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Feb. 25, 2009

          In Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold," the first of the four operas in his  "Ring Cycle," the Rheingold is stolen by the hideous, malicious dwarf, Alberich, after he renounces love.
          In L.A. Opera's "Das Rheingold," which debuted this past weekend, the "Rheingold" was stolen by a man with a hideous, malicious dwarf brain, Achim Freyer, after he renounced love of opera. Or at least respect.
          Freyer is the so-called director and designer of L.A. Opera's first-ever staging of the titanic four-opera saga of gods, half-gods, humans, and foibles, "Der Ring Des Nibelungen," and it's liable to be the last. This Ring could be headed down the critical sink. Even the L.A. Times' Mark Swed, notorious for getting breathless to the point of near hysteria over radical reinterpretations, could not bring himself to endorse this atrocity. Instead, in his “Rheingold” review, Swed mostly played reporter and reserved final critical judgment.
          Ring cycle? Ring sigh-cle. Los Angeles might want to rethink the big citywide festival it has planned to coincide with the three full "Ring" productions set for spring, 2010. How do you throw a party for someone that nobody likes? Well, let's qualify that. There was standard applause for "Rheingold" on opening night, and the obligatory shouts of "bravo!" by the obligatory people who love to hear themselves shout "bravo!", and who would shout "bravo" for dancing donkeys if they paid $80 to a couple hundred to see them. (Dancing donkeys, by the way, would not have been out of place in this production.)
          But one thing that Swed did not report was the number of boos that broke out when Freyer and his mad scientist white hair bounded on to the stage for his curtain call. These were not garden variety undertone "boo's." These were lusty, vociferous, animal boo's that hammered the air like the giant, Fafnir, hammered his brother, Fasolt, with that club in scene four.
          Er, check that. In Freyer's comedy version, Fafnir and Fasolt were two skinny mime-show shadows with cueball heads that sort of danced spastically around before one knocked the other's cueball right off (this is the post-911, terrorist decapitation "Ring," you see), causing it to roll comically around the stage. The audience laughed.
          Das Rhein(fool’s)gold.
          At first, I must admit, I didn't hear all the boo's. That was because my own "boo" was drowning them out. The most fun I had all night was cupping my hands to my face and loosing a baritone that for volume, rivaled the king of the gods, Wotan (Vitalij Kowaljow.) Whose own imposing baritone, by the way, was rather constrained. Of course, this just might be because Freyer had Vitalij locked inside of a (plastic? wood? papier mache?) "costume," better described as an iron maiden, with a large painted cyclops eye on his bulbous, white spider-body head (and, in case you missed that one, another painted on his chest.) Meanwhile, the king of the gods' lost eye, the one he had given up in order to win his wife, rested at the front of the stage, big and blue and unblinking, about five-feet across, for undoubtedly profound reasons. Add the big, oval "world" stage in the middle, with its longitude/latitude grid, random numbers, and it appears that Freyer has watched the opening sequence of "The Twilight Zone" once too often.
          Reinterpreting opera has long since become a license to change anything and everything, any way you like, regardless of what bearing it has on a composer’s intentions, plot logic, dialogue, music. The more you dabble, the more the critics dither, and the more the bravo-yellers and poseurs have a good time. And the more people who understand the power of a well-told story walk out of opera houses feeling cheated.
          Woody Allen’s novel recasting of “Gianni Schicchi” in the vein of an old Italian movie was highly amusing, but undercut by the absurd stabbing death of Schicchi at the end, contradicting Puccini, the music, and Schicchi's final speech. The late film director, Herb Ross, tarted up L.A. Opera's “La Boheme” as a garish good-time pageant inhabited by madcap, wacky, loveable Bohemian bozos that---whoops---also finds the leading lady dying at the end (as extras clomp around.) Another updating of that opera to the beat 1950’s begged credulity, as people did not generally wither away and die untreated from tuberculosis during the Eisenhower administration. Then there was, memorably, L.A. Opera’s Ian Judge-directed (or should we say, erected) “Tannhauser,” realized as a flaming red gang-bang, complete with nearly-nude simulated fellatio, cunnilingus, sodomy, and even heterosexual intercourse. Suffice to say that Judge could have had a hell of a career directing Long Johnny Wadd and Linda Lovelace.
          Wagner’s operas have suffered from some of the most egregious meddling, ironically originating in Bayreuth in the (opera) house that Wagner built, at the festival long maintained by his descendants. The latest such heir, 30-year-old great-granddaughter Katharina, has seen fit to insert poor Richard himself into “Die Meistersinger,” wearing diapers and parading around with an outsized phallus. (Integral to a joyful story centered around a singing competition, exalting the fraternal spirit of man, wouldn’t you say?) And so it insanely goes, from WWII Nazi holocaust survivors mysteriously showing up in medieval “Lohengrin,” to lesbian leather-clad biker Valkyries, etc., ad nauseum.
