by RIP RENSE
(April 8, 2009)
“At Los Angeles Opera on
Saturday night, among the sonic embers of said glow, one heard another sad,
if not unexpected, sound at the end of “Die Walküre.” Somewhere in the rear
of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a lonely booer (maybe more than one)
valiantly tried to be heard over loud bravos when the German artist Achim
Freyer, the designer and director of the company’s first and supposedly
controversial “Ring” cycle, came on stage for his bow.”---from
Mark Swed’s L.A. Times review.
that was me! I am the “lonely booer” of the Dorothy Chandler
I am the guy who was
mooooooing and ooooooooing from the front row of Balcony A at the
opening night of Wagner’s “Die Walkure,” at the sight of director Achim
Freyer. (Hands cupped, for extra projection.)
Valiantly, just as Mark
No longer freelancing,
and still making the Times!
Yes, another courageous
audience member has laid claim to my title, in the comments section of
Swed’s review, but trust me, folks, it was me. I was the one Swed heard.
I was louder than Wotan, king of the gods, certainly louder than he was by
the end of the five-hour opera.
And let it be noted here
that I applauded for everyone else---cast, crew, orchestra, conductor---with
Poor L.A. Opera, in the
hole big-time for its first-ever production of Wagner’s four-opera “Der
Ring Des Nibelungen.” Poor James Conlon, who splendidly conducts an
orchestra that sounds muffled (take that scrim off!), as it illustrates set
and costumes that look like Cirque du Soleil hand-me-downs. Poor Placido
Domingo, whose Siegmund suit was
half Al Jolson in blackface, half Bozo the Clown during his blue period.
I’ll say this for Placido:
And poor L.A., for
being subjected to a cluttered, ridiculous, crass, idiosyncratic, and
often downright cheesey production for its first-ever “Ring.”
Thirty-two million is being spent on this? Everything looks like it is made of construction paper and
tempera paint by really hard-working high school kids. In fact, that’s not a
bad general analogy. Freyer’s conceit, to use perhaps too grand a word, is
that of the sophomore. Make that freshman.
Characters have duality
of emotion? Conflicted motivations? Hey, put some mute doppelgangers out
there, tangoing and pirouetting around, in order to illustrate these
complex psychological underpinnings. Never mind if the stage gets as
busy as a barn dance. After all, the audience must be too stupid to grasp
such nuances merely from Wagner’s dialogue, the acting, or the profound and evocative score. (Well, that assertion might be more accurate
than I want to admit.)
a healthy boooo for L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed,
and his obligatory reference to Wagner's anti-Semitism.
Hmmm. How to suggest the meddlesome, controlling nature of
Wotan’s wife, Fricka? Freyer knows! Give her freakishly long arms,
with hands that light up and spin around! Want to play up the
Oedipus implications of Wotan sacrificing up one of his eyes in
order to win his wife? Hang a gigantic eyeball above the stage,
and paint a great big one right on his forehead. Oh, and in case
you miss it there, paint another eyeball on his chest, like
Superman. (And paint still more big Wotan eyeballs on Fricka’s
big breasts, apparently to suggest hubby’s philandering,
womanizing ways—or was it some strange feminist comment?)
I mean, we get it, Achim,
we really get it! The eyeballs have it!
Fricka's freakish arms, and eyeball bazooms,
and Wotan's big eye birdcage.
Or maybe we don’t. Do the eyes mean to represent Wotan’s
omnipresence? If so, Freyer must not have been very secure about
it, because at one point in Walkure, he has five---count
‘em, five---Wotans on stage at the same time (including the big
red one who
somersaults down from the ceiling. Exclamation point.) Find
the hidden pea under the Wotan! And perhaps I was hallucinating
by this point, but I believe that at the end of Act 2, a total
of five Hundings and five Siegmunds lay dead on the great big
Frisbee on which all this Ring Cycle action takes place. Why
Why a duck?
And how about that big
Frisbee! It seems to variously represent “the world,” and the
universe, and time, and the Ring, and maybe Wheel of Fortune. Is
that Siegmund and Sieglinde, or Pat and Vanna down there? Can I
have a “y,” please? Oh, never mind, there’s already a “y”
painted right on the big Frisbee, for some reason, as well as
the mysterious “3m.” (Let us hope the 3-M corporation paid L.A.
Opera some big bucks for that plug.) And what are those long
ribbons that Wotan keeps collecting, as he condemns his poor
daughter, Brunhilde, in Act 3? The ties that bind? The tangled
web we weave? Or some cunning reference to String Theory? Oh,
yes, Achim, it was clear from the half-costumes that Siegmund
and Sieglinde were two halves of one person, but gee, y’know, we
sort of already. . .knew that.
Then there were the light
sabers, the glowing sticks representing swords and spears.
