Monday, March 9, 2009

Good news, no one, it is now easily obtained without cursing love! Das Rheingold, LA Opera, 3/1/09

I have two questions for Achim Freyer: 1. What does he have against dogs, and 2. When did he become the slightly less gullible man’s Robert Wilson? You get more bang for your buck with Freyer than with Wilson, who just drags out that one white man’s dress, that one maroon dress for the slutty character, a ton of electrical tape, and a bunch of kids dipped in Wite-out and flour (incidentally, what is the collective term for a group of children? A tantrum?). With both Freyer and Wilson, though, there's the same forcing of different material to fit one artistic vision, like a series of overweight, middle-aged European men trying to wedge their junk into the same tiny pair of Speedos. Bollocks aplenty! Achim Freyer is Robert Wilson after licking a few toads and watching a bunch of old Tool videos, and to commemorate his entry into the Overrated Douchebag Directors Club, Wilson has apparently given Freyer full access to his collection of light-sabers, because there were plenty of them in Das Rheingold. Therefore, the $32 million that Los Angeles Opera has sunk into Freyer’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle is feeling distinctly like a rip-off. $32 million for 17 hours of Eurotrash crap? That dog won’t hunt, monsignor.

You’ll be shocked, shocked! to know that my biggest gripe about L.A. Opera’s production of Das Rheingold is Freyer’s entire staging -- the costumes, direction, sets, etc. So let me cover the good to not completely disruptive parts first. The orchestra played well under James Conlon’s direction (and I really wish he’d limit himself to conducting; his meandering pre-opera lecture was condescending and filled with more tortured metaphors and faulty analogies than a love scene in Tristan und Isolde. Rheinmaidens are like dogs? Really? We all know you can't trust a man what's made of gas!), though they were a little muffled and so lacked the usual overwhelming Wagnerian sound. In a way, though, it worked, because the orchestra didn’t drown out the singers for a change, which often happens in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I still don’t quite get Wagner’s music. Some of it is beautiful, but all the big deal made over his leitmotifs becomes a little tiresome. It gets to the point where all the leitmotifs get kind of stitched together, like a garish patchwork quilt, and to the untrained ear, like mine, they just sound like any repeated theme in music rather than being all loaded with meaning or something.

Since this is my first experience with Das Rheingold, I don't really have anything to compare the singers to, but they ranged from excellent to good, to my ears. Some of them didn't have the usual heavy Wagnerian sound, but with the orchestra muffled, they could easily be heard. It was also difficult to judge their acting ability, since so many of them were hampered by their costumes. Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan didn't seemed to have the vocal immensity or dark voice that I would associate with the role, but he was also singing from inside a giant pimp coat half the time, so that could be why. Michelle deYoung's Fricke sounded lovely, but was immobilized by her costume and was often represented on stage by a body double in a costume seemingly inspired by Terry Jones's "Oh, tell me where that fish did go" character, with light-up hands left over from an Electric Six video. Ellie Dehn as Freia had a beautiful, sweet voice that made her alluring, but her costume was ridiculous -- she had a cardboard false-front of a body with multiple crimson-gashed mouths that she could slot her head into the chest of, among some things that looked like eggs but were supposed to be golden apples or, possibly, tits. Also, I hope that Freia did plenty of yoga before being taken away by the giants Fafner and Fasolt. Jill Grove as Erda seemed to lack the vocal richness and enormity that the role would seem to call for, but her Diana Ross goes to Studio 54 dressed as a giant cacao bean costume gave her physical largesse, at least.

Gordon Hawkins was a pleasant-sounding Alberich, though Alberich shouldn't be pleasant-sounding. Maybe he would've seemed more malevolent if we could've actually seen Hawkins's face instead of just the fake head he had to wear that looked like a cross between a partially deflated Sontaran and the little claymation guy from Tool's "Sober" video. It's probably wrong that I ended up sympathizing with Alberich. I know my reaction to being universally rejected by the opposite sex has usually been to wish that I controlled the world, either because power is an aphrodisiac or because I could use my absolute power to control people. It does corrupt absolutely, you know.

