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(July 1, 2010)

          “You can find lots of superficiality and ignorance in the opera world masquerading as genius. But Achim is an artist who really thinks deeply about his work. Whereas I might not agree with every detail, I certainly find the overall vision very compelling.”---L.A. Opera conductor James Conlon.

          I’ve come full Ring circle. Or cycle. Well, sort of.
          Some will accuse me of brain Freyer. As if I’ve gone around once too many times on the big Freyer Frisbee on stage at his much-debated L.A. Opera treatment of Wagner’s “Der Ring Des Nibelungen."
          No, I do not rescind my booing of the Freyer Ring operas, as they premiered, one by one, during the past year. I do not rescind all of my wildly sarcastic declamations about same. (Try being wildly sarcastic sometimes. It’s fun.) I mostly blame L.A. Opera for all this---and for the massive, historic booing that the cycle sustained as each chapter premiered.
          Listen: would you mount a production of “The Sound of Music” with penguins, cats, and donkeys, and spring it on the public with no explanation? I don’t know about you, oh sophisticated operaphile, but I needed a primer, a guide, or at least---at least---an extended interview with Freyer or conductor James Conlon to crack the “Der Ring Des Nibelooney” code. Before Alberich so much as pinched a Rhine Maiden’s bottom.
          Turns out there is---hold on to your Tarnhelm---method to Freyer’s apparent madness.
          As for the sophisticates looking down their snoots at me for my initial lack of perception, well, to quote Monty Python, “I fart in your general direction.” Much as the elderly gentleman did during the second intermission of “Gotterdammerung,” (Cycle 2), fairly poisoning Balcony A for about five minutes. Twilight of the Gods, indeed.
          Hey, what can I say? I’ve lived in L.A. all my life, I’m a college dropout, a former newspaperman dilettante. I never claimed any vast intellect, though it’s vaster than a breadbox. I have my blind spots. I can’t even ever remember how to spell hemorhhoid. Or hemmorhoid. Or whatever it is.
          But I digress.
          To see Freyer’s Ring, one opera at a time, staggered over a year, is a bad idea. Very bad. Like milktoast. With no explanation, no compass, no map to suggest that Freyer is not just arbitrarily messing around with Wagner, you are likely to conclude that. . .Freyer is just arbitrarily messing around with Wagner. That this is another pretentious, capricious, pseudo-intellectual ego indulgence that does not enhance or grace the proceedings---but obfuscates and desecrates them.
          In other words, that it’s just another in a long line of asinine “Eurotrashian” productions where Valkyries are cast as, oh, lesbian bikers, Rhine Maidens as pole-dancing whores, Donner the god of thunder as a baseball player (this really happened), Wotan as a CEO, and Valhalla is a mini-mall. Stunt interpretation.
          This is more or less what I concluded after seeing “Rheingold” a year ago. How could I have thought otherwise, with the gods looking like something out of Mad Magazine, Froh (god of fertility) tooling around in a dilapidated Sopwith Camel, everything taking place in darkness, more enigmatic dopplegangers than you could shake a light saber at (there was no shortage of those, either), and projected white vertical lines on a scrim allegedly signifying “temporal time,” or something. Freyer? Obviously just another mountebank manipulating the proceedings for outré reasons (and possibly, as a long-time music critic suggested to me, contempt for Wagner.) You walked away trying to justify having spent hundreds of dollars for balcony seats, or several thousand for orchestra, with such thoughts as, “Well, at least he didn’t turn it into an “urban” treatment, a “Gangsta Ring.” (Hey, it's not far-fetched---one of the “L.A. Ring Festival” events featured an absolutely pathetic “fusion” performance called “Gangsta Wagner.”)
          Add to this little Achim quotations in the opera programs including such Marxian (as in Brothers) conundrums as “. . .time becomes immeasurable through measureless, infinite measurability,” and hey, you could only conclude that the guy was shy Aces and deuces. And that you are being dealt a lousy operatic hand.
         I mean, no one from conductor Conlon to tenor James Treleaven (who, with soprano Linda Watson, denounced Freyer shortly before the cycles began) to the guy walking down the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion staircase behind me at “Gotterdammerung” intermission has claimed to like or understand everything Freyer did to---I mean, did with---Wagner here. And that guy behind me, by the way, said something that I heard in one form or another countless times during intermissions:
          “I sure don’t get all the symbolism.”