Freyer apparently really, really finds them snazzy. It wouldn’t
surprise me that he has five Siegmunds and five Hundings on
stage just so he can watch ten
light-sabers waving about in quasi-coordination. Maybe he’s
“Star Wars”-struck. Yes, that could be it. Judging by his mad
scientist foof of swept back
hair, he and
George Lucas could go to the same barber. This stroke of
inspiration merits an “A,” though. For absolutely any high
school or college production of this opera.
You know, I could go
on and on. So I will. Why does Wotan have a great, bulbous
insect head, looking like one of the Kamanits in that great
“Twilight Zone” episode, “To Serve Man?”
Why is his insect head encased in a birdcage? Oh, wait a
second---I understand. That’s not a birdcage, it’s. . .the Ring!
It’s the same spiral of circles that periodically is projected
over the scrim, apparently to remind the audience of what they
are watching (not a bad idea, because without the music and
singing, one would be hard-pressed to identify this opera.) I
get it---Wotan is imprisoned by the curse of the Ring!
Imprisoned by the bad deal he made in giving it to grisly
Alberich, as ransom for his sister-in-law, Freia, who grows all
those magic golden apples that keep the gods young and
Pilates-ready. Imprisoned by his foibles, by his. . .bad
What’s that I hear? Why,
it’s the sound of John Cleese in “Fawlty Towers:”
goes to whoever sent Fricka out to ride the big revolving
Frisbee, in order to retrieve the birdcage after it got away.
When Wotan took it off for some reason---who really wants to
sing through a birdcage?---the contraption rolled noisily about
25 feet across the Frisbee, and clunked to a halt. Fricka
arrived later, bent down to grab it---with her real hands---and
then appeared to contemplate it. Alas, poor Birdcage!
Nice catch! Unless. . .this. . .gasp. . .was more of Freyer’s
And who was the
revolutionary thinker who decreed that Wotan and Brunhilde not
embrace at what certainly is the peak emotional moment of the
opera? Never mind that Wagner’s directions call for that
embrace. Never mind that it is craftily teased with a false
climax in which the two turn to look at one another. Never mind
that everything in the music, plot, and dramatic arc of
Walkure---and the entire Ring---calls for this embrace to
take place. It’s easily the cycle’s most poignant scene, where
the God’s stubborn authoritarianism is overruled by. . .love. .
.for his daughter. Ah, but Achim apparently thought this old
hat, or hackneyed, or that most feared of critical charges,
Why are the Valkyries---noble
demigod sisters who escort fallen warriors to
Valhalla---essentially overgrown singing ravens? Why are their
mighty, flying steeds a combination of birdcage head and bicycle
wheel? Why are these hobby horses all-but-invisible during their
signature moment, “The Ride of the Valkyries?” Why does
Brunhilde sport a ‘fro as
spectacular as Pam Grier’s in “Coffy," or any
self-respecting Cher impersonator? Why does Fricka have a big
swath of green across her snout? Please don’t tell us this
Yeah, I know: picky,
picky. Okay, then let’s deal with Freyer’s own description of
his central interpretation of “Walkure,” as quoted in the
program notes. Everything in the opera, the heretofore artist
avers, is about “pursuit.” Everybody in it is pursuing somebody
or something at all times, Achim asserts, you know, like a Marx
Brothers movie. Gosh. Hmmm. That’s provocative. Sort of like
saying that the central theme of Hamlet is that everybody is
worrying. Add to this Freyer’s weird statement about how he
didn’t want to present Wagner’s concept, but a concept of
Wagner’s concept, and it all adds up to a guy who is probably
just in over his head.
I confess to feeling a
bit sorry for him, really. The man obviously worked incredibly
hard here, and gamely tried to come up with a fresh look for
operas that have been staged in endlessly wacky ways. He really
gave things a lot of thought, and the production is nothing if
not daring (for the worse, I think, in that it makes static
scenes even more static by placing characters in frozen poses
around the Big Frisbee.) So here's some faint praise: there are,
horrifying as it is to contemplate, worse "Rings" out there,
beginning with Domingo’s other sanctioned desecration, the
Washington Opera’s “American Ring,” in which everything is based
on (cough) American iconography. You know, Amelia Earhart aviatrix
IF YOU MISSED MY
COLUMN ABOUT THE FIRST RING OPERA, "DAS RHEINGOLD,"
I’m not a traditionalist. I loved David Hockney’s enchanting
sets for L.A. Opera’s “Tristan und Isolde,” which were somewhere
between whimsical and wondrous---a fine fit for a (tragic) fairy
tale. I approve of originality and abstraction, when they
integrate with, rather than distract from, the art at hand. And
a couple of Freyer’s constructs do work nicely in Walkure.
