OPERA NEWS - Das Rheingold
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In Review > North America

Das Rheingold

HOUSTON
Houston Grand Opera
4/11/14

In Review HGO Rheingold hdl 714
Houston Grand Opera's Das Rheingold, with Paterson and Moore as Wotan and Freia
© Lynn Lane 2014

A fantastic cast of singers and the exceptionally rich orchestral color achieved by artistic and music director Patrick Summers distinguished the Houston Grand Opera performance of Wagner's Rheingold on April 11. The enthralling production, created by La Fura dels Baus for the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia and the Maggio Musicale in Florence and seen here in the U.S. for the first time, made a great opera even better by means of cinematic technique and allegorical-interpretive vision. In terms of the technology used — particularly the use of computer-generated images — this transcendent performance seems far from Wagner's conception, but the Fura dels Baus creative team of Carlus Padrissa (director), Roland Olbeter (set design) and Franc Aleu (video design), all making their HGO debuts, took the details of Wagner's conception to heart in featuring flying gods and swimming Rhinemaidens, and in realistically depicting a subterranean Nibelheim and an unearthly Valhalla.

To create the effect of flying gods, Padrissa placed those characters in cranes that were discreetly but expertly moved about by supernumeraries. The result was hovering gods — Wotan (Iain Paterson), Fricka (Jamie Barton), Froh (Chad Shelton) and Donner (Ryan McKinny) — who moved about deliberately and in a way that enhanced Wagner's statuesque characters and slowly unfolding narrative. The impish, clever Loge (a nimbly comic Stefan Margita) was the exception: he moved about in lighted costume on a sprightly Segway. The floating characters, in turn, set the others into relief: Freia (Melody Moore), also a goddess, but a helpless bargaining chip between Wotan and the giants, was stagebound; the giants Fasolt (Kristinn Sigmundsson) and Fafner (Andrea Silvestrelli), too, walked the stage, but, encased in fifteen-foot-tall, robot-like but sluggish bodies, they stood at eye-level with their floating counterparts; and Alberich, sung by the normal-sized Christopher Purves, appeared dwarf-like in the company of giants, gods and (read on) even the Rhinemaidens.

Each Rhinemaiden (Andrea Carroll as Woglinde, Catherine Martin as Wellgunde, Renée Tatum as Flosshilde) had her own small Plexiglas pool, semi-submerged in the stage, in which to splash, somersault and preen. And to give us a glimpse of the gold beneath the water's surface, and of the maidens themselves, swimming higher and lower in the river's water, the pools were lifted into the air and dangled teasingly over Alberich's head. The most captivating visual element, however, lay in the images that were projected onto a backdrop and occasionally onto a transparent screen in front of the singers, to create three-dimensional effects.

Olbeter and Aleu's spellbinding cinematic techniques recalled opera's earliest traditions, rooted in sheer spectacle. But this was hardly stagecraft for its own sake. Instead, the imagery complemented Wagner's distinctive conception of the Musikdrama, in which his vast instrumental introductions to each scene and the narrating leitmotifs woven into the score had their visual counterparts moving behind and, in three-dimensional design, among the singers onstage. The great dawning orchestral introduction accompanied an ever-widening perspective, from a close-up of minute flickering lights in otherwise total darkness, through rushing bubbles in all directions underwater, and to the play of light against flowing streams of water, ever greater and more forceful until the Rhinemaidens appeared frolicking in their pools when the stage itself was lit. 

The subsequent musical transitions were no less fantastic — the emerging view from the gods' mountaintop of Valhalla, which took shape amid a three-dimensional swirl of numbers, symbols and architectural tools of design; the descent into Nibelheim (a seamless approach to earth from distant space and down a chasm past seemingly infinite churning machinery); and the ascent from a receding Nibelheim to the extraterrestrial, metaphorical mountaintop within sight of Valhalla.

These moving images, more than merely complementing the ongoing music and giving the audience something to behold, shaped our understanding of the story's events and their meaning. Other visual leitmotifs centered on the human form — a golden fetus to represent the Rhinegold in its natural state deep in the Rhine, which morphed into a desiccated mummified face when love was forsworn by one who would possess the gold and marshal its power. Onstage, in its plundered form, the gold appeared as enslaved, writhing supernumeraries in golden body suits. Valhalla, too, was a great human bust composed of smaller, linked human forms. The effect of these images was to amplify Wagner's story of gold, palaces, gods and giants into a larger allegory of human society and its fundamental moral conflicts between love and greed. The idea of allegorizing Wagner (or other) operas is neither new nor necessarily profound; rather, the extraordinary quality of this production lies in how effectively it unleashes the potential and profoundest significances of the Rheingold story. spacer

GREGORY BARNETT

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