The Rip Post                                                                                              


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(Oct. 5, 2009)
    It’s hard to be glib about the Achim Freyer L.A. Opera production of “Siegfried,” which premiered Sept. 29. Just as it is hard to be glib about, oh, murder.
          I will say this, though, with sadness and mixed emotions. It’s time for the great L.A. Opera General Manager Placido Domingo, who has given so much to opera in Los Angeles and the world, to think about moving on. He has sold LAO out to Eurotrash silliness and pseudo-intellectualism.
          With this “Ring,” I thee fled.
          Here’s a little Ringside blow-by-blow:
          A walking gold top hat. A walking green coffee cup (okay, stew-pot.) A walking pair of green pliers. A walking green carrot---oh wait, must have been a sword. A Siegfried who was half Lon Chaney Jr. under a full moon (the bottom half,) and half some kind of mutant Harpo Marx. Check that---more like Shockheaded Peter. StruwwelSiegfried. Erda, Brunhilde, and the Wood Bird all with huge, painted-on breasts with gigantic nipples, sometimes drooping and green, sometimes staring like giant red eyeballs. . .
          And yes, Wotan’s missing, blinking orb looming once again above the stage (dropping at one point in hamhanded symbolizing of his loss of power)---and also painted right on Brunhilde’s. . .crotch.
          Gosh, do you suppose this symbolized Wotan’s control over his daughter’s chastity? Or maybe a touch of John & MacKenzie Phillips going on here? Golly, such weighty implication! Oh, such Freudian insight! One might never have thought of such things without that big crotch-eyeball!
          But. . .hmm. . .I dunno. . .a Wood Bird with breasts? Now that’s one mixed-up DNA strand. No, I don’t think even Wagner, with all his incest-heavy "Ring" plotting and intra-species intercourse, would have quite understood that particular amalgam. To be fair, though, Robin Redbreasts might not have been Freyer’s doing, but that of his costume designer daughter, Amanda, who likely subscribes to sophomoric “feminist” notion of breasts symbolizing “power,” or some such pop-think..
          “Siegfried?” This was Siggy Stardust. Ken Russell's Quadra-Ringia.
          Did I say it was hard to be glib about this? Check that. It's unpleasant to be glib about Freyer's "Siegfried," but not hard.
          Wait, there’s more!

          Little raised platforms with inexplicable numerals on them. A sign pointing “Ost” (east.) A grotesque Gerald Scarfe-esque circus troupe parade (not seen since “Rheingold,” unless I had my eyes closed and missed it during “Walkure”) featuring, quite unaccountably, a mutant Dr. Seuss-ian dog and---here we go with the areolas again---a comic book vision of Carol Doda and her blinking 44’s. This appeared in Act 2, for no apparent reason.
          Actually, that describes Freyer’s whole approach to the Ring: no apparent reason.
          Freyer apparently believes that depicting his own obtuse symbolic rendering of the operas, rather than the operas themselves, is the cat’s pajamas (surprised a pair did not march across the stage.) This sort of artsy-fartifice---“I’m doing a concept of Wagner’s concept,” as he flatulently boasts--- is hardly unusual in opera, though it constitutes the most widespread and successful ploy in all contemporary art. That is, impenetrably idiosyncratic statement passing itself off as interpretation. The more outrageous and harder to parse, the better, as if outrageousness and coy, guess-what-this-means device equate to significance.
          Booing really isn’t enough for this $32 million nonsense (and there was a healthy amount of it at the Siggy premiere---along with, I would estimate, hundreds of empty seats---thank goodness.) I’d say it’s about time to bring back rotten tomatoes. . .
          Call me pedantic, but I am of the opinion that interpretation, whether in poetry or painting or operatic direction, should be somewhat intelligible. That it should not require a key to decode the proceedings at hand, or cryptic “explanation” by the director. This is not a game---well, check that. They way the likes of Freyer and Robert Wilson, another Wagner (and Puccini) assassin, play things, it is exactly that: a game.
          How would one know, for glaring example, the meaning of Freyer’s scrim-projected moving vertical lines without his explaining them? Well, turns out they signify “mortality,” he reveals in program notes---or, as one hilariously snooty audience member was heard to huff-and-puff to his rapt companions at intermission (just before casually announcing his impending business trip to Saudi Arabia) “Oh, those? They mean death.”
          And here I thought they meant there was something wrong with the scrim projector.
          Yawn. If Wagner wanted vertical lines representing “mortality” in his operas, he could have just had everyone wear stripes, and had the valkyries ride zebras (whoops---hope I’m not giving Freyer any ideas.)
That’s it, folks. Waiting for Hojotoho. The whole opera is about. . .waiting. Really. This is Freyer’s hypothesis.

