Rhinestones On Rhine: It’s Grand Ole Wagner With Tennessee Twist

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Rhinemaidens — Woglinde (Jessie Neilson), from left, Flosshilde (Valerie Nelson), and Wellgunde (Danielle MacMillan) — in Nashville Opera’s production of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ at Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. (Photos: Anthony Popolo)

NASHVILLE — Performing Das Rheingold, the first installment of Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle, might seem wildly ambitious for Nashville Opera, whose production opened May 6 in a new venue, the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Belmont University. With a pre-Covid budget in the $2 million range, the company’s other two operas this season were Favorite Son, a folk opera by Marcus Hummon, a successful country music songwriter, and an updated production of Rigoletto marketed as Rigoletto Noir. The company’s past repertoire is similarly modest. It once mounted Der fliegende Holländer, but that opera’s requirements are more basic. Three problems have restricted the Ring operas primarily to the bigger, wealthier companies: the size of the orchestra, the highly demanding vocal roles, and the elaborate stage requirements.Wagner’s intention was that the Ring operas would be performed only in complete cycles and only at Bayreuth, partly because the Festspielhaus was at the time the only opera house in the world with a pit large enough for the Ring orchestra of 90-plus musicians. That restriction was ignored after his death, but the vast majority of Ring performances, especially in America, have been by companies that possess large and highly skilled orchestras.

Lester Lynch made an important role debut as Wotan, his huge, rich baritone dominating the stage.

There are, however, versions of the Ring scored for smaller ensembles, used especially in Germany.  In 1999 I attended a Die Walküre in Kassel that used an orchestra of about 50 musicians, but the quality of the playing and singing were both compromised. The most memorable aspect of that evening was that the Valkyries were on motorcycles — BMW, of course; Grane, Brünnhilde’s horse, had a sidecar (to carry Sieglinde). Jonathan Dove wrote a version for an 18-piece ensemble, which also cut the running time of each opera roughly in half and used a modification of Andrew Porter’s English translation.

That version, created for the City of Birmingham Orchestra, toured England and was introduced to the U.S. in 2002 when New York’s spunky EOS Orchestra presented Das Rheingold, followed in 2004 by Die Walküre, in a daringly modernist production by Christopher Alden. The intention had been to perform a full cycle, but they went broke soon after Die Walküre (the number of Wagner-related company failures in the past few decades is disquieting). No one would have mistaken the sound for a full Wagner orchestra but, given the scale of the reduction, it sounded pretty good, thanks to the quality of EOS’ players and the inspired conducting of Jonathan Sheffer. Dove’s version was also used by the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, and the production was shared with Long Beach Opera, each of which produced full cycles. The Pittsburgh ensemble doubled the size of the orchestra, which it drew from the formidable Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and this worked even better. I didn’t get to hear any of the Long Beach performances.

Nashville Opera music director Dean Williamson, who conducted, chose a new version of the score arranged by German conductor Eberhard Kloke, and this was its American premiere, with 54 players, including four Wagner tubas. It’s a full-length version, and in this case was sung in German with projected English supertitles. In discussing his approach, Kloke said that a major objective was to restore the balance between strings and winds — the practice has apparently been to reduce the strings far more than the other sections. At this performance, however, the strings still seemed less prominent than with a full Wagner orchestra.

One problem with any reduced version is that everyone is more exposed, and in this case the most glaring weakness was the lack of precision in the winds and brass, though they did become more reliable as the evening progressed. Williamson’s pacing was fairly standard, but he sometimes missed chances to change tempi for dramatic effect. More problematic was his lack of dynamic range. The opening E-flat, which needs to be felt more than heard, here had no subtlety at all, and the big crescendos lacked grandeur and punch. He tended to coddle his singers, and this might have been one reason for the weak orchestral performance. The Nashville Opera Orchestra is a per-session ensemble, and the majority of the players primarily work as session musicians in Nashville’s thriving country/western/pop music industry.

Bass-baritone Samuel Weiser gave a riveting performance as Alberich, whose curse was a highlight.

What saved this performance was the singing from the young, all-American cast, all performing their roles for the first time. Lester Lynch’s Wotan was the most important of these role debuts, if only because of the rarity of Wagnerian bass-baritones. His huge, rich, somewhat tremulous voice dominated the stage. His dramatic approach, presumably the way he was directed, was quirky: Strutting around in constant motion with ever-changing facial expressions, he seemed much more human than the more dignified “Big Daddy” approach exemplified by Samuel Ramey or Eric Owens. This will not be Lynch’s last Wotan. He is someone to watch.

Samuel Weiser, who sang Alberich, is perhaps the most fully formed Wagnerian voice in the ensemble and the biggest surprise, as he seems heretofore to have sung only minor roles. A recent graduate of the Cafritz Young Artist Program at Washington National Opera, Weiser has a powerful, nicely colored bass-baritone voice capable of rendering the full range of emotions, and he is a riveting actor. His curse was the highlight of the evening.

