Ring Cycle's 'Das Rheingold' opens Saturday

HOLLYWOOD, prepare to witness a live blockbuster.

L.A. Opera will debut the first part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, “Das Rheingold,” on Saturday, a moment long in coming to Los Angeles that was first expected here nearly a decade ago. It is an enormous production that Achim Freyer has designed and staged, a traditional rendering of the 1869 masterpiece based on Nordic mythology. Yes it runs 2½ hours and it’s in German, but if there is one opera the Hollywood creative community should see, this is it.

“Rheingold” contains everything a Hollywood blockbuster could want: Giants, monsters, maidens, blood, a fight for world domination, a magic rainbow and an even more magical helmet. The L.A. production is also launching a potential new star, Ukrainian tenor Vitalij Kowaljow, in his role debut as Wotan.

It even makes a case for buying the cheaper seats: The rehearsal played visually most clearly in the second and third balconies, areas that can feel distant and removed from the action on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s stage. Add to that a score that, at least in the early going, clearly influenced film music of the last 60 years; for the uninitiated, it’s not foreboding music.

Budgeted at $32 million — the price of four expensive world premiere operas — it is the largest undertaking in L.A. Opera’s 22-year history. It will certainly attract the “Ring” fans who travel the globe to see various attractions. But there has to be some trepidation about whether it will take hold with the locals whose absence at recent easy-to-digest favorites such as “The Magic Flute” have added to the company’s financial shortfalls that have resulted in layoffs and pay cuts.

James Conlon, the company’s music director who will conduct the seven performances of “Das Rheingold” through March 15 and “Die Walkure” April 4-25, is convinced that Wagner’s operas transcend language and as heavy as they may be, are a perfectly acceptable entry point for opera. He has watched his mother, his housekeeper’s family in Paris and others fall in love with Wagner’s music despite no education in the subject.

“Opera is for everyone, Wagner is for everyone,” is Conlon’s simple answer. “Some people are inhibited, thinking it’s long and heavy. I say it’s long and exciting and powerful, one of the most impressive operas.”

WE LIVED in a different world when the season started in September. The universal focus was the presidential race and a slumping economy; many arts presenters were still thinking grand scale rather than scaling back. Woody Allen dazzled auds with his inventive and humorous staging of “Gianni Schicchi”; the operatic interpretation of “The Fly” was befuddling musically but it boasted impressive singing and stagecraft. And yet there was no doubt the highlight was yet to come.

To bear the cost of the Ring Cycle, L.A. Opera reduced its staff by 17%, cut the number of performances next season to 48 from 64, postponed a Pavilion renovation and delayed the premiere of Daniel Catan’s “Il Postino.” Canceling the Ring was apparently not an option.

By most industries’ standards it seems audacious to go so bold in one season — let’s not forget Conlon has a revival of Walter Braunfels’ forgotten “The Birds” in April as this year’s installment in his “Forgotten Voices” project.

Playing out against the backdrop of a recession this season may make a statement for the ages. If they sell seats and attract new audiences based on the strength of the productions, it will be a triumph for the performing arts that all too often take a back seat to film here. It would be a sign that even when times are tough there is a demand for art that focuses our attention on the bigger picture, providing more than just an escape.

“Arts are especially important now,” said Conlon, who won two Grammys this month for the L.A. Opera’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.” “We lived with an illusion that there was no limit to material (growth) but we have found out there is. But there are no limits to intellectual and spiritual value. Art and theater and music are more important than ever — they are life giving, it’s not over when you leave the theater. It opens feelings inside us the way yoga or therapy or going to church does. It opens a bigger vision of the universe.”

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