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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Both boos and cheers greeted the Los Angeles Opera premiere of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold, the first of the four operas which comprise his epic Ring of the Nibelung. It's been a long time since an opera has excited such controversy and I have to say I came down hard on the side of the bravos.
Achim Freyer, the 74-year-old German director/designer of this performance, has created a surreal production in which giant puppets represent the Gods and huge mask-like heads conceal the dwarfs. It might not have worked so well if Freyer hadn't kept a firm hand on the lighting, leaving the stage dim. Therefore, the giant mannequins and bizarrely costumed singers are not jarring but excrescences as natural as exotic marine life looming out of a billowing silk sea.
The Ring of the Nibelung was a radical departure from the opera conventions of the 19th century, both musically, in its use of mythic themes from Norse legends, and in the scope of the four separate operas Wagner wrote to tell his story. Sacrificing love for power is the bottom line. Corruption and destruction follow throughout the four operas, the first two of which will be presented here this season and the entire four next season. Freyer will design and direct them all. Be prepared, be very prepared!
The opera begins with the familiar ring motif sung by the three Rheinmaidens. They are posted at the back of the stage and reflected in an effect suggesting reflections in water. Alberich, the dwarf, lusts first for the maidens and, failing to seduce them, abjures love forever and absconds with their gold. It's amazing that singer Gordon Hawkins as Alberich can be heard through the huge mask covering his head but he can.
The scene shifts to a raked stage where the gods Wotan (Vitalij Kowaljow) and his wife Fricka (Michelle DeYoung) bicker over how to pay the giants Fasolt (Morris Robinson) and Fafner (Eric Halvarson) for erecting Valhalla, their glorious new mansion. They've promised them Freia (Ellie Dehn), goddess of youth, but want to renege on that promise, especially when they see how they wither without her magical apples.
Loge, the fire god, the embodiment of mischief and superbly sung by Arnold Bezuyen, has come up with a loophole: Alberich's gold, especially the ring he has forged which has magical powers. By trickery Wotan and Loge capture Alberich and his gold which they are forced to turn over to the giants in exchange for Freia. Wotan wants to keep the ring but the earth goddess Erda (Jill Grove) erupts from the earth in a huge scarlet robe like some exotic blossom and warns him the ring will bring disaster. Alberich lays a curse on the ring which comes true immediately as one giant kills the other. The Gods get the girl, Freia, and take possession of their ill-bought mansion. Freyer represents their flight to this heavenly realm by a small airplane which has hung above the stage until the deal is done.
Conductor James Conlon and a solid cast do justice to Wagner's non-melodic work. Freyer and his daughter Amanda, who is co-costume designer, have created a brilliant, colorful concept with many metaphoric touches. The actor singing Wotan is lodged inside a giant puppet, visualizing the concept of a small man lurking within the hollow visage of power. Alberich's magical helmet is a golden top hat. Freia's puppet
figure, which she removes to sing, has four golden globes on her bosom which could be breasts or magical apples. Wagner's myth sounds startlingly familiar in today's world and the surreal form Freyer has chosen brilliantly reinforces its timelessness.