Die Walküre

James Conlon
Los Angeles Opera Orchestra
April 2009
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Los Angeles
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundPlácido Domingo
HundingEric Halfvarson
WotanVitalij Kowaljow
SieglindeAnja Kampe
BrünnhildeLinda Watson
FrickaMichelle DeYoung
HelmwigeSusan Foster
GerhildeEllie Dehn
OrtlindeMelissa Citro
WaltrauteErica Brookhyser
SiegruneBuffy Baggott
GrimgerdeJane Gilbert
SchwertleiteRonnita Miller
RoßweißeMargaret Thompson

The Los Angeles Opera audiences seem to have decided that no matter how they may really feel about Achim Freyer’s “performance art” staging of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the singers and musicians are giving them at long last a chance to hear these monumental works at the Dorothy Chandler.

So they are going to enjoy it. At the end of Sunday’s matinee of the always weird and sometimes wonderful Freyer take on Die Walküre, the ovations grew into what seemed for once to be a true standing ovation which went on for quite a long time.

The best features and worst flaws of Freyer’s staging cannot be separated. His conception, for better and worse, sees Wagner’s narrative as a playground for theatrical invention, with the characters not much more than archetypes. Thus the major characters often spend much time behind stationary facades, in the form of flat representations of their costumes. On Sunday the heart of act one, the growing sense of identification between Siegfried and Sieglinde, long-lost siblings, could not beat with life while Plácido Domingo and Anja Kampe stayed on opposite ends of the ring/disc on which most of the action takes place. Narratively, Freyer sees these characters as trapped in their conventional identities until forced to move beyond their ordinary sense of self by circumstance. When Domingo and Kampe could finally emerge from behind their painted fronts and interact, some narrative blood finally started to flow. This same structure hobbled the action of Das Rheingold as well, but Freyer’s commitment to the conception is starting to pay off. After a slow start, the rest of the opera developed into a gripping affair.

Domingo and Kampe were made up as mirror image figures, half blue/black, half gray. Other productions may have tried to cast two singers with a passing resemblance (see Peter Hoffman and Jeannine Altmeyer in the Bayreuth/Chereau/Boulez films). Freyer uses his highly stylized costuming and make-up design to get to the heart of the characters, with no concern for naturalistic depiction.

Jackets play a big role in Freyer’s scheme as well, with Hunding’s enormous plush red number making him somehow comic and yet still insinuatingly dangerous. Another more somber jacket topped with a tilted hat stands in for Wotan as Wanderer at times, and at the end of act three, yet another jacket, metallic this time, descended and enveloped Brünnhilde as she stood in suspended animation, surrounded by Loge’s fire. As Freyer’s designs appear and reappear, in various transformations, he is building up a total world view that acknowledges the essential “otherness” of the story’s time and place, while keeping something recognizably human at the core.

That is underscored by the most surprising development in Freyer’s staging, the growth of his presentation of Wotan. The excellent singer Vitalij Kowaljow floundered in Das Rheingold, kept far too much of the time behind his costume facade and getting almost no chance to project the complexity of the character. On Sunday, he was finally free to move about, and as a result your reviewer finally felt that Wotan was on the stage, in all his misguided aspiration and egotistical fury. The marital combat with Michelle De Young’s formidable Fricka raged like the epic battle of wills that it is, and when Fricka exited, waving her weirdly elongated arms in triumph, Freyer allowed Kowaljow’s Wotan the un-godlike but understandable consolation of sinking down in dejection on the small platform in the center of the disc. Then as Wotan’s monologue ensued, with Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde listening, Freyer brought onto the now revolving disc the characters who populate Wotan’s tale. Wotan was truly at the center of the universe, and yet still a lost and troubled figure.

Technically, however, Freyer’s staging has many a bug to work out. The revolving disc creaked far too much, and at other times odd bangs and whistles could be heard. Far too often stagehands in black have to run on stage to fix this or that, with attempted but unsuccessful discretion. And the smoke that pours out seemingly throughout the whole show surely added to the usual rounds of audience coughing, at least in orchestra seating. At some points the frequently employed lightsticks that characters wielded seemed to have their own minds about when they should be on or off.

