Das Rheingold

James Conlon
Los Angeles Opera Orchestra
February/March 2009
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Los Angeles
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanVitalij Kowaljow
DonnerWayne Tiggers
FrohBeau Gibson
LogeArnold Bezuyen
FasoltMorris Robinson
FafnerEric Halfvarson
AlberichGordon Hawkins
MimeGraham Clark
FrickaMichelle DeYoung
FreiaEllie Dehn
ErdaJill Grove
WoglindeStacey Tappan
WellgundeLauren McNeese
FloßhildeBeth Clayton

Placido Domingo’s east coast company, Washington National Opera, has postponed the *Ring* cycle it had already begun. On the west coast, Domingo’s Los Angeles Opera forges ahead, although next season will see the shortest season of subscription productions ever for the company — just 6. Three full rounds of the *Ring* cycle will end that season.

Seen on Sunday, March 8th, the *Das Rheingold* designed and directed by Achim Freyer reinforces the boldness of the company’s venture. Freyer’s style is much more about design and “performance art” than conventional narrative, which even a non-traditional staging such as Cherau’s at Bayreuth keeps as a foundation. When Freyer brought his staging of Bach’s *Mass in b minor* to the Dorothy Chandler some years ago, the audience strongly disapproved of the stylized pantomime of mummy-like figures, played out behind a scrim. However, a couple of seasons later Freyer came back to present Berlioz’s *La Damnation du Faust*, in a colorful, energized production that could fairly be called a hit.

The best sections of Freyer’s *Rheingold* shared some of the positive characteristics of that Berlioz, but there were worrying passages that recalled the distancing, overly clever worst of the Bach affair. Freyer seems most inspired by the outsiders to Valhalla. Loge is the only character who doesn’t either wear a mask or spend most of the performance hiding behind a fabrication of some sort. In fact, throughout most of the performance Wotan appears suspended in a box-like representation of his royal self seated on a throne, with only Vitalij Kowaljow’s face visible (and occasionally his hands). Alberich and Mime wear oversized face masks, which appear much more substantial than they are revealed to be when the singers doffed them at curtain. The design manages to brilliantly capture the troll-like nature of the Nibelungen and still allow the singers to project as if unencumbered. Freyer cleverly suggests the height disadvantage of these characters with an effect of huge platform shoes. The giants Fasolt and Fafner, on the other hand, appear both in the form of the singers, who sometimes raise huge magnifying glasses to their faces, and as oversized doubles — but only doubles of their construction helmets and their huge hands, when they reach out for Freia. Doubles fascinate Freyer; even the Rhine maidens have mirror-image doubles, waving their arms like synchronized swimmers, perhaps as water reflections would.

On Sunday the opening scene never quite pulled together, as Freyer doesn’t permit Alberich to interact with the Rhinemaidens who are, after all, trapped upstage in a huge billowing cloth. When we meet the future Valhallans, they are spread around the circumference of a center platform, and they hardly move from those initial positions. Freyer’s design here strongly suggests he sees Wotan and family as stiff, flat characters, who imagine themselves masters of their destiny but who are actually acted upon. The result was dry and uninvolving, prompting some worries about the later installments of the Ring, which focus on these characters and Wotan’s offspring.

However, it is not unusual for *Das Rheingold* to be dominated by its Loge, and such is the case here. Arnold Bezuyen actually got to move, in fact, to hop and gambol and even, with the help of some more doubling (and tripling), glide across the stage. Bezuyen has a great voice for Loge, lean yet muscular, and from the time he hit the stage the production came to life. Then Freyer’s magic started to work, as the lower half of the circular platform rose to reveal Alberich’s mines, and Graham Clark appeared as Mime. Such is Clark’s irrepressible stage presence that even behind a huge mask he created a character within seconds. For once, the cartoonish stage effects as Alberich turns himself into a snake and then a frog conveyed a sense of the ring’s power, and the imaginative stroke of having the magical helmet be a golden top hat really paid off when a tiny version appeared on Alberich transformed as a toad.

Freyer’s lighting effects (designed with Brian Gale) did allow for a suggestion of a rainbow bridge, but Valhalla never appeared as more than a sort of floating castle turret. The Rhine reappeared as a blood-red stream at the end, a probable foreshadowing of the carnage to come.

