Not Worth Its Weight In (Rhein)Gold
The contrast between simple blocking and complex costumes made
the L.A. Opera's staging of 'Das Rheingold' a confusing experience.
There's a moment during the last scene of the L.A. Opera's production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold," the first of the four-opera series "Der Ring des Nibelungen," when the Nibelung dwarf Alberich places a curse on the magic ring that has just been taken from him. As baritone Gordon Hawkins belts out Alberich's curse, a chorus of actors, which includes a dwarf who occasionally removes his paper-mÃ¢chÃ© head to toss it into the air and a female whose claw-like fingernails and giant plastic breasts beckon seductively to Alberich, circles him. What exact purpose they're serving in this scene, I'm not quite sure.
As my mind reels with questions -- Who are these characters? What do they represent? -- I hear my opera companion Jean-Luc whisper from beside me, "What's going on?"
"I have no idea," I whisper back. The answer isn't entirely true -- I know exactly what's going on in the world of Wagner's opera. But director/designer Achim Freyer's staging is a mystery to me. And this isn't the first, "Okay, what's happening now?" moment I've had so far during this production. Freyer has had me questioning his choices since the houselights first dimmed and the curtains parted to reveal a stage separated from the audience by a transparent scrim and a proscenium lined on the top and bottom by electric-blue fluorescents.
Freyer's "Das Rheingold" is an attempt to update a classic that, frankly, doesn't need to be updated. While his production choices are certainly "interesting" and were clearly intended to entertain or shock an audience likely familiar with the Ring cycle, they are far too often distracting.
Instead of enjoying Wagner's score and the talent of musical director James Conlon's cast and orchestra, I find myself constantly questioning the significance of Freyer's staging: What is the purpose of having each of the gods sing out from within a larger version of themselves? Why is there an airplane hanging from the ceiling? I hoped that by the conclusion of the performance, these questions would be answered. But at the end of the two-hour-and-forty-five-minute, intermission-less production, I felt ignorant, like I must have missed some obvious clue to the puzzle.
I'm no expert when it comes to opera. I've only seen a handful before, and "Das Rheingold" is the first in four years. So I really only have two standards when it comes to judging whether or not a production works for me: Can I emotionally connect with what's occurring onstage without necessarily understanding what's happening? And am I entertained?
Freyer's "Das Rheingold" failed on each of these counts.
I can't emotionally connect with the production because I'm too distracted by my lack of understanding of it. I understand the opera's narrative because I am already familiar with the story: The god Wotan must steal the gold from Alberich to ransom his sister-in-law Freia, who has been taken by a pair of giants in exchange for building Wotan's palace Valhalla. With the help of the mortal trickster Loge, Wotan tricks Alberich and claims the gold and powerful ring, which he trades for Freia and the gods' youth and happiness.
If I didn't already know all this, I'd likely be asking myself, "What's going on?" a whole lot more. I can't understand what's occurring in the opera's narrative for the same reason I'm not entertained by the production -- things that should be simple are complex and things that should be complex are simple. The characters' appearances are complex, but their self-expressions are simple. The set is complex, but the blocking is simple. I'm aesthetically over- and underwhelmed at the same time.
For example, while the costumes designed by Freyer and his daughter Amanda Freyer, are intricate and detailed, the blocking is sparing and subtle throughout the production. The grandiose pantomime and facial expressions one usually depends upon to understand the plot are almost nonexistent. So while the set and costumes tell a story I struggle to understand, the actors' faces, which are frequently covered by masks, and bodies do not.
This is no fault of the cast, which was quite good as far as I could discern. I especially enjoyed the expressive performance of Graham Clark, who managed to truly convey the spirit of Alberich's tortured brother Mime while wearing a full mask.
Overall, "Das Rheingold," which ended its run in Los Angeles on Sunday, was worth a watch based on Wagner's score alone.
The LA Opera plans to produce the next three parts of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" throughout the next year, culminating in a performance of all four operas back-to-back in June 2010. But Ring enthusiasts beware -- this production might not be what you expect. I hope you can interpret Freyer's vision better than I was able to.