By Graham Bruce
At the suggestion of fellow LA Ring attendees Katie and Vic French (NSW Society members), Queensland Society member Graham Bruce kindly forwarded for publication in our Newsletter the review he wrote for the Queensland Newsletter. (Vic and Katie thought Graham was being rather too generous about the production, but did agree that it was a completely different approach to the Ring. By comparison, Katie and Vic also saw the San Francisco Opera’s production of Die Walküre with Nina Stemme and Mark Delavan being the stand-out singers, prompting Vic and Katie to book already for the full cycle between 14 June and 3 July 2011.) Editor.
Achim Freyer’s current production of the Ring for the Los Angeles Opera begins a new era in American Ring productions, long dominated by the naturalism seen in stagings, such as those at Seattle and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. New productions in San Francisco and New York also look like challenging this tradition, but neither quite so radically as this Los Angeles staging.
The director, Achim Freyer is a disciple and protégé of great German playwright Berthold Brecht whose theories on dramatic performance challenged contemporary notions of realistic representation on stage. There was a political aim in this: Brecht claimed that naturalistic stagings encouraged the spectator to immerse him/herself in the action, to empathize with it, preventing an objective appraisal of its social and political implications. The latter could be achieved, he claimed, only by a non-naturalistic presentation where the audience was constantly reminded that the performance was not “real life”, but a viewpoint expressed in dramatic form. To achieve what he called this “alienation effect”, Brecht often made actors swap roles in mid performance, allowed women to play men’s roles and vice versa, and used stagey sets which eschewed realistic representation.
The influence of Brecht’s theories and strategies can clearly be seen in Achim Freyer’s set designs and stage movement, and Amanda Freyer’s costumes. A giant eye is visible on various parts of the stage throughout the tetralogy, reflecting the eye which Wotan exchanged for wisdom at the fountain by the World Ash Tree; In Die Walküre, the tilted disc which forms part of the sloping stage throughout is made to resemble a huge clock with a fluorescent hour- hand which a stage extra continually moves forward. This, according to Freyer, represents “divine time, immortality, and eternal return. Wotan throws the sword Nothung [the fluorescent tube] into the centre of the stage as a symbol of sovereignty and death. He sets off divine time, indicated by his spear”; Valhalla is no grand structure but a small cup- cake-like toy perched perilously up stage; two cut-out book ravens, Wotan’s birds, placed on either side of the down- stage area shelter the prompters who make no attempt to disguise their presence, and indeed are totally revealed as the ravens “fly up” at the end of Götterdämmerung; both the front and back scrims are used to comment on the action: a comic-book explosion as the Wanderer appears, a spiralling ring, or flashing swords; and throughout the whole cycle, black-clad extras facilitate much of the stage action.
The costumes are similarly non-naturalistic, most of singers wearing masks. Often the singers are locked into position behind and in front of a kind of pod or shell, while doubles perform such stylized action as Fryer allows. Wotan, as well as wearing an imprisoning wire globe on his head is often represented on parts of the stage as a huge hat and cloak; at one stage 4 or 5 representations of him are visible. Freyer remarks that “shadows, reflections, doubles and the different forms in which figures appear in any given moment reflect their personality schisms, the search for and loss of identity of all the characters”. Fricka has hugely extended arms, Froh carries a rainbow- hued accordion, and Loge, god of fire, has a bright red costume with flame-like peaks. The latter also remind us of comic-book representations of the devil, echoing the mischievous nature of Loge. The twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde both have their faces and costumes split into black and grey sides. “Because of their dangerously close kinship to the gods”, Freyer notes, “[Wotan] splits the pair into male and female halves, who forever yearn for reunion.” Siegfried, who first appears as a bear, strips off bear-head and top to reveal a muscle suit and a garish orange wig.