          Right. I didn’t, either. I still don’t. But after seeing all four operas within a nine-day span, I started to parse some of it. Aided by Freyer’s scant explanations---picked up from an article here, a promo video there---an earnest, overarching conceit began to unveil. Really. I mean, Achim still might be full of. . .wit. . .but there turns out to be serious thinking behind the puppets, lights, and scrim. Zum Beispiel: In his weird ur-universe, human time is not yet in motion, and there are Stephen Hawking implications of everything happening everywhere simultaneously in Freyer’s vertical lines, pacing black-tighted dopplegangers, big rotating Frisbee. Really.
          I must add that the predictable enthusiasm of the L.A. Times’s Mark “Homer” Swed and the haughty gushing of a couple of erudite, politically correct local critics did not exactly predispose me to embracing all the masks, crude cardboard costumes, Siegfried as a retarded clown, Fafnir the dragon as a Wally Gator, Brunhilde as a mutant Cher, Wotan with that goddamn birdcage over his head, the Gibichungs as an army of “Friday the 13th” Jasons, a woodbird with breasts, giants with tiny cue-ball heads, and I’d better stop there before I get riled up again.
          Yes, of course I read that Freyer was a protégé of Bertolt Brecht, but every pretentious artiste seems to make reference to Brecht at one time or another. In most cases, I think it’s because they like to say “Brecht.” So I more or less dismissed this information.
          Big mistake!
          Had I taken this to heart---er, head---it might have been easier to accept the fact that the music was secondary to the proceedings. That the traditional purpose of opera, which I would contend is to involve viewers dramatically and emotionally in the story and its interplay with music, was utterly, deliberately irrelevant to the proceedings. This was The Achim Freyer Show, with Wagner playing second fiddle. Or the Protégé of Brecht Show, also starring Ricky and his Dancing Leitmotivs. The music and drama was subsidiary in what Wagner termed “music-drama.”
          I must also plead having seen, in recent years, two very fine traditionally staged “Rings” by Seattle Opera, including one that came after Freyer’s “Rheingold” and before “Walkure,” which left me very satisfyingly involved in story, characterization, mood, plot, angst, heartbreak, transcendent beauty. We’re even talking chills and tears here, folks. Call me a rube.
          So I was in no mood for indulging verfremdungseffekt, which is not a stool-based bacterial infection, but the German word for Brecht’s storytelling concept, “alienation effect.” Which, as a handy website summarizes, essentially means that Brecht eschewed emotion in favor of intellect: “(He) detested the ‘Aristotelian’ drama and its attempts to lure the spectator into a kind of trance-like state, a total identification with the hero to the point of complete self-oblivion, resulting in feelings of terror and pity and, ultimately, an emotional catharsis.”
          Oh! Wotan forbid that an opera lead a viewer to such a banal thing as an emotional catharsis! Not that! Well, there I go again. Too much cantankerous in the tank. The preceding quote boils down to this: the staging of productions in such intellectual, analytical, symbolic fashion as to demand emotional detachment from the story. To alienate. Sort of creating an immunity to the traditional “trappings,” which play to suspense and heart, and instead interpret the proceedings strictly from the cerebrum.
          Right, it’s not my priority, either, but it was Freyer’s, and he succeeded in applying it to the Ring. Succeeded spectacularly, for better and worse. Whether I found his symbology impenetrable, or his costuming ugly or ridiculous, he succeeded. It took, again, experiencing all four operas in a week to see this. It also took a lack of outrage. When I went to see cycle number two, having been unable to sell my tickets at less than half-price(!), I was free of: the shock value experienced the first time around, the anger at a opera company spending between $32 and $40 million on its first “Ring” in such over-the-top eccentric fashion, and from expectations of being "entranced" by the story and enchanted by the interplay of Wagner-patented leitmotiv and drama.
          Freed up, in other words, to take the proceedings for what they were. Freed to objectively assess Freyer’s ego indulgence, divorced from the complaints of my own. And. . .revelation: it was fun! On the plus side, Freyer created and sustained an original atmosphere and world(s) on stage, start to finish, and spectacularly. Just how often is this done with the “Ring,” or any opera? His proto-cosmos of gods and giants and Valkyries was an ethereal, surreal, unreal reality that was realized with an astonishing amount of garish, grotesque costuming, nearly constant atmospheric morphing, and a painterly aesthetic. Abstract expressionist painterly.
