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(April 8, 2009)

          “At Los Angeles Opera on Saturday night, among the sonic embers of said glow, one heard another sad, if not unexpected, sound at the end of “Die Walküre.” Somewhere in the rear of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a lonely booer (maybe more than one) valiantly tried to be heard over loud bravos when the German artist Achim Freyer, the designer and director of the company’s first and supposedly controversial “Ring” cycle, came on stage for his bow.”---from Mark Swed’s L.A. Times review.

          Hey, Ma, that was me! I am the “lonely booer” of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
          I am the guy who was mooooooing and ooooooooing from the front row of Balcony A at the opening night of Wagner’s “Die Walkure,” at the sight of director Achim Freyer. (Hands cupped, for extra projection.)
          Valiantly, just as Mark said.
          No longer freelancing, and still making the Times!
          Yes, another courageous audience member has laid claim to my title, in the comments section of Swed’s review, but trust me, folks, it was me. I was the one Swed heard. I was louder than Wotan, king of the gods, certainly louder than he was by the end of the five-hour opera.
          And let it be noted here that I applauded for everyone else---cast, crew, orchestra, conductor---with vigor.
          Poor L.A. Opera, in the hole big-time for its first-ever production of Wagner’s four-opera “Der Ring Des Nibelungen.” Poor James Conlon, who splendidly conducts an orchestra that sounds muffled (take that scrim off!), as it illustrates set and costumes that look like Cirque du Soleil hand-me-downs. Poor Placido Domingo, whose Siegmund suit was half Al Jolson in blackface, half Bozo the Clown during his blue period.
          I’ll say this for Placido: he’s open-minded!
          And poor L.A., for being subjected to a cluttered, ridiculous, crass, idiosyncratic, and often downright cheesey production for its first-ever “Ring.” Thirty-two million is being spent on this? Everything looks like it is made of construction paper and tempera paint by really hard-working high school kids. In fact, that’s not a bad general analogy. Freyer’s conceit, to use perhaps too grand a word, is that of the sophomore. Make that freshman.
          Characters have duality of emotion? Conflicted motivations? Hey, put some mute doppelgangers out there, tangoing and pirouetting around, in order to illustrate these complex psychological underpinnings. Never mind if the stage gets as busy as a barn dance. After all, the audience must be too stupid to grasp such nuances merely from Wagner’s dialogue, the acting, or the profound and evocative score. (Well, that assertion might be more accurate than I want to admit.)
SIDEBAR: And a healthy boooo for L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed, and his obligatory reference to Wagner's anti-Semitism. . .here

          Hmmm. How to suggest the meddlesome, controlling nature of Wotan’s wife, Fricka? Freyer knows! Give her freakishly long arms, with hands that light up and spin around! Want to play up the Oedipus implications of Wotan sacrificing up one of his eyes in order to win his wife? Hang a gigantic eyeball above the stage, and paint a great big one right on his forehead. Oh, and in case you miss it there, paint another eyeball on his chest, like Superman. (And paint still more big Wotan eyeballs on Fricka’s big breasts, apparently to suggest hubby’s philandering, womanizing ways—or was it some strange feminist comment?)
          I mean, we get it, Achim, we really get it! The eyeballs have it!

Fricka's freakish arms, and eyeball bazooms,
and Wotan's big eye birdcage.

