Review: Minnesota Opera’s “Das Rheingold”

Minnesota Opera’s Das Rheingold is an aural delight, but in an irony that contrasts with its production design, one hampered by uninspired stage direction.

Director Brian Staufenbie gives this Rheingold a futuristic setting with the familiar Norse gods wielding technological power in lieu of the traditional fantasy magic. To aid in this vision, David Murakami’s striking projections are utilized throughout the entire opera. They’re at their best during the transitions between scenes, from river to mountaintop to underworld, but provide little during the main dramatic scenes of the opera. The possibilities of telling this story with technology are limitless, and a more inspired direction would have combined these digital assets with equally arresting physical stage movement to achieve a more cohesive whole. A prime example of this in the production is when a dwarf transforms into a dragon. The underwhelming digital flash that’s provided leaves the audience yearning for some kind of real-life stagecraft.

Richard Wagner wrote this first of his four Ring Cycle operas for an extremely large orchestra, one unable to fit into modern theater orchestra pits. Out of necessity then, the orchestra, in top form and conducted by Michael Christie, is placed right on the stage, a move which necessitates an innovative and imaginative staging. Staufenbie fails at providing this. Many of his singers are given no blocking or movement, leaving the audience with a dramatically inert two and a half hours that, alongside Murakami’s projections, is pretty to look at but theatrically hollow.

In a tempestuous election season it’s hard not to notice the political underpinnings of the power struggle in Das Rheingold. The opera opens in the middle of the Rhine river. Three lovely Rhinemaidens (Mary Evelyn Hangley, Alexandra Razskzoff and Nadia Fayad) protect the precious Rhinegold that, if fashioned into a ring, has the ability to give its bearer unyielding power. A dwarf named Alberich (Nathan Berg) spies them and tries to woo them. The Rhinemaidens mercilessly tease him while also foolishly telling him of the Rheingold’s power. When his amorous attentions are rejected Alberich snatches the Rhinegold away, determined to possess its invincibility.

The story moves to the lofty mountaintop abode of the gods, represented by a large bridge hanging over the orchestra. Wotan (Greer Grimsley), ruler of the gods, is awakened by his wife Fricka (Katharine Goeldner) to discover that construction of their new home, Valhalla, is finished. The two giants who built the hall, Fasolt and Fafner (Jeremy Galyon and Julian Close) arrive, demanding the payment Wotan promised them: Fricka’s sister, the goddess Freia (Karin Wolverton).

The representation of the giants is the most disappointing and frustrating element of the production design. The two singers portraying the giants are positioned below the bridge, on stage with the orchestra. A screen descends and their bodies are projected onto it in a blur of video noise. Because of the distance from their fellow cast members they are unable to interact with them in a realistic and dramatic fashion.

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Loge (Richard Cox), the demigod of fire, arrives and tells the group about the magical ring Alberich has fashioned. Fasolt and Fafner agree to take the ring instead of Freia if Wotan can obtain it. The rest of the opera concerns Wotan and Loge’s descent into the dwarf underworld of Nibelheim and the eventual theft of the ring from Alberich.

Despite the lackluster staging, many of the vocal performances are outstanding. Grimsley and Goeldner provide the regal bearing and authoritarian voices you would expect from rulers of the gods, but it is Berg as Alberich who steals the spotlight. His is by far the strongest and most memorable performance of the evening. Also notable are Cox, who brings a whimsical presence to Loge, Denyce Graves, who makes a short but thrilling appearance as earth goddess Erda, and the trio of Hangley, Razskzoff and Fayad who bewitchingly play the Rhinemaidens.

In short, this Rheingold is notable for its performances by both singers and orchestra, but the staging leaves much to be desired. Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas have the potential to be wonderfully theatrical pieces of art, but only when the director imbues them with an acute sense of dramatic storytelling.

3 out of 5 Stars

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