The Rhinemaidens were sung with liquid (forgive me) purity by Stacy Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Beth Clayton. Gordon Hawkins seemed a bit stifled by the staging of the first scene, but he was very impressive once he’d acquired the Rhinegold. Judgment will have to be reserved on the Wotan of Vitalij Kowaljow — the voice is sonorous enough, but it would take a singer of rare charisma to create a character when he spends most of the opera as a face sticking out of a hole in a cardboard facade. Michelle de Young interacts with her consort from across the stage, her movement restricted to a few waves of her oversized arms. Jill Grove’s Erda also sported an extra set — or two — of lengthy limbs. If the staging restricted the creation of characters, it seemed to concentrate both Grove and de Young’s vocal energy, and they both sounded great. Morris Robinson and Eric Halfvarson, as Fasolt and Fafner respectively, almost matched Bezuyen’s Loge for strong singing matched with memorable characterization. In their brief moments, Beau Gibson’s Froh, Wayne Tiggs’s Donner and Ellie Dehn’s Freia all made impressive contributions.

Los Angeles Opera covered the pit for this performance, and of course without the appearance of James Conlon at the dimming of the lights, many in the audience had to be shushed into silence as the low rumble of the first chord seeped out. The sound was surprisingly warm and detailed under the circumstances. Conlon supported the singers, while allowing the orchestra to ramp it up for the descent to the realm of the Nibelungen and the approach to Valhalla. At curtain most of the cast ran on and off stage fairly quickly, but Conlon took a diva-like bow, bathing in the adulation of the besotted LAO audience. Wonderfully, a camera then panned over the LAO orchestra, projected onto the scrim. That’s an innovation worth adopting on a routine basis. Freyer’s artistry is dynamic and thought-provoking. However, much of the *Ring* is good old-fashioned story-telling. To what extent Freyer’s style and Wagner’s creation actually work together will perhaps be revealed in the upcoming *Das Walküre*.

Chris Mullins | March 2009


Los Angeles Opera’s original attempt to stage Wagner’s epic work dates back to 2000 with an anticipated production that paired the forces of director Peter Mussbach of Germany with the special effects of the Hollywood director George Lucas, but those plans were cancelled due to the economic gyrations stemming from 9/11. Fast forward a few years and we find Plácido Domingo, then artistic director, in partnership with director and designer Achim Freyer on two projects: The Mass in B Minor by Bach in 2002 and Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust in 2003. Thronged amidst controversy and admiration of these two productions, Mr. Freyer remains unfazed, remarking with affability, “Not my problem.” Then on September 28, 2006 it was announced that Achim Freyer would spearhead the directing and designing of a new Ring scattered across two seasons.

Freyer is not a household name in the United States, but he is highly regarded as a visionary in Europe with his insights into theater using bold abstracts and provocative imagery. The first of four parts, Das Rheingold, opens the Ring at The Dorothy Chandler that exemplifies his hallmark.

Los Angeles Opera remains true to the original physical formatting that Wagner decided upon when outlining the structure of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre: the orchestra is invisible and a double proscenium draws the audience’s attention toward the characters on stage. James Conlon’s keen command of his orchestra is superb and supports all cast members without usurping their vocalism.

When the curtain rises we first see the three Rhinemaidens, Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde singing sufficiently by Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Beth Clayton, situated upstage and floating along a silky burgundy cloth to imitate the river’s shimmering water. This technique is handled by a corps of young men and women who are situated under the sheet while later act in creating the impression of the gold lying under the water with flashlights.

Scene II reveals a round stage set on a forward tilt that becomes the focal point of all action within the opera. Occasionally moving, the circle’s periphery plants the principal singers dressed in bigger-than-life costuming of surrealistic proportions. Whenever specific characters are engaged, the action moves to the center of the platform while the others watch, eliciting a “stage within a stage” feeling.

Plácido Domingo taps a pool of seasoned artists to assume leading roles. This year a handful of principals make their LA Opera debut including Arnold Bezuyen as the manipulative god of fire, Loge, renowned mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Wotan’s wife, Fricka, and Gordon Hawkins’ splendid rendition of the evil dwarf, Alberich. Also making her debut is the gifted soprano Ellie Dehn as the goddess of youth.

Among returning cast members are the vibrant Vitalij Kowaljow hailing from Ukraine as Wotan, king of gods, the talented Graham Clark who plays Alberich’s brother, Mime with a powerful punch while the goddess of the earth, Erda, rises to the stage from the subterranean with interpretive authority sung by the accomplished Jill Grove.

In the last scene we find the pair of brothers, Fasolt and Fafner, singing with gargantuan bass inflections, portrayed by the brilliant Morris Robinson and the compelling Eric Halfvarson. Completing the troupe is Wayne Tigges who succeeds in his handling of the role of Donner while the god of the fields, Froh, is sung by Beau Gibson.

