The Rip Post                                                                                              


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(Oct. 5, 2009)

          Mark Swed is, of course, a vastly knowledgeable music critic, with a distinctive and engaging writing style and distinguished resume. His history is, to a great extent, one of nobly championing performances and interpretations that are breaks from tradition, even radical breaks. While it is laudatory to cheerlead for novelty and innovation, it can also stray into championing newness for its sake, and I fear this has been the case with Swed.
          I write as one who loves nothing better in music than for a tried-and-true staple of the operatic or symphonic repertory to sound (or appear) fresh, invigorated. I think back to Giulini’s L.A. Philharmonic renderings of Brahms’ second symphony, and Beethoven’s third, with some awe. It was as if I’d never heard these pieces before, instead of hundreds of times. More recently, I cite new L.A. Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s terpsichoric reading of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” which I never imagined could seriously compel my ears again, let alone be more fun than a barrel of monkeys.


          What’s more, I have immensely enjoyed film director William Friedkin’s crafty staging of L.A. Opera’s “Bluebeard” by Bela Bartok, as well as his cinematic rendering of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica,” that I found beautiful, moving. David Hockney’s pop-artish abstract expressionist sets for “Tristan?” A joy. L.A.’s wooden funhouse for Shostokovich’s “Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk” worked admirably, and I got a kick out of Woody Allen’s rethinking of “Gianni Schicchi” in filmic black-and-white a la late ‘40’s Italian farces.
          But I do not support radicalism for its own sake, and I believe that Swed strays into this territory. There is a nearly panicky supposition in his reviews suggesting that music and opera are dying out due to “traditionalism,” and only novelty can save them. In fact, I suspect this fuels his frequent campaign on behalf of experimental approaches, such as the L.A. Phil stage performance of “Tristan” with lots of Bill Viola video projections, for random example. (My feeling: video generally distracts from, rather than embellishes, the music at hand. Though I freely confess to having enjoyed the 2008 L.A. Phil premiere of Michael Gordon's "Dystopia" and accompanying film by Bill Morrison, not to mention those good old nasty dinosaurs in “The Rite of Spring” sequence of “Fantasia.”)
          Swed’s attitude, I think, generally boils down to newness and radicalism somehow “saving” what he characterizes as an imperiled art form. The fact that symphonic music and opera are more popular and pervasive today than at any time in history, with the majority of performances distinctly traditional in bent, does not mute his proclamations, which can border on the hysterical. This is a man who, after all, has rhapsodized in print that the radically designed Disney Hall might “change the world.” and "Frank Gehry's concert hall interior, designed like a ship, becomes an actual vessel for a spiritual journey."
          Yet I think the critic has topped himself in raving about what I find to be the downright silly and idiosyncratic treatment of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” by German artist Achim Freyer. I am, not incidentally, hardly alone in my dismissal of the Freyer “Ring,” as is evidenced by a healthy chorus of boos among the requisite bravo-shouting competition following the Sept. 29 debut of the third “Ring” opera, “Siegfried.” As well as the scores of mostly disagreeing comments from readers following all of Swed’s reviews and commentaries concerning this “Ring.”
          In his “Siegfried” write-up, Swed has tried to dismiss criticism of Freyer---all booing, especially---as the snarling of “traditionalists” and “Wagnerians.” This is most disingenuous on his part. He knows very well that there are solid, perfectly legitimate grounds for rejecting Freyer’s “Ring” conceit, which all but ignores the narrative arc, dramatic tension, settings, intricacy of character relationships (and, by Swed’s own admission, is not geared to the singing!)
          By any measure, Freyer’s is an extremely high-risk, controversial staging, from the fact that it takes place entirely behind a scrim, entirely in darkness, and that the figures on the stage barely move. . .to costumes that look scavenged from a Cirque du Soleil plane crash. What's more, to decipher meaning from Freyer’s purported “interpretation” is, at best, a low-rent parlor exercise in Jung and Freud. He avers that “Siegfried,” a highly episodic, rather action-packed saga, is about “waiting” (really), and “penetrating,” whether dragons or women. Thus Wagner becomes fodder for glib, intellectual bull session.
          Or, to put it a bit more crudely, and borrow a phrase from the artist, Don Van Vliet:
          “It’s like trying to find out what the bull ate.”
          Throw in the Alice in Wonderland parade of giant pots, pliers, mutant dogs, zeppelin-sized breasts, hairdos that Cher’s designer would kill for, and well, it would seem reasonable to think there is much room for criticism here, and that such criticism would hardly be the sour declamation of stodgy “traditionalists,” as the critic suggests. For a man of Swed’s education, experience, and erudition to make this claim is such an unconvincing pose, yet it is a position he doggedly takes. To what end?
