LA Opera's Gotterdammerung brings the company's first Der Ring Des Nibelungen to an audacious close in what has turned out to be one of the most interesting, stimulating and brilliant productions I've ever seen. I remember once reading a quote by someone who said "What happens in Gotterdammerung is just awful." The quote kept coming back to my mind as I was getting ready to see the performance. Circling around it was my own thought about how director Achim Freyer would present what really is an awful story, because his Ring really hasn't been centered in the emotional lives of the characters, but rather in their psyche.
Since Freyer is really interested in exposing the inner psychological workings of these characters, this is a Ring without any heroes to be found anywhere on the stage. In this version, the ostensible hero is one step above a buffoon, trapped and ruled by his own id. Even without having his heart poisoned by Hagen's love potion, this Siegfried would have made the wrong move at some point. Brunnhilde really doesn't fare much better because a woman who would worship such a man can only end up looking foolish in the end.Those who dislike Wagner because of his anti-Semitism and eventual co-opting by the Nazis would be hard pressed to find anything here that even remotely glorifies the ideas behind their their discomfort. If Hitler's army was composed of nothing but Freyer's Siegfrieds WWII would have been over shortly after it began.
It's worth noting that the characters with least amount of moral rectitude in the entire cycle, Loge (Rheingold) and Hagen (Gotterdammerung), have been the true stand-out characterizations and hold the center in their respective chapters. While everyone else is trapped by their own flaws or personas (often literally), these two approach a level of strength that Schoepenhaur and Nietzsche would have admired. Does that make Freyer's approach anti-Ring? No. Set in no discernible time period or place, Freyer's vision takes on a quality of timelessness and otherworldiness that liberates Wagner's libretto from its historical time period and mythical sources- this story could be taking place 5000 years ago on a distant planet or 2000 years from now on this one. It really doesn't matter. Most productions of the Ring I've seen go one of two ways- the make the Gods truly gods (read heroic or noble), or they want to anthropomorphize them. Freyer throws those notions away and works with the libretto as it is. In this way, despite all the hoopla and dissent this production has caused, this may indeed be the most literal production of a Ring ever staged from the standpoint of the characters. And Shavians would be disappointed- unlike Zembello's Ring staged in Washington and currently unfolding in San Francisco, it would be a stretch to pin a capitalist critique on this cycle.
While there were some rough spots in the staging of Die Walkure and Siegfried, most notably expressed in the lack of comfort John Treleavan and Linda Watson seemed to have in their roles as Siegfried and Brunnhilde, with Gotterdammerung Freyer seems to have finally gotten everybody onboard with his vision. Treleavan seems comfortable with Siegfried as a clown this time around- and gave the character a depth that was lacking before. This was most notable when his face and body showed genuine angst when he realizes the truth behind his betrayal of Brunnhilde. Watson seems to have made peace with being an unglamorous, vengeful warrior- a woman spurned by both father and lover who is incapable of seeing the flaws in either of them. While neither are perfect singers for these roles for my taste, they both delivered powerfully sung performances, with Treleavan making every word distinctly clear and Watson becoming a force of nature in the third act, even though when she tears her hair out in age I kept thinking she looked like Esther Rolle dressed as Morticia Addams at a Halloween party. Equally important, both seem to have grown comfortable with the physical demands (and limitations) of Freyer's vision.
Eric Halfverson's Hagen was everything one could want in the role, whose conception is brilliant. Freyer's Hagen is a dwarf, constantly perched on the lap of another, whom he makes do his bidding. He looks like a puppet though he's always pulling the strings. Strong in voice, Halfverson was fantastic.
The real revelation in the singing department came from Michelle DeYoung, who performed double duty as the second Norn and most impressively as Waltraute. De Young impressed me quite a bit in Rheingold, but she was even better here. She justly received a tremendous ovation afterwards as her singing was the finest of the performance. Her addition to the upcoming performances of Die Walkure will remedy the one bit of weaker casting from that chapter and give Domingo a formidable partner in the first act.
Jill Grove and Melissa Citro were the first and third Norns, and Grove gave another memorable performance.
Alan Held as Gunther and Jennifer Wilson as Gutrune both had masks on for the entire performance, as did the entire Gibiching chorus. Wilson had a difficult time making the role more than a cog in Hagen's machinations, and couldn't convey any physical presence justifying Siegfried's desire for her, but Held, large and clear in voice, managed to project a strong physical characterization behind his mask that gave this faceless Gunther a distinct and unique presence onstage. Held made Gunther a sympathetic character- who would have thought that possible?
Richard Paul Fink's Alberich has little to do here, but his moment was solid and as he trolled the stage checking on his son's progress, he casted an interesting aura of menace and intrigue when he was onstage.
The Rheinmaidens, Ronnita Nicole Miller, Stacey Tappan & Lauren McNeese, were again fine and mesmerizing to watch as their arm movements were duplicated to create a rippling effect at the rear of the stage. This time around lit in red, rather than blue, to signal the disharmony i.e. blood that surrounds their missing gold.
The orchestra, led by James Conlon, delivered the most gorgeous-sounding chapter of the ring in all of its fullness. Undoubtedly helped by the fact that the pit is no longer completely covered, they emitted a glorious sound the entire afternoon.
As for Freyer's choices in the staging, especially of the ending, I found it to work on a couple of levels. This Ring isn't of our world, and it's unlike any other, so when Valhalla goes up in flames and takes everything with it. there really is nothing left behind. Well done.
Photo by Monika Rittershaus