It’s a fascinating production and a frustrating one. Your reviewer would prefer not to be frustrated, ultimately, but not at the loss of the fascination.

Musically, Los Angeles Opera put together a fine cast, stronger overall that what your reviewer has heard of the singing in the Metropolitan Opera’s current run of the cycle. Kowaljow’s Wotan has power and heft, although he seemed a bit tired by the end of act three. Linda Watson almost managed the treacherous opening battle cries for Brünnhilde, with only that final high note escaping her vocal grasp. After that, she was in control, and Freyer obviously loves this character, giving Watson many opportunities to present her wildness and devotion to her father. Michelle DeYoung repeated her fearsomely obstinate Fricka, and Eric Halfvarson sang a fierce Hunding. Surely he wants to take that red jacket home.

Anja Kampe continues to impress your reviewer as one of the very best sopranos around, although she doesn’t get as much publicity as some others. The voice is secure to just about the top of the range, as well as being as beautiful or forceful as necessary. Domingo has owned the role of Siegmund for sometime, and he is not ready to relinquish ownership. From first to last, he sounded magnificent. A fine gaggle of Valkyries energetically whooped it up astride their bicycle-frame steeds. Strange, isn’t it, in how so many so-called traditional productions, nary a horse is to be seen in this scene.

James Conlon led his forces from inside a covered pit, which created the occasional odd balance but always supported the singers. Some of the grander moments of the score didn’t quite have the accustomed impact, such as the sublime transition to Siegmund’s “Winterstürme” or the concluding Magic Fire music, where Conlon chose a slower tempo. Overall the playing was secure and evocative.

Time will tell if the financial gamble of this risky project will pay off for Los Angeles Opera, and even artistically, it can’t be called a total success. With two more epic chapters yet to unfold (both scheduled for next season), however, Freyer’s staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle may prove to be the foundation on which LAO builds a future audience responsive to challenge and excited by innovation.

Chris Mullins | 19 Apr 2009


Artistic Self-Indulgence?

Los Angeles Opera brings back German avant-garde director Achim Freyer to spearhead

Die Walküre, the second installment in Richard Wagner’s epic journey of Der Ring des Nibelungen. After a somewhat benign reception of Das Rheingold in January, this production deserves some detailed commentary.

James Conlon’s ample orchestration begins in a blackened pit, bounded by Richard Wagner’s original wishes. In contrast to Das Rheingold , Die Walküre adds another dimension by introducing mortal beings into the Valhalla mix, ratcheting up yet another notch in Wagner’s dramatic musical score. The notes, unfortunately, never reach their full impact on the stage.

In a nutshell, this production is static. No where do we see a broad conveyance of emotion or an ounce of physical contact that holds rightful ownership to this opera. Perhaps Mr. Freyer’s illusive abstractions are to allow the audience to create their own cerebral imagery. The lack of movement by principals on stage drags this Wagnerian music down. As in the first quarter of the Ring, this action (or lack thereof), surrounds itself on a tilted circle that glacially moves at times (thank heavens). Granted, we see a variety of Amanda Freyer’s colorfully, albeit grade school-like characters periodically step onto the geometric ring’s periphery, it looks as though we’re watching a parade of mannequins on a never ending model runway.

Great anticipation awaits the arrival of Plácido Domingo as the protagonist, Siegmund. Mr. Domingo, alongside his incestuous twin, Sieglinde, sung by German Anja Kampe, do a fine job in dramatic voice and projection although the former shows signs of sporadic tiring. Singing in acceptable fashion as Wotan is Vitalij Kowaljow who runs into an emotive altercation by his wife, Fricka, that is well sung by returning Michelle DeYoung. Having made previous appearances with Los Angeles Opera in various Wagner and Strauss operas, Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde is strong and bold while Eric Halfvarson’s broad bass voice consumes the evil Hunding.

