The Los Angeles Opera production of “Das Rheingold” — the first segment of Richard Wagner’s retelling of the beginning, the end and the several middles of the history of the world — was a tangled clutter when it premiered in February. Saturday night’s “Die Walkuere,” part two of the mighty cycle, saw a complex drama unfold on a stark, menacing, almost empty stage that became a drama in itself, with the billows of Teutonic tragedy clarified but not actually tamed. You knew what was going on, and what was going on was, in a word, terrific.
It’s gonna be hard to return to the woods and crags of traditional Wagnerian staging after the harrowing, thrusting designs of stage genius Achim Freyer, whose every gesture, every line, probes the full import of Wagner’s symbolic musical double-talk. From the fury of its stormy opening, with the Siegmund of Placido Domingo pursued by a single line of neon lightning, to the close, with the whole stage ablaze with the demigod Loge’s conflagration around the sleeping Brunnhilde, a watcher’s eyes are held in thrall, and this means just about five hours of solid thralldom, with the bonds of captivity further enhanced by the surge of James Conlon’s orchestra.
There was much concern over how the going-on-70 Domingo would make out as the youthful, ardent Siegmund. The performance was just the latest in the ongoing string of Domingo astonishments. The tone that colors his voice, for example when Brunnhilde tells him of his oncoming death, is pure Domingo heartbreak.
Linda Watson is Brunnhilde. Watson has been transformed from the wobbly Turandot she delivered here in years past to a fine, forthright singer. The Wotan, Vitalij Kowaljow, unknown before last month’s “Rheingold,” is a real find, a singer of smooth, moving eloquence. As the harridan Fricka, Michelle DeYoung delivered an uptight defense of conservative marriage values that brought a few audience snickers.
Six “Walkuere” performances remain this month. The other segments (“Siegfried,” “Gotterdammerung”) are due to complete the circle in September, and then the whole Strudel — three more complete cycles — run in close order, as would gladden any Wagnerian heart at $2,200 per four-opera cycle, in May and June 2010. The sponsors promise a full-fledged, citywide German festival to surround the “Ring” performances. Will there be a bratwurst stand at every street corner? Stay tuned.