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Critic’s Notebook: A ‘Ring’ renaissance

The “L.A. Ring,” as Achim Freyer’s production of Wagner’s four- opera cycle, “Ring of the Nibelung,” has come to be known, began May 29 under a cloud. Two lead singers had dissed their director. Ticket sales proved a disappointment. Picketers protested a composer’s anti-Semitism. Wagnerians unhappy with Freyerian fantasy used the Internet to spew dissent. The $31-million production had left Los Angeles Opera in debt and, for a short while, uncertain of its future.


FOR THE RECORD:
Ring Cycle: An article in Monday’s Calendar about L.A. Opera’s staging of the Ring Cycle said that “Mahabharata” had been presented during the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. It was staged as part of the Los Angeles Festival in 1987. The article also misspelled the last name of director Peter Brook as Brooks. —



FOR THE RECORD:
Ring cycle: An article in Monday’s Calendar section about the L.A. Opera production of the Ring cycle referred to the series of four operas as a teratology. The word should have been tetralogy. —


The anarchic ancillary Los Angeles Ring Festival looked to be, as one theater director put it to me, anything the cat dragged in. Not many critics came from afar — like tourists they were discouraged by the expense of a cycle drawn out to nine days instead the normal six or seven — and some who had previewed the company’s earlier outings weren’t eager for more. Europeans grumbled early on about how bad the orchestra sounded. Plácido Domingo, singing Siegmund in “Die Walküre” in the first cycle, struggled, causing speculation that maybe the 69-year-old tenor, appearing for the first time here since his adnominal surgery in the fall for cancer, may be at the end of his singing career.

But what a difference a month makes.

The third and final cycle ended Saturday night with an almost full moon and an outright triumph for L.A. Opera. Throughout the third cycle the entire mood had changed on stage and in the audience. A festival atmosphere began to pervade the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and its plaza. Audiences came vividly dressed and clearly excited. The orchestra and singers rose to unexpected new levels. Everything seemed to work. Domingo, in the third “Walküre,” was terrific, sounding strong and scampering up the steep rake of the set for his curtain call like a kid. (He chalked up his earlier performance to something he had eaten.)

If you believe the naysayers, Freyer’s curtain calls when the four operas were first staged individually over the past two seasons occasioned the loudest booing in the history of the Chandler (an exaggeration in my estimation). This much I can attest to: The director’s curtain call Saturday was greeted by deafening cheers. He emerged a hero. And this show, by this final cycle, had become an instant L.A. legend, spoken of in the hushed awe of, say, Peter Brooks’ epic “Mahabharata” staging during the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984.

Indeed, the mood at the Music Center became reminiscent of the Olympic Arts Festival in more ways than one. As with that festival, L.A. felt it had something to prove.

“Ring” cycles are commonplace. In the West alone, Seattle has had many. Long Beach, Costa Mesa, San Diego and Flagstaff, Ariz., have seen the teratology in some form. San Francisco’s first “Ring” was in 1900, a mere 24 years after the cycle’s premiere in Bayreuth.

Los Angeles had never staged one. But maybe the city of the future didn’t need one. I think a good argument could have been made instead for, say, attempting Freyer’s brilliant productions of Philip Glass’ early “portrait” operas (“Satyagraha,” “Akhnaten” and “Einstein on the Beach”), which were given over three stirring days in Stuttgart, Germany, 20 years ago.

Still, the “Ring” as an operatic Everest has become the measure of a company’s prowess. Domingo, the company’s general director, and James Conlon, its music director, were not going to rest until L.A. Opera had become “Ring"-worthy. They insisted that the two-year effort would bring the company together in ways nothing else could. They felt that a cultural center was not fully cultured until it had rung up a “Ring,” and especially here, given Wagner’s influence on Hollywood and popular culture as we know it.

It turns out that they were right, but not in ways that they or anyone may have known. This “Ring” was that nearly insurmountable challenge that practically caused the demise of the company, but what doesn’t kill you is supposed to make you stronger. Enter Achim Freyer.

The German director and painter made a difficult situation all the more demanding by creating a weird stage picture full of crazy creatures and mystifying symbols. He mixed complex technology with funky cartoony cutouts. He annoyed his cast no end by forcing singers onto a steep rake and putting masks on many.

Lots didn’t work at first. But after a while the audience and the singers began to understand that Freyer’s vision was liberating, not imposing. Although he brought definite ideas to the “Ring,” and its prediction of the fall of capitalism as represented through the greed of gods, dwarfs and you and me, he also let his painterly instincts guide him. The masked singers learned new ways of expression through body gestures. As in classical Japanese Noh theater, the tilt of a mask made the expression appear to change.

Singers found something new in themselves as they came to terms with the production. Linda Watson, a cold and imperious Brünnhilde, learned to radiate on a rake she hated. John Treleaven, voice worn, struggled with his comic-book costume and persona. But a superhuman Siegfried happens to be the biggest deception of the “Ring,” and Freyer made him an unusually likable and affectingly vulnerable dummkopf. Of course he couldn’t save the world.

The levels of this production were many and marvelous. The lighting deserves a special award. So do the wonderful actors and acrobats of Freyer’s troupe, mostly Angelenos trained over two years for this production.

Conlon and his orchestra grew too. Not until the final cycle did this crucial component of any Wagner opera come into its own. There was enthusiasm and feeling all along, but real musical character took time and arrived by the end.

The “Ring Festival” proved to be whatever you wanted it to be. The cat dragged in plenty. I could catch only a little but did check out a multimedia punk rendering of the “Nibelungenlied,” the German epic poem that inspired Wagner, as enacted by collision/theory at Highways over the weekend, and it proved sexy, silly, loud, irreverent and worthwhile.

L.A. Opera passed along some statistics Saturday. For all the performances of the operas (including those during the past two seasons and the three cycles), 87,453 tickets were sold. Meanwhile, the “Ring Festival” presented nearly 1,000 events and attracted more than 300,000 attendees.

Ultimately, what first had looked like a disaster, the failure to lure “Ring heads” for high-priced cycles, turned into a windfall for Angelenos when single tickets went on sale at reduced prices. A new, enthusiastic, unjaded audience was found. It should not be lost.

A lot of money will have to be raised quickly in an unfriendly economic environment for a return of the “Ring” any time soon (and this one isn’t paid for). But L.A. Opera pulled off a miracle. Here’s hoping the company can do it again.

mark.swed@latimes.com


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