UP ONE RUNG: Okay, here’s our Ring, — or Chapter One, anyhow — trailing its $-multi-million price tag, its years-long saga of rumor and expectation, raised hopes and dashed. By now they’ll probably have ironed out the inevitable first-night glitches in this fearsome mechanism that makes the old Grendel set look like Tiddley-Winks. At the dress rehearsal they had to stop, because Achim Freyer’s stage machinery wouldn’t allow his world to swing open and permit passage to Alberich’s underworld. Those of us privileged to witness this mini-disaster held our breath on opening night. That time, the world swung open on cue. So, in Achim Freyer’s hands, does Wagner’s world, the one which begins and ends in the span of eighteen hours of music drama – throbbing, chromatic, heroic, exasperating, gorgeous, unforgettable.
The Ring is the sacred plaything among operas and opera companies. On my own shelf there’s a DVD version set in naturalistic scenery, another in an Industrial Revolution setting among factories, another in the basement of a modern office building – plumbing ‘n’all. The San Francisco Opera is running Francesca Zambello’s madcap version set in the American Wild West. There have been Rings with a Freudian spin, or a Marxist. True believers among Wagnerian audiences can always be heard comparing how many Rings they’ve seen. They can usually count at least one Ring per finger.
L.A. Opera’s Ring is the first ever mounted here, Its four sectors are being doled out over two seasons; Die Walküre, which has most of the hit tunes, comes in on April 4. Saturday night we got Das Rheingold, running through March 15, which is actually a kind of prologue that sets the whole kaboodle in motion. It runs a painless 2-1/2 hours; the other parts run four or five. Plenty happens, though; most important is that Wotan pulls off the gigantic swindle which, eighteen hours of opera later, will destroy him, the rest of the Gods and all their offspring and start the whole cycle again. (Thus: “ring.”)
The production – design and direction both – is the work of Achim Freyer, a German visual genius whose previous work here includes the spectacular Damnation of Faust. Not for Freyer this baloney of a transplanted Ring into the Wild West, or a Freudian rewrite. An abstractionist in Germany’s opera houses and art galleries, a much-honored painter adept at expressing much with minimums of light and line, Freyer has created a Ring that is deeply, intensely – and, for the most part, gorgeously – about itself.
Following Wagner’s practice at his own theater in Bayreuth, Freyer covers the orchestra pit, setting the Rhine Maidens afloat in the almost total darkness of the Chandler Pavilion. Beams of light then rake the stage; they form a counterpoint as the evil Alberich perpetrates his grand theft, and they lead the eye upward to the Gods’ world, from which Wotan, in need of closing the escrow on Valhalla, sets out with Loge to secure some new gold for the deal. Their visit to Alberich’s den of iniquity occasions one of the few iniquities in the production itself: Rather than the charming ding-a-ding-ding of Alberich’s vassals pounding on their anvils, we get a less agreeable amplified thud.
Across vast distances , on a stage with a few acoustic dead spots the vocal forces grapple bravely with Wagner’s not-always-ingratiating lines: Michelle DeYoung and Vitalij Kowalijow as the squabbling Wotans, Ellie Dehn as the sweet-voiced, put-upon beauty-goddess Freia, Graham Clark as the blacksmith Mime –done up on an oversized face mask in an uncanny resemblance to newspaper tycoon Sam Zell – and, an irresistible scene-stealer, Arnold Bezuyen as the master-conniver fire-demigod Loge.
The Wagnerian world, in Freyer’s design, is a stage-filling disc that flickers and oozes and bedazzles. You work your way through a myriad of symbols that are of no time and place, every time and every place – from the mundane carpenter’s ruler with which the Giants measure their pile of gold to the cage that Wotan must wear as a trap for his marital hanky-panky. . In the moment of Donner’s thunderstorm, the entire great stage shatters and reforms as a billowing blood-red fabric inundation, out of which the cries of the cheated Rhine Maidens mingle with the heroic forecasts from James Conlon’s eloquent, surging orchestra. All the while, suspended overhead (okay, he’s in a toy airplane, so?), the god Froh traces the rainbow bridge that the Gods will cross to the newly paid-for Valhalla. You gotta be there.
MEANWHILE, BACK ON EARTH: Christian Zacharias’ visits to the Philharmonic are always worthwhile; they usually have him at work both as conductor (always at ground level, without podium) and pianist. His program began down in depths even undreamed by Wagner, the dreary Second Serenade of Brahms, its inferior tunesmanship muddied all the more by the lack of violins in the reduced orchestra. Far more interesting was the program’s major novelty, a Sinfonia Concertante by Haydn, a late work dating from the composer’s first time in London, with large orchestra and solos by violin, cello, oboe and bassoon. It’s a really strong work, with “daring” key-changes and a lovely slow-movement melody, a worthy compa nion to the first set of “London” Symphonies that date from the same time,
Schumann’s Piano Concerto, a work I tend to regard as perfect, ended the evening gloriously: tempos somewhat on the brisk side, but every measure a love letter, sealed and delivered.