The scene in which Wotan essentially recaps how he got into the
mess he’s in has real magic. For once, the Frisbee serves a
purpose: as Wotan names the various characters in the story,
they appear from out of the darkness, stepping on to the big
Lazy Susan, slowly orbiting the king of the gods, embellishing
his narrative like visual versions of Wagner leitmotivs.
And the staging of the
“Ride of the Valkyries” was ethereal, weird and creepy
(“ghastly,” as Swed said), at least for about twenty seconds
until you saw how low-budget it was (might have spent a few more
dollars here than on, well, maybe anything else.) Finally, the manner in
Loge lit the “magic fire” surrounding Brunhilde was
fanciful, lyrical, a beguiling delight. Picture a demented red
imp done cubist style, moving about the circle, “igniting”
strange, spinning red-orange lamps, like some hellish acolyte.
It was beautiful. . .
But utterly ruined
by the unscripted, vulgar, foreshadowing intrusion of Siegfried,
not due until the next opera, here strutting across the stage
like Chuck Jones’s yowzah-ing animated frog. In the
form of a bare-chested muscleman with curiously blue torso and,
instead of a head, nothing but a (gold, I think) glittering top
hat (I get it---the star of the show is a brawny boob, literally
and figuratively.) Yes,
that’s right, take the most touching sequence in the opera---one
of the most touching in all opera---and trash it up with
a little topless burlesque. Sheesh. (Quick--- somebody take a
blue pencil to the blue torso man.)
There were two reasons, I
think, that the great chorus of boo’s lavished on Freyer
after the Ring's first opera, “Das Rheingold,” were not reprised last Saturday night, and
that the customary Great Bravo-Shouting Competition reigned
supreme. The reasons: Wagner, and the singing. In Walkure,
there are a few sequences where only two characters are on stage
(notably where Wotan recaps everything for Brunhilde, and
“Wotan’s Farewell” to Brunhilde at the opera’s end), and here
Freyer did not---could not?---interfere much. Suddenly, the
audience was dependent only on the music and the singing. Free
to ignore the Frisbee and the costumes, and concentrate on
Wagner. Well, the music quickly and rather embarrassingly
superceded all the silliness. The crowd was caught up, including
me, and Domingo (“the world’s greatest Sigmund” hype is
warranted) and Anja Kampe (Sieglinde) were tremendous. Vitalij
Kowaljow's somewhat underpowered “Wotan’s Farewell” was
nonetheless sung movingly, with emotion that caused at least one
loud handkerchief honk in my neighborhood.
That cinched it for the
But I boo’ed, and will
boo again. (That’s balcony A, folks, front row---listen for me!)
Frankly, I was doing Mark Swed’s job for him. His reviews of the
first L.A. “Ring” opera, “Das Rheingold,” and now “Walkure” have
pulled their punches, big-time. As reader comments following his
story note, his tone is that of an apologist. Swed knows that a
failed “Ring” could mean nothing less than Gotterdammerung
for L.A. Opera, and he certainly knows just how loused up and
bizarre is Freyer’s rendering. He hints at it (calls it “weird”
at one point), but won’t go beyond that. He’s a house
man---always has been for L.A. Opera and the L.A.
Philharmonic---and I’m the critic here. If this “Ring”---set for
three cycles and a citywide festival next June---sinks L.A.
Opera, blame L.A. Opera, and Placido Domingo, and the man with
the big Frisbee.
'Ring' Cycles with a Spin---Freyer endorses booing!
The L.A. Ring director takes the ultimate phoney artiste
cop-out---"I don't want a spectator like that. He has to be
active; he has to yell, 'Boo,' 'Bravo,' get involved."
Why not boo? by Terry Teachout
Christopher Smith Uncovers Freyer's "Ring" Inspiration
RING COVERAGE. . .
commentaries of L.A. Opera's controversial staging of
Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen."
(Feb. 25, 2009)
Rense reviews "Das Rheingold," the first in the series of
The Lonely Booer
(Apr. 8, 2009)
Rense reviews "Die Walkure," the second in the "Ring" cycle.
Also, Rense reacts to L.A.Times music critic Mark Swed
noting the presence of a "lonely booer" letting loose at
the sight of director Achim Freyer. The "lonely booer"
was. . .Rense.
Boo For Swed (Apr. 8, 2009)
Rense comments in sidebar on Swed's assertion that
listening to Wagner might make you "want to keep company
The Lonely Booer
(May 1, 2009)
L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed boos back at Rense, and
Uber Alles (July 29, 2009)
Rense comments on L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich's motion to
quash a citywide "Ring" Festival on the basis that
Wagner was an anti-Semite.
Siggy Stardust (Oct. 5, 2009)
Rense Reviews L.A. Opera's "Siegfried."
Rense Rebuts L.A. Times's Mark Swed on "Siegfried"
(Oct. 5, 2009)
Rense counters Swed's cheerleading for absurd Achim