Fierce Anticipation: February 27 – March 1


a blogumn by Ryan Dixon


The Ring Cycle

valkyrie_horsebackIn the world of opera and classical music, Richard Wagner‘s four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen is the closest thing there is to epically popular movie franchises like the Star Wars saga or The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This operatic epic was Wagner’s attempt to create a mythology for Germany and over the course of 15 hours we watch and hear Wagner’s vision of Norse mythology come to life with Gods, heroes, fair maidens and a Gollum-like dwarf creature obsessed with, you guessed it, a ring. It is the Mt. Everest of operas; companies who undertake a production do so at their own considerable financial risk, but the reward, both financial and artistic, can often be great.

And so it is now with the artistically daring Los Angeles Opera. They’ve jumped head first into the Wagner pool and spent $32 million dollars to create an original production, LA’s first Ring. Of course, if the production of Das Rheingold, the first part of the cycle now being performed through March 15, is any indication of what is to come, the only comparisons to Star Wars will be to the much maligned prequel trilogy. While Jar Jar Binks thankfully remains off stage, Das Rheingold is filled with plenty of its own cringe inducing moments, including a host of costumes seemingly bought at a Bread & Puppet swap meet and an enslaved band of black-clad Nibelungens wielding what look like red, Sith-favored light sabers. Unfortunately, with their shiny and over-sized head gear, they are far more reminiscent of Rick Moranis’ Darth Helmet in Space Balls than Lord Vader.

I wish I could say I didn’t see this coming, but I had my hesitations when LA Opera general director, Placido Domingo, and the Board of Directors hired Achim Freyer to direct the cycle. A master of avant-garde Eurotrash, Freyer’s other opera productions seem to mimic the aesthetic of a seventh grader trying to emulate Robert Wilson and Julie Taymor.  With its generous use of black light and spandex, his 2003 LA Opera production of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust turned a rich and powerful work into a low-grade regional touring production of the Ice Capades.

While Freyer’s stage pictures in Das Rheingold aren’t without a certain stark beauty, they sadly remain just that, pictures. You could have watched a slide show of this Rheingold while listening to a recording (perhaps the classic Sir George Solti conducted version) and the experience would have been essentially the same.  In addition, the staging lacks any sense of tension or narrative momentum. For example, not only were the Valhalla-building giants Fasolt and Fafner placed so far up stage (a dramatically weak stage position to begin with) that those in the upper balcony could barely see them, but they were also presented as being smaller than all the other characters, taking away the awe and fear they are supposed to inspire.

Despite this ominous beginning, I am an optimist and this is the only Ring we’ve got. One can only hope that as the next three operas become more dramatically compelling, so too will the staging. If not, next year’s much hyped Ring Cycle Festival will be a celebration endowed with all the excitement as a rush hour trip on the 405.

Now Playing


Drood by Dan Simmons

drood-limitedThere is nothing better than when a book seems written especially for you. Of course, after the book is finished, we immediately want to find another work that will bring us a similar rainbow of narrative sensations. Those of us who loved Harry Potter will try out His Dark Materials or perhaps Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in the hope of recapturing that same literary magic. In my reading life, Caleb Carr’s 1994 thriller The Alienist, a Victorian twist on The Silence of the Lambs, had just the right blend of elements to make it a perfect “Ryan” book; science, minute period detail, a compelling mystery, an ensemble of interesting characters and a healthy dose of gore.

I’ve read other books that have come close to equaling that experience (Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and Mark Frost’s The List of 7 stand out), but none that have surpassed it. Could Drood be the one?  Dan Simmons’ newly released novel is a dark paranormal thriller about the last five years of Charles Dickens’ life and the ill-fated composition of his unfinished final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. With advanced acclaim from Guillermo Del Toro and a recent favorable capsule review in The New Yorker, Drood looks like the type of fun and scary journey down a foggy cobblestone street that has an outside chance to rival my enjoyment of The Alienist.  Of course, you’re now probably asking why do I only “kinda wanna read” it? Well, the time commitment involved in reading a book that weights 2.6 lbs and runs 784 pages automatically makes my reader’s guilt kick in, forcing me to ponder whether I would be better served to finally get through Great Expectations instead.

Now in Bookstores


Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li

streetfighterThe definition of insanity, so goes the old saying that has been attributed to everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Albert Einstein, is to do the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result. If that’s the case, then it seems that the only way to cure Hollywood of its ill-fated obsession with video game-to-film adaptations is to prescribe some Clozapine.

Much greater genres (the musical and the western, to name just two) have spent years in Hollywood purgatory for far lesser artistic offenses than those perpetrated in the name of bringing the world Super Mario Bros., Max Payne and Mortal Kombat. And now, I suppose because someone out there was hankering for it, we have Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, a sequel-cum-reboot-cum-just-another-reason-to-stay-in-on-a-Saturday-night to the fondly forgotten 1994 adaptation starring Jean-Claude Van Dame and the great Raul Julia in what was, unfortunately, his final performance.

Of course, looking over this weekend’s box office predictions, this Street Fighter will hopefully be quickly knocked out and join the low grossing club that every other video game adaptation not starring Angelina Jolie or Milla Jovovich belongs to. This string of box office futility begs the question: Is the game-to-film genre an inherently self-defeating medium?  Since the majority of even the best games are none to subtle homage’s (rip-offs?) to already existing and often influential movies, it is not their plots that make them popular (Lord knows this is the case with the Street Fighter games, which replace character development and Aristotelian structure with punches to the face and swift kicks to the groin), but the success of their interactivity. The best games immerse you in a world where you can dine on flesh as a zombie, blast aliens to bits or score the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, just like Santonio Holmes did for the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers this year. So, until Hollywood creates a way to make true narrative interactivity plausible in theaters, expect video game adaptations to continue to take a one-way trip from the theater to the 8-bit junk heap.

Now in Theaters