Wagner\'s&nbsp;<em>Das Rheingold</em>&nbsp;at Houston Grand Opera
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Review: Das Rheingold | Houston Grand Opera | Wortham Theater Center

The Ring: The Final Frontier

Das Rheingold, Houston Grand Opera's first in a multiyear commitment to Wagner's Ring Cycle, introduces a far-out concept that works.

published Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Photo: Lynn Lane/Houston Grand Opera
Wagner's Das Rheingold at Houston Grand Opera

Houston — When shrugging off outlandish stagings of operas these days, you can think “well, at least it wasn’t set on the moon.” So much for that consolation. Das Rheingold, which the Houston Grand Opera opened at the Wortham Center on Friday, puts Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, if not on the moon, at least partially in outer space.  

More than most operas, the works of the Ring Cycle have been subjected to one bizarre production after another. Some work, like the neon minimalist production many years ago in Chicago. Others. like the clanking and frequently out-of-order machine that dominated the recent Metropolitan Opera productions, do not; the novelty gets in the way of the opera.

Photo: Lynn Lane/Houston Grand Opera
Wagner's Das Rheingold at Houston Grand Opera

The Houston Ring is a production that is both novel and effective. It looks like the recent spate of superhero movies that have come out of the Marvel comic book franchise. (Captian Wotan, anyone?) The set, designed by Roland Olbeter, relies heavily on Franc Aleu’s video designs, which run throughout the production. The outer space costumes are still in keeping with many traditional productions; costumer Chu Uroz keeps us orientated to the characters and the plot as we fly to realms unknown.

Pulling from the grand traditions of science fiction movies—from early masters like Fritz Lang through A Clockwork Orange and Star Wars—this production is set in such wildly divergent locations as deep in outer space to deep within the bowels of the earth. Rheingold is the first of the four-opera cycle, so what happened on Friday was eagerly awaited because it presents the concept on which this Ring is built. What was revealed is a highly creative approach that is oddly traditional and wildly bizarre at the same time.

In 2007, this production was developed by a creative consortium of companies: Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Catalan theater company La Fura dels Baus. It was conducted by Zubin Mehta and played in Madrid’s Teatro Real and Houston is bringing it to the USA over the next five years—one at a time and then all of them are a row in the fifth year.

The reputation of La Fura dels Baus gives a broad hint of what to expect. Much like Cirque de Soleil, their actors are also acrobats and, like the dance company Pilobolus, the actors also form parts of the scenery. La Fura started out as street theater and moved their strange approach into productions that are more traditional as well as spectaculars and opera.

They first came to worldwide attention with the stunning, and operatic, opening ceremonies of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona that featured singers such as tenors Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo (tenors) and soprano Montserrat Caballe. Devices that turn up in Rheingold are also present in the Barcelona extravaganza, such as gigantic scrap-metal giants worked by puppeteers, fantastical beings that transform into physical objects and huge futuristic (although steam-driven) mechanizations.

But once you think about it, Wagner’s tale of Gods and their foibles is full of just such otherworldly visions. This review will not attempt to outline the plot. It is complicated and silly in the way of all myths. Find a summary online. It will take you a while to read it. However, it will be much more enjoyable, and memorable, to hear the divine comedian Anna Russell tell it here

The low E-flat pedal point, over four minutes long, that opens the opera is at the bottom of the orchestra (actually just below) and the scene is at the bottom of the Rhine River. In this production, the theater is completely dark—not even music-stand lights in the orchestra pit. Shooting stars, first one, and then others, flash across the back. We, the audience, appear to be moving outward and we see more and more detail. Eventually, we discover that the shooting stars are the tiny particles that dash around inside an atom and that we are inside of a drop of water. We continue to move outward and drops become waves, then waves become the river.

Perhaps this is all conjecture and not what was intended at all, but it sure worked for me. Others may have seen something completely different.

Each of the Rhinemaidens is isolated in, like exotic betta splendens (Siamese fighting fish), cubic goldfish bowls. Thus, one reason for Alberich’s hapless wooing is readily apparent. They are in different universes. Although only separated by a thin transparent wall, he is in the world of air and they are in the world of water. 

The Gods and Goddesses that drive Wagner’s mythological plot are mounted on platforms at the end of cranes, such as the ones with buckets seen on construction sites. The nonmotorized cranes are operated by actors who are readily seen by the audience. So, the effect is that they float around. They are in a weightless environment on some off world location. Or, maybe they are on earth and unable to move on their own. I prefer the former interpretation to the more prosaic latter. 

Photo: Lynn Lane/Houston Grand Opera
Wagner's Das Rheingold at Houston Grand Opera

And so it goes. Loge, the god of quick-moving flame, moves around in a cloud of flame-trailing smoke on a Segway. The trip to Nibelheim to steal the magic gold from Alberich starts in outer space, zeros in on a volcano down to which they dive and continue through the earth’s mantel. In the center of the earth, they arrive at Alberich’s factory. This is a combination projection-and-live-action horror scene out of a Fritz Lang 1930’s nightmare of a mechanized, steam-driven future. He is growing his Nibelung slaves as squashed-face embryos inside golden eggs. Once hatched, they are hung on a meat hook on an endless moving track, and sent off for some horrific processing.

