Monday, November 9, 2009

Siegfried at LA Opera, October 17, 2009

About ten years ago, after my first exposure to Wagner's work, I was complaining about the info-dumpiness of Kundry's role in Parsifal to one of my professors at the time, who is a great opera lover (and Wagnerian). He listened to me rant and then said, "You can't apply Fiction Workshop 101 rules to opera," and then went on to explain how Kundry's character is revealed as she tells the story of Parsifal's birth. He had a point in that case, though I wouldn't realize it until I saw Waltraud Meier's Kundry in 2006. But in other ways, my point still stands: Wagner needed to take a fiction workshop (or, failing that, listen to "Psycho Killer" by the Talking Heads: "Say something once? Why say it again?" Indeed,David Byrne, indeed.), since his librettos are full of pointless repetition there for the sole purpose of giving him an excuse to write more music. See, in Baroque operas, there's tons of repetition too, but each repetition is supposed to be colored a bit differently or given different ornamentation. Not so with Wagner. Sometimes I wonder if he was just a sadist who got off on torturing people by making them sit for five hours straight on the cushionless wooden benches at Bayreuth .

But I've had that rant before. I've also had many a rant about Achim Freyer and what a bullshit artist he is, but in an ode to Wagner, I'm going to repeat myself and indulge in another one. To paraphrase Charlie Brooker, I'm not saying that Achim Freyer is an agent of Satan, you understand. I'm just saying that you could easily cast him as one. Especially if you wanted to save money on special effects, which would be right up Freyer's alley, since all his "special effects" look so homemade and slapdash. I don't think the phrase "save money" is in his vocabulary, though. It must have required the use of some form of the dark arts for Freyer to burn through $32 million he got to stage the LA Opera Ring Cycle while delivering such glued-together crap. I think a Bedazzler and Elmer's White Paste were involved. On The Mighty Boosh, for example, the homemade effects are endearing and creative, because they really were made on a shoestring budget, but with Freyer's nonsense, you just feel a bit gypped. Red construction paper glued to metal frames that are pulled with strings when Siegfried blows on them as the searing flames surrounding Brunnhilde? Yeah, that's some second-grade Christmas pageant crap right there.

I imagine some of that $32 million went to Achim Freyer's ensemble of Mud People, and they earn their keep by wandering around the stage carrying posterboard cutouts of hammers and, for no apparent reason, red lips. Occasionally, they'll do something useful like hand one of the characters a sword (in fact, one Mud Person wielded Siegfried's sword for him every time. That must be awkward in a public restroom) or peel off layers of Brunnhilde's dress, but most of the time, they just made the staging even more visually noisy than it already was.

Freyer's stagings are also a baffling combination of consistency and inconsistency. As in the previous two operas, Wotan's eye was onstage the whole time, this time floating across the top of the stage; his ravens, Thought and Memory were there, "cleverly" concealing prompter's boxes. Alberich's pointless parade of vices even showed up for half a second: Balloon Boobs, the Emaciated Dalmation of Death and Impenetrable Symbolism, Baldy, Doyle, Tiger, The Jewelry Man, all of them. There was a lot of play with doubles as there was in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, which I interpreted as Freyer's effort to reconcile the "human" side of the gods with the, well, godlike side of them and to create scale in a world filled with giants and dragons. Siegfried was no different – Wotan, oh sore-y, I mean the Wanderer, had several doubles of various sizes, all of them wearing key-covered pimp coats, and at one point, the whole rotating part of the stage flipped up to represent Fafner the dragon's mouth. But with Fafner, a bit of inconsistency also came in – his mouth was as big as the stage, but when he appeared to fight with Siegfried, he looked more like a dragon plushie. Then, finally, when Siegfried killed him, Fafner was just man-sized, even though he had possibly reverted back to his giant form. Hell if I know. Looking for coherent symbolism in Freyer's work is like looking for a virgin in a whorehouse.