          And now L.A. Opera’s three-ring Ring Cycle. I mean, Placido, what gives? As much as one admires and loves (L.A. Opera director) Domingo, one remains confounded by his endorsement of the likes of Robert Wilson (who turned “Madame Butterfly” into a frozen, Kabuki/Noh-like minimalist tableau, violently at odds with Puccini’s feverishly melodic music) Judge, and now, Freyer, previously a painter by trade. There is some good news: Domingo’s other opera company, Washington D.C., is producing a "Ring" with the characters transformed into cowboys and Indians, and that's starting to look pretty good next to L.A.
          Yet not everything is the director's fault. “Rheingold” is an often static work, dramatically, a sort of god encounter group, trying to hash out the relative merits of wealth, home, kidnap negotiation, power. Still, it has compensating dramatic sequences: dwarf minions forging gold, the smackdown and fratricide of the giants, a terrifying thunderclap clearing the air for the gods to stride across a rainbow bridge, even Alberich’s salacious pursuit of the slippery Rhine maidens. None of these things seemed to interest Freyer, who preferred to actually increase the static aspect of this nearly three-hour (no intermission, as per Wagner's bladder-challenging direction) opera. (One quakes at the coming five-hour Rheingold sequel, “Die Walkure.”)
          In fact, the gods---who look like a mixture of the psychedelic monsters from The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and the animation of Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, but not as good---barely move. They stand, arranged around “the world” like numbers on a clock, a clock evidently caught in a power failure. Mercifully, Wotan’s wife, Fricka, encased in a cone with six-feet-long arms extended perpendicularly to her right, has hands that automatically flip up and down.
           You knew you were in trouble at the outset, when fiendish Alberich, while singing of chasing and grasping at the teasing Rhine maidens, stood perfectly still, declaiming through a large cardboard head. Why, you wonder, does he complain of darting about on slick riverside rocks when he is moving less than a guy about to be shot by a firing squad? You have to add a willing suspension of disbelief to your willing suspension of disbelief.
          Generally, such inaction is relieved by such radical dramatic devices as. . .gesturing. . .walking around. . .acting. But Freyer’s gods are marooned inside costumes (by daughter Amanda Freyer) that would be at home in any respectable acid casualty’s nightmare---except when they are mysteriously paroled from papier mache prison for a minute or two in order to sing unencumbered. Example: Freia, the goddess of youth, repeatedly emerges from her costume, picks it up, scurries to the front of the stage (the oval “world” thing), lays it down, then lounges there, singing, stroking the shell (which features hands holding a tray containing three or four heads, for reasons known only to God and Freyer, and perhaps not God.) At one point, she caresses the costume’s breasts. Of course, no opera director worth his or her salt peter passes up a chance to throw in a little sexual weirdness these days, preferably homosexual. The 19th century composers, you see, were unaware of their Freudian complications, so it is up to the interpreters of our day to enlighten us as to these vital matters. (Besides, this is the year of “Milk,” and there are a lot of gay patrons out there.) 
          And yes, I've read the oh-so-weighty claims of Freyer's costumes demonstrating the "split personalities" and "inner conflicts" of the characters. Oooooooooo. How revealing. I would never have guessed they were in turmoil, otherwise.     
          In the end, this “Rheingold” was much closer to a concert performance of an opera, with costumes and props. At times, it was little more than a puppet show, though admittedly a weird one. Think: low-rent Dali.
          But this is the least of the problems in Freyer’s brain-fry. This thing no more merits logical dissection than a manifesto of Charlie Manson. Let us skip, at random example, to the sudden and inexplicable appearance in scene four of circus-y creatures Wagner neither wrote nor imagined, including a topless woman who would give Carol Doda or Watermelon Rose a run for the money. Hojotojo! Did Brunhilde bust her breastplate? What did this represent? Wotan’s need for nurturing?
          Finally, there is the piece d’ resistance of  preposterousness: a sort of Picasso-esque Sopwith Camel hanging overhead that suddenly takes flight just before the gods enter their palace in the clouds. What was this, a deus ex machina? What was God-in-a-machine doing hovering over an opera about. . .gods? Let alone flying a Sopwith Camel? (I’ll take bets that this thing also appears and flies off as all creation goes up in flames in the fourth opera, "Gotterdamerung.") Had Snoopy been in the cockpit, it would not have been out of place for Achim in Freyerland. Really.
