[Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 8:17 PM Eastern on 21 Feb. See below.][Note: This post has been edited as of 11:10 AM Eastern on 17 Feb to add another image.]
On Saturday, 21 February, the Los Angeles Opera begins its very first Ring cycle with a new production of Das Rheingold under LAO music director James Conlon, with staging and direction by German painter, director, and designer Achim Freyer. In an LAO promo piece, Mr. Conlon had this to say about his involvement (we quote at length):
Every myth is subject to limitless interpretations and every theatrical production to an equal number of realizations. In the course of four decades of listening, watching and, more recently, conducting the Ring, I have had time to consider and define certain artistic preferences, important choices that must be made on a fundamental level.
First, I wanted to have the pit covered and the orchestra and conductor invisible to the audience, on the model of the Bayreuth Festival Theater, Wagner's self-conceived temple, which he created expressly for the first presentation of his operas. This is a first small step towards a dream which is not only unfulfilled, but not remotely likely to be at this time. I have never understood why no one, in our country or any other, has attempted to replicate the unique theatrical and acoustical characteristics of that great theater. For LA Opera's performances of the Ring, we will, however, be able to make the music invisible, render its power more pervasive, even if not able to reproduce the acoustical equivalent of its original habitat.
Second, I wanted a production that respected the infinite power of myth in its rejection of a specific time or place. The timelessness of the Ring's messages is central to their strength, and the unfolding of its dramatic fabric in a timeless arena is the best conduit of its potency. The Ring shares this strength with myths and religious texts from around the world. It seems to me that timelessness is not just a component of Wagner's intentions, but integral to its essence.
Updating, contemporary costuming or situating the Ring and its characters in recognizable locales is to some degree the practice of the past several decades. There is no doubt that great creative work has resulted from exploring the theatricality of these works. That said, production values that were revolutionary and avant-garde a generation ago have now become, in many cases, clichéd. Even more, I feel that the reductionism that underlies many productions weakens the full clout of their mythical power. Rather than strengthen, it dilutes. Rather than provoking the imagination and its connection to our unconscious, it constrains, through its specificity, our innate capacity to experience this work on multiple levels.
Whether "interpreted" as Freudian or Jungian, Marxist or Keynesian, as social criticism, political science or spiritual tract, the whole is greater than the interpretations, its fullness more powerful than its reduction. None of the above need be fully absent, but the ever-renewing force of the work encompasses all of these and more, into infinity. It is counterproductive to isolate and magnify certain aspects, while marginalizing or eliminating others. However clever some of these "updated" productions may be, it is rare that they do not ultimately betray the work. Those lacking in quality need not be discussed, and those that are intellectually "interesting" on their own terms often distract from the unrestricted emotional and spiritual power of myth.
On these principal points, I have found an ideal colleague in Achim Freyer, as we embark on this journey together. As in all creative endeavors, we cannot say for sure where it will lead. The director's challenge is to realize the Ring's power in a fantastical, mythical setting while creating a visual universe without breastplates, spears, braids or other Wagnerian paraphernalia. The conductor's is to realize both the primordial power of the music with its drama, and the drama with its music. The two are intertwined and inseparable.
Neither director nor conductor, however, should lose sight of the fact that the primary dramatist is the composer, and that the navigational chart to that drama is the music itself. Whereas the music can be said to have a "concert" life of its own outside the theater, the text of the Ring, recited without music, has no life whatsoever, nor could it ever. Any reading of the dramatic or musical elements that does not take this into account risks foundering at its launch. Our mutual goal is to render this work in a way that opens up that infinite space, as only it can.
Bypassing our amused feeling that Mr. Conlon has lifted many of his remarks about the Ring and about its staging almost verbatim from Sounds & Fury (which in itself is curiously encouraging), two questions immediately occurred to us: 1) How competent is Mr. Conlon to conduct the Ring as staged music-drama as opposed to orchestral excerpts?, and 2) How candid and perceptive is his appraisal of Achim Freyer as his "ideal colleague" in this undertaking?
Our provisional answer to our first question is not a happy one. Nothing of what we know of Mr. Conlon's work leads us to believe he's up to the formidable task of conducting a staged Ring with anything more than mere technical excellence. Needless to say, that's not nearly enough, but we're willing to believe that he may rise to the challenge once confronted.
Our provisional answer to our second question is even less sanguine. First, Herr Freyer is German which means he's almost certainly devoted to the idea of Konzept which is very bad news indeed. Here, in an interview for Opera News by classical music critic and blogger for the Orange County Register Timothy Mangan, is what Herr Freyer himself had to say on his staging of the Ring:
"I do not want to do what Wagner wants," [Freyer] says. "I want to do a concept to show what Wagner wants. You understand?" In his conception, he doesn’t intend to provide a visual copy of the music and text. Wagner’s poetry alone is a masterwork, he says, and the music is yet another masterwork. Freyer wants to stay out of the way, allow Wagner’s art to speak for itself. "My conception is not to [duplicate] this. I do the third [thing]. And the third is the room in which I hold the music and the text and bring it to the public."
In other words, realism is boring — too literal. Besides, Freyer says, Wagner isn’t realism: "Wagner wanted timeless persons. It is the mythos and not the history. It is not historical, it is a vision of the beginning and the end of the world. And this I want to do with figures and with rooms and lighting that you have never seen. That’s very important. I think I do music theater in the sense of Wagner but do not use the materials of Wagner from the time 200 years before. I do it in this time — the revolutionary theater."
Freyer interprets the characters in the Ring as "quasi" persons, or split personalities. They do not exist in a single way. Some of the costumes, therefore, are mere façades, and the singers can come out from behind them. "Wotan can come out, and I can show, ‘I play this person, Wotan, and I am a singer.’ The singer can come out from the costume, the illusion is broken, and a new idea is coming: ‘Ah, that’s the sense of Wotan that comes out and tells us this.’ Or Wotan has a shadow, and the shadow does a different thing than Wotan tells. Or he has a double, a mirror of Wotan, and the mirror remembers the past and goes back."
None of this sounds at all encouraging, and Herr Freyer hardly Mr. Conlon's imagined "ideal colleague." Already we can see intellectualization — the hallmark of every Konzept staging — trumping, perhaps even taking the place of, the conveying of sheer emotional wallop, and that's the proverbial kiss of death for any of Wagner's works from Der Fliegende Holländer through Parsifal. As if to confirm us in our fears, here are four LAO production photos from Herr Freyer's Das Rheingold:
But perhaps, in the end, things will all work out as they should, and all our fears for naught.
From this to God's ear, as the saying goes.
Update (8:17 PM Eastern on 21 Feb): And now...the video.