The Rip Post                                Riposte Archive


riposte2.jpg (10253 bytes)

(Apr. 14, 2010)     
           I get it. It’s a comedy. Like the old Saturday Night Live spoof, “Bad Theater,” hosted by the hilariously erudite prig, Leonard Pinth-Garnell (Dan Ackroyd.) Right. Achim Freyer’s burlesque of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” is satire. Why didn’t I see it before? Freyer is sending up the stereotype of modern opera descecration as done by blowhards, poseurs, frauds, egomaniacs. This is I Love Nibelucy. The Ringer Cycle. Der Ring des Nibelooney.
           I mean, all those guys dressed in hockey masks in “Götterdämmerung.” Twilight of the Jasons. Siegfried in that body suit rendering him, as one French audience member laughed, “the ‘Ulk” (The Hulk). Wotan with the big birdcage on his head. All the female cast members with gigantic painted breasts and Wotan’s eyeball on their crotches. Brunhilde’s Cher wigs. Red balloons signifying red corpuscles. More mute doppelgangers than you can shake a light saber at (or twenty.). Dr. Seuss-ian beasties loping around, as if lost and looking for Julie Taymor’s “Magic Flute” set.
           Spoof! Farce!
           Sigh. If only.

Riposte Extra!
L.A. Times music critic tells Rip Post why
he did not cover L.A. Opera booing

          It is often observed these days that reality is so insane as to have rendered satire moot. In other words, you can’t satirize satire, or at least something that plays like satire. And that is the case with Freyer’s L.A. Opera production of Wagner’s “Ring,” evidenced most recently by the April 3 premiere of the last in the four-opera cycle, “Götterdämmerung” (“Twilight of the Gods.”) It plays like satire of crazy opera stagings. Bad Opera, with your host, Achim Pinth-Freyer.
           Now, for those, such as L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed, and artsy-fartsy folk who stroke their chins raw over, say, Robert Wilson’s minimalism (boy, is it minimal!), Christo the Artist’s umbrellas or even “Piss Christ,” my observations here will be dismissed as provincial, unsophisticated. Or, as Swed is wont to harrumph, the grumblings of a “Wagnerite.” Don’t believe it.
           There is everything right about reconceiving operatic production. Everything good and warranted and wonderful about freshening, reinterpreting, spiffing up, rethinking, or even that most tiresome an uninventive term, “reinventing,” operas. I have enjoyed and appreciated revolutionary, abstract, symbol-laden productions of works by Wagner, Bartok, Puccini, Verdi, Barber, Prokoviev, with directors as diverse as Patrice Chereau, William Friedkin, David Hockney, and Woody Allen (!).
           Freyer does not belong in their company, or, frankly, an opera company. He is a painter, and he does fine in that world, where the baloniest of the phoney often have their works confused with substance and profundity. Where brush-handlers such as the late Kenneth Noland can make glorified target-bullseyes and be hailed in New York Times obituaries as “color field” exponents. Cough.

