Friday, March 13, 2009

Wagner's Ring Cycle vs. The Gods

ON wednesday night -- that's wotan's day to those of you who speak norse -- i caught "das rheingold," the los angeles opera's take on the first of wagner's ring cycle. it's directed by the avant-german achim freyer and has received quite mixed reviews in my circle. i found it intriguing in parts, hard to fathom in others; my former colleague mark swed mostly admired the production, here. and my friend tim mangan, here, liked it so much he wished it were longer! (yikes -- not without a break for the bathroom or bar.)

BUT speaking of long, outsiders probably dont realize how long this baby has been in the works -- a quick recounting makes it sound like the gods themselves have been conspiring against it.  i remember sitting, in spring or summer of 2001, in the wonderful downtown LA japanese place, R-23, while LAO publicist gary murphy and opera boss edgar baitzel talked about how excited they were to have just hired conductor kent nagano (the globe-trotter who baitzel had finally pinned down to take the job, as memory has it, in some european airport) to lead the company, and that they had george lucas interesting in designing a blowout "ring" that would show the world what california culture and technology could do. 

it would be "the 'star wars' ring," some said later, which is appropriate since wagner's work inspired not only tolkien's ring trilogy but the star wars franchise as well.

since that meeting, a lot has happened. a few months later, new york was attacked by terrorists. a few days after that dark day, nagano conducted a stunning production of wagner's "lohengrin" that is my first good memory of post-9/11 life -- it was soothing (and french-toned, actually) if either of those things can be said about the lugubrious saxon... a truly spiritual experience.

we got involved in two wars that cost a lot and let to a little recession.

somewhere in here the george lucas connection fell apart, probably because of money. 

a few years later, the graceful nagano left the company. after that, the man who ran the opera, edgar baitzel, a restrained german who i'd really gotten to like, died suddenly.

and last year the entire world market tanked. (i'd been hired to work at the LATimes in part on the evidence of my nagano story; last year i lost that job.) this couldn't have helped the funding for such a gargantuan project.

what did i think of the first installment of the "ring," which will continue over this and the next season? i'm still not sure. but with that backstory, i'm thanking the gods, norse and otherwise, that we have it at all.

Photo credit: Superstock


Milton said...

Looking at the photos of this production reminds me why I prefer the Wieland Wagner minimalist approach. The music has inherent powers that I find compelling, and the silly masquers only detract from it, I think.

I saw the Met's "Damnation of Faust," directed by Robert Lepage, the dazzle-meister from Cirque du Soliel that the Met plans to have animate its new Ring. I find all the "Lion King" sizzle a real distraction.

Though I dislike all that directorial onanism, I must confess that "Rheingold" strikes me as the world's longest vorspeil, and I could skip straight to "Valkyrie" without ever missing a note of it.

Eric J. Lawrence said...

I'm hardly an opera junkie (only 3 previous LA Opera productions under my belt), but I was there that same evening & enjoyed myself. The stagecraft was pretty cheesy - if you tell me a performer with a big, booming bass voice is a giant, I am perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief such that I don't need a big ol' paper mache head to seal the deal, much less an enormous paper mache hand (shades of the heavily-reviled 1976 version of "King Kong"). But I thought the singing was pretty top-notch, and some of the costume ideas were ok (gods should look really weird, in my opinion). It moved close to the border of being unnecessarily "avant-garde," but never crossed it.

Scott Timberg said...

mostly, i agree with this distinguished correspondents, tho i think lepage is the real thing, judging from his ucla live production of a few years back. i imagine the cirque effort is silly/cheesy but i dont hold that against him. (he had a very substantial career before he got involved with them and will have a major career after he cuts ties.)

Milton said...

Re: Lepage ...
Having the goal of getting an opera audience to say "ooh" and "ahhh" at the aerialists while Met stars are singing Berlioz seems like directorial money badly spent ... he brought his Cirque mentality to a stage that has qualities all its own.

Scott Timberg said...

not having seen it i cant say this with much authority, but that berlioz sounds hellish.