Another inconsistency was the business with the dwarves' heads. Graham Clark and whoever happens to be singing Alberich at the time are both saddled with wearing giant fake heads, but this time, Mime (Clark) got to take his head off sometimes while he sang. At that point, Siegfried had tasted the dragon's blood and so could read Mime's thoughts, so intitially, I thought that when Mime had his head off, it meant that what he was singing was actually what he was thinking, but that... wasn't the case**. Then, I thought that the red spotlight on Mime meant that he was singing were his thoughts as heard by Siegfried, but again, no. Maybe it the red spotlight meant he was having a sexual awakening? I honestly don't know why I'm even surprised by how crap Freyer is anymore. My pearls just need clutching, I guess.

Wagner seemed to have such a writerly hard-on for meat-headed heroes. Actually, since Siegfried is nearly five hours long, I guess it's more like writerly priapism and Wagner should see his doctor immediately. Like Parsifal, Siegfried is a blank slate of sorts, ignorant of his origins. Unfortunately for Siegfried, though, he doesn't have a Kundry around to reflect some of her personality onto him and fill in his backstory in an interesting way. Though really, Die Walküre is like four and a half hours of Siegfried's backstory. He's not a hero because of his actions, intelligence, or bravery – he's a hero because it was prophesied (though the same could be said of many heroes, I guess. I've just always been more partial to the clever heroes like Odysseus). In this production at least, Siegfried's only personality trait was the kind of reckless disbelief in one's own mortality that most teenagers have. I'm not sure why this makes him worthy of being considered a great hero, but then again, I guess you could also argue that Harry Potter is one of the dullest characters in the series named for him. Well, I'd argue that, at least. In a way, Siegfried is kind of like Bella Swann from Twilight (and yes, I do hate myself for referencing that) in that he's so unbelievably bland that you can attribute basically any trait you like to him. In my opinion, he's not retarded, just a little slow. Living life in the slow lane. The slowmeister. (And now I hate myself even more for referencing a Rob Schneider SNL skit.)

If John Treleaven were on fire, there's a very good chance that I wouldn't spit on him to put him out*. OK, maybe not, but before I spit on him, I'd make him promise to never try to act again. It's just a smorgasbord of second-hand embarrassment. Part of it is the fault of the direction, like the ridiculous Mime and Siegfried kick-line, which is an LA Opera "comedy" staple. I'm not sure whose idea it was for Treleaven to walk around and pose like the little "Walk" man at crosswalks, but whoever it was, that person is a bastard person. It's also still beyond me why opera singers and/or opera directors seem to think that young people dance around all the time and so use that as a way of showing a character's youth.

Of course, it didn't help that Treleaven looked like Brian Dennehy auditioning for the role of the Joker or that he was wearing what appeared to be a bright yellow sea anemone on his head (for those golden Aryan locks!), drawstring pants made from the skin of Sweetums, and the torso of Skeletor. Well, he had the torso of Skeletor until the last act when he met Brunnhilde, at which point he put on the torso of Tim Curry's character in Legend, as a symbol of his sexual awakening. Note to opera directors: Please use a color other than red to symbolize sexual awakenings already. It just made me wonder if Siegfried's torso was made out of the same kind of skin as the ass of a female baboon. Yes, Brunnhilde made Siegfried's torso go into estrus. Well, that's love for you.

Siegfried is a pretty thankless role, I'd imagine. You act like a bombastic dumbass for four hours, singing almost constantly over a huge orchestra, and then at the end, you have to sing a reeeeeaaaaaally loooooong love duet with a Wagnerian soprano who hasn't sung at all yet. Vocally, Treleaven was… fairly bursting with adequatulence until the last duet, when his voice gave out and he started painfully yodeling. Even when not taking on an impossible role, Treleaven's voice is never pleasing to the ear, though that seems to be true of most Wagnerian tenors (and, to some extent, Wagnerian sopranos).