Leonard Pinth-Garnell

Achim Pinth-Freyer

          Those who have read my preceding reviews and essays concerning Freyer’s $37 million “Ring,” which has pretty well bankrupted L.A. Opera and necessitated an emergency transfusion of $14 million by the L.A. Board of Supervisors, know my objections. It is now amply clear that they are shared by very many other attendees who made themselves shockingly heard during Freyer’s curtain-call after the Apr. 3 “Götterdämmerung.”
           This was, quite simply, the loudest, most ferocious chorus of boo’s I have ever heard in 40 years of attending performances in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
           A friend who has attended exponentially more concerts and operas than I have in that same venue confirmed this.
           That’s a headline, people, and one that did not appear in your Los Angeles Times. (Please see accompanying commentary.)
           Get this: it sounded as if close to half of the (significantly underpopulated!) hall howled at the first glimpse of Achim’s poof of white hair, stage right, while the other half responded with an increase in the predictable bravo-shouting competition. When Freyer took the stage, the disapproval absolutely exploded. The energy of the boo’s and jeers could have lit Valhalla. Then, in a startling display of chutzpah, Freyer trotted jauntily forward for a graceful solo curtsy, as if to challenge the house.
           The booing---and the bravos---went ballistic. By my ear, booing won by a vein-bulging neck or two. Perhaps mine.
           What? Mark Swed, your Times reporter on the scene, did not report this?
           He did not describe this astonishing moment, this major news, at an opera he was reviewing? A much debated production that has evoked boo’s in the past?
           How incompetent of him, you say?
           No, it wasn’t incompetence. He heard the boos. Swed is on record as being opposed to booing, you see, so one might reasonably conclude that he deliberately elected not to report the great awooooing chorus. Can you imagine such arrogance on the part of a reporter? Good thing this journalist was not covering the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, or the recent elections in Iran.
           This is not surprising, though, as Swed heads the local arts media constabulary of the P.C. Police. He has in the past declared booing to be a “mind-closing” activity that “stops discussion.” Once again, I must prove him wrong with the mere presence of this column.
           Yet I must disappoint faithful readers here by announcing that I cannot bring myself to dissect Deep Freyer’s boo-tiful Wagnerian desecration with my customary rigor and wit. I just don’t have the heart. It’s like bringing yourself to explain why Rush Limbaugh is a jackass, or Katie Couric an overpaid cheerleader. Isn’t it obvious? Must one go through the tedium of explaining?
           You see, Freyer’s “interpretation” is to impose on to “The Ring” all sorts of cuckoo costumes, poses, masks, puppets, (surprisingly dull) lighting effects, staging, lack of staging, regardless of whether the audience can make any sense of it, and whether it has anything obviously to do with the action, or music. These things don’t matter to him. Even Swed, who would not bring himself to overtly deride what he knows to be, at minimum, a highly controversial production, allowed that the gangly Dalmatian and the mantis-like clown-thingy that wandered across the set as the Gods Twilighted were “inexplicable as ever.” (Yet this tiresome champion of the new, of course, described them as “enthralling.”) All the constant comings and goings of masks and dopplegangers and eyeballs and wolf's heads and mini-me's and Loges added up to a sort of operatic equivalent of Wack-A-Mole.
           Why does Freyer do it? Why does he do an utterly baffling “concept of Wagner’s concept” (as he puts it)? Ego? Sure, but there is more taking place here than self-indulgence, isn’t there? Is he a provocateur, hiding behind weird (and not terribly innovative) “enigmatic” clutter? He has, after all, affected the lightweight artiste cop-out of saying that he likes the booing, that any reaction pro or con is the mark of artistic worth. (Yawn.) Speaking of provocation, ladies and gents, consider this fabulous “explanatory” statement from Deep Freyer himself, word-for-word, from the “Götterdämmerung” program notes:
           “Siegfried’s stagnant journey ends in the future ‘Moderne’ created by dwarfish world rulers: a wheelwork of manipulation, sublimest greed and despotism, drifting toward the zero hour, in which time becomes immeasurable through measureless, infinite measurability.”
           Now, let’s be forgiving for a moment and take the intelligible part of this statement seriously. Freyer's Siggy, who looks like a cross between Harpo Marx and John Lithgow in “Buckaroo Bonzai,” winds up in a world of fiendish power-mongers who have effectively doomed themselves. Um. . .this is interpretation? This is something new? Isn’t this rather exactly specifically, oh-so-more-than-approximately, central to Wagner’s libretto? Isn’t this story-as-written? So much for originality, Achim. But then we come to the part of the statement that could have been drafted by George S. Kaufman for Groucho Marx making a speech as Rufus T. Firefly:
           “. . .in which time becomes immeasurable through measureless, infinite measurability.”
           Yow! Sounds like something Bill Clinton would have told a grand jury. Or better, it reminds me of that old Lenny Bruce routine, “Father Flotski’s Triumph,” in which the B-movie prison chaplain tries to cheer up the inmate on Death Row with this:
