“Ring” Cycles Scheduled for 2010 and 2011 as California Does Wagner’s Nibelung Saga: Part One (Los Angeles Opera)

This website has promoted the idea of attending complete cycles of the four operas of Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelungs”. Californians (and opera lovers from elsewhere) will have opportunities to attend up to six complete “Rings” over the next two years, when California’s two largest opera companies each mounts three complete “Ring”  cycles in a month’s time.

Each company will have one of the world’s leading conductors of Wagnerian opera in command of an opera orchestra with the capability of presenting the works to their maximum symphonic effect.

It is not a secret that both the Los Angeles and San Francisco “Rings” (the latter co-produced with Washington National Opera) have proven to be extraordinarily ambitious and costly projects, and that the ticket sales, even with the tickets priced at a premium, will cover only a portion of the costs of producing these “Rings”.

Both of the companies have had to seek substantial additional contributions from patrons in this time of economic stress. Therefore, those attending, regardless of the price paid for their tickets, will have purchased entree to this ultimate in performance arts at a substantial discount from its cost of production.

Anyone who is “on the fence” as whether to invest the time and resources into attending a complete “Ring cycle” should know that the announced conductors and casts are as prestigious a group as can be assembled anywhere in the world, and opera goers should not assume that these experiences are certain to be repeated anytime in the forseeable future.

Wagner’s “Ring” contains three characters (Wotan, Alberich and Bruennhilde) who appear in three of the four operas, and eight who appear in two of the operas.  Although logistically difficult, the dramatic effect of the “Ring” can be enhanced when a character is played by the same singer throughout the “Ring”. In fact, in both the Los Angeles and San Francisco “Rings” there is a high degree of consistency in such cast assignments.

Los Angeles Opera: James Conlon and the Achim Freyer Ring

For 2010, it is the Los Angeles Opera which will display an otherworldly “Ring” by German director-designer Achim Freyer. Each of the Freyer cycles will cover a nine-day period.

[Below: Conductor James Conlon, who is scheduled to conduct all three Ring Cycles performed by the Los Angeles Opera; edited image, based on a photograph for the Los Angeles Opera.]

Conducted by Los Angeles Opera Music Director James Conlon and headlining Placido Domingo as Siegmund – the signature role of his later career – the Freyer “Ring” contains elements that enhance the “Ring” experience in multi-dimensional ways.

The Freyer “Ring” characters have the features of large puppets, many of whom wield rods of light. Besides the large casts of singing artists that Wagner specified, Freyer adds an additional 18 actor-dancers, known as The Ensemble, who augment the onstage action. In part, they act as the koken of classical Japaneses theater, dressed in black, performing functions of stagecraft.

But they also act as avatars of the characters and concepts to whom Wagner’s libretto or music is making reference at a given point in time. Thus, Wotan may be singing, but if he refers to Siegmund and Sieglinde, even in an act or opera in which neither appears, members of the Ensemble appear in costume representing the Waelsung twins, pantomiming whatever actions to which the libretto or music refer.

Similarly, if a leitmotiv of, say, Siegfried, is heard in the orchestra (such as at the end of “Walkuere”, an opera that takes place before Siegfried is even born) then a member of the Ensemble appears in the costume of that character doing what the orchestral leitmotiv suggests will happen – Siegfried crossing through the Magic Fire that guards Bruennhilde’s Rock.

[Below: Mime (Graham Clark) asks a riddle of Wotan (Vitalij Kowaljow); edited image; based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Tastes differ on how a “Ring” should look, and Wagnerians will have strong preferences on which is the best way to show the Tarnhelm or the Woodbird or even the Nibelung Ring itself. And certainly the costumes that Freyer (and his wife Amanda who co-created the costume scheme) chose for such characters as Erda and Loge have generated heated discussions.

Yet Freyer’s unprecedented approach to the drama – dramatic planes to display what is happening now, what has happened in the past and what will happen in the future, whether referred to by singers or orchestra – brings new appreciation for the complexity of Wagner’s mammoth work.

Los Angeles Opera: the Ring Casts

The three opera threesome are played by Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan), Gordon Hawkins (Alberich) and Linda Watson (Bruennhilde).

Of the characters in two operas, John Treleaven is Siegfried, Graham Clarke is Mime, Eric Halfvarson is Fafner, Jill Grove is Erda, and Stacey Tappan, Beth Clayton and Lauren McNeese are the three Rheinmaidens. (In addition Halfvarson will be Hunding and Hagen, Grove the First Norn and Tappan the Woodbird.)

However, Michelle DeYoung (who earlier this year had sung Fricka in both “Rheingold” and “Walkuere”) has been tapped to play Sieglinde in “Walkuere” and so Fricka in the latter opera will be played instead by Ekaterina Semenchuk. DeYoung will also appear in the final opera as Waltraute and the Second Norn.

The artists who play two of the Bruennhilde’s eight Walkuere sisters, Gerhilde (Ellie Dehn) and Ortlinde (Melissa Citro) appear in other operas. Dehn is Freia and Citro is the Third Norn.

Those scheduled to appear in only one opera, besides Domingo (Siegmund) are Arnold Bezuyen (Loge),  Morris Robinson (Fasolt), Wayne Tigges (Donner), Beau Gibson (Froh), Alan Held (Gunther), Jennifer Wilson (Gutrune). (One suspects at least some of these artists would become available in the event of the indisposition of another singer in a part for which they would be prepared to sing.)

The Los Angeles Dates

The First Cycle: Saturday May 29, 2010 (evening*), Sunday May 30 (eve), Thursday, June 3 (eve) and Sunday June 6 (eve).

The Second Cycle: Tuesday June 8 (eve), Thursday June 10 (eve), Sunday June 13 (matinee) and Wednesday June 16 (eve).

The Third Cycle: Friday June 18 (eve); Sunday June 20 (mat), Wednesday June 23 (eve) and Saturday June 26 (eve).

*Evening performances will begin at from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., depending on opera; **matinee performances begin at 12 noon.