Review: Standing Ovations for Achim Freyer, James Conlon, Cast of “Götterdämmerung” – Los Angeles Opera, April 3, 2010

The fourth installment of Achim Freyer’s much discussed conceptualization of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” has premiered at the Los Angeles Opera, setting the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage for three complete cycles scheduled during May and June, 2010.

An enthusiastic Los Angeles Opera audience was treated to an extraordinary and spectacular performance, whose musical leadership was the responsibility of one of this generation’s great Wagnerian conductors, James Conlon. The principal parts were sung splendidly by a cast of international stars.

The Los Angeles Opera Chorus showed impressive skill at performing one of the great choral operas, in this production requiring tightly choreographed routines. Freyer’s ideas for the “Ring”, once they can be grasped in their totality, proved insightful and, in the case of the personal drama of Siegfried and Bruennhilde, affecting.

As I have stressed in previous reviews, I believe it to be the responsibility of reviewers to explain the criteria by which they make judgments on the performances on which they comment, whether critical, or, in this case of my opinions here, effusing praise. For the “Ring”, the most complex of operatic endeavors that any of us will assay – be we performers, production crew or audience members – there is a special responsibility of the reviewers to be clear about where they are coming from.

In my opinion, there are basic overriding questions that reviewers must ask themselves. Did the musical performance – vocal and orchestral – meet international standards?  Was the production faithful to the story? Did the production advance one’s insights into this work?

“Götterdämmerung” is the ultimate orchestral experience.Whenever we have the chance to see  it competently played, in live performance with principals and chorus, with its story visually realized, we should avail ourselves of the opportunity. Conlon is a world class conductor who is able to produce a wondrous sound from the now mature Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Conlon’s performance was brilliant.

(Although some reviewers have very precise, even precious ideas, about how each passage should sound and will lower their grade for this or that conductor’s performance who does not conform to their preferences and prejudices, I prefer to experience each conductor’s insights into this mammoth work. Absent a conducting disaster where the orchestra is in disarray, the majesty of Wagner’s music will overwhelm even a quixotic approach to it, although I do not think it likely that any major international opera company would schedule the Ring without a world class conductor at its helm.)

The vocal performances were excellent, led by the Siegfried of John Treleaven and Bruennhilde of Linda Watson. It was the Los Angeles Opera debut of Richard Paul Fink, who has become an authoritative Alberich, one of the world’s best. The Gibichung siblings were impressively sung by Alan Held as Guenther and Jennifer Wilson as Gutrune. Excepting some unsteady moments early on, Eric Halfvarson’s Hagen was as sonorous as it was sinister.

“Götterdämmerung” is not just any opera. The first act, the longest of any act contained in an opera with two or more acts, is a marathon in itself, followed by two of the most lyrical and emotionally wrenching opera acts every written.

When one casts Siegfried and Bruennhilde in this opera, one must look for artists who have the extraordinary breath control and the physical ability to sustain hours of vocal production. Each of the two artists (and, in fact several of the other roles whose vocal athleticism must be maintained for hours) must pace themselves like a marathon runner or an open ocean long distance swimmer, budgeting their energy and vocal capacity in a performance whose demands would sink some of the world’s great voices that were not trained for this niche.

So, in a performance, if one wonders why the Bruennhilde seems to be approaching a first act monologue at less than full power, you can be certain that she is wholly conscious that she will be expected to pull out all of the stops for the third act Immolation – one of the great showpieces on which Wagnerian dramatic sopranos are judged. (Yes, one can note that a recording artist approached that monologue more powerfully, but recording an opera over several days is different from singing all of the “Götterdämmerung” Bruennhilde’s part within a five hour period.)”Götterdämmerung”

As to fidelity to the “Ring”, this website has reported extensively on the Freyer innovations, which I believe reflect insights into every line of Wagner’s libretto. This review will contain act by act impressions of some of the production’s striking features. In particular, the second and third acts are brilliantly staged.

Subsequent to this review of “Götterdämmerung”, I will expand my remarks to encompass the entire Freyer “Ring”. I have been noted elsewhere as strongly approving of Freyer’s conceptualization, and the expression of my further thoughts will maintain that reputation.

The Freyer production has detractors, especially relating to costume design, and I fully sympathize with those who feel that many of the costumes for women credited to himself and his daughter Amanda Freyer are needlessly unflattering, even outrageous, caracatures.  Were the women character’s costumes tastefully redesigned for some future revival of the Freyer Ring, I would be among the many pleased by such a concession.

But with a work of art, and the Freyer Ring surely qualifies as such, it is the total impression, rather than the details, on which that art must be judged.

Granted, some members of the first night audience signalled their disapproval when Achim Freyer stepped out for his curtain call. But the Los Angeles audience, which had been virtually unanimous in standing for an ovation for the performance’s Bruennhilde, Linda Watson, and its conductor, James Conlon, clearly was determined to outshout the naysayers. It seemed to me that there was little doubt that most of the opening night audience, rather few of whom had left immediately after the opera’s end, had bonded with Freyer and his innovative approach to Wagner’s”Ring”.

[Below: Production Designer Achim Freyer; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Notes on Act One

The Norns each appear as large black globular beings. Above the Norns, suspended in air, are recurring symbols from this Ring. A top hat represents the Tarnhelm, and beyond that, the magical spell that impairs our hero for several hours of the opera. A blue light saber is Nothung, the sword that Siegfried reforged from the shards of his father Siegmund’s sword shattered by Wotan.

