LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Staging a new production of Wagner's epic "Ring" cycle in the midst of a severe recession might seem as foolhardy as Wotan's decision to build a lavish new home for his fellow gods without knowing how he was going to pay for it.

Wotan's action triggers one crisis after another for the characters in the four-part music drama. And the LA Opera is facing daunting challenges of its own in presenting the "Ring" for the first time in its 22-year history. Fundraising is still underway for the $32 million project, even as it is being carried out at breakneck speed, with all four operas to be up and running in little more than a year.

So it would be nice to report that the company had struck gold with the opening installment, "Das Rheingold," which premiered Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

And musically, there's much to admire, from the strong conducting of James Conlon and the high quality of the orchestra to excellent work by some individual singers. Dramatically, however, the production by German artist and director Achim Freyer, though based on an intriguing concept, proves for the most part frustratingly static and inert.

Freyer's idea is to present each of the gods, dwarves, giants and Rhinemaidens who populate "Das Rheingold" in multiple forms to reveal their split personalities — the disparity between what they say and what they really desire. Wotan and his wife, Fricka, sit on opposite sides of a steeply raked circular platform, encased within the shells of grotesque costumes from which they occasionally emerge to communicate directly. Wotan wears a mesh cage for a helmet and sings through an opening in the chest of another, bigger Wotan. Fricka's face is painted green and her hands glow in the dark as she frequently reaches out her arms in an effort to keep hold of her wayward husband's affections.

Alberich, the dwarf who steals the Rhinemaidens' gold in the opening scene, wears a gigantic papier-mache mask, while his brother, Mime, sports a slightly smaller one. Fafner and Fasolt, the giants who have done the work of building the gods' new home, hold big reflecting glasses up to their faces that magnify and distort their features.

While these effects create some arresting visual images, they also keep the singers' faces obscured, making it difficult for them to interact with one another. That in turn drains away much of the dramatic tension for the audience. We're left listening to a series of confrontations between characters who don't seem involved in their own stories.

The main exception to this is Loge, the demigod of fire whose trickery helps Wotan steal the ring that Alberich has fashioned from his golden treasure. Loge is decked out in a red devil's costume and has four arms instead of two (to underscore his double dealing?), but his face is uncovered and so we can savor his fast-changing expressions as he spins his schemes. No wonder the tenor playing that role, Arnold Bezuyen, drew the loudest cheers during the curtain calls.

Other cast members who made a strong impression include baritone Gordon Hawkins as Alberich; basses Morris Robinson and Eric Halfvarson as the two giants, and soprano Ellie Dehn as a sweet-voiced Freia, the goddess whom Wotan has rashly promised to the giants in lieu of payment.

Bass Vitalij Kowaljow, singing Wotan for the first time, has an appealing voice, but it lacks the expansive grandeur Wagner demands. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung made surprisingly little impact as Fricka, possibly because of her ungainly outfit; mezzo Jill Grove was unsteady as Erda, the earth goddess who appears late in the proceedings to warn Wotan to relinquish the ring.

The overall aimlessness of the evening is a special pity because Freyer has brought many ingenious touches to the production. The Rhinemaidens "swim" in a river of billowing fabric, and each has an upside-down companion who represents her reflection in the water. When Wotan leaves his mountaintop to visit Alberich, the scene change takes place by having the gods pull on strings that lift up the raked platform to reveal an underworld teaming with enslaved dwarves. And after Fafner kills Fasolt in a fight over the gold, the scrim that covers the proscenium drips blood until it turns entirely red.

With so much riding on the success of this "Ring," perhaps Freyer can salvage the rest of the cycle. But time is short. The second installment, "Die Walkuere," will premiere April 4, with "Siegfried" to follow next September and "Goetterdaemmerung" in the spring of 2010. Starting in late May 2010, the company will offer three complete cycles, each playing out over a week. To accompany the opera performances, the city is planning a "Ring Festival LA" with dozens of arts organizations participating.


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