Director-designer Achim Freyer has given L.A. Opera what may go down in infamy as the Balloon Ring. For “Gotterdammerung,” the final installment in Richard Wagner’s tetralogy “The Ring of the Nibelungen,” the heroic Siegfried (John Treleaven) announces his wedding celebration to the spectacle of nine small red balloons being dropped from the flies above. Actually, it was supposed to be 10, but one of the balloons popped earlier in the act, causing an unexpected shower of red plastic petals, and yet another balloon burst ahead of schedule a minute or two after its momentuous descent. Yes, balloons. Like one would see at a children’s party. This is what $32 million buys an opera company?
Granted, those eight or 10 red balloons occupy only about five minutes of the nearly 18 hours the Ring requires to stage, but they typify Freyer’s comicstrip approach to one of Western civilization’s crowning artistic achievements. Who knows? For a few dollars more, he could have provided enough balloons to carry all the English surtitles above the heads of Wagner’s characters. If nothing else, this “Ring” succeeds in reducing them all to mere cartoons.
In “Gotterdammerung,” or “Twilight of the Gods,” the greatest of the goddess warriors, Brunnhilde (Linda Watson), has been freed from the ring of fire by Siegfried, whom she calls “the greatest of heroes,” only to see that love betrayed by the Gibechungs, Gunther (Alan Held) and Gutrune (Jennifer Wilson), and their evil half-brother, the dwarfish Hagen (Eric Halfvarson). It’s a love that, in the end, can only be redeemed by an apocalypse, which Brunnhilde dutifully sets in motion.
Held, Wilson and Halfvarson are true larger-than-life Wagnerians, and are ideal in their roles. Siegfried runs in Treleaven’s blood, but it’s an impossibly arduous role that runs into trouble in his throat, causing some distressingly wavering tones. Watson possesses an edgy voice that doesn’t so much soar above the orchestra as cut through it; there is, however, real passion and drama in her singing. James Conlon doesn’t offer the most sweeping or grand reading of the score, but he is a most supportive conductor, and always provides a lush cushion of sound that never overwhelms the singers whose voices he rightfully keeps front and center.
Which brings us, unfortunately, back to Freyer. He tells Wagner’s amazingly fantastical story on the same unit set (a simple raked stage framed by black curtains on the sides and a cyclorama upstage) that we saw in the previous three operas: “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walkure” and “Siegfried.” Such commonplace minimalism leaves it to Freyer the costume designer to provide any real spectacle, and here he seems to have been inspired by the crude, childlike sketches of the late Keith Haring. Freyer’s costumes don’t so much clothe the performers as encase them. It’s a directorial technique that saves him from having to bother with blocking or any kind of character interaction. In fact, some of the costumes actually are standing cartoons, the kind through which people stick their heads to transform themselves into a mermaid or a pirate at a carnival sideshow.
With her headdress of dark curls, Brunnhilde looks like Cher if she ever took up a witch-doctor motif for another of her final tours. Siegfried is pure Popeye in a yellow fright wig, complete with muscled body suit. This hero may be naive, but he’s not a clown. Worse, there’s nothing heroic or romantic about any of these visuals, which instead are just silly.
Freyer’s stab at high-tech comes courtesy of several LED tubes that double as ropes, rings and swords, bringing “Star Wars” to mind. Otherwise, he can be awfully literal. When Wotan’s injured eye is mentioned, Freyer provides not one but three big eyeballs onstage. When Brunnhilde sings of ravens in the immolation scene, two ill-drawn ravens rise from downstage to expose the prompters who’ve been hidden behind them throughout the opera. That’s Freyer’s vision, intended or not, of the apocalypse: What we’ve been watching is a total sham.
These banal theatrics not only undercut every bar of this supremely grand and majestic score, they also contradict the story. The “sleeping” Hagen, at one point, walks across the stage so Siegfried, stuck in one of those aforementioned carnival cutouts, can awaken him. At another point, the spotlight remains on Hagen when the music’s leitmotifs belong to Brunnhilde and the ring. The chorus of Gibechungs is left onstage when there’s no reason for them to be there except to fill that space. Throughout this enterprise, the stage pictures often look underpopulated, half-empty, incomplete.
L.A. Opera is offering three complete “Ring” cycles later this spring, beginning May 29, June 8 and June 18. Top price ticket for seeing all four works over a span of one week is $2,200. Will operagoers who’ve already experienced Freyer’s take on Wagner during the past two seasons want to pony up again? There were a few empty seats at Saturday’s matinee preem of “Gotterdammerung,” and many more empties by the beginning of act three. The company’s hope is that European opera houses will want to borrow the production, which might help to recoup some costs. It will be interesting to see who overseas rents the Balloon Ring.