Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Night At The Opera

LA Opera: Das Rheingold

I am ashamed to admit that it has taken me so long to get to the opera, but every time I go downtown, I seem to wind up at The Smell rather than at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This fact seems to point to a major flaw in my argument that I am a cultured motherfucker. Don't get me wrong, I have listened to a great number of Opera recordings, but have never had (or made) the opportunity to see a large production. Well...problem remedied: on Wednesday, thanks to the generosity of my roommate Chris Evans, I got tickets to my first opera.

The LA Opera has decided to nearly bankrupt itself by presenting Achim Freyer's modernist staging of Wagner's entire Der Ring des Nibelungen. Fueled Los Angeles's presumed love of Richard "Fifth Beatle" Wagner, the LA Opera has overshot its budget and devoted two full seasons to the four operas of the Ring Cycle (Das Rheingold, The Two Towers, Return of The King and Die Walküre, respectively). Freyer's staging is, if the above video didn't make it abundantly clear, decidedly modernist. Many bold decisions were made, some of which I enjoyed and some of which I disagreed with. Clearly as a first time opera goer, my opinion should be the first last and only word of review on this subject.

I, like many reviewers, had a number of problems with this production (opening night apparently found some audience members actually booing). My biggest problem of all was that the entire opera operated behind a lowered scrim. The scrim was used to project images as well as colors onto the action on the stage. Now, when looking at the aesthetic of the staging and costuming, one would assume minimalism...but this was also clearly Hollywood's opera and every technological trick in the theatrical book was used to enhance this production (Plácido Domingo, LA Opera's general director, originally approached George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic to handle the special effects, but the company proved too costly and the collaboration was dropped). While I understand the appeal of these production tactics, if I wanted special effects, I would go see a movie. The scrim was a constant separation between myself and the stage. Perhaps this separation could have been used to make a point about the separation between man and Gods, but I saw no evidence to support this interpretation...just flash and zazz (yes, zazz).

My next issue was with the translation of the libretto (which was actually flashed on a screen above the stage, rather than in book format). I am certainly no expert in German, but I am fairly certain that when a character shouts at another, "Hey", a level of informality has been reached that I doubt the romantic Wagner had intended. Anyhow, the colloquial language clashed with the highly stylized, symbolic and otherwise heady stage presentation and made me a bit uncomfortable. I would have preferred a dialogue, even if less accessible without the effort of thought, that was worthy of the Gods who spoke it. Call me old fashioned, but I like my collars starched and my libretto stodgy.

One final issue I had was the use of masks for some characters. When masks are used, facial expression is lost. Now, I'm no actor, but that seems important. I find when facial expression is compromised, body language becomes overused as compensation. I call this effect Mighty Morphin Power Rangerification...and it drives me up the wall. At one point, the character Alberich does a celebratory butt dance after a particular personal victory. I was terrified that if he threw in a cabbage patch, I might puke.

On the other hand, There were many things about this Opera that I loved. The costumes were beautiful. While many might complain about pretentiousness or even an anti-romanticism that Wagner would have despised, I found them to convey an other worldliness and thoughtfulness appropriate for a land of Gods with confusing and conflicting motivations. They were grotesque yet oddly alluring...and kind of funny (The character Fricka has ludicrously long arms that can only make me think of the "Fishy Fishy Fishy Fish" sketch in Monty Python's Meaning of Life...and it would go wherever I did go).

The very opening of the opera was breathtaking, with a fabric river and two actresses for each maiden character to create a reflection. It was large and bold and truly brought the audience into a new world. Unfortunately, the rigid staging of the Opera meant that though in the plot characters were touching each other and running away from each other, everyone on stage remained stationary. This took a bit to get used to, but I eventually did. I have no fear of minimalism, and while many critics seem to be outraged by this, I got used to it and even enjoyed it.

Despite previous complaints of special effects, there were many effects that I loved. The use of puppetry was amazing. Characters and objects flying through the air were exciting. The "enormous serpent" scene was incredible. Further, the staging made fantastic commentary on size of each of the characters based on their present actions and feelings.

I also loved two individual performances, Loge and Fasolt (a relatively minor role, but an amazing example of a role being as big as the actor, newcomer Morris Robinson).

All in all, I loved this experience. Perhaps it was the excitement of being at the Opera, but all of the problems I had with the production paled in comparison to how much I enjoyed the show. Each of the elements that I had a problem with represented a chance that Freyer took, and I respect his risk taking. I am going to try to see the other three Operas of the cycle as they are brought to stage over the next two years. Who wants to come with me?

Okay, I have written entirely too much and highly doubt anyone will read this far. It has been a while since I have updated this blog, so bear with my over enthusiasm.

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