          Likely this: Swed is probably erring on the side of endorsement, on behalf of L.A. Opera, partly because he realizes that this $32 million “Ring” could prove a make-or-break proposition for the company (which radically cut back this season, including a world premiere of “Il Postino,” to accommodate Freyer), and partly because of his penchant for endorsing arch revisionism.
          Here is Swed on “Siegfried:”
          “Freyer received boos Saturday, just as the German artist had for his earlier ‘Ring’ productions of ‘Das Rheingold’ and ‘Die Walkure.’ But he also got cheers, and they were adamant.”
          The second sentence reads a bit like, “The good guys won!”, doesn’t it? It is not news when a production receives cheers. Standing ovations have become clichés, especially in Los Angeles, where they are nearly automatic. Swed knows this. It is news when a production receives boos, especially in "it's all good" Los Angeles, and in this case, when it continues not only to receive boos, but when the boos have increased, as they did from the previous “Ring” opera, “Die Walkure.” This is significant, yet Swed, whose critical duties include being a reporter, downplays it.
          Distortion, pure and simple.
          The last thing L.A. Opera wanted, or needed, was booing for its first-ever “Ring” Cycle. This is, after all, an event that has been planned and touted for many years, and at one point included an announced $50 million version to have been done in cooperation with Industrial Light and Magic, and staged at the Shrine Auditorium (it became a casualty of 9/11.) Any amount of booing for this $32 million undertaking is alarming, let alone the amount registered after “Siegfried.” Then there is the fact that there were scores, if not hundreds, of empty seats in the house, which is shocking, given the amount of publicity and anticipation. Swed did not report this.
          His “Siegfried” review continues:
          “Traditional Wagnerians have reason to be bewildered. Those of us who have admired Freyer's grotesqueries for many years have equal reason to be bewildered. It all boils to how much you value bewilderment.”
          If you’ll forgive an obvious quip, what a bewildering statement this is. So one must conclude that “traditional Wagnerians” (reverse snobbery implication: he is not among them) “value bewilderment” less than he and other operagoers do? What, one wonders, is so desireable about bewilderment? Is this an artistic aesthetic to be enjoyed? Swed has coyly presented the concept as some kind of asset. Does he exclaim excitedly to intermission companions, “Oh, I loved the bewilderment!” Perhaps he does. It might be stodgy, but I confess to a preference for intelligibility.
          More of Swed’s thinly veiled condescension toward “traditionalists” and “Wagnerians” emerges in his acknowledgement that Freyer’s “Ring” does not serve the singing. (Never mind that it is among the most demanding singing in all of opera, that singing constitutes much of the reason for attending, and. . .much of the reason for the opera.) He writes:
          “Heavy costumes, the steeply raked and moving turntable as well as flashing lights are all obstacles for singers. Furthermore, Freyer provides little in the way of sound-reinforcing surfaces. This is not, essentially, a singer's ‘Ring,’ which is one more upset to traditionalists. But then, the Chandler is not an acoustically apt space for Wagnerians, who happen to be an endangered species, anyway.”
          (It is even less of a "singer's Ring" than he might think, considering that John Treleaven, who plays "Siegfried," injured his ankle on Freyer's dark, angled, bizarre set during an Oct. 5 performance!)
          You’ll pardon a “wow” here. First, the director relegates the singers to second fiddle---in a Wagner opera, no less---and Swed remarks casually, “this is not. . .a singer’s ‘Ring.’” Isn’t singing rather central to the proceedings here? Isn’t singing the, oh, main point of opera? Yet because Freyer’s “Ring” is less interested in the singing, or in illustrating the singing, this is only upsetting to, Swed writes, “traditionalists.” Isn’t this a bit like saying that a football game without a ball might upset old-school fans?
          This is pure Swed. Revisionist interpretation and staging is merely objectionable to “traditionalists," he would have you believe. So you are a “traditionalist,” he implies, if you are bothered by the fact that Freyer does not treat "Siegfried" like "a singer's opera."  That’s like being indifferent to the color, blue, in Picasso’s Blue Period, isn't it? What operagoer, “traditionalist”or otherwise, would not find this wrong-headed? Need it be added that the critic altogether ignores, if not slights, the “non-traditionalists” who object to Freyer’s conceit? I count myself as one.
          To read Swed, you would conclude that there are two kinds of opera fans: stuffy, close-minded, unreceptive “traditionalists,” and progressive, modern, free-thinking liberals (such as the critic.) Nothing in between. A false construct, and one frequently found in his reviews: the depiction of opponents of "new" and "different" art as being old-fashioned, unadventurous. So it’s all the more amusing that Swed devoted an entire commentary in the L.A. Times some months ago to denouncing booing at the Freyer “Ring” (led by this columnist) on the basis that it is a “mind-closing activity” and an “expression of rigidity in the face of invention.” Further, he linked booing to Internet “bile in the name of free expression.”
          What, then, is he doing in his “Siegfried” review---and all the other reviews where he maligns so-called “traditionalists”---but booing them in print?