         Or maybe we don’t. Do the eyes mean to represent Wotan’s omnipresence? If so, Freyer must not have been very secure about it, because at one point in Walkure, he has five---count ‘em, five---Wotans on stage at the same time (including the big red one who somersaults down from the ceiling. Exclamation point.) Find the hidden pea under the Wotan! And perhaps I was hallucinating by this point, but I believe that at the end of Act 2, a total of five Hundings and five Siegmunds lay dead on the great big Frisbee on which all this Ring Cycle action takes place. Why five?
          Why a duck?
          And how about that big Frisbee! It seems to variously represent “the world,” and the universe, and time, and the Ring, and maybe Wheel of Fortune. Is that Siegmund and Sieglinde, or Pat and Vanna down there? Can I have a “y,” please? Oh, never mind, there’s already a “y” painted right on the big Frisbee, for some reason, as well as the mysterious “3m.” (Let us hope the 3-M corporation paid L.A. Opera some big bucks for that plug.) And what are those long ribbons that Wotan keeps collecting, as he condemns his poor daughter, Brunhilde, in Act 3? The ties that bind? The tangled web we weave? Or some cunning reference to String Theory? Oh, yes, Achim, it was clear from the half-costumes that Siegmund and Sieglinde were two halves of one person, but gee, y’know, we sort of already. . .knew that.
          Then there were the light sabers, the glowing sticks representing swords and spears. Freyer apparently really, really finds them snazzy. It wouldn’t surprise me that he has five Siegmunds and five Hundings on stage just so he can watch ten light-sabers waving about in quasi-coordination. Maybe he’s “Star Wars”-struck. Yes, that could be it. Judging by his mad scientist foof of swept back hair, he and George Lucas could go to the same barber. This stroke of inspiration merits an “A,” though. For absolutely any high school or college production of this opera.
          You know, I could go on and on. So I will. Why does Wotan have a great, bulbous insect head, looking like one of the Kamanits in that great “Twilight Zone” episode, “To Serve Man?” Why is his insect head encased in a birdcage? Oh, wait a second---I understand. That’s not a birdcage, it’s. . .the Ring! It’s the same spiral of circles that periodically is projected over the scrim, apparently to remind the audience of what they are watching (not a bad idea, because without the music and singing, one would be hard-pressed to identify this opera.) I get it---Wotan is imprisoned by the curse of the Ring! Imprisoned by the bad deal he made in giving it to grisly Alberich, as ransom for his sister-in-law, Freia, who grows all those magic golden apples that keep the gods young and Pilates-ready. Imprisoned by his foibles, by his. . .bad leadership skills.
          What’s that I hear? Why, it’s the sound of John Cleese in “Fawlty Towers:”
          Incidentally, applause goes to whoever sent Fricka out to ride the big revolving Frisbee, in order to retrieve the birdcage after it got away. When Wotan took it off for some reason---who really wants to sing through a birdcage?---the contraption rolled noisily about 25 feet across the Frisbee, and clunked to a halt. Fricka arrived later, bent down to grab it---with her real hands---and then appeared to contemplate it. Alas, poor Birdcage! Nice catch! Unless. . .this. . .gasp. . .was more of Freyer’s design.
          And who was the revolutionary thinker who decreed that Wotan and Brunhilde not embrace at what certainly is the peak emotional moment of the opera? Never mind that Wagner’s directions call for that embrace. Never mind that it is craftily teased with a false climax in which the two turn to look at one another. Never mind that everything in the music, plot, and dramatic arc of Walkure---and the entire Ring---calls for this embrace to take place. It’s easily the cycle’s most poignant scene, where the God’s stubborn authoritarianism is overruled by. . .love. . .for his daughter. Ah, but Achim apparently thought this old hat, or hackneyed, or that most feared of critical charges, “sentimental.”
          Oh, my.
          Why are the Valkyries---noble demigod sisters who escort fallen warriors to Valhalla---essentially overgrown singing ravens? Why are their mighty, flying steeds a combination of birdcage head and bicycle wheel? Why are these hobby horses all-but-invisible during their signature moment, “The Ride of the Valkyries?” Why does Brunhilde sport a ‘fro as spectacular as Pam Grier’s in “Coffy," or any self-respecting Cher impersonator? Why does Fricka have a big swath of green across her snout? Please don’t tell us this represents envy.
          Yeah, I know: picky, picky. Okay, then let’s deal with Freyer’s own description of his central interpretation of “Walkure,” as quoted in the program notes. Everything in the opera, the heretofore artist avers, is about “pursuit.” Everybody in it is pursuing somebody or something at all times, Achim asserts, you know, like a Marx Brothers movie. Gosh. Hmmm. That’s provocative. Sort of like saying that the central theme of Hamlet is that everybody is worrying. Add to this Freyer’s weird statement about how he didn’t want to present Wagner’s concept, but a concept of Wagner’s concept, and it all adds up to a guy who is probably just in over his head.
          I confess to feeling a bit sorry for him, really. The man obviously worked incredibly hard here, and gamely tried to come up with a fresh look for operas that have been staged in endlessly wacky ways. He really gave things a lot of thought, and the production is nothing if not daring (for the worse, I think, in that it makes static scenes even more static by placing characters in frozen poses around the Big Frisbee.) So here's some faint praise: there are, horrifying as it is to contemplate, worse "Rings" out there, beginning with Domingo’s other sanctioned desecration, the Washington Opera’s “American Ring,” in which everything is based on (cough) American iconography. You know, Amelia Earhart aviatrix Valkyries, etc.