           “When the good road is hard to follow, the bad road opens, when the good road closes.”
           That Freyer’s gobbledysprache is translated from German is no defense. This is vintage Achim, and he revels in this sort of verbal tail-chasing---and the responses it prompts from the likes of me. There are only two possible conclusions to draw: he is indeed a provocateur, or he’s a little nuts. Well, third choice: both. When even apologists such as Swed admit that they don’t understand what Freyer is doing, at least some of the time, you know that the Emperor is likely in need of a coat. And, possibly, Lithium.
           Or perhaps Freyer, as I have observed, imagines himself an impish challenger of convention along the lines of, oh, Dali. If so, the problem is that he is not in the same surreal cosmos as Dali, in terms of substance or originality. His dream-like, all-in-darkness “Ring” is more like a Tex Avery version of Dali, or if that reference is too obscure, how about Chuck Jones or Walter Lantz. And now, at least for entertainment’s sake, allow me to wander through a few of my notes scribbled in “Götterdämmerung” darkness during the performance, as slight illustration of this point:
           The Norns look like fat ticks recently pried loose from a German shepherd, big black spinning tops. . .why does one have a puppet head, while the other two have real human faces on top? No sign of a rope of fate, just a red triangle. Bermuda?. . .When the supertitle appears referring to Wotan’s lost eyeball, “He paid the price with the loss of an eye,” a large eyeball appears, stage left, hilariously poked on stage on the end of a long pole. . .Siggy continues to peel off orange (red) layer of skin to reveal blue, for doubtless significant reasons. . .Brunhilde appears to have been waylaid by the Pillsbury Doughboy (Gunther in fat white Jason mask with beady black holes). . .Not one, but two Hagen ghosts wandering about with full-head masks, both smoking cigars. Will the real Hagen please stand up?. . .Many light-sabers doing same lame, clunky choreography. Freyer should have written for Khachaturian instead. . .Siggy appears in hairy pants, while wolf head keeps appearing, stage left, then stage right. Siggy plays peek-a-boo with wolf head. . ."Wack-a-Mole," says Annie. . .Siggy under influence of love potion pulls down Gutrune’s cheap cardboard top, revealing cheap cardboard breasts. Audience laughs. . .Um. . .No Rhine Journey! No spear, no Valhalla. Why is the ring suddenly a glowing silver sphere??? Why is Siegfried’s Funeral March playing while he is still alive?
           That’s correct, folks, no “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.” Just darkness, and the music. Maybe Siegfried wasn’t up to the trip. Or maybe he decided not to travel at night. Swed suggested that the sequence might have been cut to save money, but I don’t think one can ascribe any logical cause/effect to Freyerland: a place where rings turn into silver balls for no apparent reason, and principal characters line-up at the front of the stage, while strange figures walk with agonizingly affected slowness along diagonal lines behind them. Right, for most of Deep Freyer’s “Götterdämmerung,” the characters merely pose, stock-still, at the front of the stage, in all their grotesque garb, like singing statuary. Presidential debates are less stiff. Okay, they occasionally step out from behind little junior high school cardboard cutouts of themselves, for undoubtedly weighty reasons, but, well, who needs a director? This (and most of Freyer’s “Ring”) is really a concert performance with cheap, silly props. Think: Siegfried as Sarah Palin.
           One hint as to exactly how Freyer came to so poison the “Ring” was to be found in, of all places, the “comments” section following Swed’s “Götterdämmerung” review. One of the few commenters who was not a shill (de facto or planted) for L.A. Opera, this person suggested that Freyer’s “interpretation” stemmed from the text, the story, without regard to the music. Absolutely true! I’ve heard more than one person remark during the course of the L.A. “Ring” that if you could not hear the music, you would have a very, very hard time guessing the opera you were witnessing. Freyer has even spoken about his desire to stage the libretto without music(!), and, well, he’s practically done it here. Poor conductor James Conlon and the gorgeous L.A. Opera Orchestra were, for all intents and purposes, ancillary. As a critic acquaintance wrote to me, The Immolation (climactic scene of ‘Götterdämmerung’) was an "outrage," that will "wreck some of the greatest music ever written, at least for me.” I answered that the scene on stage had so little to do with the musical embroidery at hand that I was easily able to separate the two, and was spared any long-term tainting.
