L.A. LOGBOOK: It took much longer than expected but the LA Opera has finally come of age-at age 21, fittingly enough. As of last week, the company entered “The Ring”-Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” that is-with a mind-blowing production of Das Rheingold, and it is clearly one of the opera events of the season, in the U.S. if not the world. Wagner’s epic four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen is generally considered a critical mountain necessarily climbed by any major opera company. This company has made a dazzling first foray-with Die Walk¼rie coming later in the season and Siegfried and Gtterd¤mmerung next season, and with the complete cycle to be presented in the summer of 2010.

What makes it so special? The Achim Freyer factor. Musically, solidity emanates from the powerful James Conlon-conducted orchestra pit to the Wagnerian vocal talent on stage, but the visionary, warmly iconoclastic German director Freyer’s handiwork distinguishes this Ring cycle from others. His elaborately machined mixture of surrealism, fantasy play, psychedelic scrim action, and dream-like dimensions give the term Wagnerian a new and more playful twist.

Freyer’s last work with the LA Opera-his lavish and phantasmagorical 2003 staging of La Damnation de Faust-was, at least in visual and synesthetic terms, one of the most memorable evenings in the company’s history. Freyer-mania (and Wagner-mania) now continues in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

LA Opera has done some admirable work in trying to put across the unique excitement of opera to new potential audiences, presenting children-oriented fare and bringing film directors into the fold, including Bruce Beresford, William Friedkin and, this season, David Cronenberg (The Fly) and Woody Allen (Gianni Schicchi). Das Rheingold may be too musically challenging and long (two hours and 45 minutes, sans intermission) for children and opera-phobes, but much about the production feels accessible to a broad audience.

Years ago, hopeful plans were hatched to have George Lucas direct a “Ring Cycle” for the LA Opera at the Shrine Auditorium, but the fiscal wherewithal and enthusiasm dissipated. Miraculously, Freyer’s interpretation, an ingenious and gravity-defying visual feat, combines Lucas-like elements-evocative of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings-with aspects of Freyer’s Euro-avant-garde theater tradition.

There are four more chances to check out what must be called Achim Freyer’s Das Rheingold-tonight (March 5), March 8, 11, and 15. It is one of those indulgences well worth the price of admission and gas, even for those who thought Wagner was not their thing. There may be an epiphany with your name on it (laopera.com).

CONTEMPORARY MUSICAL LANDSCAPING: It remains a stubborn truism that new and experimental music is forced to exist underground, in specialized series or academia-sponsored quarters. Luckily, we have UCSB as a local source for things contemporary, as experienced recently with a three-day quasi-festival celebrating the electronic/computer music pioneers Max Mathews, John Chowning, and Jean-Claude Risset. Through lectures and rare exposure to the real, real-time thing in concert, the heady weekend offered a delicious illusion that this rarefied musical world was coming into the mainstream.

Next Tuesday, the new music cause gets public play again courtesy of the Ensemble for Contemporary Music (ECM) concert at Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall, one of several ECM concerts each season. On the varied menu this time, in a concert director Jeremy Haladyna calls “Esperanto It Ain’t,” the music ranges from that of the late, great Henry Brant (a Santa Barbara-based world citizen who died last year at 94), to Terry Riley‘s early minimalist landmark “In C” and some taste treats by Michigan-based and Americana-flavored composer Evan Chambers.

TO-DOINGS: Marcia Ball, the bluesy, seasoned Louisiana-spawned and spiced pianist-singer, returns to Santa Barbara after years away, Sunday at SOhO. With her steady and sturdy reputation going back to the early ’80s, Ball don’t need no stinking new album to promote to warrant a tour, but her latest is the propitious and tasty New Orleans homage project on Alligator Records, Peace, Love & BBQ.


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