A Saga Trimmed To Fit: ‘Das Rheingold’ Glitters In Sly Concert Version

The Los Angeles Philharmonic performed Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ at Walt Disney Hall in a production designed by the hall’s architect, Frank Gehry. (Photos by Timothy Norris provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association)

LOS ANGELES — How do you turn a modern concert hall into an opera house? That was the question going into the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold conducted by Gustavo Dudamel at Walt Disney Concert Hall the weekend of Jan. 19-21. Could this Rheingold, the first opera in the Ring Cycle, possibly emerge, as advertised, “fully staged”?

Well, close enough. It helped that Frank Gehry, architect of the now 20-year-old hall, was also the project’s scenic designer. Using materials that blended organically with the Alaskan yellow cedar on stage and Douglas fir on the walls, Gehry geometrically arranged stairs next to blocks forming several upper-tier platforms. A ramp in front of the orchestra allowed singers to perform closer to the audience.

Without an orchestra pit, the podium had to be placed one small step down from the ramp. The hall was dark, so when the lights came up, Dudamel suddenly appeared, and the opera began. Sneaky, but surprisingly effective, not least because Wagner’s massive orchestration of Rheingold (indeed his entire tetralogy) is so proto-cinematic in its rich emotional expressiveness that it’s the real hero of many productions.

The Rhinemaidens are aghast as Alberich (Jochen Schmeckenbecher) steals the gold.

Indeed, for Dudamel and the LA Phil, who have proved themselves first-rate exponents of the film music of John Williams, the jump back to 19th-century Wagner seemed natural. The conductor held a firm but flexible line, paying attention to structure and mood, while also finely judging dynamics in the acoustically sensitive hall. The orchestra showed reliable versatility throughout, the horns adding plenty of Wagnerian texture and color.

Under Alberto Arvelo’s resourceful direction (he also directed video art projected on translucent fabrics), singers could be heard clearly and keenly, effectively using Gehry’s full ramp plus multi-platform set. Remarkably, there was enough room to keep the eyes moving and the mind focused on the characters and drama.

Wearing the traditional Wotan eye-patch, bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, in his role debut, physically commanded the stage, his characterization realistically collapsing into bluster, insults, and vulnerability when dealing with family. Not entirely comfortable in his own divine skin, Green’s Wotan resents having to work with the giants — the imposing basses Peixin Chen (Fafner) and Morris Robinson (Fasolt) — to construct his dream home, as well as having to rely on Loge, the cunning god of fire, to extricate him from the fraudulent agreement made with his fearsome building contractors. At times, this 150-minute intermissionless saga felt like a long episode of Succession.  

In Rheingold, we get our fullest look at Loge. It’s a terrific role, embodied here by tenor Simon O’Neill, looking a bit like Elton John in a space-age gold cloak. O’Neill cleverly mixed a ringing heldentenor timbre with surprisingly graceful bel canto-like melodic lines. He’s a fixer-manipulator who could sell you swampland in Florida.

Ryan Speedo Green as Wotan and Raehann Bryce-Davis as Fricka

Alberich, the proto-Gollum figure who steals the gold, setting the Ring in motion, becomes alternately pitiable and repellent in baritone Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s brave performance. Credit costume designer Cindy Figueroa not only with Loge’s shiny Glam-rock outfit but also with Alberich’s disturbing silhouette, in which rock-like tumors on his body make it appear as if he’s worked way too long in the hellish hole that is Nibelheim.

As Wotan’s wife Fricka, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis sang with radiant tone, as did soprano Jessica Faselt as Freia, goddess of eternal youth. The Rhinemaidens were Ann Toomey (Woglinde), Alexandria Shiner (Wellgunde), and Taylor Raven (Flosshilde). They suggested the swirling river by choreographically waving sleeves draped in billowing chiffon. But they are hardly innocent, delighting in their sexual rejection and humiliation of Alberich.

Also fine in the well-balanced cast were tenor Barry Banks as Alberich’s abused brother, Mime; Freia’s brothers, Donner (bass-baritone Kyle Albertson) and Froh (tenor John Matthew Myers); and mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford’s affecting Erda, whose burnished solo imploring Wotan to surrender the gold felt powerfully intimate.

The giants Fafner (Peixin Chen) and Fasolt (Morris Robinson) in the moment before the former kills the latter.

Mention should also be made of Rodrigo Prieto’s evocative lighting design, dark but never opaque, as well as dramaturg Cori Ellison’s crisply colloquial, sharp-witted supertitles.

Though some of the spectacle and epic quality inevitably went missing — Donner’s hammer blows and the rainbow bridge reveal have been more magically rendered elsewhere — this smartly conceived Rheingold kept the focus on character behavior and action.

Except for one slightly anachronistic moment where Loge high-fives a power-drunk Alberich, this Rheingold remained refreshingly timeless and placeless, with no preaching to the already converted about greed, family dysfunction, or worker exploitation.

Less here was truly more.