A ‘Rheingold’ Premiere, Creative And Gleaming, Hints At Possible ‘Ring’

The gods ascend to Valhalla at the end of the Atlanta Opera production of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ (Photos by Ken Howard)

ATLANTA — As opera companies go, Atlanta Opera is a youngster, founded in 1979. During 44 seasons, the company has produced many of the cornerstone operas of the Italian and French repertoire, but it has never taken on the challenge of Wagner’s four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen, an ultimate test for any opera company.

Much to its credit, though, Atlanta Opera recently took a bold step toward a potential complete Ring with its splendid production of Das Rheingold, magnificently sung by a cast of top-tier Wagnerian singers. The milestone production confirms Atlanta Opera’s status as a world-class company.

Rheingold, the first opera in the tetralogy, will be followed in 2024 by Die Walküre. The two remaining music dramas in the cycle (Siegfried and Götterdämmerung) remain a possibility, if not a certainty, in future seasons.

Elizabeth DeShong as Fricka and Greer Grimsley as Wotan

The Ring, one of the great epics of Western civilization, brings fantasy and myth to the stage, with gods, giants, dwarfs, water nymphs, and mortals longing for love and lusting for power. Das Rheingold begins with the Nibelung dwarf Alberich stealing the gold of the Rhine to fashion a ring that will grant ultimate power to the person who possesses it. But the ring only offers misery and disaster.   

This visually arresting Rheingold at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre paid tribute to both contemporary sensibilities and Wagnerian tradition. Erhard Rom’s scenic design relied heavily on projections and a huge LED backdrop. It included a provocative vision of Valhalla, the castle of the gods, as two soaring modern skyscrapers that would seem at home in the roaring economic powerhouse of downtown Atlanta. Because Rheingold is an epic about love and the destructive power of greed, those Valhalla skyscrapers linked Wagner’s self-centered gods to the corporate titans of the prosperous New South.

On a more traditional note, Mattie Ullrich’s costumes suggested a rigid class-based society, with long robes and pastel and gold colors for the pampered gods and earth tones for the subterranean, oppressed Nibelung. In a nod to 19th-century Ring productions, Ullrich designed horned headgear for the gods. Such a heterogenous mix of elements, evoking past and present, suggested the timelessness of Wagner’s saga and its relevance for today.

Zachary Nelson as Alberich, Richard Cox as Loge, and Greer Grimsley as Wotan

Tomer Zvulun, Atlanta Opera’s general and artistic director, brought a compelling dynamism to an opera that can often seem static. There are moments that also can seem unintentionally funny, such as when Alberich, the power-hungry dwarf, turns himself into a toad on a dare. Zvulun decided to embrace the humor of the moment, having Wotan and Loge gleefully toss the toad back and forth. 

One can quibble about certain aspects of the production. The gold of the Rhine, when first seen, rose haltingly through a trap door. Fafner’s murder of his brother Fasolt was awkwardly staged.

Veteran Wagnerian Greer Grimsley was a superb Wotan, king of the gods, with a commanding presence and sonorous voice. Richard Cox offered a suave, sly account of the trickster Loge, the demigod of fire. Zachary Nelson was a vocally and dramatically assertive Alberich.

Elizabeth DeShong brought a rich, sumptuous mezzo-soprano to the role of Fricka. Jessica Faselt was a captivating, radiant Freia. Ronnita Miller’s deep, opulent mezzo-soprano served her well as the primal Earth-mother Erda.

Julius Ahn was a nimble Mime. Basses Kristinn Sigmundsson and Daniel Sumegi, as the giants Fasolt and Fafner, both brought dark timbres to their roles but were an interesting contrast, with Sigmundsson mellow-voiced and Sumegi more resonant. Bass-baritone Joseph Barron and tenor Adam Diegel, both in robust voice, made a listener wish Wagner had written more for their two characters, Donner and Froh, respectively. The luminous Rhinemaidens were Cadie J. Bryan, Alexandra Razskazoff, and Gretchen Krupp.

Adam Diegel as Froh, Greer Grimsley as Wotan, and Joseph Barron as Donner

Conductor Arthur Fagen drew balanced and burnished playing from the orchestra. His pacing and phrasing were deeply satisfying. At times, though, a listener longed for more bite in the brass and thunder from the percussion in the opera’s climactic moments.

A Ring cycle has been the dream of Zvulun since he joined the Atlanta Opera 10 years ago. This production of Das Rheingold was to debut in Atlanta and later to be rented by Dallas Opera. But due to Covid-19 delays, the world premiere took place in Dallas in February. The four Atlanta performances concluded on May 7.

This was not only Atlanta Opera’s first-ever Das Rheingold. It appears to be the first-ever production of the opera in the city of Atlanta. Thus, 150 years after Das Rheingold was first performed in Munich, Germany, the music drama has received its Atlanta premiere, and in glorious fashion.