           Imagine. Directing and staging an opera without paying much, if any, attention to the music! Freyer would, of course, deny this, but the evidence to the contrary is on the stage. Many of the major points of dramatic interaction have been visually underwhelming, and more often downright comical, when you consider the titanically evocative soundscape illustrating them: Siegfried’s stabbing and death, the slaying of Fafnir the dragon, the forging of Nothung, Fafnir’s murder of his brother, Fasolt, and so on---all peculiarly wrought, all anti-climaxes. Two mantis-like puppets engage in a spastic dance, and one seems to comically knock the other’s cue-ball head off, while the music illustrates the horrific bludgeoning death of one giant by another? (This Rheingold moment drew laughs.) A light saber hovers lazily in space, in the vicinity of Siegfried, to indicate his being stabbed in the back? The “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla,” as I have written, was “Gods Stroll to Park.” Wagner's welling, lumbering horns illustrating Fafnir the dragon sounded, oh, just a bit incongruous, seeing as Freyer turned Fafnir into a gooney little serpent more appropriate for "Time for Beany!" Tellingly, the most successful moments in the cycle have been when the drama and music transcended Freyerism, usually because only one or two characters were left alone on stage, as in the closing love duet of "Siegfried" and "Wotan's Farewell"/magic fire music of "Die Walkure."
           Then we come to the apocalyptic "Götterdämmerung" ending, when Valhalla, the gods, and remaining characters all go up in flames---one of (if not the most) transfixing moments in all theater, let alone opera. How did Deep Freyer stage it? He, um,  “deconstructed.” All the props and light-saber-carrying Jasons flew away to reveal stage lights, backstage walls, etc. As if, what, to “destroy the world” of the stage? Oh, how “daring.” The nicest thing I can say for this sophomoric stunt is that had it been done in 1910, it might have been revolutionary. Such devices are tired old hat today, never mind that a breathless Swed predictably called it---ha ha!---one of the---ha ha!---“most glorious and moving instances of stagecraft I have ever witnessed.” Ha ha! (Note: part of the deconstruction stunt has a couple of cut-out ravens---Wotan symbols---fly away, and in so doing, as Swed wrote, “revealing prompters at their desks cuing singers.” Snob alert! The prompters conducting the singers while viewing monitors of Conlon were plainly visible from loge and balcony for all four operas! Swed has been sitting in orchestra so long that he perhaps forgets there are other vantage points from which to evaluate things.)
           And yet, there is unintentional meaning in Freyer’s visual world-ending pun. He set out to, apparently, destroy the world of the operatic stage, for whatever reason (another critic friend suggests, and I think with cause, that contempt for Wagner and for theater played a part in this), but might have wound up destroying L.A. Opera in the bargain. Swed and the Times did not mention this, but there have been oodles and oodles of empty seats in the “Ring” houses---getting emptier as “the Ring” operas have progressed. There were reportedly dozens in orchestra for the premiere of “Götterdämmerung,” and up in balcony, there were scores---with more added after each act. Word is that the three “Ring Cycle” sales are moving very slowly, which could easily result in more desperate pleas to the County Board of Supervisors to keep L.A. Opera afloat.
           The fault here lies partly with the duly revered LAO Director Placido Domingo, for having hired Freyer. Yet this should not surprise, as Domingo has signed up mountebanks and ham-handed film directors in the past, from the odious Wilson (his “Parsifal” and “Butterfly” were absurd unsimpatico treatments excused under pretentious notions of minimalism) to the late director Herb Ross’s crowd-pleasing rendering of “La Boheme,” which practically transformed the tragedy into cinematic opera buffo. Domingo seems hopelessly attracted to novelty, with seemingly spotty ability to discern substance from tomfoolery. That he green-lighted the downright asinine Washington Opera “American Ring,” with its Valkyrie paratroopers and Valhalla as skyscraper boardroom, should be evidence enough.
           The original idea, of course, was a $50-plus million LAO “Ring” extravaganza to be done by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic at the Shrine Auditorium. When 9/11 immolated this intriguing plan, Domingo gamely hung in (weathering the devastating Alberto Villar donation scandal) and saw to it that LAO got its first “Ring,” choosing Freyer largely on the basis of his 2003 LAO staging of Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust.” Where masks and Freyer fancy helped make what is essentially a static Berlioz oratorio visually attention-getting, the same devices only tarnished the “Ring.” The $37 million spent on Freyer’s essentially idiosyncratic indulgences could have imaginatively funded half a dozen operas. And let it be reminded that the bankable commodity that is the critically hailed (traditionally staged) Seattle Opera “Ring” costs $8.5 million. Correct, for $8.5 million, LAO could have had a guaranteed “Ring” hit on its hands. Instead, it is liable to hit bottom.
           Well, at least the singing and music were good.


More on Gotterdammerung/L.A. Ring:
Robert Hofler in Daily Variety

RR's Reviews and commentaries of L.A. Opera's controversial
staging of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen."

Val-hell-a  (Feb. 25, 2009)
RR reviews "Das Rheingold," the first in the series of four operas.
The Lonely Booer  (Apr. 8, 2009)
RR reviews "Die Walkure," the second in the "Ring" cycle. Also, RR 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)
RR 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 RR, and RR responds.
Southland Uber Alles  (July 29, 2009)
RR 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)
RR Reviews L.A. Opera's "Siegfried."
Rense Rebuts L.A. Times's Mark Swed on "Siegfried" (Oct. 5, 2009)
RR counters Swed's cheerleading for absurd Achim Freyer production.

                                           BACK TO PAGE ONE

© 2010 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.