Siegfried Review - A Marathon at LA Opera

Be Prepared for a Long Siege

John Treleaven (Siegfried)

(Los Angeles, Calif. - September 26, 2009)  Nothing can stop the heroic young Siegfried: With his mighty sword he slays the dragon Fafner, claims the coveted golden ring, defeats the great god Wotan in battle, and, risking all, walks through fire to awaken the beautiful sleeping warrior-goddess, Brünnhilde, with a kiss.

If you're tuning in late: Los Angeles Opera mounted the first two operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring) last season. This season, they will do just four more performances of this Siegfried production, followed by the concluding opera, Götterdämmerung in five performances in April. Then, they will perform all four in two cycles in June. The cost of putting on the Ring Cycle has been estimated at $32 million, and the city of Los Angeles is planning a festival to coincide with the June performances.

Although considered one of the most accomplished composers of nineteenth-century Europe, Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite. Local anti-defamation groups have already tried without success to get the city-sponsored festival canceled. At the very least, the controversy will remain in the headlines and will be debated in private and public forums until the end of the current opera season, and perhaps beyond.

Georja: Music director James Conlon and director-designer Achim Freyer's production of Wagner's Siegfried is a beautiful and magical presentation. It is filled with wonderful artistic feats for the audience to take in and admire at every turn, and I would like to mention many of them here.

John Treleaven (Siegfried), Graham Clark (Mime),Back: Eric Halfvarson (Fafner)

That said, attending Wagner's nearly five-hour-long opus is like running a marathon when you are used to a 5K race. The highs of the activity are there waiting for you: whether it be the joy and exhilaration of the runner's high or of musical and artistic appreciation. There are respites or intermissions along the way to replenish yourself with water and nourishment. You see and hear fascinating sights as you go, whether you are exploring new neighborhoods on your run, or taking in Freyer's fascinating, larger-than-life, mythological-yet-cartoonish characters. And you make opinions about them as they appear. 

You start to feel a vague sense of community with the hundreds of others who have undertaken the journey with you and yet are complete strangers, each having a simultaneous but private experience. At the end of both feats, you are drained and need to recover. In the case of the marathon, you have an exhausted response in your whole body from cardio and muscular exertion. After sitting for five hours in the same spot at the opera, you have stiffness and perhaps feel as though you have an enlarged behind.

Add to the five hours at the theater the time you may get stuck in unexpected downtown L.A. traffic for a matinee performance (many of them are scheduled to start in the afternoon, due to the length). There are the perpetual street repairs and local festivals blocking you at every turn, and by the time you get home, you feel you have definitely committed a chunk of time from your adult life. The next day you are still a bit stiff and tired.

Vitalij Kowaljow (Wanderer), Jill Grove (Erda)

Is it worth it? In this Siegfried production, it is definitely Conlon the conductor and the musicians who were on the front lines and performing in marathon fashion. They do not stop except at the two intermissions and did not hit one false note. It is so beautiful, and after awhile it is so relaxing that it is easy to be lulled into closing your eyes. But that is not acceptable, for you might miss a plot point on the supertitles or miss something from one of the fantastical ultra-creative characters.

The characters are surrealistically weird and wonderful. If you're going to be weird, it's probably best to go all the way.  Siegfried is played by John Treleaven with sublime, emotional tenor tones. Some of his lines are so moving, especially when he is asking Mime, Graham Clark, about his mother, who died giving birth to him. And yet to look at him, he has cartoonish Lisa Simpson hair, what looks like furry animal-skin pajama-bottoms, and bright-blue, well-defined chest muscles. The gnomes (the Nibelungs) Mime and Alberich, Oleg Bryjak, have watermelon heads which they could remove at will, and tiny legs. Mime is the comic relief of the two, who gestures and dances along, wearing bright-yellow gloves, which from mid-orchestra look like rubber kitchen gloves.

Erda the earth mother, played by Jill Grove, rises from under the floorboards like a huge balloon. She is all blimped up, and her hair looks like Rip Van Winkle with an Afro. The dragon Fafner, wonderfully portrayed by Eric Halfvarson, has a resonating boom and tranforms from a small thing to a large head, and then finally the whole stage floor opens up to be his mouth. There are mannequin-looking humans walking ever so slowly across the stage almost all the time, and neon florescent lights on stage, which are often moving around. There is also writing on the scrim right before our eyes as a big spiral is drawn by an invisible artist.

