball, dwarfs with huge head masks, and various other weird and robotic-looking apparitions, it is a visual feast. The stage is mostly dark, shaded further by a scrim, with the odd fluorescent blue line and other projections on it. To me as a comedienne, this would all have been fantastic if there were a touch of humor or self-awareness of its own oddity. But no. Everything is so blasted serious and intense. For people who don't like opera, this opera is the epitome of everything they don't like.
Gerald: The highly stylized staging and movements are a deliberate creative choice. They are drawn from twentieth-century German Expressionism. Achim Freyer admits the "parallels to Brecht and his alienation theory," which uses techniques like mechanical movements to pull the audience out of the experience and emphasize its symbolism.
Georja: One of the great things I love about opera is being swept away emotionally along with the music and the characters and movements as part of a cathartic experience. There are elements of the story of Das Rheingold that are riveting, such as the quest for power and the conflict about trading power for innocence (in the persona of Freia, played soufully by Ellie Dehn). The god Wotan , played by Vitalij Kowaljow, has to negotiate with the giants Fasolt ( Morris Robinson) and Fafner ( Eric Halfvarson) who want his sister-in-law Freia as payment for their construction of the castle. Wotan's wife Fricka ( Michelle DeYoung) freaks out. Wotan calls Loge, Arnold Bezuyen, for assistance. Loge, who is decked out in what looks like classic Satan attire with horns and a red robe, turns out to be the most human acting and moving character on stage, even with his four arms. Loge tricks the dwarf Alberich, Gordon Hawkins, out of his gold and ring to help Wotan save Freia. That part is interesting, albeit drawn out. The orchestral clanging along with the gold miners was especially delightful in that sequence.
Gerald: As a practical note, mounting the Ring is a huge financial risk for LA Opera. According to Phil Gallo, writing in Daily Variety, "To bear the cost of the Ring Cycle, LA Opera reduced its staff by 17%, cut the number of performances next season to 48 from 64, postponed a Pavillion renovation, and delayed the premiere of Daniel Catan's 'Il Postino.'" Let's hope there are enough rabid Wagnerians out there.
Georja: The more I think about the show and all we saw and experienced, I think it is a superb undertaking and I'm glad I saw it. Every element is top notch. I believe that one reason it feels a little heavy besides other reasons I have mentioned is the lack of an intermission. It is very difficult to sit still, especially without laughing, for almost three hours.
Gerald: It's all about the power of myth. According to Freyer, "The spectator decides creatively which truths contained in the exemplary strange figures and worlds exist for himself."
Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Jones is author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
Photos by: Monika Rittershaus
Los Angeles Opera
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LA Opera's Das Rheingold
Saturday, February 21, 2009, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 1, 2009, 2:00 p.m.
Thursday, March 5, 2009, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 8, 2009, 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 15, 2009, 2:00 p.m.