          I’m not a traditionalist. I loved David Hockney’s enchanting sets for L.A. Opera’s “Tristan und Isolde,” which were somewhere between whimsical and wondrous---a fine fit for a (tragic) fairy tale. I approve of originality and abstraction, when they integrate with, rather than distract from, the art at hand. And a couple of Freyer’s constructs do work nicely in Walkure. The scene in which Wotan essentially recaps how he got into the mess he’s in has real magic. For once, the Frisbee serves a graceful purpose: as Wotan names the various characters in the story, they appear from out of the darkness, stepping on to the big Lazy Susan, slowly orbiting the king of the gods, embellishing his narrative like visual versions of Wagner leitmotivs.
          And the staging of the “Ride of the Valkyries” was ethereal, weird and creepy (“ghastly,” as Swed said), at least for about twenty seconds until you saw how low-budget it was (might have spent a few more dollars here than on, well, maybe anything else.) Finally, the manner in which Loge lit the “magic fire” surrounding Brunhilde was fanciful, lyrical, a beguiling delight. Picture a demented red imp done cubist style, moving about the circle, “igniting” strange, spinning red-orange lamps, like some hellish acolyte. It was beautiful. . .
           But utterly ruined by the unscripted, vulgar, foreshadowing intrusion of Siegfried, not due until the next opera, here strutting across the stage like Chuck Jones’s yowzah-ing animated frog. In the form of a bare-chested muscleman with curiously blue torso and, instead of a head, nothing but a (gold, I think) glittering top hat (I get it---the star of the show is a brawny boob, literally and figuratively.) Yes, that’s right, take the most touching sequence in the opera---one of the most touching in all opera---and trash it up with a little topless burlesque. Sheesh. (Quick--- somebody take a blue pencil to the blue torso man.)
          There were two reasons, I think, that the great chorus of boo’s lavished on Freyer after the Ring's first opera, “Das Rheingold,” were not reprised last Saturday night, and that the customary Great Bravo-Shouting Competition reigned supreme. The reasons: Wagner, and the singing. In Walkure, there are a few sequences where only two characters are on stage (notably where Wotan recaps everything for Brunhilde, and “Wotan’s Farewell” to Brunhilde at the opera’s end), and here Freyer did not---could not?---interfere much. Suddenly, the audience was dependent only on the music and the singing. Free to ignore the Frisbee and the costumes, and concentrate on Wagner. Well, the music quickly and rather embarrassingly superceded all the silliness. The crowd was caught up, including me, and Domingo (“the world’s greatest Sigmund” hype is warranted) and Anja Kampe (Sieglinde) were tremendous. Vitalij Kowaljow's somewhat underpowered “Wotan’s Farewell” was nonetheless sung movingly, with emotion that caused at least one loud handkerchief honk in my neighborhood.
          That cinched it for the Bravo Brigade.
          But I boo’ed, and will boo again. (That’s balcony A, folks, front row---listen for me!) Frankly, I was doing Mark Swed’s job for him. His reviews of the first L.A. “Ring” opera, “Das Rheingold,” and now “Walkure” have pulled their punches, big-time. As reader comments following his story note, his tone is that of an apologist. Swed knows that a failed “Ring” could mean nothing less than Gotterdammerung for L.A. Opera, and he certainly knows just how loused up and bizarre is Freyer’s rendering. He hints at it (calls it “weird” at one point), but won’t go beyond that. He’s a house man---always has been for L.A. Opera and the L.A. Philharmonic---and I’m the critic here. If this “Ring”---set for three cycles and a citywide festival next June---sinks L.A. Opera, blame L.A. Opera, and Placido Domingo, and the man with the big Frisbee.

Extra reading:
'Ring' Cycles with a Spin---Freyer endorses booing!
The L.A. Ring director takes the ultimate phoney artiste cop-out---"I don't want a spectator like that. He has to be active; he has to yell, 'Boo,' 'Bravo,' get involved."
Why not boo? by Terry Teachout

Christopher Smith Uncovers Freyer's "Ring" Inspiration
Reviews and commentaries of L.A. Opera's controversial staging of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen."

Val-hell-a  (Feb. 25, 2009)
Rense reviews "Das Rheingold," the first in the series of four operas.
The Lonely Booer  (Apr. 8, 2009)
Rense reviews "Die Walkure," the second in the "Ring" cycle. Also, Rense reacts to L.A.Times music critic Mark Swed noting the presence of a "lonely booer" letting loose at the sight of director Achim Freyer. The "lonely booer" was. . .Rense.
A Boo For Swed (Apr. 8, 2009)
Rense comments in sidebar on Swed's assertion that listening to Wagner might make you "want to keep company with Hitler."
The Lonely Booer 2  (May 1, 2009)
L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed boos back at Rense, and Rense responds.
Southland Uber Alles  (July 29, 2009)
Rense comments on L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich's motion to quash a citywide "Ring" Festival on the basis that Wagner was an anti-Semite.
Siggy Stardust (Oct. 5, 2009)
Rense Reviews L.A. Opera's "Siegfried."
Rense Rebuts L.A. Times's Mark Swed on "Siegfried" (Oct. 5, 2009)
Rense counters Swed's cheerleading for absurd Achim Freyer production.

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