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An Afternoon at the Opera: Die Walküre, Los Angeles, 4/12/09 (Part II)

posted Aug 8, 2012, 10:52 PM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Aug 8, 2012, 11:01 PM ]
Originally posted: April 16, 2009

After sitting through the LA Opera production of Die Walküre on Sunday, I can now say that I have seen the entire The Ring of the the Nibelung one-and-a-half times: all four operas at the San Francisco Opera 10 years ago, and now Das Rheingold and Walküre as part of Los Angeles' 2008-9 season. That's not much for over 25 years of going to the opera, and it hardly makes me a hardcore Wagnerian by itself. But each production takes very different approaches to The Ring, so that setting them side-by-side makes for a textbook compare-and-contrast essay. And interestingly enough, following both of them leads me in the end to the same conclusion: that however you play around with it, the operatic stage is ultimately too small a container for The Ring of the Nibelung.

I Want My Rainbow Bridge!

I don't recall who designed that San Francisco production from a decade ago, and my copies of the programs are so buried in storage that I don't even know where to start looking for them. But I recall with certainty that it was a very traditional-looking, more or less naturalistic design. The costumes were deliberately archaic and high-fantasy, traveler's cloaks for the men and gowns for the women, and cheesy prop swords and chainmail all around. Act III of Walküre opened on the Valkyries gathering up arms and armor from fallen warriors as the opening measures of "The Ride of the Valkryies” sounded; it looked like something out of a Dungeons & Dragons game, and I thought to myself, "Of course; they're going to sell it when they get back to town. They should get plenty of GP for all that chainmail. Maybe enough to get a +1 Broadsword." When Siegfried wandered through the forest during the "Forest Murmurs," he did so against a backdrop that looked like... a bunch of trees. Valhalla appeared in the form of a backdrop painted to look like... a big castle. And so on.

The only really adventurous bit of stagecraft that I can recall was the "costumes" for Fafner and Fasolt in Rheingold, which were these enormous humanoid constructs — probably about 15-20' tall that were wheeled around on stage by assistants, kind of like those fellows with the black hoods in Japanese theater. I believe that the singers stood on platforms inside. But even that can be seen as an attempt to come to grips with a literal interpretation of the Ring; after all, Fafner and Fasolt are giants, so theoretically they ought to look like giants.

The limitations of this conventional, naturalistic approach are obvious. Unlike most operas, the fantastical is ordinary in The Ring. Representing the gods is not so hard in that pagan gods tend to be made in the image of man anyway, and the Norse pantheon is no exception. Finding a world-class baritone who can act to play Wotan is one thing, but in terms of costuming you just have to put an eyepatch on him and give him a prop spear. But the dragon, giants, dwarfs (and not the good, John Rhys-Davies kind of dwarf, either), Rhine-mermaids and the divine stronghold of the gods represent a whole other order of difficulty for a production designer.

Part of the problem is the sublime intensity of Wagner’s music, which often suggests so much compared to what you can practically put on a live theatrical stage. The very end of Rheingold is a perfect example of this. It's not such a bad thing in and of itself to have a medieval-style castle painted on a backdrop to represent Valhalla. But the music leads us to expect more. Wagner represents Valhalla with a blast of brass sound so exhilarating that it can literally take your breath away if played properly. His Valhalla needs to be sublime, not a cheesy backdrop painting. And dammit, the gods are literally supposed to walk on freaking rainbow, not a prop bridge with rainbow-pattern lights next to it. I want my rainbow bridge!

But the practical problems of stagecraft are bad enough without having to satisfy an audience in the grip of Wagner's sublime music. In the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House, there was a nice photographic exhibit set up honoring San Francisco's productions of The Ring from the 30's and '40's — what I suppose one could call the Silver Age of Wagnerian singing, if not the Golden Age. In particular, I remember a publicity still showing the great Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior as Siegfried fighting the dragon Fafner... except that Fafner didn't look like a dragon so much as a papier-mache version of Cecil from "Beany and Cecil".... And Melchior (who evidently had quite a sense of humor) had this goofy grin on his face, like he was going to crack up at any moment from the absurdity of it all. The production that I saw handled it with a bit more dignity; Siegfried killed Fafner well downstage, so that all we needed to see was the dragon's enormous head and neck. But still, as much as one pays for opera tickets these days, it would have been nice to see a bit more fight choreography and a whole dragon.

