The world began on the stage of Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday night and, through a series of small and large disasters, was led to the prospect of a glowing future. That’s what happens at the end of part one of Richard Wagner’s stupendous “Ring” tetralogy, as Wotan’s mighty swindle has left the golden Ring spinning out of control. It might also apply to the L.A. Opera’s first-ever venture into the grandest of grand opera’s musical, dramatic and booby-trapped ventures, from which it emerges not quite unscathed.
Credit the vision of the company’s late artistic director Edgar Baitzel for aiming so high in engaging abstract stage artist Achim Freyer to conduct his own “Ring” experiments on this stage.
Steering clear of current attempts to localize Wagner’s symbolism (e.g., San Francisco’s current version set in America’s Wild West), Freyer has created a visual abstraction by filling his stage with any-and-all. His Wotan, trapped by marital responsibilities, sings from inside a cage. His Froh limns the Rainbow Bridge from a toy airplane sailing aloft.
As at Wagner’s Bayreuth, the orchestra pit is covered, allowing the stage itself to take on the effect of a floating entity. On that stage James Conlon leads a superior vocal ensemble, including Michelle DeYoung and Vitalij Kowalijow as the squabbling Wotans, Ellie Dehn as the sweet-voiced, put-upon Freia, Arnold Bezuyen as the master-conniving, lightfooted Loge and Jill Grove as the solemn, know-it-all Mother Earth. (She repeats the role at the Metropolitan Opera next month.)
Not everything works. An intermix of lighting elements — bright bands rising and falling as the Rhine Maidens suffer the loss of their Gold — does needless battle with the somber surge of the music. Later, the grisly humor in the scene in the Nibelung workshop is diminished by the use of electronic percussion instead of real anvils.
What does work, however — and did on opening night even with the normal assortment of missed cues — is pure stage magic.
Through an imaginative deployment of scrims, Freyer creates a sense of detachment; you’re never quite there. His world — a stage-filling disc that parts to provide access to the Nibelungs’ underworld — flickers and oozes and, in the great moment of Donner’s thunderstorm, shatters and reforms as a billowing blood-red fabric from which the cries of Rhine Maidens intermingle with the heroic forecasts from Conlon’s eloquent, surging orchestra down front.
At such moments, you know why the genuine Wagnerian devotees count their Rings on many fingers. You gotta be there.