The choreography is loose, lacks detailed attention, and comes across as being unprepared, ultimately diluting the importance of Wagner’s music. That may have been Achim Freyer’s premeditated agenda. The fetish of glowing neon sticks to signify swords proves outlandishly funny especially when hearing the audible clicks of switches that fail on first attempts. Maybe we’re in some sort of ad hoc summer stock theater.

Many opera lovers might likely identify with this director’s sheer self-indulgence and introspective scope, mesmerized by the tremendous strides in inventiveness. Others might just ask the question…WHY?

Christie Grimstad | The Dorothy Chandler 04/04/2009

The New York Times

A Trip to Valhalla: Grab Your Neon Light Saber

A production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle has long been a defining benchmark for opera companies. Even before becoming the Los Angeles Opera’s artistic director in 2000, Plácido Domingo started talking up this company’s premiere production of the “Ring.” Mr. Domingo initially approached George Lucas of Industrial Light and Magic to come up with a video-rich “Ring,” maybe something intergalactic. That idea proved prohibitively expensive.

Mr. Domingo, who has been the company’s general director since 2003, turned to the boldly abstract German theater artist, painter and director Achim Freyer, a veteran in the field, now 75. The first installment of Mr. Freyer’s “Ring” (which still will have a hefty total price tag of $32 million) came in February, with a production of “Das Rheingold.” The Los Angeles Opera’s “Walküre” opened on Saturday, and I attended the second performance, on Wednesday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

As it turns out, there are “Star Wars” elements in Mr. Freyer’s fantastically strange and often confounding “Walküre,” including neon spears that look like Jedi light sabers and alien-looking creatures who descend from above and roam the rotating, steeply raked circular platform that serves as the main playing ground for this “Ring.”

Mr. Freyer’s work in opera, which has roused strongly varied reactions, is deeply personal and hard to categorize. Mr. Domingo has described Mr. Freyer’s “Ring” concept as magical, which still does not say much. The Valkyrie warrior maidens, pasty-faced, spectral figures with flowing black capes, ride atop wire-rim horses that are part bicycle and part sewing machine (used to reattach the body parts of the fallen heroes whom the Valkyries take to Valhalla).

These horse contraptions lend a playful dimension to the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene. But much of Mr. Freyer’s magical imagery is not so much strangely alluring as just strange. Wotan, the head god, sung by the stentorian bass Vitalij Kowaljow, arrives in a bulbous costume, his skull-capped head enclosed in a wire helmet that looks like a protective device for a giant industrial light bulb. Fricka, his wife, the gleaming mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung wearing clownish makeup, is costumed in a flowing dress with eerily extended arms, giving her a wingspan that Michael Phelps would envy.

Mr. Freyer, who directed and oversaw all aspects of the design, is fascinated by the manifestations of the gods. What do they look like, to one another and to the mortals who fear and worship them? Countless creative artists over the centuries have imagined that our gods look like us. Wagner presents the story of Wotan and his clan as a typically complex domestic drama, with marital spats, in-law troubles and, at its core, a ruptured relationship between an imperious father and his rambunctious daughter.

For all the wondrous fantasy of Mr. Freyer’s “Walküre,” I badly missed a human dimension. Act I, in which the long-separated twins Siegmund and Sieglinde meet, slowly piece together their pasts, then fall helplessly in love, was especially disappointing. These characters are, after all, half-mortal and achingly vulnerable.

Siegmund, sung by Mr. Domingo, who at 68 continues to be in miraculous voice, and Sieglinde, the lustrous German soprano Anja Kampe, were presented as unearthly figures missing their other halves. Siegmund’s face is black on one side and white on the other; Sieglinde’s, the opposite. Similarly, their robes are half midnight-blue and half black. This literal-minded imagery is bad enough. But for long stretches of the act the siblings are stationed on opposite sides of the stage, neither looking at nor touching each other. During these episodes, a silent figure circles the dais, dragging a neon bear that looks like the big hand on a cosmic watch.

I am continually baffled by high-concept opera directors who fail to utilize the personal qualities of the artists they direct. Here you have Mr. Domingo, a dignified artist who still exudes vocal and dramatic charisma, and you put him in symbol-laden makeup and a stiff costume that mask his personality.

