Since I had previously seen the individual productions of LA Opera's Ring cycle over the last year and a half, I was initially not going to see it as the full cycle for reasons of cost and scheduling (9 days to see an entire cycle- what were they thinking?). When the prices came down and the opportunity arose to buy selected performances rather than an entire cycle I eagerly bought tickets to see Rheingold and Walkure and after seeing how director Achim Freyer has tweaked what were already substantial artistic triumphs into near perfection I'm certainly glad I did. I was already tempted to see the fantastic Gotterdamerung again, but now I may even see Siegfried just to see how it's been improved.

Das Rheingold has been tinkered with less than Walkure, though there were subtle changes that made it even better than I recalled. That's saying something since I'd rate this particular Rheingold among my top five favorite productions of all time (and yes, it is my favorite opera). I was seated much further back in the orchestra than I was the first time, which makes Freyer's mise en scenes much more potent but had the distinct disadvantage of making large portions of the orchestra almost inaudible though the singing came through with complete volume and clarity all evening. We were stuck in a dead zone for the orchestra, unfortunately.

Richard Paul Fink has taken over as Alberich, replacing Gordon Hawkins. Fink brings a different, more energetic interpretation to the part, changing the dynamics in a significant way. This production of Rheingold casts Loge as the central figure, while Wotan is an observer to his own miscalculations and poor choices- hence the cage around his head representing how he's trapped by his own machinations. Fink's strong presence makes Arnold Bezuyen's Loge a less dominant figure this time around, which gives the entire production a less sinister air, while making it more of an ensemble piece, further aided by having Fricka and Wotan move about the stage more than they did the first time around. Michelle De Young, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite singers, was again spot on as Fricka, arms extended in pitiable frustration- she's pleading or she's illustrating how despicable her husband's games are. Graham Clark's Mime gave an energized, strongly sung performance. Fink's singing was strong throughout, and while he's not a sinister Alberich, he displays emotion through his voice and body language, allowing him to project more personality than anyone else onstage despite being masked through the entire performance. His Alberich is a cocky ringmaster, corrupted and avaricious. Hungry to exploit and eager to run the show. It's quite an interpretation.

Vitalij Kowaljow's Wotan, which was solid last year after a hesitant start, is now a full-blown star turn, though that becomes more apparent in Die Walkure. Having perhaps the most onerous demands as far as working within Freyer's elaborate production, Kowaljow seems completely at home in this role and he owns it from the moment he opens his mouth. For my money, he's the Wotan I want to see whenever possible and though he's fantastic here, I can't wait to see what he does with this role in a different production.

What surprised me the second time around? How solid this cast is. For Rheingold, there is not a single weak link onstage. I was also impressed by how quickly it moves and feels significantly less static than the 2009 version. Even the scene where Alberich turns from a dragon to a frog, normally my least favorite part of this, went by without me hoping it would be over quickly. The scene in the Nibelung's mine was thrilling and brilliantly choreographed, thanks to Clark's willingness to go all out and lead the way. I'm still not a fan of the airplane rainbow bridge, but it's larger now and makes sense in that you can tell what it is and further back in the house the Giants magnifying glasses are of no effect whatsoever. Small quibbles for what is really one of the greatest interpretations of Wagner's work there is, and I do mean that. For those who think this production has nothing to do with the story, what part of it don't you understand?

The following night we returned for Walkure, which didn't thrill me as much as Rheingold the first time around, but now I would have to concede it's better than it's predecessor. Why? Kowlojov, Domingo and Michelle DeYoung. Kowloljov owns this evening and though Domingo naturally got the biggest rounds of applause, Kowoljov wasn't far behind and in my opinion gave a flawless, nuanced, extremely sensitive performance. In the third act his remorse and anger were staggering. Having Michelle DeYoung replace Anja Kampe, who was a weak link last year as Sieglinde, transformed the first act from the most static thing I've ever seen into a thrilling, brilliant hour of drama and passion. She matches up much better with Domingo, and having the characters move around the circle, while the presence of Hunding and his kin lurk all around them, greatly improves the drama.

Second time around, improvements were significant for the Ride of the Valkyries, which now seems much angrier and violent, and having seen the production, I had a better appreciation of how Freyer uses a silhouette of the unborn Siegfried to mark time's progression, or lack thereof. There are so many brilliant, small details and nuances in this production that illuminate the story (if you know it) in such rewarding ways. The way trails of blood red ribbon tether the gods to Freia. The way Wotan gathers up the same tethers (tendrils?) extending from his Wanderer persona as he prepares to banish Brunnhilde, and then casts them aside, as if it's the most painful thing he's ever had to do. Kowoljow was simply riveting during this part of the third act.

And then there's Linda Watson- the Achilles heel of the production. Still not my kind of Valkyrie, but at least when she didn't have to emote anything strongly her voice was pleasant. Unfortunately, in Walkure, that's not too often, and let's just say she's no Gwyneth Jones.

This night flew by and oddly, was one of the most brilliantly paced, perfectly executed evenings of opera I've ever attended. I just wish I could have heard the orchestra better.

A final note: I saw Freyer in the lobby Saturday night and was quite disappointed he didn't come out to take a bow on either night. Based on the strong audience reaction, I think he would have been warmly greeted. Contrary to all the naysayers, everything I overheard during intermissions and after, with the exception of a certain New Yorker and a lover of Italian Bel Canto whom I brought with me on Saturday, was extremely positive.

Okay, one more note: it was a pleasure to run into Brian from Out West Arts, The Opera Tattler and her brother, and to catch up with Mary Ann Smart, whom I have not seen for way too long.

Really, you'd be foolish to miss this if you can make it.