As Brunnhilde, Linda Watson was both blank and over-powering. Luckily, she could drown out Treleaven when his voice was failing him. Watson's voice tends to be a bit shrieky on the big notes, but she adds a little more color to it in the softer passages, though if I didn't know the story and wasn't looking at the stage, I wouldn't be able to tell that she was singing a love duet. On the other hand, that seems to be a failing of Wagner's, since his love scenes (which I consider overrated when it comes to musically portraying ecstasy) are usually pretty silly. They're kind of like on of those old-timey soaps that are full of product placement. Like the one in Tristan und Isolde, the Siegfried love duet is sponsored by Lamps Plus, since they keep singing about light. That, and laughing at death and dropping ice cubes down the vest of fear. Because I certainly can't think of anything sexier than that. *cough*

In Amanda Freyer's egregious costumes, Watson's Brunnhilde looked like Bob Mackie-era Cher, if Bob Mackie-era Cher wore Jackson Pollock's drop-sheets instead of strategically placed sequinned Bandaids. I felt a bit sorry for Brunnhilde, really, because she gave up her immortality and godly powers for... her dorky teenage nephew who has vag-fear***. If I were her, I would've said, "I didn't live for a thousand years and trade in my awesome flying horse for a ride on this moronally grinning man-child's gizmo!" And that's why I'll never be a Wagnerian heroine.

My favorite character, as he was in Die Walküre, was Vitalij Kowaljow's Wotan. Unfortunately, it seems that he's put down his pimp cup and permanently curbed his purple Cadillac, because he's not in Götterdämmerung. Kowaljow is the only singer who seemed to be acting and actually thinking about his character's motivations and feelings. His Wotan is very human, almost fatherly in a way, but still with an ever-present threat of "I could totally smite your ass with my spear".

Graham Clark was whiny as Mime, but it fits with the character, who is a sneaky little bastard. Clark acted too, but it was more broad, cariacture-like acting than Kowaljow's. Oleg Bryjak didn't have much to do as Alberich this time around and wasn't oddly pitiable in the way that Gordon Hawkins's Alberich was in Das Rheingold. Stacey Tappan sounded quite pretty as the Forest Bird, though she was saddled with a ridiculous costume. The Forest Bird had a pair of gigantic red-nippled norks, which made it look like something from the Breastriary in Nippopolis. Note to the Freyers: just because a bird's chest is called its "breast" doesn't mean it has tits. It was an interesting idea to have Wotan appearing to make the bird sing to Siegfried, essentially helping him destroy Wotan and the other gods, but it was really hard to get past the bird's major boobage.

Eric Halfvarson was booming and black-voiced as Fafner, though they did his voice a disservice by electronically amplifying it to show just how big the dragon is. The amplification was over-powering and highlighted every vocal flaw. Jill Grove was fine as Erda, even though she looked like the love-child of Papa Lazarou and an over-inflated Chaka Khan blow-up doll.

As for the music, it was blandly pleasant, as most of Wagner's music is to my ear, and the orchestra seemed to play it well under the direction of James Conlon. The Forging Song would've been good, but I was too distracted/annoyed/borderline homicidal about Treleaven's stupid conducting and/or triumphant jerk-off motion gestures to enjoy it much. Wagner is obviously a very divisive composer; it seems like people either despise him or they would eat the corn out of his shit and thank him for the privilege. I'm just kind of ambivalent. My feelings toward Wagner are the emotional equivalent of Alan Partridge shrugging. One thing I will say, though, is that this leitmotif stuff is kind of... not as great as everyone thinks. Leitmotifs, shitemotifs. So those three notes mean "Valhalla"? Well, ring-a-ding-ding. Incidentally, "ring-a-ding-ding" is a leitmotif for "I don't give a fuck."

Siegfried was a bit of a letdown after Die Walküre (which I never bothered to write up, oops), though it was about on par with Das Rheingold. I can't say that I'm really looking forward to Götterdämmerung, especially because Wotan isn't even in it, so I'll just have to get through it out of sheer spite.

*Figure of speech!

**Apparently the singers asked to take off the heads while singing in order to be heard over the orchestra. Fair enough.

***The first time Siegfried knows fear is when he removes Brunnhilde's armor to find that she's a woman. For serial, this guy faced a fire-breathing dragon and said, "Siegfried has fear? A thousand times no!", but a woman is scary? Yeah, it's the fear of the unknown, in a way, because he's never met a woman, but I couldn't help but think of how all the squires in Parsifal fear Kundry, mostly because she's packing vag.

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