The musical performance was strong over all, with James Conlon drawing dark-hued, weighty and supple playing from the orchestra. The soprano Linda Watson, as Brünnhilde, sounded more vocally worn and hard-edged then she did when I heard her in the role in Bayreuth, Germany, in 2006. But she still brings vocal ardor and chilly intensity to her singing.

Next season the final two “Ring” installments are to be introduced here, with full cycles offered in May 2010. And as with any production, especially one as detailed and full of thought as Mr. Freyer’s, it is not really possible to assess the concept without seeing the entire work.

Anthony Tommasini | April 9, 2009

Die Welt

Walkürenritt über Hollywood

32 Millionen Dollar teures Regietheater: Altmeister Achim Freyer bringt erstmals Richard Wagners “Ring” nach Los Angeles

Nach dem Golden Boy kommen Wotans Töchter. Unmittelbar nach der Oscarverleihung im Februar zieht sich das Filmvolk zur schöpferischen Pause zurück, bevor im Frühsommer ein erneuter Quotenkampf beginnt. Die Flaute ist gutes Timing für Richard Wagner, einen Star der ganz anderen Art, mit dessen “Ring”-Zyklus im Spielplan sich die 23 Jahre junge Oper von Los Angeles, einen vorderen Platz in der internationalen Opernrangliste sichern will. Nun mutet diese 32 Millionen Dollar teure Ambition mitten in Rezessionszeiten durchaus riskant an.

Die vor Jahren noch mit George Lucas und teuerster Hollywood-Technik imaginierte Produktion wird nun von Achim Freyer betreut und könnte letztlich das Überleben eines weiteren Theaters entscheiden. Positive Resonanz für das im Februar mit “Rheingold” gestartete Unternehmen lässt hoffen. Nun folgt mit “Die Walküre” Teil Zwei. Für den hartgesottenen Brechtschüler, der kürzlich seinen 75. Geburtstag feierte und der ausgerechnet im regietheaterabstinenten Amerika in den letzten Jahren schon mehrmals reüssierte, scheint das späte Kalifornien-Abenteuer ein Jungbrunnen zu sein. Relativ gesehen jedenfalls, denn auch er bekam drastische Probenkürzungen und strikte Gewerkschaftsrichtlinien zu spüren. Ein Graus für den Detailfreak Freyer, der seine künstlerische Freiheit dahinschwinden sah.

In Probenpausen genoss er den ewigblauen Himmel, suchte wie die meisten Kalifornienfans vor allem die Sonne. Ein lichtdurchflutetes Loft, hoch über Downtown Los Angeles, das wäre dem Theaterveteranen mit den blitzblauen Augen und angesagten Converse Turnschuhen am liebsten. Da schwebt er über den Dingen. Symbolisch gesehen. Demnächst malt er hier exklusiv für eine renommierte Galerie. Mehr zum Privatvergnügen und als Gelegenheit, um aufzutanken für “Siegfried” und “Götterdämmerung”. Im Frühjahr 2010 nämlich wird der komplette “Ring” im Rahmen eines mit Symposien und Ausstellungen zum Thema Wagner angereicherten Festivals präsentiert. Insgesamt wird Freyer dann ganze drei Jahre in der Filmstadt verbracht haben.

Das hektische Treiben der Freeway-Gesellschaft, die große Teile ihrer Lebenszeit in Autos verschwendet, bleibt ihm auch bei seiner dritten Regiearbeit in Los Angeles fremd. Doch faszinieren ihn neben dem Licht vor allem die krassen Gegensätze der Millionenstadt. So amüsiert den Künstler Freyer auch, wenn er in einem der neureichen Prunkhäuser von Beverly Hills ganz zufällig einen Picasso sichtet. Milde lächelnd freut er sich über die Wertschätzung wahrer Kunst, auch wenn sie, wie das Meiste an diesem eher künstlichen Ort, zur Kulisse dient.