          What Achim the Awful has done here is really quite remarkable, though, I’ll give him that. He has decided to mostly forego characterization, plot, action, just about all of the intended meaning and narrative of Wagner’s “Ring.” It is all beside the Freyer point. He has instead decided that his idiosyncratic, obscure, and all but impenetrable fever-dream hallucination of these operas should supercede, well, everything.
          Including the music and singing.
          Repeat: the music and singing.
          The poor wonderful music. The poor wonderful conductor, James Conlon. The poor wonderful orchestra. And most of all, the poor wonderful singers (whom even L.A. Times critic Mark Swed admits are ballast in Freyerland.)
          They have nothing to illustrate. Nothing but a $32 million depiction of Freyer’s not very interesting symbology, if you can call it that, littered with his boorish obsession with “Star Wars”-style light sabers and other Hollywood/Eurotrashian devices. I mean, when all the parallel neon lights on stage break slowly into fragments, as Siegfried sings of the need to forge together the pieces of his sword, Nothung, ah, we get it, Achim! If you were a high school kid, I would give you such good marks. But you’re not, so I sat in balcony A, my jaw agape at such an obvious trick, hearing the late Merv Griffin in my head:

Freyer's Siegfried, o. . .

. . .Struwwelpeter, o. . .

. . .El Harpo!

          No, this stupendous music was just not designed to illuminate the paltry musings of a crackpot. It was designed to illustrate a titanic mythological tale of guile, power, loyalty, fiendishness, fate, heroism, folly, love, heartbreak, nihilism, cunning, beauty, ambition, horror, irony, innocence, death. And more! To illustrate a sort of ultimate parable of yin and yang, aspiration and doom, integrity and guile, foible and fate. To complement, underscore, punctuate, reveal a story whose legendary symbolic, psychological, sociological complexities are built in, and have been the subject of countless books and essays since the “Ring” were first staged.
          To focus on one or two supposed thematic aspects of “Siegfried” is simply reductive, yet this is exactly what Freyer has done. Here, for the record, is the man’s analysis of the third of the four “Ring” operas---a highly episodic, plot-heavy, practically Byzantine storyline involving oh, epic scale opportunism (Mime raising Siegfried to steal the Ring back from Fafnir the dragon), resignation to grim fate (Wotan’s acceptance of, indeed, furthering of, the end of the gods), awakening of love (Siegfried, Brunhilde), and even a good, old-fashioned dragon-slaying:
          “Dwarf-brother Mime awaits Siegfried’s maturation. Grandson of Wotan, Siegfried awaits the sword. God Wotan awaits Siegfried’s victory. Dwarf-brother Alberich awaits Mime and Siegfried. No longer divine, Brunhilde awaits Siegfried. The dragon waits.”
          That’s it, folks. Waiting for Hojotoho. The whole opera is about. . .waiting. Really. This is Freyer’s hypothesis. It’s like saying that Hamlet is about talking. Everybody, after all, does a lot of that. Oh, okay, I’ve shortchanged Herr Direktor. He also says that “Siegfried performs the great penetration. . .into the heart of the dragon, into the loathed foster-father Mime, into the circle of fire around Brunhilde through the destruction of Wotan’s power-spear. . .
          “And into the woman.”
          Really. He writes this. Into the woman! I guess I should be thankful that he doesn’t come out and say, “penis” instead of “power spear,” and have the sword depicted as a giant phallus (as Wagner’s great-granddaughter, Katherina Wagner, who had her father and Goethe prancing about with enormous erections in the Bayreuth’s “Meistersinger,” certainly would have done.)
          Such penetrating insight, Achim.
This was a teensy-weensy Sesame Street lizard of a dragon, smiling, with a top hat, who boinged around the stage like Jerry Lewis on crystal meth.

          Sacrificed to Freyer’s ego and id are nothing less than all the delights and rewards of the “Ring’”s Machievellian character interactions, also known as. . .the story. As New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini said, with admirable understatement: “I terribly miss the human dimensions of the characters in this sci-fi ‘Ring.’ After all, Wagner meant for us to see ourselves in this story of a tormented, overreaching god and his dysfunctional family.” While it is certain that neither Mssrs. Domingo nor Freyer intended a desecration, this is the net result of the L.A. “Ring.” It’s not an affront to Wagner, it’s an affront to an audience paying a premium for tickets in hard times.
          I mean, for this, L.A. Opera reduced its staff by 17%, cut the number of performances this season from 64 to 48, postponed a badly-needed Pavilion renovation and the premiere of Daniel Catan's "Il Postino?"
          Yes, a symbolic or impressionistic rendering of the Ring operas---any opera---is perfectly grand, as long as there is some relationship, if not rapport, between what is depicted and the music at hand. Isn’t that sort of Opera 101? But Freyer, in an apparent attempt to be Dali, cast this consideration to the Magic Fire. As Wotan sings his heart-rending farewell to his daughter, Brunhilde, in “Walkure”---one of the most moving moments in all of opera---Freyer had Siggy, in gold top-hat and shirtless blue musculature, strut right across the stage. In “Siegfried,” as Brunhilde and Siegfried engage in one of the most gorgeous love duets in all of opera, one is left to try disregarding the fact that Siggy looks a lot like John Lithgow in “The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai” crossed with Goldilocks. In all seriousness, had he taken out a Harpo horn and honked it a couple of times, it would not have surprised me.
          The problem with Dreyer trying to be Dali, of course, is that he is not Dali. He lacks, among other things, Dali’s wit and illuminating intellect. Speaking of illumination, this entire “Ring” takes place in darkness. Perpetual nacht. There are no “places,” no settings, no locales---just the big spinning World-Frisbee floating in an apparent ur-universe, on which Freyer sets all the singers. Who move ever so ever-so-slowly. While the Frisbee spins ever-so-slowly. And the black-suited “invisible” stagehands carry the glowing green carrots, etc., ever-so-slowly. Or step ever-so-slowly from left to right, and right to left, to depict, oh, left and right and right and left, I guess.
          The whole ever-so-slow production seems to take ever-so-forever. And let me assure you that even when staged literally, milking all the action available to a director and conducted at taut tempi, “Siegfried” is a long five-hour haul. Such contrived conceit as Freyer’s waiting and penetrating aims to buffalo the viewer into thinking he or she is witnessing something fraught with psychological revelation. Sing with me now: Forever Jung. . .
          There were two dramatic exceptions to the slowness (which, not incidentally, is a device Freyer seems to have appropriated from Robert Wilson, whose “Parsifal” and “Madame Butterfly” cast struck poses that would make a chiropractor shudder, and almost never moved.) First was the moment where Siggy and Mime did the Can-Can together.
          Yes, you are reading correctly.
          Siegfried and his dwarf-stepfather, Mime, danced the Can-Can. One can only assume that this was because there was not enough room to fox-trot. (Watch video here.)
From his rising foof of white artiste hair to his lowbrow goof of interpretive ideas, Freyer is a laugh and a half.

