Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Through a Scrim Darkly

How often do you wake up in the morning and say to yourself, “I better hurry and get ready for the opera?” Well, when Wagner’s monumental nearly five-hour Siegfried is on the bill, you’d better get your daily ablutions out of the way early enough to enter the temple of music, properly cleansed with mind and senses awake. A double espresso also might help, especially when said Siegfried is an afternoon performance, 1-6 p.m. on an Indian summer day in Los Angeles. Sadly, I observed one person collapsing from heat outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The third in the cycle of LA Opera’s gloomy Achim Freyer production of Der Ring des Niebelungen, this Siegfried doesn’t make it easier to stay awake on a hot day—the backdrop is pitch black for most of the opera and a dark scrim shades the audience’s perspective throughout. One neighboring spectator, alert and laughing at Graham Clark’s “Mime” in the first act, was asnooze by the third.

Siegfried is as chat driven as the rest of the Ring Cycle but Freyer seems to want to distance us doubly from any action, making it all darkly cerebral. The Director/Designer literally takes the blue fluorescent light sword “Notung” from the hero’s hand, giving it to a brown body suited cipher who otherwise, in butoh style, crosses and recrosses the stage throughout the entirety of the production. (In the third act, with the similarly suited Norns suspended overhead, I finally wondered whether their grounded, pacing brethren also were Norns endlessly weaving?) Freyer seems to want to deconstruct action to get to some deeper IDEA but I would venture that during the five hours we have plenty of time to reflect without the production’s insistence that we must STOP and THINK. The ugly costuming is crudely symbolic, underlining Siegfried = “Man,” Brünnhilde =“Woman,” Erda =“Mother,” etc., and Siegfried’s transition from blue to red action hero (don’t ask) was rather clumsily handled. I’m all for new interpretations of standard works; for example, after one too many cherry blossom fests I loved Robert Wilson’s minimalist Madame Butterfly. This Ring just seems over thought and messy, with Siegfried frantically trying to undo his guide wires and the butoh Norns tearing Velcro-attached black ribbons from the floor to reveal a painted light spiral.

Luckily for the audience, a sizable number of whom booed Team Freyer, the singing was mostly very strong. Clark was clearly the crowd favorite and rightfully so, an evil yet comic Mime, with delightful wheezes and snickers as well as convincing, character-driven gesticulation. Vitalij Kowaljow (bass) was a forceful, deep Wanderer/Wotan, and the brief appearances of Oleg Bryjak (as Alberich) and Eric Halfvarson (Fafner) proved equally compelling. Stacy Tappan was a delightfully chirpy Woodbird. Jill Grove, whom I found the weakest of last season’s cast of Das Rheingold was in much better voice as this opera’s Erda, though hampered somewhat by a giant Cher/Diana Ross wig as was Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde. While not the most powerful Wagnerian, Watson approached the ringing metallic quality that the role demands. Still, she and John Treleaven’s Siegfried could have blended better in their ecstatic finale, their timing—and presumed partnership—was definitely off.

And finally to our Siegfried. While of a certain age, Treleaven pranced convincingly as a naïve young hero in a Halloween hero costume. He acted through his Joker make-up, raising the brows and curling the carved lips convincingly. After Act One I said to my friend, upon his first Siegfried, “You can hear how demanding this role is, but isn’t he doing well?” By Act Three the test of the voice was a bit more apparent as Treleaven for brief moments barked and gasped only to recover for some more forceful singing. All in the (long) day of an international Heldentenor and a clue why there are so few left.

The opera orchestra under James Conlon’s conducting was also significantly and deservedly cheered. Musically, this was a strong Siegfried, an A-. Dramatically, a B for effort and C- for execution. But I’m a tough grader so you’ll want to go and bring your own scorecard.

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