John Treleaven (Siegfried), Linda Watson (Brunnhilde)

And in the third act, in the long-awaited love scene between Siegfried and Brunnhilde, Linda Watson, the hero is frightened by his awesome bride. He can easily slay a dragon and overcome rings of fire, but when he reaches her he is overcome with fear. It takes them about an hour to finish their back-and-forth melodies of love and commitment. And at the end we still don't get to see a kiss.

Go to see Siegfried. It is something you don't want to miss. Bring a protein drink and a pillow, and drink lots of coffee. It's a terrific experience--if only it could have been presented in two separate performances.

Gerald: I agree that all the performances in this production are exceptionally strong. I remember we first saw John Treleaven as the tenor lead in LA Opera's presentation of Tristan und Isolde in 2008. We both thought then he was a strong and captivating performer.

And speaking of past reviews, I recall commenting about Achim Freyer's depiction of Alberich in our review of Das Rheingold last year. I was disturbed and upset that the character is rendered as a caricature of the Jewish banker. This is an image not so much of Wagner's time as it was during the Nazi era. The Third Reich, which venerated Wagner, concocted a conspiracy story about Jewish financiers causing a disastrous hyperinflation during the preceding Weimar Republic.

Oleg Bryjak (Alberich), Graham Clark (Mime), Back: John Treleaven (Siegfried)

Alberich reappears in this Siegfried looking just the same as he did in Das Rheingold--with cutaway coat and top hat, and puffing on an oversized cigar. I really wondered about this ugly choice, because I thought Freyer's design concepts were otherwise innovative and brilliant. But I've now decided that his depiction of Alberich is both honest and courageous. That is, I believe it would be a mistake to render Alberich in some some sanitized, anachronistic, politically correct way. Freyer's image of him is true, not literally to the images that were current when Wagner lived, but to the composer's mindset, in a historical image we can recognize.

Similarly, I don't think we should--now or ever--shy away from "outing" Wagner as the vile hater he was, just as we should not diminish our respect for his musical achievements and influence on the grounds of his disgusting political beliefs.

On a mythological level, this opera is the high point of the humans in the Ring story. By taking possession of the ring, Siegfried the mortal assures the ascendancy of the human race. Wotan--mightiest of the gods, the Wanderer in this story, played by Vitalij Kowaljow--has predicted the waning of his powers. He will now slip into obscurity as humans take charge of their destiny.

Graham Clark (Mime), Vitalij Kowaljow (Wanderer)

As to the extraordinary length of Siegfried, I have some speculations about that. Remember that Wagner's vision for the Ring Cycle was as a festival that would take place on consecutive days. And he eventually built an opera house at Bayreuth, where this cycle is still mounted every seven years (the last one was in 2006). Remember also that this was the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Bayreuth is nowhere near any of the large German cities, located as it is near the Czech border in the southeast end of the country. For anyone coming from Berlin or Vienna, attending would have involved a journey by train or horse-drawn carriage. I believe, in staging this opera at such heroic length, Wagner was giving his rich tourists their money's worth.

When you think about The Ring as a tourist attraction, you begin to understand that it may still work for this purpose next June, when Los Angeles civic leaders and local merchants are no doubt hoping for an influx of well-heeled, free-spending Wagner fans from all over the world.

But contemporary audiences live their lives at a faster pace. Unless you're a Ring aficionado (and there are lots of you), five hours is too much. (If you like opera but are on the fence about Wagner, at least take in Die Walküre.) If Richard Wagner were alive today and pitching this project to a major Hollywood studio, the executive would advise, "Rick, you've got a helluva concept here. Your stuff is kinda extreme, but we like edgy material. So...

"...find a way to cut two hours, and you gotta deal."

Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.

Photos by: Monika Rittershaus

LA Opera's Siegfried

Saturday     September 26, 2009     1:00 p.m.
Sunday     October 4, 2009     2:00 p.m.
Wednesday     October 7, 2009     5:30 p.m.
Sunday     October 11, 2009     2:00 p.m.
Saturday     October 17, 2009     5:30 p.m.

Los Angeles Opera
135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA
(213) 972-8001
(213) 687-3490 fax
[email protected]

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