Clearly, then, this was not a singer-friendly production given the static nature of the figure placement, the transference of much of the action to doubles, the unflattering non- naturalistic costumes, and the dangerously steep slope of the set. What was the result in terms of performance? Some singers revelled in the staging. Graham Clark as Mime was prime among these, finding a huge range of communicative devices via his yellow-gloved fingers, and cheekily removing his mask to commune with the audience on many occasions. Also relishing the part and dominating the stage in Das Rheingold was Arnold Bezuyen in a winning performance as Loge. The same could be said of Richard Paul Fink’s superb Alberich. And all three of these were in excellent voice. By contrast with these engagingly manic performances, Vitalij Kowaljow dominated Die Walküre mainly by vocal means. Showing no signs of strain even at the end of the work, the voice beautiful throughout, his outstanding singing overcame any perceived hindrances due to static figure placement and movement. Equally beautiful singing came from Placido Domingo as Siegmund, his performance belying his 68 years. Less beautiful vocally, but grippingly convincing dramatically was Eric Halvorsen as Hagen.
It was evident, however, that some singers did not feel comfortable in this staging. Chief among these was John Treleaven as Siegfried. In the first act of Siegfried, he seemed merely to be going through the motions, his lack-lustre performance contrasting sharply with Graham Clark’s Mime. Things improved only slightly in the later acts and in the final opera. His discomfort seemed reflected in his unsteady vocalization, the sustained notes sounding like a slow trill. One thought nostalgically of his excellent Tristan in Brisbane some years ago. Though it was rather less evident, the Brünnhilde, Linda Watson, also seemed none too pleased with the production. But in her case, her fine singing made up for any lack of enthusiasm: in finer voice than that heard at Bayreuth two years ago, she showed little sign of tiring even by the final scene of Götterdämmerung, the voice ringing out thrillingly.
So, the singing apart, just how successful was this Brechtian vision of Wagner?
There were some quite magical things. I think I’ve seldom been so impressed visually by the final scene of Siegfried. There is no change of scenery from the previous scene where Wotan has confronted Siegfried. What remains centre stage is Wotan’s huge cloak. Amid startling lighting effects as the background glows red and the tilted stage turns blue, one of the black-clad extras opens the cloak with a sword to reveal the “sleeping”, yet vertical Brünnhilde who is now drawn upwards to a more elevated, God-like position. As she wakes to Siegfried’s kiss and hails the sun, the dark backdrop rises to allow the light to infuse upstage and reveal the wire figure of Grane, a quite lovely, if non-naturalistic effect.. Now as Brünnhilde begins to realize the implications of her loss of godhead, and her possible “defilement” by a man, extras pass by her, stripping off small pieces of her costume, and revealing black hand-prints on the dress. The climax of these stylized, “defiling” movements comes as Siegfried pulls off a last piece, revealing now a greater amount of red in the formerly black and white costume. Human passion has begun to grow in Brünnhilde and she now literally comes to earth as she is lowered to the stage. Now comes the most beautiful moment: red swathes of material snake out from her central position and gradually fill the whole stage floor as her passion grows under Siegfried’s urging. As the duet reaches its end, the embracing couple is gradually covered up by the swathes of red material which are bound around them. It is a wonderful visualization of the passionate ecstasy of the music.
Another very successful production piece was the famous forging scene in Act 1 of Siegfried. Wagner’s very gestural music gives us a very detailed description of the filing down of the pieces of the sword, the firing, and the hammering, so that a naturalistic performance of the forging procedures seems to be called for (and is implied in Wagner’s stage directions). Just how to present it does offer a problem to all directors. Freyer’s decision, of course, avoids any naturalistic representation. Instead, he gives us a wonderful sound and light display. The sword, Nothung, has been portrayed throughout as a lighted fluoro tube. Now hundreds of fluoro swords appear on the stage floor, and on the scrims front and back. These change colour and direction sometimes in time with the rhythm of the music, sometimes in counterpoint to it. It is extremely effective visually and a brilliant solution to the production problems of the scene.