Which leads me to another problem with staging The Ring in a literal spirit. On top of the fantastical elements, the operas of The Ring have a lot of action in them, much of it violent and lethal, and that makes the blocking more challenging to arrange than in most operas. I've observed before (and no doubt will again) that the operatic stage is the only place in which you will find two people express passionate feelings for each other while standing side-by-side, facing an unknown third party. But of course, the singers have to be allowed to project toward the audience. There’s no getting around that. For a director who wishes to take the stage directions in The Ring literally, this presents him with quite a dilemma, and nothing in that San Francisco production captured this more perfectly than Siegfried's death in Götterdämmerung: You could clearly see Hagen's spear pass between Siegfried's arm and his body. In life, this would not be a mortal wound. But Siegfried has to face the audience in order to project properly, and it's also very clear that he is supposed to be struck from behind.

It's... Y'know... Creative

Which in turn brings me to Achim Freyer's avant-garde, heavily symbolic production for LA Opera, Freyer, one will recall, was also responsible for that dance-theater performance... thing... set to Bach's B-Minor Mass, presented in conjunction with the LA Philharmonic, some years ago. I found that production engagingly dense and meditative, but also fey and somewhat pointless. I remember that it was controversial among the high-culture crowd in Los Angeles, and Freyer's Ring is done somewhat in the same spirit. When he came out for bows after the performance of Rheingold that I attended, I would swear that there were some lusty boos mixed in with the cheers.

And indeed, there's a lot of superficial weirdness, and the light saber-like weapons (which were probably the first details that I noticed in the production photos on the LA Opera website) are really the least of it. The gods wear garish white face-paint and spend most of Rheingold fixed around the periphery of the stage, standing behind carapace-like costumes that look like gross exaggerations of the human form; this gives them a weird gravity reminiscent of Noh theater. The Volsung twins are clad all in blue, but also have their faces painted half-white and half-blue. Alberich and his minions wear oversized Ferengi-like heads. The backgrounds are mostly dark, and instead of scenery there are occasional intrusions by symbolic objects that look like they might have been pulled from a George Grosz collage. This is not an old-fashioned, naturalistic high-fantasy Ring.

And yet, as much as Freyer's stagecraft draws attention to itself, it's really not as self-indulgent as all that, and you can also see some practical wisdom in it. For instance, the blatantly anti-naturalistic character designs for the gods do hit you upside the head aestheticallyFreya in particular. She is almost always depicted with unnaturally long arms, both held off to one side as if displaying something (or someone) standing beside her. Frankly, it struck me as rather arch and pretentious in Rheingold, like David Byrne smacking himself in the forehead in Stop Making Sense. But in Walküre, it emphasizes the way in which she uses Hundig as a lever in getting Wotan to destroy his illegitimate children, and also as a pretense that she isn't doing it purely out of spite. Hunding is the object to which she gestures. This is her sole dramatic function in the opera, and her main dramatic function in the entire cycle. Linda Watson (as Brunnhilde) also picks up on this distinctive pose, making a comic visual reference to it in a way that emphasizes Brunnhilde's special relationship with Wotan.

(BTW, as long as we're talking about dispensing with tradition and convention, I'd like to slip in a nod to Arnold Bezuyen, who sang Loge in Rheingold. Clad in a red-devil costume and forgoing the nasal twang with which Loge is traditionally sung, Bezuyen's god of fire is more muscular — and altogether more thrilling and menacing — that we're used to. It's a performance I'd like to see again.)

By relieving himself of any obligation to treat The Ring naturalistically, Freyer also frees himself to deal constructively with the issue of blocking out the action. The static poses of the gods in Rheingold can give you the sense that you're watching a gussied-up concert performance rather than a staged opera, but it allows the singers to stand facing the audience at all times as an organic part of the production design rather than a concession to practicality. The fights in Walküre are handled rather ingeniously, with the singers allowed to stand off toward the wings, mostly concealed in darkness, while extras enact the combat center stage. I'm sure this is particularly helpful to Placido Domingo, who, at age 67, can probably well do without having to fight Hundig and his henchman while singing.

On the whole, I have to admit that Freyer's staging of Walküre works well. The logic behind the quirks and tics is generally clear, and he keeps the action going with a relatively small and simple set of props and backgrounds. His staging of "The Ride of the Valkyries" is masterful and a study in efficiency, using undulating waves of white light and the Valkyries' black costumes to create a powerful visual impact and a strong sense of motion with a minimal number of physical elements.

But for all its surprising virtues, one remains acutely aware that this is a director's theater vision of The Ring. It's Wagner's music, but Archim Freyer's world. It's satisfying, but also a little less than wholly satisfying; we enjoy it for what it's worth mainly because we know in our hearts that doing full justice to this great and strange piece of work is probably impossible. As Jim Svejda has noted, there's evidence that even Wagner himself understood that the perfect staging of The Ring could exist only in his imagination.