Für den “Ring” hat der Regisseur bewährte Utensilien im Gepäck: sein pantomimisches Freyer-Ensemble allerdings musste aus Kostengründen vor Ort neu engagiert werden. Im Vorfeld wurden auch Wagnerscheue Zeitgenossen besonders ermutigt. Dies sei ein “Ring” ohne Voraussetzungen. Ein Märchenland, eine Zirkuswelt jenseits politisch gefärbter Überintellektualisierung. Der seit Jahrzehnten in Europa etablierte Freyer-Stil jedoch mutet in einem Land, wo auf der Bühne weitgehend Realismus regiert, immer noch revolutionär an. Seine Personenverfremdung ist nicht jedermanns Sache, und so laufen die von der Oper geschalteten “Ring”-Blogs mit empörten Kommentaren über.

Die erhitzte Diskussion kann dem Theatermann Freyer nur Recht sein. In erster Linie, ist seine Inszenierung eine Serie atemberaubender Bilder, deren Interpretation er dem Betrachter überlässt. Im “Rheingold” stakst Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) als Zirkusdirektor in Plateaustiefeln. Ein lächerlicher Geck, und rechtens verhöhnt von den Rheintöchtern. Wotan (Vitalij Kowaljow, mit perfekt sitzendem Bass und prächtiger Diktion) trägt seinen Kopf doppelt – auch ins Kostüm eingearbeitet – und einen übergroßen Drahtkäfig, den ihm Fricka (Michelle DeYoung) verpasst hat. Diese kämpft mit überlangen Armen, deren Spitzen immer aufleuchten, wenn sie dem treulosen Gatten die Leviten liest.

Auf der Drehscheibe, die als Bühne dient, echauffieren sich die Götter, ohne sich je physisch zu erreichen. Festungsartige Gipsbüsten dienen als Angriffsfläche und Schutzhafen, aber auch zur Zentrierung der Handlung, die hier besonders zugänglich, weil verständlich ist. Fasolt und Fafner sind monumentale Schatzsucher, die Freia gnadenlos einkassieren. Mime (der wunderbare Graham Clark) ist zum der Schmiede vorstehenden Gartenzwerg degradiert, und Loge (Arnold Bezuyen, in einer physisch wie vokalen Glanzleistung), gibt einen doppelköpfigen Joker in roten Turnschuhen.

Diesem humoristischen Auftakt folgt jetzt eine transzendent-malerische “Walküre”, die ihr Herzblut in die inzestuöse Geschwisterbeziehung investiert. Opern-Chef Plácido Domingo als Siegmund und seine Sieglinde Anja Kampe sind zweifarbig geschminkt und kostümiert. Ein Uhrzeiger auf der Drehscheibe lässt die Zeit vor und zurück laufen, still steht er nur, wenn die Liebenden sich begegnen. In diese Szenen purer Bühnenmagie legt Freyer, so scheint es, alle Innigkeit, alle Farben eines langen, reichen Künstlerlebens. Ebenso Domingo: Naturgemäß nicht mehr taufrisch, weil beinahe 70, dennoch ein jung gebliebener Held mit balsamischen Tönen und bewundernswertem Durchhaltevermögen.

Anja Kampe spielt intensiv-brillant und wartet mit warmer Mittellage auf. Wie bei Linda Watsons routinierter Brünnhilde klingen jedoch ihre Spitzentöne angestrengt. Beim Walkürenritt zieht Achim Freyer nochmals alle Register, denn Wotans Töchter preschen auf multifunktionellen Standdrahteseln gen Osten. Oder etwa gen Hollywood?

James Conlon, hochkompetenter Chefdirigent der L.A. Opera, gibt sein lang ersehntes “Ring”-Debüt mit großem Verständnis Wagnerscher Orchesterwelten. Im nächsten Jahr wird sich zeigen, ob die komplette Tetralogie auch einem internationalen Publikum standhalten kann. Zunächst einmal kann sich Los Angeles brüsten, um eine hier noch nie da gewesene Attraktion reicher geworden zu sein.

Nina Wachenfeld | 25.04.2009

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 492 MiB (MP3)
Broadcast (KUSC, 5 June 2010)
A production by Achim Freyer (2009)
Possible dates: 4, 8, 12, 16, 19 April 2009
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.