L.A.'s Ears Are Ringing

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Last week and this week have been a festival of riches for fans of big, innovative operatic work. The main event that kicked off one week ago was Los Angeles Opera's "Ring Festival LA." The centerpiece of this two-and-a-half month celebration is of course is the four part, 17-hour tetrology, The Ring of Nibelung, Wagner's epic work about Gods, mortals and a new world rising out of the ashes of the old. The festival lasts through the end of June and features all sorts of performances, lectures and other events that are all connected to Wagner, The Ring, and the Norse myths that serve as the basis for the four operas.

(Those wanting more back story on the Ring, the festival and the controversy that's surrounded it here in LA, should go on line and dig up last week's episode of KCRW's Politics of Culture, but today I'm just going to talk about the work itself.)

gotterdamerung.jpgThe final opera in the Ring cycle finally premiered here earlier this month. It's called Gotterdammerung, or "Twilight of the Gods." This is the longest of the operas in the cycle and a massive feat for any company to pull off. Kudos to LA Opera for staging it, and with that feat, finishing the full 17-hour cycle (Washington Opera started their own ring a few years ago and still hasn't made it.)

That said, this Gotterdammerung was the least impressive of the four Ring operas presented at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion so far. My guess is that it will improve before June when it appears in a full cycle (as Wagner intended it to been seen: over four nights in a single week) but those wanting so get the full impact of the music and staging may want to skip the final stand alone performance on Sunday and wait until June.

At the second showing of Gotterdammerung last week, there were still glitches in the production and the orchestra was still finding its way with the massive score. I've quite enjoyed director Achim Freyer's playful, puppet-heavy production so far, but the big finale of the Ring — the burning of Valhalla, and the rebirth of the world — didn't exactly dazzle like the big finales in Das Rheingold or Die Walkure. My hope is that these next few weeks will be a time when all the aspects of The Ring will be tweaked and polished so that everything is ready when the first cycle begins on May 29.

After seeing all four Ring operas over the course of the last year, my feeling is this: everyone in LA who's curious about The Ring should take the leap and buy tickets to the first two operas in this cycle. Both feature strong casts and elaborate stagecraft, plus they contain some of the best music. If you like those two (and I certainly did) come back for the final two installments. The chance to see a full Ring is a once in a lifetime experience. It's the first time LA has seen all four operas staged together — and the earliest LA Opera will bring them back will be in 2018.

stigmatized.jpgThis week also features two other big opera stagings — one at USC and the other at LA Opera, and both are worth checking out for serious opera or theatergoers. The first is Wagner's rarely performed second opera, Das Liebesverbot based on Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure. This student production (directed by Ken Cazan) marks only the second time this work has been mounted in the US. There are two more performances Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Also, there are two more performances this weekend of Franz Schreker's opera The Stigmatized, another rarely performed work that is receiving its first American staging ever. An expansive, bizarre piece that serves as a portrait of turn-of-the-century Vienna (think Rigoletto meets Eyes Wide Shut) The Stigmatized is a dramatic mess, but musical treat.

And one last operatic debut that's worth mentioning was last week's American premiere of Louis Andriessen's La Commedia at Disney Hall. Like Schreker's opera, La Commedia (which I caught two nights later at Carnegie Hall, as part of a larger Andriessen series) was a rich, dissonant, confounding work, but it starred two fine singing actors, Cristina Zavalloni and Jeroen Willems, who made up for the lack of staging with their theatrical performances. La Commedia, based loosely on Dante, wasn't part of the Ring Festival LA, but it was proof that opera and its festive nature, is not just relevant today — it's also alive and still able to challenge us.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Linda Watson (Brunnhilde) and John Treleaven (Siegfried) in Gotterdammerung. Photo: Monika Rittershaus