          I mean, Achimmmm. . .Achimmmm. . .Ah-CHOOOOO!
          The sad thing about all this is that the singing in the production was uniformly fine, and that such monumental effort was expended by hundreds of hard-working good people on such travesty. That millions of New Depression dollars were spent on effects that mostly desecrated the opera, when they might have so enhanced it, is practically scandalous. Yes, some of the effects were compelling, making the overall failure all the more exasperating. The Rhine maidens, with their mirror images (acted out by upside-down humans) floating in a river of dark fabric, were absolutely enchanting. The use of a scrim for the whole work, enabling weird and eerie color projections, clouds, red shattered-window explosions (notably during the downright mousey thunderclap), was successful enough. Loge’s strobe-lit materialization, zipping sideways across stage like some kind of hellish crab, was a delight. But most everything else was crippled by tail-chasing, navel-gazing over-conceptualizing, where simple, literal representation would have been so welcome. Consider the giants, acted by two tall guys in hard hats, one in sort of black skullface, the other white-ish. Enormous heads rose behind them as they sang, while the occasional gigantic hand (shades of “Yellow Submarine’s” flying glove) lumbered clumsily across the stage. Yawn. Chuckle. And not to nitpick, but why, oh why, was the gold a kind of dull white (except for a later appearance in the form of gigantic, goofy doubloons)?
          The greatest casualty in this debacle turned out to be. . .the music. No, redoubtable L.A. Opera conductor James Conlon’s rendering was sensitive to detail, carefully couched, evocative. At least I think it was, as I had trouble hearing it. I don’t know if it was the scrim hanging over the orchestra, or what, but as Swed correctly noted in his review, the orchestra sounded like it was playing from another room. When the gods entered Valhalla, it sounded more like they were going for a stately stroll in the park. Wagner wanted the orchestra hidden in his music-dramas, not the sound.
          And speaking of entering Valhalla, this climactic sequence was represented by the appearance of an enormous piece of red fabric sweeping over the stage. (Blood---get it?) Yes, those impossibly thrilling, majestic Wagner horns---comprising one of the most goose-pimple-arousing passages in all music--- were illustrating a bedsheet. Oh, and a little multi-colored squeezebox, left behind by Froh. (The rainbow, apparently.)
          What the director, and Domingo, and much of the opera world forget about “The Ring,” is that symbolism and concept are built right into the story. The characters are innately metaphorical. They are gods, fer godsake. They live in mythical and magical places, yet are saddled with the most classic, nagging human trappings: jealousy, bad decisions, greed, lust. They exhibit the smallest---and the grandest---of human impulses, from small-minded authoritarianism to noble sacrifice. In truth, there is very little in the panoply of human experience that is not present or implied in Wagner's text, music, and tale. It most certainly does not require additional, grafted-on symbolism or conceit. Show me a Ring that tells the story as written, and I’ll show you a Ring that moves the listener, and inspires contemplation. Most operatic directors reading this are perhaps snickering and sneering at what they consider to be hopelessly naïve, passé thinking. But they are wrong. A more literally staged, and intelligently directed “Ring” (such as the duly famed Seattle Opera production) would be almost revolutionary today---as opposed to one that has the audacity to override Wagner’s genius with the imposition of sophomoric, reductive “concepts.” And Sopwith Camels.
          Small wonder that Freyer’s explanation of his approach is almost as funny as the cueball head stick-figure giants.
          "I do not want to do what Wagner wants," he says. "I want to do a concept to show what Wagner wants. You understand?"
          In sum, Freyer’s “Rheingold” (Wagner would sue to have his name removed) reminds me of a great scene in Albert Brooks’ movie, “Defending Your Life.” Brooks has died and gone to heaven, where he is met by tour guide and angel Rip Torn. In heaven, Torn explains, you can eat whatever you want, all the time, and never get fat. Brooks ecstatically piles plates with pancakes and sundry goodies, starts chowing down, then notices Torn’s repast. It bears a very strong resemblance to something that a dog with poor digestion might leave behind, and Brooks, aghast, asks, “What’s that?” Torn replies something alone the lines that after you’ve been in heaven, eating whatever you want for a few million years, you develop arcane tastes.
          So it is with the modern direction of opera. Freyer and his fraternity have come to confuse pancakes with. . .crap.

Silverman: Ring Has Less Than Golden Start
Mangan: 'Rheingold' Astonishes at L.A. Opera
Excerpt: "Achim Freyer is a brilliant genius." (What, as opposed to a stupid genius?)
Alan Rich in Variety

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