Tenor Corey Bix was an entertaining Loge, prancing, gesturing, and a bit androgynous. Bix has a nice lyric tenor sound, but he seemed to run out of steam towards the end of the work. Renée Tatum sang as Fricka with a warm mezzo-soprano voice, avoiding the shrewish portrayal we sometimes get for this role. Soprano Othalie Graham was a suitable Freia, if a bit shrill on top. Contralto Gwendolyn Brown offered an exotic Erda, though she sang with ultra-slow tempi, showing some strain in her voice. Tenor Allan Glassman’s Mime was superb and affecting, and he avoided the whining caricature sound sometimes heard in the role. Ricardo Lugo, as Fasolt, and Matthew Burns, as Fafner, apparently have each sung as giants before, but in the reverse roles. Both were compelling. Donner (Joshua Jeremiah) and Froh (Tyler Nelson) were secure and strong.

‘Mountain giants’ Fasolt (Ricardo Lugo), left, and Fafner (Matthew Burns) flank Freia (Othalie Graham).

The Rhinemaidens deserves special mention. Soprano Jessie Neilson (Woglinde), mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan (Wellgunde), and contralto Valerie Nelson (Flosshilde) were just remarkable. The Nibelung ensemble screamed honorably.

Nashville Opera artistic director (and CEO) John Hoomes took advantage of the Fisher Center’s stage-wide, 28-foot-tall high-definition video wall for a production that relied heavily on the imagery of lighting and video designer Barry Steele. A unit set, consisting of an elevated platform with a giant staircase, stood in front of the video wall.

Steele’s continuous video production was imaginative and absorbing, ranging from planetarium effects at the opening, which segued into a elegant watery background for the Rheinmaiden scene, to a kaleidescope ending. Wotan and Loge traveled to Nibelheim via a truly magical fire-ringed portal that appeared in the massive stone walls. Nibelheim itself had a Tennessee cavern country relevance and authenticity. Valhalla resembled a gigantic Las Vegas resort, surrounded by scaffolding until the final scene.

Matt Logan, who designed the costumes, is the designer for Reba McEntire’s current tour and he likes rhinestones, lots of them. Hoomes said the designs for most of the singers were inspired by graphic novels and Marvel Comics. I’m out of my league here — I don’t know much about comic book characters, but the Rhinemaidens certainly looked exotic enough, with elaborate hairdos, corsets, and jewelry. Wotan looked more like a Mardi Gras king, with a gold robe and beads, maroon sash, and of course lots of rhinestones. Alberich started out in a frayed coat and dirty pants with goggles atop an Alpine hat. When he reappeared in Nibelheim, he had acquired a gold rhinestone scarf. Mime also had goggles, but was a bit more subdued. The costumes for Fricka and Freia reflected the comic book exaggeration of the evening’s theme, sexually provocative with outlandish hairdos and a crown for Freia. For Donner and Froh, the superhero look was less of a departure from their normal depiction. In the projected translation, the giants became “mountain giants”; they appeared normal in size but with long scraggly beards, a nice Tennessee touch. Erda arrived from the wings with her own mountain, dressed like an earth goddess. Loge wore a red coat with the de rigueur rhinestones, and dirty looking pants.

Superhero look: Tyler Nelson, as Froh, was secure and strong.

The costumes seemed to function more as “amusements” for a production that was otherwise fairly straightforward, with few attempts at metaphor but nice local relevance. Hoomes moved his cast around efficiently and elicited credible acting from them all. The key element, the use of projections, is now pretty much the norm in Wagner productions, making these operas affordable for companies without huge resources.

Overall, this was a competent Das Rheingold, especially useful for showcasing the next generation of Wagner singers. Historically, the Ring opera most frequently performed as a stand-alone work has been Die Walküre. It works better dramatically by itself, but it requires a Brünnhilde, not to mention a Siegmund and a Sieglinde, all difficult to cast. Das Rheingold can also lead directly into a Ring cycle, which Hoomes wants to do, though “in the end, it will take financial support of Wagnerian proportions.”

This was the first opera performed at the $180 million Fisher Center, designed to accommodate opera. The 54 musicians were spread out comfortably in the pit; it appears large enough for at least a 75-piece orchestra. The elegant hall has 1,600 seats, including four tiered rings of boxes and a large foyer flanked by meeting rooms. For this opera, the company offered 1,200 seats for sale, eliminating the uppermost balcony, and sold more than 75 percent of them. The company would seem to be well positioned to grow, and this is a city that loves music. The audience, young by opera standards, was talkative and stayed busy texting, but seemed genuinely enthusiastic. A second performance was scheduled for May 8. Masks and vaccinations were optional, but the orchestra wore masks.