The three Rheinmaidens, sung by Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, and Beth Clayton, were vocally alluring but visually kind of disturbing. Freyer seems to have some bizarre obsession with the Black Dahlia, because, like Freia, the Rheinmaidens had a red slashes for mouths. I was waiting for them to ask Alberich why he was so serious. Having body doubles hung upside down beneath them made for an interesting reflection effect, but it also brought to mind the whole Black Dahlia torso thing. It was a bit hard to hear Morris Robinson and Eric Halfvarson as the two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, because they were shoved all the way at the back of the stage. Beau Gibson and Wayne Tigges as Froh and Donner were fine, but they must've gotten bored just standing at the back of the stage for hours on end. Though Graham Clark is supposedly one of the best Loges at the moment, I'm glad he played the smaller role of Mime instead, because I'm just not fond of high, whiny, almost sobbing style of tenor. It fit Mime, though, and Clark 's physical acting provided some characterization in spite of the mask that covered his entire head.

The most interesting character, in my opinion, was Arnold Bezuyen's Loge, whose voice had the ring of a tenor's but with a more baritonal tinge that kept it listenable to my tenor-tolerating ears. Loge was the only one who could move around the stage with any kind of ease and who didn't have a mask on, which probably helped characterization matters. Loge is basically a made-up German name for the trickster god Loki, and Bezuyen was every bit the trickster -- it was clear how much enjoyment Loge was getting out of screwing with everyone.

So, the production itself. First of all, it seems that Freyer has discovered re-SIGH-cling? [/confused Mr. Burns voice], because Loge's costume was exactly the same as Méphistophélès's in his 2003 production of La Damnation de Faust, right down to the red Converse, Puddy-takes-Elaine-to-a-New-Jersey-Devils-game makeup, and Wolverine meets the Heat Miser hairstyle. The only difference was that Loge had a few extra arms, so is Freyer trying to tell us that Loge is the Devil, just with extra hands (they're very good hands), or is he just being a cheap asshole by re-using the costume and should therefore expect the shittiest portion? In fact, the whole thing looked remarkably similar to the La Damnation de Faust, which I have to put down to a lack of creativity, because the two operas have little in common apart from being written in the 19th century and both kind of involving metaphorical deals with the Devil (and in La Damnation de Faust, by metaphorical I mean "Get your coat.") Both productions were predominantly done in a black, white, and red color scheme, both had over-sized papier-mâché heads, pimp coats, and creepy red gash mouths, and both, bafflingly, had dog things as representations of evil, though instead of an Evil Black Standard Poodle of Death, Das Rheingold had an emaciated Dalmatian in a red top hat of Death.

Therein lies another problem with Freyer: If it wasn’t for fake-profundity, Achim Freyer wouldn’t have no profundity at all. Either his symbols are meaningless like the dogs or Froh’s dumb anachronistic airplane, they're tangentially related but pointless (like the glowing eye that represented Wotan's lost eye), or they work on one level and aren't clever or insightful. For example, why does Fricke have super-long arms? Because she's clingy. Why does Wotan wear a pimp coat covered in keys that looks like the Wizard of Swinging’s robe? Because he's pimped Freia to the giants in exchange for construction. That's right, construction scams didn't start with the Mafia. They've been going on since the world was just a basic E-flat major triad chord.

The Ring Cycle is supposedly one of the most complex pieces of art ever created, so I can't help but think that Freyer's childish, school-art-project, Michel-Gondry-with-less-talent approach is a little... incongruous. The billowing red mist and Rhine River were pretty, and the way the stage opened up to reveal Nibelheim was effective, but other effects were silly and ramshackle. When Alberich transformed into a dragon, instead of matching the grandeur of the music, he just looked like a less impressive version of the claymation snake thing from Beetlejuice. It would've been better (and more frightening) if Alberich had turned into Mrs. Garrett's bosom, complete with the sun spots on the right can. More impressive than a dwarf with a giant striped tube sock attached to him anyway. Why was the Tarnhelm a golden top hat? I think Gimli, son of Gloin, or Glod Glodsson would find such asshaberdashery beneath their dwarfly dignity. Is Alberich really Columbia from Rocky Horror Picture Show? Is he going to put on a cabaret act? Instead of a rainbow bridge to Valhalla, we got Froh playing with his rainbow squeezebox and an airplane that looked that it had been drawn by a child piloted by what appeared to be a mummified blow-up doll holding an artist’s palette. Because rainbows are colorful, do you see? That was the moment when I pinched my eyebrows in a Stan Marshian fashion and couldn’t suppress a sigh. Where’s the grandeur? The solemnity? The piercing psychological drama?