Accompanying Achim Freyer is his daughter, Amanda, who co-designs the costumes in brilliant colors and for some characters’ exaggerated faces (especially Alberich and Mime looking strikingly similar to the features found in Salvador Dalí’s The Dream). They are on the border of being grotesque and revolting yet add to the “shock value” of the production.

Achim Freyer and Brian Gale’s lighting techniques play a pivotal part in the Ring with an interesting result. The sense of mythological chicanery is awesome yet the props such as the Valhalla castle turret with a neon lit line, a flying Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-like airplane, wire wrapped cocoon suit, oversized papier mâché hands and ruler measuring the height of the gold pile left by the Nibelungs, are too whimsical and compromise the seriousness of this Das Rheingold.

The forte of the production lies primarily in the gifts of all singers who are strong and solid. The orchestra supports those that are situated on stage. If you are a traditionalist, you may want to think twice about this Ring. If, on the other hand, you are open to new inventions, over embellishments, gadgetry and saturated “eye candy”, this may be for you. You choose who will win the Oscar.

Christie Grimstad | Los Angeles Opera 02/21/2009

Financial Times

Finally, after valiant attempts and sporadic tantalising morsels, Los Angeles now boasts a Ring des Nibelungen it can call its own, and if the opening instalment is representative, it will look like no other production of Wagner’s 15-hour epic of ambition, greed and redemption currently on the boards. Fortunately, it will probably sound like the best of the rest.

That it took more than two decades for the Los Angeles Opera to incorporate the Ring into its repertoire is a chronicle unto itself. Eight years ago, general director Plácido Domingo approached director Peter Mussbach and George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic about the project. But staggering cost projections and the economic malaise following 9/11 scuttled any hope of Wagner à la Star Wars. Then Domingo turned to the veteran German painter and theatre artist Achim Freyer, whose debut here in 2002 with a staging of Bach’s Mass in B minor aroused healthy debate.

Freyer has given the city of the angels a Rheingold that represents a singular and daring act of artistic imagination. It owes nothing to contemporary Wagner production styles, either brilliantly lit abstraction in the post-second world war Bayreuth manner or the ubiquitous and politically motivated wrenching of time and place posited in the name of “universality”.

Freyer’s spiritual debt to Brecht has yielded a semi-satirical circus spectacle, painted in video-game hues. Folk elements often dominate on the periphery of Freyer’s perilously raked disc, which periodically rotates and splits. Objects fly through the ether. Theatrical artifice, both in the outré costume constructions, the brilliant masks and the blatant use of symbols (such as Wotan’s eye) are strewn throughout Freyer’s décor. It is through the deployment of those symbols that the director suggests that this opera is about noble souls committing ignoble acts, populating a world whose natural order has been disturbed but will be righted through the remaining parts of the tetralogy. The hoard of gold is delivered to Wotan in the guise of elaborately wrapped Swiss chocolates. The rainbow bridge on which the gods enter Valhalla is dispatched by brilliantly conceived projections and a coloured squeeze box tossed on the waves of the Rhine. Fafner dispatches his giant sibling by breaking his neck.

The characters both inhabit their fanciful outfits and are defined by them. Fricka’s permanently imploring arms, the lifts on the dwarf Alberich’s shoes, Loge’s foxy get-up and the loamy hairdo sported by earth goddess Erda as she rises from the depths – all suggest an ancient pageant come to life. In shunning verisimilitude, Freyer aims to place us in the heart of moral decay. It is a bold concept, unlikely to woo ardent traditionalists, but sure to attract Wagnerites with adventurous spirits.

Music director James Conlon may yet do his part. In covering the pit, he guaranteed impeccable balances between the cast and the 92-member orchestra. The playing abounded in stunning detail, a few infractions from the brass and constant theatrical alertness, bought, occasionally, at the expense of sweep.

The cast, which will remain constant through the unveiling of the complete Ring over the next 15 months, heralds a new, international-level Wotan in the Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljov, who lent the assignment an impressive sonorousness. Michelle DeYoung’s mezzo-soprano (pictured top) delivered Fricka’s pleas with uncommon warmth. Arnold Bezuyen’s wily Loge marked a stellar company debut. Gordon Hawkins imparted an evil grandeur to Alberich, while Graham Clark’s veteran Mime was slime personified. All contributed to a historic night at the LA Opera.

Allan Ulrich | FEBRUARY 24 2009

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Premiere, CA
Technical Specifications
256 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 269 MiB (MP3)
Broadcast (KUSC, 29 May 2010)
Possible dates: 21, 25 February, 1, 5, 8, 11, 15 March 2009
A production by Achim Freyer (2009)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.