          Then there was the dragon. Oh, my, and what a dragon it was! Never mind music that suggests a Wurmus Giganticus in all its slumbering, lumbering menace, and that the voice is the bass-est of baritones (amplified with echo in the Freyer Fest.) No, the Freyer Fafnir was every bit as menacing as Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent, playful as Wally Gator, idiotic as Barney. This was a teensy-weensy Sesame Street lizard of a dragon, smiling, with a top hat, who boinged around the stage like Jerry Lewis on crystal meth.
          I guess you get the drift.
          As I said, there was a healthy chorus of boo’s for Freyer following “Siegfried,” led by your faithful Ringside commentator, me, the no-longer-so-Lonely Booer (see prior article, and article.) Yes, it seems that the audience is catching on to the fact that this Emperor is shivering naked, and this “Ring” is a dreary carnival. With all the empty seats in the house, one must now wonder how L.A. Opera will ever manage to sell out its three “Ring” circuses to be performed in June, 2010. Perhaps it will rely on critic Swed, who has gone from tempering his endorsement (and even pronouncing Freyer’s approach “weird” at one point) to, with “Walkure” and “Siegfried,” a love-fest in print.
          Is there anything at all to recommend this “Siegfried?” Yes. How ironic that the music is superbly realized, and the singing is so excellent. At the as-usual fabulous pre-opera “Siegfried” lecture, conductor James Conlon announced that the scrim/screen had at last been removed from atop the orchestra. (It was employed per Wagner’s direction that the ensemble be invisible---and removed after unanimous complaints by critics, as well as The Rip Post.) As a result, the music was suddenly free to boom and roar and lilt and whisper clearly, sensitively, filling the Pavilion. All those years of prattle by Swed about how abysmal is the sound in that fine hall just seemed absurd.
          And if you closed your eyes so you could not see John Treleaven humiliate himself in the degrading Siegfried get-up (and being a good enough sport to act the part, as per Freyer’s instructions, like a tantrum-throwing baby alternating with Karloff’s Frankenstein)*, you would have been thrilled at his heady, durable heldentenor. Linda Watson’s rendering of Brunhilde was, absent one moment where she seemed to lose her place (or swallowed wrong?), shaped with panache, power, and sheen. Mime (Graham Clark) was pleasingly fiendish and, appropriately, perversely likeable. Vitalij Kowaljow continued his splendid Wotan (The Wanderer, in this opera) no easy trick while wearing a birdcage on his head, and the rest of the cast was crackerjack: Jill Grove as Erda, Eric Halfverson as Fafnir (though needlessly amplified), Stacey Tappan as the Wood Bird, and Oleg Bryjak as Alberich. The applause was duly thunderous for orchestra, singers, supernumeraries, and duly peppered with booing for the director.
          In sum, Achim Freyer might be a fun bridge partner, or he might be nice to his dog, but as an opera director, he makes a very good Woody Allen caricature. From his rising foof of white artiste hair to his lowbrow goof of interpretive ideas, Freyer is a laugh and a half. Or he would be, if he were not being paid many millions of dollars to indulge himself, and ignore Wagner, in staging “Der Ring des Nibelungen” for L.A. Opera.
          Small wonder, with all that cash in the bank, he was seen smugly chuckling to himself throughout the performance.
          Well, at least he understood it.

* The tenor was injured while executing this ungainly characterization on Freyer's dark, tilted, and, it would now seem, perilous stage, in the Oct. 4 performance. He limped through the end of the opera with an ankle injury.
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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