Freyer, who has made much of lines in Wagner’s libretto that have been ignored by other production designers, was obviously impressed by the information that Loge, sometime after the third act of “Siegfried”, was stabbed by Wotan with the pieces of Wotan’s spear shattered by Siegfried. One of images in the sky throughout the performance is a view of a slain Loge, surrounded by three white light sabre fragments.

[Below: the Three Norns (Jill Grove, Michelle DeYoung and Melissa Citro) spin a rope that determines the fate of the world; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

In the next scene, Siegfried, whose body had been blue throughout the previous Ring opera, is now red, Bruennhilde’s color, from head to toe. It gives us an additional insight into Freyer’s thoughts on just how vulnerable our hero is to outside influences – both intended for his benefit (Bruennhilde’s and the Woodbird/Wotan’s) and destruction (Mime’s, Hagen’s and Alberich’s). Those who plan to attend the entire “Ring” in May or June should keep track of which color Siegfried is at a particular point in time.

[Below: Bruennhilde (Linda Watson) has received the glowing Nibelung Ring from Siegfried (John Treleaven); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Having given Bruennhilde, as the troth of his love, the glowing (and cursed) orb that represents the Nibelung Ring, Siegfried mounts her horse, Grane, and takes off for his grand tour, intended to educate himself in the ways of mankind, while Bruennhilde remains at home in the supposed safety of her magic fire. In felicitous imagery, Siegfried’s avatar rides the figure that represents the horse, during the orchestral Rhine journey.

But once Siegfried leaves Bruennhilde’s sanctuary he moves into a land controlled by the forces of evil. Freyer, who presented us with the premonition of the floozy Grimgerde in the previous three operas (along with the baby buggy containing, Hagen, the evil offspring of her loveless, sex for money liaison with Alberich). Hagen’s carapace is a monument to that perverse act, with the image of the naked Grimgerde in flagrante.

[Below: Alberich (Richard Paul Fink, left) watches over the actions of his son Hagen (Eric Halfvarson, right); edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Her legitimate offspring, the fraternal twins Guenther and Gutrune, are presented as faceless non-entities, as indeed are all of the population of the land of the Gibichungs.

For the oath of blutbruderschaft representing the mixing of Siegfried’s and Gunther’s blood, ribbons fall from their forearms. Hagen often holds an electronic device, something like a movie camera, which we soon realize controls the spell that binds Siegfried. Whenever its colored lasers or red electric eye are operating, we know Siegfried is no longer in control of his senses. (Freyer’s staging is revelatory in its underscoring of just how much time our hero spends in a mentally compromised state of being.)

It’s Bruennhilde’s turn for mind-games.  First she is visited by her sister Waltraute (impressively sung by Michelle DeYoung) stating – no pressure – that she must destroy her wedding ring to save the universe.

[Below: Bruennhilde (Linda Watson, center foreground, in red) is visited by her sister, Waltraute (Michelle DeYoung, left) ]

Then, unexpectedly finding what appears to be a Gibichung in her safe haven bedroom, is overpowered by a man who, based on everything she previously had known, she would have expected to be a weakling.

Notes on Acts II and III

Over the five and a half decades I have attended live performances of operas, I have become convinced that the Acts II and III of “Götterdämmerung”, properly done, should be an opera-goers greatest experience.  What Conlon, Freyer, and chorus director Grant Gerson, this stellar cast, and the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus have produced achieves that “greatest experience” level.

Beginning with a somnolent “dark side” dialogue between a son born to be bad and his evil father, the act moves into the most cheerful of Wagnerian choruses. As part of the wedding preparations, the carapace for Bruennhilde is moved to the front in line with Gutrune’s carapace.

[Below: Siegfried (John Treleaven, center front) and Gutrune (Jennifer Wilson, left front) watch as a carapace for Bruennhilde is moved to the front as  the faceless Gibichung vassals sing of their joy; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

But the Gibichung joy is not to last. The spellbound Siegfried pledges to forfeit his own life if he has misstated any facts during his period of mental incompetence.We are aware now of Hagen’s yellow laser sword, that will join the white (now broken) laser sword representing Wotan’s spear and power and the blue laser sword representing the line of magic that Wotan infused into Siegmund’s and later Siegfried’s sword Nothung.

In one of the spectacular images of Act III, when reference is made to Wotan’s ravens (which sit in front of the stage for most of “Götterdämmerung”) as Siegfried is about to be killed by Hagen, closeup projections of ravens are clustered on the front scrims.

[Below: Siegfried (John Treleaven) begins to recover his memory of his marriage to Bruennhilde, and appears in Bruennhilde’s red color, just before being slain by Hagen’s yellow laser sword; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

During the “Siegfried’s Death” orchestral music, the disk that represents the Freyer Ring turns, and a black dead Siegfried is mourned over by Bruennhilde in black. She is now determined to do what would needs to be done to break the curse, and Hagen and the forces of evil are foiled.

[Below: the Rhinemaidens (background) recover the Ring and drown Hagen (Eric Halfvarson, center) in the Rhine; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

I will have more to say about the Freyer “Ring” in subsequent posts. If one has the opportunity and resources to invest in the full “Ring” do so. If one has to choose a single opera of the Freyer four, see this “Götterdämmerung”.

For my review of the first three operas of the Achim Freyer “Ring”, see: Achim Freyer’s Fascinating “Rheingold” Begins L. A. “Ring” – March 11, 2009, and

Sonic Splendor: Domingo, Conlon Lead Impressively Sung, Engaging “Walkuere” for L. A. Opera – April 12, 2009, and

Achim Freyer’s “Siegfried” at Los Angeles Opera: John Treleaven Heads Impressive Cast – September 26, 2009.