Theater Review: The Rheingold

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LA Opera provides a brief respite from the world's real woes in the form of an opera about imagined catastrophe that its visionary composer must have written with Hollywood in mind.

Richard Wagner's "The Rheingold," the first installment in the company's $32 million production of the four-opera "The Ring of the Nibelungen" ("The Valkyries" is next, in April), sports a striking set and costumes, dazzling special effects and a story of tragically flawed humans, sort-of humans, superheroes and gods that inevitably recalls "The Lord of the Rings."

All this and Wagner's Technicolor score, too, blazing with home theater sonics, combining singers and orchestra in a riveting narrative that creates a universe of corrupt, conflicted beauty and truth. In the process, the four operas wend their way inexorably through theatrical landscapes of exalted, ecstatic love and sex leading to tragic, terrible consequences.

Led by the Wotan of Vitalij Kowaljow and the brilliant Loge of Arnold Bezuyen -- who largely steals the show, perhaps because his is the only character who doesn't wear a mask of some kind -- the large cast generally is up to the task, while the LA Opera orchestra in the pit gives conductor James Conlon all the flexibility and firepower he asks for.

But while director Achim Freyer's over-the-top staging might have deeper probings in mind, the combination of daringly bizarre costumes, masks (some Greek, some grotesque) and surrealistic theatrical devices look uncomfortably like what Terry Gilliam did, just for the sake of fun, in the Moon sequence of his Baron Munchausen movie.

Unfortunately -- through no fault of its own, given the advance timing that such a mammoth undertaking as "The Ring" requires -- this lavish, impersonal, anti-humanist and international (rather than Hollywood, or even Los Angeles) "Rheingold" strikes a discordant note with the nation's suddenly sober mood and the shift to a preference for local cultural content signaled by Barack Obama's election.

Still, it does give Angelenos reason to be proud about their city's cultural standing. And we can only hope that the last of the "Ring" operas, scheduled for 2010, which depicts the fall of the gods, doesn't turn out to be grimly ironic.

Venue: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles (Through March 15)
Cast: Vitalij Kowaljow, Arnold Bezuyen, Gordon Hawkins, Michelle DeYoung, Ellie Dehn, Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, Beth Clayton, Graham Clark, Morris Robinson, Eric Halfvarson, Beau Gibson, Wayne Tigges, Jill Grove
Music and libretto: Richard Wagner
Director-designer: Achim Freyer
Conductor of the LA Opera Orchestra: James Conlon
Costume designers: Achim Freyer Amanda Freyer
Lighting designers: Achim Freyer, Brian Gale