Critic’s Notebook: ‘Das Rheingold’ -- Achim Freyer’s theater of images


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Total theater? Achim Freyer’s staging of “Das Rheingold,” which kicked off cycle one of the Los Angeles Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” on Saturday, didn’t quite reach the Wagnerian Valhalla of a complete artistic synthesis. But it did manage to land on the lower if no less hallucinatory star of total tableau.

This is a “Ring” that conjures its incantatory spell through visual means. Photos don’t do Freyer’s landscape justice. Secretly, I feared an epic with the Smurfs, as a few images of the production giddily suggested. But while the aesthetic mixes the popular with the painterly -- Disney by way of Dalí, with the occasional Spielbergian flourish -- the effect manages to be entrancing even at its most fey.

The director-designer’s Brechtian pedigree has been much discussed. Freyer was a protégé of the great 20th German playwright-director-theorist, whose epic theater sought to strategically undermine stage illusion in the service of deconstructive political thought. One can certainly see the influence in the way characterization is captured in gesture, an approach that Freyer, collaborating with his daughter Amanda Freyer, builds into the costume scheme. For example, Fricka (Michelle DeYoung), Wotan’s nagging wife, is represented as a pair of long-extending arms with a light at the end. The device, as silly as it is mesmerizing, collapses personality into a signature statement (rough translation: ‘Wotan, Don’t forget your domestic obligations!’)


Estrangement or alienation is the bedrock of Brecht’s theory, and Freyer’s habit of splitting a figure into different entities -- usually an actor with a gigantic puppet shadow -- keeps us from too easily presuming an intimate acquaintance with a character. (It can also make it difficult to track the source of a voice.)

Identity is one of the central conundrums in the “Ring,” and Freyer’s staging finds inventive visual correlatives. One could go so far as to say that the production displaces Wagnerian leitmotifs, those tags of character and moral action, onto the design scheme -- rendering in physical form the philosophical preoccupations of the music.

But the sensibility behind “Das Rheingold” is ultimately too pictorial to be truly Brechtian. As stylized (and even abstract) as the presentation can be, the theatrical illustrations conspire to immerse the audience deeper into a fictional realm of diabolical dwarfs, grumbling giants and overwrought gods. In fact, everything is so hypnotically stage-managed that even when we see the strings being pulled, we readily submit to the reality before us. This world becomes more real, not less, for being manipulated by an army of semi-stealthy stagehands dressed in black. The performers can’t help being chewed up by all this fantastical scenery, but many of the Wagnerians in the cast seem delighted to be part of Freyer’s flamboyant frolic. Of course, appearances, as the “Ring” teaches, are deceiving, but Richard Paul Fink’s impishly wicked Alberich, the gnome-like creature that instigates the operatic madness by renouncing love for gold, seems to have an extra kick in his malign step.

Perhaps this prancing Nibelung is merely compensating for Rhinemaidens who are marooned in a billowing sea of fabric. The beginning of “Das Rheingold,” with the water nymphs’ taunting of the deformed, lust-burdened Alberich, is stunning in a static fashion, as though the complicated logistical realities of the raked stage have compelled the freezing of scenic frames.

To the production’s credit, the music is never permitted to overwhelm the drama. But the acoustical limitations of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion leave us symphonically underwhelmed. And the singing soars only in spots -- Arnold Bezuyen’s Mephistophelian Loge (blatantly decked in diabolical red) and Ellie Dehn’s distressed immortal damsel Freia manage to transcend the earthbound muffle. There’s no doubt a good deal to admire in Vitalij Kowaljow’s darkly majestic Wotan, but the vocal volume of this deity could stand to be pumped up. Suffice it to say that the score sometimes seemed like a bit player, and my companion and I were speculating that Freyer’s interpretation -- an arty “Star Wars” to some -- might not have been as controversial had the music been more fully served.

With its menagerie of other-worldly characters, “Das Rheingold” may the most suitable for Freyer’s kaleidoscopic treatment. Will the entry of vulnerable mortals in “Die Walküre” demand something more personal, or will the director continue to pursue his strategy of the actor as Über-marionette? This eccentrically picturesque Prelude has only whetted my desire to find out.

Check back with Culture Monster Monday for my take on “Die Walküre.”

-- Charles McNulty


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