          Yes, what had initially seemed to me a kind of visual blabbering now revealed a thoughtful, or at least organized, design. Freyer is an artist, and he “painted” the “Ring” with light, color, mask, prop, and symbol. It was an abstraction, but it was rich and complicated---as opposed to more mannered and minimalist (and I think, pretentious) abstract designs common in opera today (this means you, Robert Wilson.) At least from the balcony, this Ring had the additional eerie effect of appearing almost two-dimensional---canvas-like. I’ll wager that there are hundreds---hundreds---of individual snapshots that could be taken in the course of the four Freyer-staged operas where the overall stage design stood as a completely distinctive "painting." That, in and of itself, is remarkable. That this production was not filmed is tragic, although it’s an open question if the atmosphere would carry over into film.
          But why the perpetually mutating light-show? Well, it seemed to me that Freyer was going for a visual counterpart to Wagner leitmotiv, though hardly as detailed or complex as in Wagner’s score. Call it light-motiv. This arguably puts him in the good company of the artist Wassily Kandinsky, who spent a lifetime assigning emotive values to color. In Freyer’s Ring, projected patterns and pigments fluctuate and recur along with specific events, symbols, and the director’s philosophical processing of the story. Definitive or provocative, who knows? But no matter. Imagine my relief to find this was not just my imagination, after reading a very valuable article I found only in the program made available during the cycles, by Thomas May. Excerpt:
          “(Freyer) has evolved an iconography that mirrors the organic connections of Wagner’s intricate musical web of motifs and associations. Strange and surreal they are---including such signature images as Wotan’s disembodied eye, a squeezebox rainbow, Fricka’s absurdly extended arms, a kind of racetrack in Siegfried. . .yet Freyer’s visual vocabulary is not arbitrary. . .It gains in suggestive power as the cycle progresses.”
          Exactly. These things simply are not as apparent when viewing the cycle over a year’s time, as opposed to a week. Wotan’s eyeball, for instance, is almost comically present throughout the operas, in one size or another (and sometimes in three different sizes at once!) It is also to be found all over Brunhilde's womanly regions, and on Siegfried’s fatal wound after he is stabbed by Hagen. What does it all mean? Aside from the (painfully) obvious implication that Wotan’s imprint is in every aspect of events, at all times, it could also stand as a symbol of how every decision and action undertaken by the ruler of the gods is doomed to snafu and self-defeat. He had sacrificed that eye in order to win his endlessly nagging wife, and her meddling ten-foot-long papier mache arms. Mistake number one.
          What of the accursed birdcage over Wotan’s bulbous, insect head? Yes, as I explained in my diatribes, it’s meant to suggest the ring and its hold on his psyche. Is it overkill that the same motif appears repeatedly, projected over the scrim, and that at times, even Freyer’s turntable on which the “action” takes place becomes an enormous Ring? That’s a matter of taste. This is a painter at work, more than a director. You get used to it after while, rather the way you get used to a. . .leitmotiv.
          I must defensively note here that I did, in my initial pieces, praise some effects in the production, including the marvelous depiction of the Rhine via a huge piece of fabric undulated by hidden personnel underneath. I absolutely loved the rendering of the “magic fire,” with the hellish imp, Loge, lighting a series of spinning lamps in time with the music. Gorgeous. I came to endorse the frightening facelessness and uniformity of the Gibichungs, which I took as a comment on the sociopathic nature of humans and their cunning constructs. The despoiling of Brunhilde via the stripping away of her  garments to reveal handprints? Well, it was original, if heavy, um, handed. The “blood” (red fabric) extending out from beneath her, and ultimately wrapping around her, signifying both loss of godhead and maidenhead? Creative, but gee, kind of. . .bloody.  Still and all, this was Freyer, take him or leave him. I would probably leave, for instance, the giant Dalmatian (it was actually a comically slavering wolf), the Carol Doda (use your imagination) and sundry other giant puppets that seemed to signify lust and other Ring-related curses. I will definitely leave the “sneak preview” appearance of Siegfried in “Walkure,” as Brunhilde lies asleep and Wotan wanders forlornly away. Siggy comes high-stepping along with the golden Tarnhelm for a head (in the form of a gold top hat, a reference to Weimar Republic aristocracy), totally destroying the intended poignancy of the moment. But Freyer doesn’t do poignancy, so I guess I have to find that in Seattle, or the Met.