          Next we come to another in the long, long list of instances in which the critic takes a swipe at the acoustics in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This is a fetish of Swed’s. He seems absolutely obsessed with this subject, having made it the centerpiece of his years of campaigning for the construction of Disney Hall. During that time, hardly a review of the L.A. Phil in its old hall passed without Swed groaning over, decrying, wringing his hands about the dreaded Pavilion acoustics. Never mind how successfully these acoustics served the orchestra and various opera companies for what, thirty years? Never mind happy audiences. To read Swed, you would think the Pavilion was the old, defunct Philharmonic Hall, or a dilapidated barn in need of a new roof. And now that he has his Disney Hall---no less than former L.A. Phil general manager Ernest Fleischman has credited Swed with getting the Silver Stunt built---he still can’t resist being rude to old Dorothy:
          “. . .the Chandler is not an acoustically apt space for Wagnerians, who happen to be an endangered species, anyway.”
          Two birds with one stone. Deride the Pavilion acoustics, and slam “Wagnerians” (read: traditionalist fanatics) as an “endangered species.” How facile. Here Swed is so disingenuous that it almost calls into question his credentials for remaining a critic at what’s left of one of America’s big newspapers. Wagnerians endangered? Then how would one explain the indisputable fact that Wagner operas are performed more often around the world than ever before? That the “Ring” cycle is not only performed more than at any other time in history, but that it is consensually regarded as any opera company’s crowning achievement? That “Ringheads” routinely fly all over the world to attend cycle after cycle? That opera itself, let alone Wagner, has never been more widely embraced? That there are Wagner Societies around the world?
          How does Swed explain Seattle Opera having made its highly successful reputation on producing “The Ring” since the mid’70’s, partly enabling the construction of a magnificent new McCaw opera house? That this year’s three Seattle “Ring” cycles under general director Speight Jenkins sold out, attracting attendees from dozens of countries? That “Ring” recordings and paraphernalia are an industry? That newspapers all over the world cover “Rings” as major artistic events, and that the New York Times devoted a ton of space to a travel piece about the Seattle production? That the ever-weird goings-on with the descendants of Wagner and their control of the annual Bayreuth Festival are routinely examined at length in any number of media?
          Seems these endangered “Wagnerians,” who Swed seems to regard so dismissively, have done rather a lot to shore up opera revenues throughout the world. More, one suspects, than the likes of Achim Freyer and other shallow radicals. By the way, just what is wrong with being a “Wagnerian,” and what exactly does that term mean? Someone who greatly admires and enjoys the music of Wagner? Is there something contemptible about that? Why should “Wagnerians” be marginalized? Swed doesn’t address these things, and merely engages in slur.
          Unless I misunderstand what he has written, there are only a couple realistic conclusions to reach concerning the critic's assertions about Wagnerians and “traditionalists:" he is skewing things to serve his purpose in promoting radicalism, L.A. Opera, and the Freyer “Ring," or he is or being slipshod in his research. I know Swed, and he is too intelligent to believe such simplifications.
          As for the Chandler not being “acoustically apt for Wagnerians,” Swed himself noted in his review that since the removal of a screen (initially placed over the orchestra to ensure invisibility, as per Wagner’s direction), the orchestra has “much more presence.” Heaven forbid that he say it any more forcefully, lest he verge on complimenting the Pavilion’s acoustics. In truth, the difference in sound projection was jaw-dropping, and the orchestra surged and roared, and whispered and cooed, sounding as if it was inhabiting. . .a great concert hall. Because it was. Aside: the sound (and interpretation) was richer and bigger than it was at the Seattle “Ring,” which I attended.
          Speaking of which, if L.A. Opera General Manager Placido Domingo had merely transplanted the literally staged Seattle production to L.A., or at least emulated it, he would have certainly had a tremendous hit on his hands, and for about $8.5 million (the cost of that far more successful and unanimously critically endorsed “Ring”) instead of $32 million (which would have made room for "Il Postino.") Think: Seattle’s staging and James Conlon’s conducting. In Seattle, designers not only made a forest look like a forest and a dragon like a dragon, but did so---and Swed would consider this a contradiction in terms---imaginatively. The closing scrim-aided pastiche in Seattle's “Gotterdammerung” was far more moving and effective than any of Freyer’s more expensive effects, and just as “progressive.”
          Yet Swed writes in the close of his “Siegfried” review:
          “With each ‘Ring’ opera, L.A. Opera grows taller.”
          To which I would add:
          And the seats grow emptier.
          And the boos grow louder.

Reviews and commentaries of L.A. Opera's controversial staging of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen."

Val-hell-a  (Feb. 25, 2009)
Rense reviews "Das Rheingold," the first in the series of four operas.
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.
A 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 with Hitler."
The Lonely Booer 2  (May 1, 2009)
L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed boos back at Rense, and Rense responds.
Southland 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 Freyer production.

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