All Hands On Deck: Orchestra Shares Stage With ‘Rheingold’ Singers

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The gods prepared to enter Valhalla in the Calgary Opera production of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold.’ (Photos by HarderLee Photography)

CALGARY — Calgary Opera has presented The Flying Dutchman twice in its 51 seasons. That’s it for Wagner — until now. And for its further venture into Wagner, the company chose an opera that is hard to manage for a mid-tier organization: Das Rheingold, the first and shortest of the composer’s four-part Ring Cycle.

Wagner called for immense musical forces, including seven harps and 18 anvils of various sizes. The Calgary Philharmonic was bolstered to 77 players (its usual opera core is 56), and they tried to at least double the harp contingent called for in the score they used, to no avail. They did manage to muster four Wagner tubas, though. There were no anvils.

Even with that small expansion, it would have been a tight squeeze in the Jubilee Auditorium pit, but the concept of this production got the orchestra, led by artistic director Jonathan Brandani, out of those cramped quarters under the stage and onto the performance platform, front and center amid the dramatic flow of characters, such as it was.

The Rhinemaidens (Justine Ledoux, Juliana Krajcovic, Yenny Lee) didn’t really look like they were splashing about.

Mathew Lefebvre designed a hodgepodge of costumes. Depending on their status, the men were clad in garments suggestive of their roles in the hierarchy. Wotan (James Rutherford) looked the part of the kingly warrior. The two giants, Fasolt (Guido Jentjens) and Fafner (Kenneth Kellogg), wore suitably rough workers’ uniforms, including protruding tinted goggles and leather-looking helmets. The women wore gowns of various fullness; most had some sort of headdress. Erda’s (Catherine Daniel) was ornately suggestive of her roots in nature.

The visually minimalist production mounted for three performances (April 20, 24, and 26) came from Minnesota Opera’s 2016 staging, and it was led by its original director, Brian Staufenbiel, managing his fifth iteration of the concept.

The staging focused on costuming and high-tech effects, projected onto scrims front and back over elaborate scenery. Since the pit was free, two key scenes had a space that enhanced their presentation, the opening river nymph scene and the subterranean Nibelheim smelting and manufacturing activity. With the help of vivid, sometimes representational, sometimes decorative, probably symbolic projections by David Murakami, the world of the Rhinemaidens (Juliana Krajčovič, Justine Ledoux, Yenny Lee) and Alberich’s cave, complete with virtual stalactites, added a dimension of specificity to the settings. The Rhinemaidens didn’t really look like they were splashing about, and their costuming was frumpy, but we got the idea. And Alberich (Boaz Daniel) had plenty of platform to get within reach of his elusive quarry.

Alberich (Boaz Daniel) steals the gold from the Rhine.

Many of the directorial choices were static. The gods stood and delivered their music from a bridge that ran above and across the stage. The plebes sang their business down below. Only Loge (Rodell Rosel) had free rein to move animatedly, and his fluidity certainly enlivened the production. To suggest that these figures were of a time both past and future, Wotan argued with the giants from the bridge, while they stood below in front of a camera that projected their grainy images on a screen, bridge-high, implying a kind of front-door camera system that kept the blue-collar rabble at arm’s length. The giants barely moved from their marks. Given that the stage was crowded with musicians and the bridge at its capacity, the considerable separation between the gods and their ambitious inferiors was managed logistically, if not interestingly.

Several of the singers distinguished themselves. Rutherford, a seasoned Wotan, made his Calgary Opera debut as the flawed monarch forever negotiating his retirement to Valhalla and embroiled in various domestic and contractual complications. Rutherford exuded authority, physically and vocally, and galvanized the production’s plot strands. His casting anchored the company’s first foray into the Ring story.

James Rutherford, a seasoned Wotan, anchored the company’s first foray into the ‘Ring‘ story.

American tenor Rosel, in his puckish role as Loge, sang and moved about the stage with cocky authority and a dancer’s poise. The spark he lent to this frequently park-and-bark production delighted the audience at the sold-out opening.

There was no weak vocal performance, but standouts were baritone Connor Hoppenbrouwers, a member of the company’s McPhee Artist Development Program, playing Donner, god of thunder, and soprano Anna Pompeeva as Freia. Hoppenbrouwers delivered an excellent, culminating “Heda! Heda, Hedo!,” wielding his oversized mallet with admirable commitment. The CPO brass section punctuated his summoning of the mists, which filled a scrim to dramatic visual effect, with pristine sonority.

The two giants, Fafner (Kenneth Kellogg) and Fasolt (Guido Jentjens), wore suitably rough workers’ uniforms.

Pompeeva, as Wotan’s put-upon sister-in-law, had little to sing, but when she did, her penetrating soprano intensified the moment. Also notable was tenor Gordon Gietz as Mime, Alberich’s abused craftsman brother. Gietz has a long history with the company and once sang in its chorus. The scene in which Alberich dons the tarnhelm, rendering him invisible, and harasses his strategically challenged brother added a bit of levity to the mythic proceedings, although one couldn’t really see that the bullying brother was undetectable.

Placing the orchestra onstage put the players and conductor in an odd position. Singers had to move through the musicians to get to and from the back of the stage, where some action occurred, and seeing the conductor waving his arms about while singers carried the plot forward was somewhat alienating (in the Brechtian sense). Musically, though, the CPO navigated the lightness and sonically expansive features of the score with aplomb. The singers got the support they needed, and the musical element of the drama came through convincingly.