Like many opera illiterates, I used to associate Richard Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung” with one thing: Nazis. Those ominous strings, the rumbling timpani, the heroic heralding horns; they could mean only one thing ... more Hitler footage on the History Channel.
No more. Not after Sunday’s decidedly surreal and willfully nontraditional production directed and designed by the German artist and Bertolt Brecht protege, Achim Freyer.
“Gotterdammerung,” or “Twilight of the Gods,” is the final installment of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, and the L.A. Opera took a big chance giving Freyer the $32 million it cost to reinvent this cycle of four epic operas. And reinvent it he did. Gone are the horned helmets, the historical costumes and the idealized 19th century romanticism favored by purists bound to the literal. Freyer has, instead, presented an unsettling but beautiful dreamscape inspired by all the surreal, Dada and expressionistic urges that must have motivated practically every one of the “decadent” artists banned by the Third Reich.
Staged on a minimalist set often resembling a cosmic chess board, Wagner’s story of love, lust and betrayal (based on Norse myths and Germanic hero sagas), featured day-glow lighting, bizarre masks, haunting projections (my favorite was during the Act 2 wedding celebration when the red balloons seemed to transform into portentous red blood cells), make-up reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s psychotic Joker character, florescent tubes doubling as swords and Valkyries who look like drag queens. Siegfried, our hero, was literally dressed like Superman (complete with pumped-up faux muscles) while the evil Hagan, (presented as a paraplegic dwarf dressed like a dandy gangster in a bright yellow suit with hot pink gloves) conjured up memories of Klaus Maria Brandhauer in the 1981 film “Mephisto.”
Add an apocalyptic ending worthy of present doomsday predictions for 2012 and you have one helluva candy-colored Armageddon happening onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion!
Not everyone was digging the Jungian excursion into the collective subconscious. “It’s nonsense!” “It’s junk!” “They got the horn all wrong!” But eavesdropping on outraged “Ring-nuts” (who, I hear, travel the world, like Deadheads, to see the various productions) was just part of the fun on Sunday afternoon. The more angry and pompous the Ring-nut, the more I applauded Freyer’s shamanistic visions!
Even though there were moments that whisked me back to New Wave performance art epics mounted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the mid-1980s (which may have been inspired by Freyer’s work), the nearly six-hour-long production kept me riveted throughout. So much so that I want to go back and see the entire Ring cycle when it is remounted in May.
And I plan to alert all my friends who, like me, were never opera fans but are likely to become fanatics after they take this psychedelic trip.
Oh, and the best part of all? Hitler would’ve hated every fabulous, subversive, Brechtian minute of it!
Photo: John Treleaven as Siegfried, left, Alan Held as Gunther, center, and Linda Watson as Brünnhilde in Act II. Photo: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times