A pop music critic takes on Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle. First up: ‘Das Rheingold’


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Last night I put on a $20 dress I’d once worn to a party that featured an appearance by Whitney Houston, grabbed a friend, and headed to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to begin my immersion in Los Angeles Opera‘s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen.’ I’m a Wagner nut by disposition and regional roots -- my hometown Seattle Opera company was an early pioneer in contemporary Ring revivals. My pal, however, was a first-timer and mostly a fan of singer-songwriters like Loudon Wainwright III. I told him he could flee at intermission if the Sturm und Drang bored him, having conveniently forgotten that ‘Das Rheingold’ -- the first of the four operas in the ‘Ring’ cycle -- is 2 1/2 hours of lust and deceit, gods and dwarfs, leitmotifs and arias, with no break for a glass of champagne.

I needn’t have worried. Achim Freyer’s staging of ‘Das Rheingold’ is as much a pop experience as it is a classical one. That’s not to say it’s easily digestible. Though its elements move slowly, as if in a dream, Freyer’s staging still creates a kind of over-stimulation that leads the audience to focus on the elemental aspects of Wagner’s score, its sometimes startling beauty and inexorable dramatic push, instead of the emotional melodrama the opera also contains. Its rewards come closer to that of ritual than of conventional drama. But this should make it even more appealing to today’s pop music fans, who relish being bombarded with images and sound, and who like their stars to transform onstage, all the way to the edge of the grotesque.


Pointing to all corners of culture, Freyer’s set and costumes argue vehemently against any division between high and low. A culture maven will see what she brings to the room; his puppets, masks and elaborate tableaux evoke so many sources that playing the game of ‘where’d I see that before?’ can distract, even from ‘Rheingold’s’ rip-roaring plot.

A connoisseur of world folk traditions might think of Balinese shadow-puppet theater or the African ceremonial costumes also valued by the sound-suit creator Nick Cave. Avant-garde theater buffs will spot shout-outs to old favorites like Robert Wilson and Mummenschanz. There were moments when I thought of Busby Berkeley’s sweetly surreal dance numbers, and others that seemed to magnify the creepy, compelling miniatures of animator Jan Svankmajer. When the huge black hat and cloak that signifies Wotan’s wanderings appeared, my friend whispered, ‘Joseph Beuys.’

At a different point, he might have murmured, ‘Lady Gaga.’ As Loge, the wonderfully emotive tenor Arnold Bezuyen wore that strange diva’s signature oversized shoulder pads. His hair and makeup, on the other hand, was reminiscent of Bono as MacPhisto: this devilish trickster could command an arena-rock crowd. And then there were his Converse sneakers, the uniform shoe of indie rock musicians like Kurt Cobain. And there are many obvious nods to psychedelia and art rock: the Blue Meanies of the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ and the giant eyeballs belonging to San Francisco art punks the Residents seem to make cameo appearances.

This interplay of high and low, ancient and cutting-edge, is one pop-wise aspect of this journey into Wagner’s 19-hour opus. Pop has always been a scavengers’ form, absorbing whatever glitters and glows from the street, the bohemians’ salon, or even the opera house. The prelude to ‘Das Rheingold,’ such a gorgeous and inspiring piece of music, set the stage for what would become minimalism: not only a major aspect of 20th-century classical music, but the foundation of rock bands like the Velvet Underground, ambient music pioneers like Brian Eno, and much of the electronic music of the rave era.

‘Das Rheingold’ also made clear that Freyer means to dwell in the realm of the mythic, not the psychological. This doesn’t mean his gods and preternatural creatures don’t feel: in Tuesday’s performance, Graham Clark as Mime and Ellie Dehn as Freia sang with particularly powerful angst. Still, Freyer’s use of sculptural doppelgangers and masks may frustrate some opera-goers’ desire for good old-fashioned dramatic release. The traditional production I saw at New York’s Metropolitan Opera a decade ago allowed for much more robe-clutching and clear facial expression, not to mention the fact that the singers’ voices just came through more strongly -- the biggest problem in Freyer’s version is that the scrim that creates the hallucinatory mood often muffles the voices onstage. (This, incidentally, was my pop-educated companion’s one complaint: he is accustomed to amplified music, and at times things were too quiet for him.)

But here’s something interesting -- much of today’s most important mainstream and indie pop resides in a similarly fantastic realm, far from conventional emotional expression. Artists as diverse as Gaga, Kanye West, Of Montreal and Animal Collective use masks both visual and vocal to challenge the idea that human expression is ever really ‘natural’; these innovators are exploring how technology is changing the very ground of our consciousness. So much pop now dwells with fascination on science fiction themes, from Janelle Monae’s android reveries to the astral imaginings of electronic musician Flying Lotus. Even pop tart Kesha wore a costume on ‘Saturday Night Live’ that would fit right into Freyer’s universe.


But what about the music? Can a pop lover appreciate Wagner? I think so. In this realm, the appeal may be less heady. Wagner’s compositions are simply beautiful -- especially ‘Das Rheingold,’ which unfolds with such an organic grace. With so much to keep the eyes occupied, the pop music fan may be able to let her ears relax while watching this Ring, and to absorb its many subtleties.

Next: ‘Die Walküre’

-- Ann Powers


Complete Times Ring Festival coverage

Top: Graham Clark (Mime) and Arnold Bezuyen (Loge). Credit: Monika Rittershaus/L.A. Opera

Bottom: Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan). Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times