James Conlon
Los Angeles Opera Chorus and Orchestra
April 2010
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Los Angeles
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedJohn Treleaven
BrünnhildeLinda Watson
GuntherAlan Held
GutruneJennifer Wilson
AlberichRichard Paul Fink
HagenEric Halfvarson
WaltrauteMichelle DeYoung
WoglindeStacey Tappan
WellgundeLauren McNeese
FloßhildeRonnita Miller
1. NornJill Grove
2. NornMichelle DeYoung
3. NornMelissa Citro

Chaos and disorder rule at Los Angeles Opera of late, and not just in the fervid imagination of director Achim Freyer, the artistic force behind the controversial staging of Richard Wagner’s four-evening glorification of chaos and disorder.

The program for Götterdämmerung omitted a credit for the role of Alberich (sung ably by Richard Paul Fink), requiring the inclusion of a slip of paper to amend the error. A larger inserted sheet advertised the upcoming three cycles of the Freyer production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, but the calendar of dates cited no month — time means little in the mythical world of Wagner’s masterpiece, one might propose.

Freyer is not an artist averse to rough edges, so these managerial slips would probably just amuse him. After all, as Brünnhilde sent the ravens off to Valhalla to tell Wotan of the end of his world, on Freyer’s set the raven cut-outs, located at either end of the stage lip, rose up to reveal two prompters, chest-high, backs to the audience but scores before them. Not long before that, a computer malfunction left the projected backdrop strewn with line after line of computer gibberish, but since one line of that was a time clock running down, perhaps it was part of Freyer’s design all along.

If Freyer’s climax disappointed (which it did), it wasn’t because of these intentional or inadvertent glitches, but because his invention did not match the boldness and incision seen in the earlier parts of this long, long show (and most of his other stagings of the Ring operas). Gibichungs on wires tumbling through the air behind a scrim of flames came off as more Cirque du Soleil than riotous or avant-garde. To the vociferous critics of Freyer’s work, it must be said that the mythic ponderousness seen in most stagings of Wagner’s work — a quality that those critics would insist is embedded in the libretto — holds little interest for Freyer. His vision is centered on identity, the no-man’s-land distance between what each character thinks of him or herself and what events reveal the truth to be. Thus, Freyer created the painted cardboard facades that characters carried before them, right from Das Rheingold until the end of Götterdämmerung. At that end, Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde couldn’t take the subterfuge anymore, and knocked not only her own flat representation to the ground, but those of the other characters then on stage. She had truly learned contempt for the ring, and the limitless avarice and ambition it inspired.

Surely Freyer’s sense of humor traumatized those most offended by his staging, especially the portrayal of Siegfried, a muscle-bound doofus who, nonetheless, came off as the only genuine, likable figure in the world. John Treleavan continued to make some of the more unpleasant sounds a tenor can make and still manage to create an appealing characterization that excused most, if not all, the barking and yelping. Most of the first two acts Watson seemed to holding back on the best part of her voice, its sheer formidable size, as if keeping a reserve for her monumental closing scene. In the event, her full power did not reveal itself even then, another factor that made the last 15 minutes of this five-hour extravaganza the least impressive section.

Eric Halfvarson triumphed as Hagen, his gruff, imposing bass as frightening as his portrayal. Freyer’s work here (with costumes designed by himself and his daughter Amanda) is emblematic of the Freyer approach. Hagen wore a bright yellow jacket, and around Halfvarson’s waist were two limp, yellow-clad dwarf legs, while the singer’s lower half was a pair of black trousers with white chalk streaks (matching some of other design elements). When Hagen stood behind his facade, he could drape the legs over the front, making him look truly troll-ish. At other times, though, Freyer had no hesitance about having the singer stride the stage, the dwarf-legs dangling feebly at his waist. This sort of staging element drove some attendees crazy, as Freyer quite obviously had no interest in naturalistic representation. For those accepting of this theatrical compromise, nothing distracted from the complete portrayal of Hagen as detailed in Wagner’s libretto — ugly, scheming, manipulative, and ultimately doomed.

Alan Held as Gunther and Jennifer Wilson as Gutrune both sang impressively from behind their blank, infantile Gibichung masks — masks that were able to make Siegfried’s deception when he kidnapped Brünnhilde plausibly staged, for once. Michelle DeYoung joined Jill Grove and Melissa Citro as the three Norns, and Ms. DeYoung also made for a fine Waltraute.

The pit reconfiguration did dampen the sound a bit too much as James Conlon continued to lead the Los Angeles Opera orchestra with finesse and power. The horns in particular had a great, great day on Sunday. There were a small number of departures from the audience after the first act, but most stayed, and then lingered to stand through the final ovations, which rose to a peak of volume when Conlon appeared. The conductor is truly becoming the heart and soul of Los Angeles Opera, which may save it come the day that Placido Domingo no longer leads — ostensibly — the company.

Not to say that Conlon is perfect. He managed to find the funding for his Recovered Voices series, which undoubtedly has brought some exposure to some interesting work — that of composers whose careers were crushed by the Nazis. However, opera being the expensive enterprise that it is, your reviewer can’t help but wonder if compromised stagings of these rare (for a reason, too often) operas really fits the managerial profile of a company that operates out of the Dorothy Chandler, a 3000+ seat hall.

Chris Mullins | 26 Apr 2010

Los Angeles Times

‘Götterdämmerung’ — a new beginning at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

The End.

Saturday afternoon, a bit before twilight, “Götterdämmerung” (“The Twilight of the Gods”) reached its final, transcendental moments at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The multitudes of singers, musicians and stagehands passed their endurance tests. Breathlessly conducting nearly five hours’ worth of music, the energetic James Conlon never flagged. With the last and longest opera of Wagner’s tetralogy, Los Angeles Opera proved it could complete a “Ring” cycle.