Later, they become the golden treasure. They crawl on top of each other to create the pile of golden bodies to pay Freia’s ransom. When the Gods finally enter Valhalla, their ill-gotten castle, a veil of hanging Nibelungs part to welcome them and then closes to enfold them. It is a spectacular end to the opera and a coup de théâtre that sticks in the memory.

Vocally, this Rheingold features a new generation of singers. Fresh-voiced and attractive, they strip away the physical weight that we have come to expect from the roles and from Wagnerian singers in general. Part of this residual sonic overlay is because top-level casts of the Ring tend to sing in many of the major productions. Thus, we have a “sound” of these characters in our mind for a decade or more until another singer moves into the role. Also, Wagner is not for the young, so singers are usually older when they start to sing these roles. Not so here.

As Wotan, the 40-year-old Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson is nothing short of magnificent. His recent graduation from lighter roles, such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni, brings him an impeccable vocal technique. He sings with a lyric brightness and wide dynamic range and Wotan’s music is transformed by the way he sings it.

As Fricka, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who’s even younger than Paterson, is equally glorious. She is at the beginning of her career, but her big spinto voice has already been put to use as Tosca. But her short résumé lets us know how new she is to the world stage. As recently as 2012 in Munich, she was singing the role of the Second Norn in the Ring’s closing opera, Götterdämmerung. Now she is a major lead.

The two other Gods are sung by astounding new talents. Tenor Chad Shelton, who sings the role of Froh, is a Houston Opera discovery, now branching out to an international career. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who sings Donner, was truly remarkable earlier in the season as Rigoletto in the Houston opera’s production. He further expands his reputation in Rheingold. (My review of his Rigoletto is here.)

Melody Moore is another fine singer at the beginning of a major career. She is excellent as Freia, although the voice is probably too big to continue in the role for much longer. Only a year ago, she was singing the spinto Italian repertoire, but is quickly moving into Wagner’s realm with a recent Senta in The Flying Dutchman. On the downside, she has to overcome the only costume misstep in the show. For some reason, both Freia and Erda have to run around with conehead headdresses straight out of the old Saturday Night Live sketches. 

The cone is only one of the problems that face Meredith Arwady’s Erda. She also has to deal with one of the few directorial missteps as well. She must have been inside a small shack on stage when it collapsed on her, because she rises up from underneath the rubble, pushing old lumber aside, and appears to be unsure if she is in the right opera. When she finishes, she lies back down and pulls some boards over her as if they are some kind of quilt. It is hard to sing such majestic music under such circumstances, but she manages to make the best of the situation, using her dark-hooded voice, of great beauty, to its best advantage. 

The two giants are played by Kristinn Sigmundsson as Fasolt and Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner. In the curtain call at the end, you can’t help notice that both of these guys are naturally tall—rising a good head above the rest of the cast. However, they are small compared to the scrap-metal robots they inhabit, much like the Transformers of comics and film. Both have sonorous bass voices, but they are very different. Sigmundsson’s is tightly focused while Silverstrelli’s is more diffused. The vocal contrast added to their characterizations.

Unlike in many productions, Alberich and Mime are not grotesque, although they still project a dangerous evil. Christopher Purves is excellent as Alberich. He was at his best in the opening with his clumsy efforts to woe the Rhinemaidens. The scene in which he shows off and transforms into other beings was not as effective, partly due to the lame dragon and frog the stage director arranged. In such a cinematic production, you expected better special effects in this crucial scene.

Rodell Rosel brings a fine voice to his portrayal of Mime with none of the distorted vocal characterizations we usually hear. He plays the part as the constantly unhappy employee who is always griping about how he is treated around the office; it is an effective take on the character.

Andrea Carroll, Catherine Martin and Renée Tatum make wonderfully playful and splashy Rhinemadiens. Considering the small size of their goldfish bowl, they do a considerable amount of fancy swimming. At the end of the scene and out of the water, they flop around like recently caught fish on the dock. 

Once you get into the spirit of this production, it is a highly effective take on Wagner’s cycle of operas. Further, it is so interesting that it is doubtful that you will tire of the concept before the end of the four. This was the problem with the Machine at the Met. By the end, we had seen all the tricks it could do many times over. Here, you can hardly wait to see how other fantastical scenes will be staged: from the flying horses to the ring of fire around a mountaintop.

Photo: Lynn Lane/Houston Grand Opera
Wagner's Das Rheingold at Houston Grand Opera
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The Ring: The Final Frontier
Das Rheingold, Houston Grand Opera's first in a multiyear commitment to Wagner's Ring Cycle, introduces a far-out concept that works.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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