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The Ring of Truth

Rhine Stones

If you raise a questioning eyebrow at the news that the Long Beach Opera is currently offering a reasonable likeness of Richard Wagner’s 18-hour Ring of the Nibelung in something close to 10 hours, that can only mean that you don’t know Long Beach’s not-so-little opera-company-that-could (and does) and its infinite capacity for inflicting creative mayhem upon the jewels of the repertory and for making it all (like this sentence) work out at the end. And if you hustle down to Long Beach’s Center Theater — a welcoming performing space even when empty but far better this very weekend for the second of the company’s two Ring-arounds — you can verify all this for yourself.

To be sure, the version at hand, created by Jonathan Dove for Britain’s Birmingham Opera and also currently in the repertory of Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, reduced both in time scale and in orchestration, takes a few tucks in Wagnerian holy writ that will surely send ardent apostles of the Bard of Bayreuth — a stiff-chinned lot at best — up walls. Conversational tidbits gleaned during intermissions at Long Beach last weekend were studded with revolutionary rumbles of the sort that might have landed the Master himself on proscribed lists in his day. Those unhappy souls will find their surcease locally next fall from — of all unexpected sources — Russia’s Kirov, whose Costa Mesa Ring promises to be longer and surely louder.

I, too, await this benefice with mind, heart and rump at the ready, as I have many such experiences in the past. Meanwhile, I found little difficulty in identifying this 10-hour squeezed-together two-day (instead of the usual five) “Ringlet” as an authentic Wagnerian experience, at times an exhilarating one, and seldom below competence: pure Long Beach, in other words. Credit, above all, falls to Andreas Mitisek, who in his years with the company — first as chief conductor and now as artistic director — has grasped the founding ideals of Michael Milenski and advanced them as if in a single breath. With an orchestra of a mere 25, mostly young, and placed in the theater behind the action so that eye contact between conductor and actors was impossible, Mitisek was still able somehow to mold a reasonably cohesive performance, one in which — the Gods’ entry into Valhalla, for one instance — you could almost imagine an authentic Wagnerian sonority. No, it wasn’t Bayreuth, and it wasn’t even the Met or Seattle, but I have the feeling that those fussbudget, dyed-in-the-dirndl Wagnerians were really struggling to have as rotten a time as they were proclaiming in the Long Beach intermissions last weekend.

Jonathan Eaton managed the stage action, in a single area around a ring-shaped structure set off with Danila Korogodsky’s gadgetry, including standing headless statuary of various sizes and forms and a huge suspended ball stuck with skulls on spikes that stood for the Rhine’s gold but reminded me more of those cheese-ball hors d’oeuvres at fancy parties. Stage movement was mostly of the lurch-’n’-clutch school; success with the elegant complexities of Andrew Porter’s English text was varied.

I did, however, hear some excellent singing, by a few old friends and a number of new ones. Among the former was the tenor Gary Lehman, who sang the ardent Siegmund with a fine thread of the tragic; he had been the substitute Parsifal with the L.A. Opera last fall. John Duykers, one of our great character singers, was the Mime in Siegfried, making me regret that the role had been cut from Rhinegold. The Perry brothers, Eugene and Herbert, whom everybody remembers from the Peter Sellars video of Don Giovanni set in Harlem, sang the brothers Fasolt and Fafner in Rhinegold, and Herbert came back to do the Fafner in Siegfried. Among singers new to me I found particular pleasure in Suzan Hanson, who returned to life after 20 years asleep as the Brünnhilde in Siegfried and bounced and cavorted (with Dan Snyder as a cavorting Boy Scout Siegfried) like the lady in the sleeping-pill ads: a new tack on Brünnhilde and a delightful one. (She sobered up properly in the final Twilight of the Gods.)

Yes, cuts are cuts. And there are good reasons to raise eyebrows, as I am wont to do, at the kind of damage done to accepted masterpieces that this Ring treatment represents. One slash I found truly unacceptable: the murder of Siegfried that took place without the motivation of the preceding music in which the hero’s memory had begun to return, leading to the Funeral March, which everybody knows and loves, but which was chopped in half. I recognized many of the cuts, but I also recognized the music around them as authentic Wagner and authentically beautiful, and there were times when that was enough. Ten hours with Wagner’s Ring is no small strudel.

Keepers of the Flame

A questioning eyebrow at the most recent Monday Evening Concert, confronted with the news of the series’ approaching final flicker, might well question; the program by XTET, the intelligence in its choices and the strengths in its execution were close to anybody’s ideal as to what constitutes a perfect evening of new-music presentation. Word, furthermore, had gotten around; the crowd was large and enthusiastic. What kind of managerial fool puts such enterprise to rest?

Yet the County Museum management seemed bent on playing the fool, or at least on sabotaging the event. The sound system — which, as any fool will tell you, is crucial to any new-music event — was left untended; there were no stagehands to assist in the considerable between-numbers rearrangement; the program might have worked just as well out on the sidewalk. With the growing attention afforded our city for its cultural growth (as in last Sunday’s New York Times music section), you’d almost think that LACMA was out to bring public disgrace upon itself on purpose.

The program began with a whimsical reminder of better times, a Stravinsky song that had had its world premiere at a Monday Evening Concert way back when. The big new works were by local composer Tom Flaherty — an exceptionally appealing duo for cello and marimba — and a Passion-inspired ensemble work by the East Coast’s Christopher Rouse. XTET, one of our truly significant freelance ensembles, whose regular members include the treasurable singer Daisietta Kim and the sturdy cellist Roger Lebow, has been performing new music at LACMA for 20 years. With a couple of misguided pen strokes, it is about to become homeless.