That the company had the artistic capability to mount this Everest of the opera world it had for so long strived to conquer was never in any doubt. Far lesser operatic outfits put on the “Ring” cycle all the time. That L.A. had the vision to produce a unique “Ring” had been clear for quite a while, once Achim Freyer’s provocative but singular concept began unfolding in the earlier operas last season.

You never know whether all the singers will come through, but they did. Freyer’s production has not been universally loved, but Wagnerites love to complain, so this wasn’t about to keep them away. Even the scary challenge of raising the money — and keeping within the multi-million-dollar budget — was, in the end, nothing to worry about. Los Angeles’ first “Ring” cycle was too big to fail, as Los Angeles County, with a bailout loan last fall, acknowledged.

What could not be anticipated before Saturday’s final curtain (a term I use metaphorically, because there is no curtain in Freyer’s fanciful staging) was just how much this “Ring” might matter. Wagnerism operates on a sliding scale, measured, in part, by how much in this epic work — in which greedy gods, greedy dwarfs and greedy giants destroy themselves so that mankind can have a crack at ruining things — that you don’t object to.

Yet in one of the most glorious and moving instances of stagecraft I have ever witnessed, Freyer in the final scene of his “Ring” strips away all theatrical illusion. He had plenty to strip away, given the radiantly goofy globe he had created. In doing so, he destroyed innocence and simultaneously demanded it. “Götterdämmerung,” I thought, never had it so good. Not everyone — given a beet red-faced, vein-popping booer near me – necessarily agreed.

Most opera goers brace themselves for “Götterdämmerung.” It typically begins in late afternoon with a dinner break after the two-hour prologue and first act. L.A. Opera took but two short intermissions, and Conlon moved things along, which meant a mere (everything in Wagner is relative) commitment of five and a quarter hours in the theater.

Still, a lot can happen in that time and does. I won’t bother you with most of the plot. Siegfried and Brünnhilde having met on a fire-surrounded rock in the previous opera, “Siegfried,” now make their way in the treacherous land of the Gibichungs and come to grief.

Norns warn us of the fate of the gods and recall what you may have missed in the earlier operas (and if you miss that, other characters chime in with their own recalling), and Freyer sets this scene with the women coming out of globulous skirts, yet another glimpse into the German director and artist’s gloriously odd-ball painterly universe.

That opening notwithstanding, Freyer’s “Götterdämmerung,” at least until its unforgettable “Immolation” scene, is more conventional (everything is relative with Freyer as well) than had been the case in the earlier operas. But Wagner’s libretto (which was written first, he then worked backward on the first three operas) is the most narrative-driven (and poetically ham-fisted) of the cycle. Everyone may be once more funny-looking, but Freyer does not abstract himself from the plot and uses masks with less abandon.

Eric Halfvarson’s deliciously evil Hagen, the son of Alberich (who stole the Rhinemaiden’s gold and forged a magic ring three operas earlier), comes close to stealing this show, as did his throne made in part of a kneeling, red-shod nude. His ineffectual half brother and sister, Gunther and Gutrune, convincingly portrayed by Alan Held and Jennifer Wilson, were masked throughout, yet their singing created the striking illusion of facial expression.

The opera is played out on a postmodern parquet floor, crisscrossed with the light tubes that Freyer so enjoys. Symbols from earlier operas hang from the ceiling. The lighting is elaborate and arresting. Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) as the nasty, crusty financier hangs around even more than Wagner’s libretto suggests.

The L.A. Opera budget, however, may have prevented a couple of big scenes from being properly staged. Siegfried’s “Rhine Journey,” for instance, is no more than a slow, murkily lit set change. Then again, maybe this is just part of Freyer’s anti-establishmentarian way of doing things.

John Treleaven (Siegfried) and Linda Watson (Brünnhilde) were uneven earlier in the cycle, but here they rose to the occasion. Their first duet was vocally underpowered, as if they were saving themselves (they were also placed on an acoustically dead spot of the stage). Treleaven’s voice is not large, but he compensated with expressivity, overcoming even his comic-book costume to reveal himself as a cartoon character who can feel. His death, minimally and powerfully staged, felt profound.

Watson also gradually built in power and stature, in her case becoming a towering Brünnhilde by the end. Her coolness also served as perfect foil for the effusive Michelle DeYoung when, as Waltraute, she tried to persuade Brünnhilde to give up the ring and save gods, as well as take another opportunity to tell of the back story.

The chorus of Gibichungs, masked men with Freyer’s light sabers, looked and sounded impressive. A few of the funny people who have paraded through the previous operas return to parade a final time through this one, enthralling and inexplicable as ever.

In “Götterdämmerung,’ Freyer might have been expected to sensibly tie all these images together, but his genius is to do what you least expect. So at the end, he robs images of meaning on his path to ultimate disillusionment. Props are set into unsettling, swirling motion. Light fixtures come down, blinding the audience and revealing the backstage. Cut-out figures of ravens ‘fly’ away revealing prompters at their desks cuing singers.

Conlon, who received the evening’s loudest ovation, conducted in service of the drama. But he became expansive at the end, and the orchestra, fine all night, turned resplendent. No set, I suspect, has ever been torn down more memorably or movingly.

And now we start all over again. Ring Festival LA is gearing up and the first of three full cycles, presumably full of Freyer refinements, begins at the end of May. With Wagner, all endings are beginnings.

Mark Swed | April 4, 2010

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 593 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (KUSC, 20 June 2010)
A production by Achim Freyer (2010)
Possible dates: 3, 11, 17, 21, 25 April 2010
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.