          Freyer’s own reductions of the stories, as translated from German, seemed broad, if not simplistic, at least at first reading. “Walkure,” he explained, is all about pursuit, “Siegfried” all about waiting (and various types of “penetration,” from the impaling of Fafnir the dragon to the defloration of Brunhilde.) I initially took these observations to be almost silly, quipping that it was like saying that “Hamlet” is all about “thinking,” but I now see them more as distillations of the incestuously complex Ring circus. Valid distillations. This was not an easy conclusion to reach, but was buttressed by the fact that Freyer’s stagings are very carefully constructed to suggest his ideology. That’s laudable. Witness the kind of otherworldly “running track” of “Siegfried,” where all is indeed waiting. On its own terms, this is thought-provoking stuff.
          Of course, Freyer does not help the audience to understand these things, especially with statements such as “The theater reiterates the processes and progress of the prelude and two subsequent evenings in fatefully inevitable sequence and superimposition. A generator of chance made of self-repeating parallel loops.” I mean, really---huh? Again, May’s article is helpful, in at least trying to make the case that this is not merely a case of Achim in Wonderland:
          “Freyer’s elusive repertory of symbols---a mix of dark vaudeville and surreal, dreamlike archetypes---plays out in tandem with his geometric imagery of circles, lines and spirals on a steeply raked rotating disc. The anti-realistic visual dimension, where we see characters from the past coexisting with the unfolding action, generates an intriguing counterpoint to the Ring’s mythological cosmos. ‘Timelessness was Wagner’s dictum for the Ring,’ says Freyer, adopting it as his own modus operandi.”
          If you think this reads like a guy who has no actual grip on what’s going on, but is trying to persuade himself and the reader that he does, I agree with you. And yet, the more you think about these ideas and intentions---while seeing the cycle in the span of a week---the more meaning they acquire. Perhaps that is at the core of the issue here. Freyer has invested enormous effort in a frighteningly complicated staging that is inarguably original, steering clear of conventional illustration of the story and its more obvious philosophy---yet he does draw from Wagner’s own ruminations about time, the corruption of virtue, and more. If, for example, the hero, Siegfried, is drawn as a cartoon-panel buffoon, it is because---you eventually find out from interviews---that Freyer views him as an “inbred” stumblebum incapable of complex thought, let alone discriminative reason. It’s an interesting, perhaps cynical idea of heroism as sheer purity---and that purity stemming not merely from lack of exposure to deceit, but from genetic defect. Or maybe that’s sheer nonsense.
          But that, I have to admit, is the fun of this production. It gets you thinking. It forces you to assess what you are watching, and to discuss. It alienates you from the emotional experience to the extent that you have no other choice but to try to make sense of things. I don’t think this is always a valid measure of artistic worth, but I do think it is, in this case. Yet, you might ask, isn’t this phenomenon true of any conventional staging of The Ring? Isn’t Wagner thought-provoking enough on his own terms? I would say it’s a question of degree. You are much more likely to be stimulated to wonder “why is this?” when confronted with the arch, almost psychedelic abstraction---and genuine thoughtfulness---of Freyer than with literal depiction. But that is not the purpose of literal stagings, which are intended more to mine the emotional and narrative value. It is unapologetically the Brechtian purpose of Freyer. (Did I just type “Brechtian?”)
          And if I didn’t see all this at first, I would draw an analogy to the experience of my cousin, Will, who is an ardent Ring devotee (who enjoyed Freyer’s depiction immensely.) When Will first visited India, years ago, the poverty, chaos, crowding, disease, and brutal reality against which the populace struggled, left him aghast, deeply repulsed. He could not wait to leave, and simply rejected the society entirely.  On his second visit, freed from the shock and revulsion he had first experienced, he was able to find much to engage his interest, in and in the end, he fell in love with the place.
          I won’t go that far with Freyer’s “Ring,” but I can say that I’m glad to have made a second visit.
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