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Breaking Down LA Opera's Ring Cycle, Part 2: Siegfried and Götterdämmerung

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Siegfried the hero is played by John Treleaven. | Photo: Monika Rittershaus


Siegfried the hero is played by John Treleaven. | Photo: Monika Rittershaus
- by Ellen Reid for LAist

The LA Opera has embarked on its final push through the epic undertaking of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. All four of the operas that comprise the Ring cycle, share the same daring design by Achim Freyer (director, designer), Amanda Freyer (costumes) and Brian Gale (lighting). Intense reds and blues mix with florescent lights, a scrim, puppets and a smoke machine to create a world that exists in an alternate, yet cohesive, reality. The magic created by the optical illusions of the set and the scenery, and the ceaselessly spot-on deliveries by the performers, can make five hours of opera pass like one hour.

Throughout the operas, the visual themes are established and then revised and shifted as the cycle develops. Siegfried, the third of the four operas, is our first introduction both to our hero and to the human realm.

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Siegfried is the son of Sieglinde and Sigmund, the brother-sister-lovers, whom we met in Die Walküre. Siegfried reforges the magical sword Notung and then regains the powerful ring after killing the giant Fafner, the ring’s protector. Siegfried then kills his caretaker Mime the dwarf who tried to poison him. Then, of course, the hero gets the girl. Siegfried, who knows no fear, hears from a bird that a beautiful woman can be found, but a ring of fire surrounds her. Siegfried then journeys to Brunhilde, the beautiful woman surrounded by fire. He successfully penetrates the ring of fire, and they fall in love at first sight.

The action-packed second act was the most compelling part of this opera. Siegfried murders both his caretaker Mime and the dragon/giant Fafner (who appears in at least four different forms) within a few moments. Fafner first appears as a small wimpy dragon puppet when taunting Siegfried. It seems ludicrous and funny that Siegfried is supposed to be afraid of something so small. Then the entire stage floor becomes the core of the dragon: The stage lifts and bends and then Siegfried pierces the middle of the stage with his sword Notung to kill the giant. But this is opera after all, so nobody dies without singing about it. Fafner then enters the stage to sing a farewell to Siegfried; his costume makes him seem (although he is standing) as if he is walking on his knees and otherwise would dwarf Siegfried. Wotan, the god, is watching from the sidelines as thunder claps echo through the space and around the stage sending slight flashes through the florescent tubes in the space.

Some of the costumes and the action of Siegfried raises the question of sincerity and self-awareness vs. mockery of the character. There is no question that the character of Siegfried--as with many heros--is over the top. But at times it was unclear whether he was trying to be funny or not. Sometimes Siegfried was very compelling, but sometimes he wasn’t (though there was no doubt that John Treleaven voice was incredibly powerful), But the physical gestures were more like an older opera singer than like a hero.

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Alberich (Richard Paul Fink), Eric Halfvarson (Hagen) in the LA Opera's Götterdämmerung. | Photo: Monika Rittershaus

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Götterdämmerung, the fourth and final opera, is about the unraveling of the world. Siegfried is now targeted by the dwarf Alberich to win back the all-powerful ring. Hagen, Alberich’s son, is the mastermind of this plan. Hagen tricks Siegfried into drinking a potion that makes him lose his memory and fall in love with Gutrune, Hagen’s half sister. Siegfried, compelled by the potion, once again breaks through Brunhilde’s fortress of flames, but this time he is disguised as Gunther, Hagen’s half brother. He forces the ring from her hand and seduces her as Gunther.

Act Two of Götterdämmerung could rival the most dramatic Jerry Springer episode. Siegfried takes off his disguise as Gunther and Brunhilde realizes that she has been betrayed. She then proceeds to denounce him in front of an entire army of Gunther’s vassals. Siegfried denies the accusation (because the potion made it so that he doesn’t remember marrying her in the first place). The stakes rise as the former lovers, Siegfried and Brunhilde, swear their oaths on a weapon. The weapon (Hagen’s sword) will decide who is telling the truth, and the liar will die at its blade. Siegfried swears that his version of the story is true and Brunhilde swears that her version of the story is true.

Later on, Hagen slips Siegfried another drink that restores his memory, but at that moment, Hagen stabs him in the back with his sword. As Hagen reaches for the ring from Siegfried’s grasp, Brunhilde takes charge of the situation. She takes the ring and promises to return it to the Rheinmaidens (the water nymphs) to restore a sense of balance to the world. But first the ring must be cleansed, so Brunhilde orders a funeral pyre to be built, and promptly rides her horse into the cleansing flames of the pyre. Finally, the ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens. Through death, fire, treachery and utter chaos, the world, in ashes, is returned to order.

After the hours (and hours) of the beautiful dramatic scenes and the powerful moments that ebbed and flowed through the entire Ring cycle, it seemed difficult to conceive of a climactic ending that could merit the build-up of the previous operas. But the final scenes of Götterdämmerung felt like a full-blown theatrical apocalypse. There was an army of masked singers holding neon tubes, who filled the stage and created an ominous space. When the battle ensued, Deadhead-esque figures descend from the ceiling, the army of actors ascended into the rafters and descended into the earth, figures filled the stage and fought to the death. Then, the stage itself started to break down: The light rig lowered and the stage turns into totally choreographed and beautiful chaos. The staging, lights and puppetry really created a theatrical battle at the end of the world.

Despite the criticism of the very different staging of this Wagner opera, the Ring--with its music, design, themes--is undoubtedly a spectacular and epic experience. If you like opera, or are even curious about it, take advantage of it when it’s here. The final Ring cycle begins this evening.

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Der Ring des Nibelungen
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
135 North Grand Avenue
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