By Mike Greenberg
HOUSTON – Is it opera? Is it film? Is it circus? Yes. And a miraculous European production of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, recreated for the first time in the United States by Houston Grand Opera, is also fearless in its evocation of the work’s underlying politics and, in its very avoidance of a stereotypically “Wagnerian” sound, faithful to the composer’s conception of Gesamtkunstwerk, or the unification of music and drama.
Das Rheingold, launching HGO’s first Ring Cycle, opened on April 11 in Houston’s Wortham Center and continues on April 17, 23, and 26. The remaining operas of the cycle are scheduled to follow in 2015 (Die Walküre), 2016 (Siegfried) and 2017 (Götterdämmerung), all with the same creative team.
Originally a co-production of Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia and Maggio Musicale in Florence, the staging was created by La Fura dels Baus, a Barcelona company that defies categorization. Beginning as a street theater group, it steadily expanded its reach to opera, film, corporate events, and pubic spectacles, including the opening ceremony of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Director Carlus Padrissa led a multi-disciplinary and outrageously imaginative team.
Before describing the production, it might be useful to recall the historical moment that gave rise to Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. The mid-19th century found German-speaking lands, and indeed much of Europe, in the midst of a power struggle between the old nobility and the rising class of industrial capitalists. Wagner, a leftist in his early years (until the patronage of Bavaria’s King Ludwig II conveniently offered itself), had no sympathy for the greed and explosiveness of either side. Das Rheingold depicts the thinly disguised old and new guards in particularly scathing terms. The gods, led by the sexually prodigious Wotan, are narcissistic, devious and weak, dependent on the goddess Freia’s distribution of golden apples to keep them alive. But Wotan has foolishly offered Freia to the giants Fasolt and Fafner as payment for their construction of the gods’ new fortress, Valhalla.
Down below, the Nibelung dwarf Alberich renounces love in order to obtain the Rhinemaidens’ hoard of gold and forge some of it into a ring conveying limitless power, which he uses to enslave his fellow Nibelungs. He is planning to overthrow the gods. The half-god Loge (direct ancestor of Saul Goodman, the sleazy lawyer in Breaking Bad) has in the past served Alberich by firing his forge, but now he helps Wotan steal the gold from Alberich as a substitute payment to the giants. Even the Rhinemaidens are not exactly innocent: Their needlessly cruel (lookist, heightist and racist, as we would say now) contempt for Alberich’s romantic attentions sets the whole sordid tale in motion.
The Barcelona creative team expressed the political stance of Das Rheingold in striking – sometimes shocking – ways. Most horrifying was the depiction of Alberich’s subterranean realm in Scene 3 as an industrial-age Hell where laborers are both the producers and the product: Video designer Franc Aleu’s projected animation shows eggs containing golden human fetuses moving along an assembly line. Live action in front of the projection shows the result of processing — human figures (not dummies, but live acrobats) are hung from hooks, as at an abattoir, and are removed by assistants to be led away as newly manufactured slaves. The acrobats portray the exploitation of humanity by nobles and industrialists in other ways as well — crawling on the floor to form a heap depicting the gold hoard and, at the very end, suspended spread-eagle on cables to form the 30-foot-high walls of Valhalla — an unforgettable image.
To suggest the gods’ decadence and enervation, they seldom move under their own power. Most of the time each stands on a platform at the end of a jib-arm crane (like a camera crane on a film set) that is raised and lowered and rolled around the stage by black-clad crane operators, among the unsung heroes of this production. The cranes give Fasolt and Fafner, too, the necessary stature, with Transformeresque legs and arms attached. Loge, being only half a god, rides an earthbound Segway.
The coming and goings of the cranes did grow a trifle wearisome after a while, but the device proved particularly useful to the Froh of tenor Chad Shelton: At the curtain call, he walked onstage with the aid of crutches. Set designer Roland Olbeter gave each Rhinemaiden an individual Plexiglas tank of gold-flecked water to splash and dunk in, until Alberich opened the drains, releasing an alarming torrent, and pilfered bags of gold hanging underneath them. Happily, the Rhinemaidens (soprano Andrea Carroll as Woglinde, mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin as Wellgunde, and mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum as Flosshilde) were not required to sing while their heads were under water; above water, their voices gleamed.
HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers conducted with precision, occasionally a shade too deliberately, but on the whole with a fine sense of lyrical flow and attention to the theatrical moment. He had the HGO orchestra carry its 92-musician roster lightly.
One result was some sacrifice of orchestral gorgeousness (which, frankly, can be an opiate in Wagner), but another was a remarkable clarity and absence of audible exertion in the singing, from virtually the entire cast. The singing in Wagner’s operas can (and often does) sound like a vocal weight-lifting contest– a display of raw power and (if one is lucky) glory, preferably with a minimum of grunts and sweat. Here, the voices did not call attention to themselves as star athletes, but served the text and the music in fundamental (if often-neglected) ways – with rhythmic acuity, accuracy of pitch, rock-steady sustained notes, crisply defined German diction and, well, musicality.
Vocal standouts included the nearly flawless (if slightly less than magisterial) Wotan of bass-baritone Iain Paterson; the warm and supple Fricka of mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton; the brash, insinuating Loge of tenor Stefan Margita; the ringing Alberich of baritone Christopher Purves; and the enormous Fasolt of bass Kristinn Sigmundsson.
With a few exceptions (the Fafner of bass Andrea Silvestrelli, the Erda of contralto Meredith Arwady, the Freia of soprano Melody Moore), the voices were light in color and gratifyingly nimble. The vocal style of this production served as a reminder that Wagner’s musical DNA includes a few strands inherited from Bellini.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.