Perhaps the most famous scene of the tetralogy is the Ride of the Valkyries in the last act of Die Walküre. Few productions risk putting real horses on stage (Chéreau’s 1976 production at Bayreuth was an exception, and the horses disappeared a year later) so any attempted naturalistic presentation involves compromise. Here, Freyer employs the same play-school style props seen elsewhere in the production: the Valkyries “ride” on wire contraptions which have the shape of a horse (clearly relatives of the wiry Grane), but with the addition of a back wheel; these “toy” horses and the joyous performance of the laughing warrior girls encapsulate nicely the humour of the scene while the strewn-about body parts of the dead warriors that they have collected add a touch of black humour. Later, the abandoned wire “horses” positioned around the circular disc change their function to become torches, spurting flames as Wotan summons Loge to surround the sleeping Brünnhilde, while the whole of the disc glows red.
Against the many successful scenes, however, must be set the occasions where Freyer’s approach has a lesser effect. Among these, the most irritating is that of Wotan’s famous narration to Brünnhilde in the second act of Die Walküre. This is one of the great scenes of the Ring, as Wotan explains his past dishonourable actions and his despair of finding a solution. It is a scene that severely tests the vocal and dramatic skills of the performer because of its static nature, yet can be (as it was here in Kowaljov’s superb performance) extraordinarily moving. Clearly anxious that there is so little action in the scene, Freyer has every person and object appear on the stage as Wotan remembers them. The device begins by being simply distracting and then becomes laughingly predictable as everything mentioned troops around the stage disc. Thereductio ad absurdum of the device occurs when Wotan tells how Alberich, “love’s dark enemy, begets a son in anger”: the woman seduced by Alberich is shown with lecherous actions and balloon-like breasts, and the baby (Hagen) is wheeled on in a pram. The great narration is, quite simply, trivialized. Later, a similar production strategy is used in the three questions duel between the Wanderer and Mime in the first act of Siegfried.
Perhaps the most disappointing result of Freyer’s approach comes in Götterdämmerung. In Act 1, Gunther, Gutrune, Siegfried and Hagen mainly stand behind shells or pods which mimic their costumes. These are drawn unsteadily across the stage to their positions downstage after the Norns scene. The Brechtian alienation effect is here at its most extreme since these shells and the costumes of the characters are garish in colour and more crudely drawn than those we have seen so far. The visual ugliness and the static positioning pose a problem for the audience. The distancing effects result not in audience contemplation and questioning but simply in boredom, lightened here only by the strong singing of Alan Held (Gunther) and Jennifer Wilson (Gutrune). The extreme distancing is no less of a problem in Act 2 where the stylized movements of the Gibichung chorus clad in Gunther look-alike masks, and bearing fluoro swords become predictable and finally tedious. Then in Act 3, in the hunting scene where Siegfried is murdered, the chorus are given a series of choreographed movements, sometimes lying on their backs, sometimes lifting their legs in the air, and at one stage, as Siegfried describes the instructions given by the Woodbird, making fluttering, bird-like movements with their fingers. This encapsulates what, for me, are two major problems in Freyer’s staging of the Ring: first, his refusal to allow the effectiveness of moments of stillness on stage; secondly his unwillingness to allow the performance of his singers to make its impact by itself without the addition of bits of stage business.
Conductor of the Ring, James Conlon, demonstrated what a strong grasp he has of the structure and significance of the score in his excellent introductory talks before each opera. Given these inspired and enthusiastic pre- performance talks, the results in the pit were, for me, sometimes a little disappointing. Overall, the orchestral playing was very fine, a reading free of exaggerations or quirks. Often, though, a little more dynamism seemed called for, particularly in the very sluggish first acts of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung.
The Los Angeles Ring is certainly a bold and often quite brilliant production. Both Das Rheingold and Siegfried seem to me innovative and very successful. A pity, then, that the inspiration sometimes flags and the distancing effects in the final opera seem to lose their effectiveness, perhaps making us question whether Brechtian alienation effects do, after all, offer a strategy suited to opera production.