Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Ring Festival in L.A.

Currently, the Los Angeles Opera is staging all four operas in Wagner's epic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, directed by Achim Freyer. There are some related events around town. The official site has dates, tickets, videos, and more information. Meanwhile, local NPR show The Politics of Culture did an excellent show with LA Opera Music Director James Conlon and other guests on this production, the operas, and Wagner's artistic brilliance and personal flaws.

I've seen the whole thing, and it is memorable. I was very impressed by an earlier Freyer production, a visually arresting version of Berlioz' La Damnation of Faust. (Samuel Ramey, Denyce Graves and Paul Groves didn't hurt.) This production of the Ring (costing 32 million), is likewise highly stylized. It's not a "traditional" Ring, which may leave some first-time viewers disoriented. Some choices Freyer makes don't work, and there are a few times where, if you didn't know what was taking place on-stage already, you wouldn't know what was going on. However, that's the exception. Freyer also makes some truly inspired choices, and has clearly put enormous thought and energy into devising a visual scheme for the Ring. Wagner's operas tend to be visually static, with most of the movement in the music, and sometimes a good half-hour or more of sung plot exposition. Freyer creates a palpable mood throughout, and gives some key moments a visual punch. Most importantly, there's some glorious music and very fine singing (of demanding roles). Wagner, and specifically the Ring, isn't for everybody, but even if you don't think you know the Ring, chances are you'll recognize some of the music (especially The Ride of the Valkyries and Siegfried's Funeral March). It's sometimes said that Wagner "invented" movie music, and there's some truth to that. I've always had a soft spot for the shortest and most "action-packed" of the cycle, Das Rheingold (2 hours, 45 minutes), but Die Walküre has some extremely lovely, moving duets. I'd be very surprised if they weren't filming this version (in case you miss it), but this is event theater, and hearing classical music/opera live is something special.

Here's a brief taste:

You can see more, including interviews and short clips of each opera, on the LA Opera's YouTube channel. If you do attend any of the operas, it's well worth showing up for the lectures an hour before performance. (Meanwhile, I like Deryck Cooke's 2 CD guide to the Ring, as well as the complete Solti Ring set it samples.)

Personal notes: I only got into opera after college, a bit to my surprise, since I like plots, pacing, and performances, and opera (other than Mozart) can move very slowly and isn't always well-acted. I don't always like musicals, for similar reasons (plus many are awfully sappy). Nonetheless, a good production and/or great singer can sell the whole thing. For opera, I generally sit in the cheap seats, which alas, ain't that cheap (and I used to do standing room in D.C.). I normally like the cheap seat crowd. However, when I was seeing Die Walküre, I was surprised to hear cell phones go off and a couple talking throughout most of Act I, full voice, not whispering (no sotto). I'm guessing that one person was translating the surtitles for their friend. The thing is, most Wagner operas are long – about five hours – and the plots are generally fairly slight. You can read the plot synopsis in the program in 5-10 minutes. So why translate the surtitles? When the guy is singing to his sister that he loves her (and not in a fraternal way), he's still singing that he loves her 20 minutes later. It really does not require a line by line translation. (Eventually, the talkers were hushed by some justly irate patrons.) Oh, and did I mention that the guy singing, the one they were talking over, was Placido Domingo? Ya would think going to see bloody Wagner – plus Domingo - would self-select out such behavior, but apparently not. Anyway, that's my you-damn-kids-stay-out-of-my-opera-house story. (Meanwhile, after I went to see Götterdämarung – plus the lecture beforehand – I went to a reading of Henry V, giving me my biggest cultural overdose since college. Whew.)

Seriously, though, while I like to poke fun at Wagner occasionally, he wrote some truly beautiful music, and it can be sublime to hear, especially live. The LA Opera generally mounts good productions, and this is a memorable Ring. If you're in the general area and have the time and money to attend, consider checking it out.

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