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Breaking Down LA Opera's Ring Cycle: A Recap of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre

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Welcome to the world of the LA Opera's Ring cycle, with Graham Clark (Mime), Arnold Bezuyen (Loge) in Das Rheingold. | Photo: Monika Rittershaus


Welcome to the world of the LA Opera's Ring cycle, with Graham Clark (Mime), Arnold Bezuyen (Loge) in Das Rheingold. | Photo: Monika Rittershaus
- by Ellen Reid for LAist

The LA Opera is days away from beginning its final cycle of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. The entire Ring cycle is comprised of four self-contained operas that run well over 16 hours including intermissions and curtain calls. With our current multitasking lifestyles and short attention spans, it’s amazing that that an event like this is something that attracts us and compels us. But it certainly does.

What makes this version of the Ring cycle so exciting is the design, which can be both humorous (with almost an anime or circus flare) or sublimely beautiful. The design, conceptualized by Achim Freyer (director and designer), his daughter Amanda Freyer (costumes co-designer) and Brian Gale (lighting co-designer), creates a very surreal and hyper-stylized space where the characters glow, fly and easily transform into different shapes and sizes.

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Throughout each production, the design elucidates themes that pervade the entire Ring cycle and illustrates the scope of the opera. This is an epic that deals with the largest things in life: love, death, murder, greed and honor. And the design is no less ambitious than the heroes and villains found throughout the opera.

Each individual opera has moments that visually, sonically and narratively collide to create an experience that is larger than the sum of its parts. We highlight such moments in the first two operas below:

Das Rheingold is the first of the tetralogy. With a runtime under three hours, it is considered the prelude to the cycle. This opera is about the power of power versus the power of love. In Das Rheingold, the dwarf Alberich steals the sacred gold from the Rheinmaidens. If a ring is made out of this gold, the wearer of the ring has all of the world’s wealth and power at his/her fingertips. Alberich forces his brother Mime to make him a ring, and then the battle for possession of the ring ensues. The gods eventually trick the ring away from Alberich, but only to lose it shortly afterward in a bargain to the giant Fafner.

The most striking scene of the first opera was the entire opening act. The stage looked like a pool of water, and the Rheinmaidens (water nymphs) are costumed to look as if their images are reflected in the water. Alberich, the dwarf’s costume and mask tricked the eye to make the dwarfs look much smaller than the other actors on stage. Alberich, played by Richard Paul Fink had the audience laughing out loud as he tried to woo the beautiful Rheinmaidens. The drama of the story, and the stakes involved with the characters, plus the costumes the effects and the music--this is an opera after all--really drew in the audience immediately.

The second opera, Die Walküre, is the rock star of the cycle at the LA Opera. It has The Flight of the Valkyries, a well-known fanfare, and Placido Domingo, a tenor who has had more roles than any other tenor in history (and has even played himself on The Simpsons).

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Die Walküre with Linda Watson (Brunnhilde) and Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan). Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LA Opera

This opera begins with… well, incest and adultery. Siegmund and Sieglinde (who happen to be twins) fall in love; the only hitch is that Sieglinde is already married. In the need to defend himself against Sieglinde’s husband, Sigmund pulls a sword from a tree and names the sword Notung. This is not your regular sword; it would have only budged from the tree for the right pair of hands, a la The Sword and the Stone. Wotan (the king of the gods) left Notung expressly for the purpose of helping Siegmund defend himself. But Die Walküre is all about transgressions. Wotan cheated on his wife Fricka with a mortal woman to have Siegmund and Sieglinde, so Fricka is both jealous and disgusted by the incest of Wotan’s children. She just so happens to be the goddess of marriage, and makes Wotan promise to avenge Sieglinde’s first husband--in other words, she makes Wotan promise to kill his own son. Wotan eventually concedes. He then bemoans his fate to his daughter Brunhilde, who takes pity on Siegmund and defends him. Wotan breaks Notung because of his promise to Fricka and Siegmund dies, but Sieglinde survives and--drama alert--she is carrying his unborn son. Wotan is so furious at Brunhilde for not obeying his command that he strips her of her divinity, separates her from her sisters (the Valkyries), and exiles her into a ring of fire that can only be penetrated by the most heroic of heroes.

While the first act and third act of this opera are both incredible, the most visually stunning part of Die Walküre was Brunhile’s exile into the the ring of fire. The fire grew in front of the audience’s eyes as members of the ensemble manipulated the fire to spin and swirl. At the same time, the stage began to rotate as Brunhilde stood strong and somber and stationary in the center. The flames leapt to the scrim in front of the stage and to the back wall. And just when you think it couldn’t get more epic, enter the smoke machine. The opera ended with smoldering flames on the brink of despair. A pitch-perfect ending to such an epic production.

Stay tuned for our recap of the last two productions of LA Opera’s Ring cycle: Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

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The third and final Ring cycle begins on Friday.

Der Ring des Nibelungen
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
135 North Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012