The relatively monochromatic color scheme is also Wilsonian, though Freyer does spice it up a little bit with touches of red. In La Damnation de Faust, the red, black, and white scheme worked, because it’s associated with the Holy Trinity, but I don’t see what it had to do with Norse mythology or a fantastical vision of pre-human Earth. There were some occasional splashes of yellow, green, and blue, but they weren’t used to any effect. Most annoyingly, the ring – the object that the whole damn cycle is supposed to revolve around – wasn’t even gold. It’s right there in the title, for crap's sake. Das RheinGOLD. The other gold that was stolen from Alberich was actually gold, but the ring itself was more of a white illuminated ball.

Freyer also played with the scale of things, which is clever, in a way, but it's been done (and better, for obvious reasons) by Peter Jackson in the Lord of the Rings films, so when attempted on stage with lame cardboard puppets, the concept suffers. Many characters had body doubles or even triples (some of which, like Loge’s, would nonsensically appear at the same time). Most of the time, Fafner and Fasolt were just giant heads at the back of the stage, looking like those Metool things from Megaman or Navibot Petpets, with the singers serving as the noses for the bigger heads. Hey, fellas, don’t scratch up them heads, OK? Sometimes, though, they’d hold up big silver discs, supposedly to enlarge their features, even though from the balcony it just looked like they’d won Ladies’ Wimbledon and were showing off their plate trophies. When collecting the hoard, the giants were represented by giant hands sweeping across the stage, which just reminded me of the Eyerok from Mario 64 and made me wonder why Wotan didn’t just hit the eye in their palms with a green shell. Maybe because he doesn’t have good depth perception? At the end, though, when the giants had their final battle, they were slightly taller than average men with tiny little heads on top, one of which was knocked off by the other, in a seeming homage to the part in the Mighty Boosh episode “Mutants” when the mutant with the little mouse-like head is break-dancing and his head falls off. As a bonus bit of stupidity, in the scene where the hoard is being measured against Freia, Captain Obvious Freyer decided that we also needed an over-sized measuring tape next to Freia, just to be absolutely sure the audience knew what was going on, since “Then Freia's form shall be the measure” is so unclear and mysterious.

In his pre-opera blather, James Conlon said that Das Rheingold is about love. Maybe he really meant the whole Ring Cycle, because there was very little love in Das Rheingold, unless you can say that an opera about the renunciation of love is about love. In a way, I guess it is… the way the renunciation of eating Twinkies is kind of about Twinkies. There was also very little to love about this production of Das Rheingold, apart from some accomplished singing. Just as Loge is tempted at the end of the opera to destroy all the gods because he’s so over all their godly bullshit, so am I tempted to give up on the Freyer version of the Ring Cycle. It can’t and won’t end well, and I’m not just saying that because the last part is called “The Twilight of the Gods.”

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At April 14, 2009 at 5:14 PM , Blogger L. Strether said...

I totally disagree with your impression of Freyer's production, but that's a great review (even if more than half the time I have absolutely no idea what you are referencing).

At April 27, 2009 at 10:17 AM , Blogger Sternflammenden said...

I'm a little loath to admit it, but Freyer's production is growing on me a little after seeing Die Walkuere. The kind of static, expository nature of Das Rheingold made it a little tough to take, but everything started falling into place in Die Walkuere.

Glad you liked the review! Nine times out of ten, I'm probably referencing Futurama, but anything geeky is fair game to me.

At April 27, 2009 at 10:58 AM , Blogger L. Strether said...

Well, I hope you do write a review of Die Walkure because I'd love to read it.

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