Das Rheingold

Patrick Summers
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra
April 2014
Wortham Theater Center Houston
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanIain Paterson
DonnerRyan McKinny
FrohChad Shelton
LogeStefan Margita
FasoltKristinn Sigmundsson
FafnerAndrea Silvestrelli
AlberichChristopher Purves
MimeRodell Rosel
FrickaJamie Barton
FreiaMelody Moore
ErdaMeredith Arwady
WoglindeAndrea Carroll
WellgundeCatherine Martin
FloßhildeRenée Tatum
Opera News

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 Das Rheingold on April 11 — but the enthralling production, created by La Fura del 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 are discreetly but expertly moved about by supernumeraries. The result is hovering gods — Wotan (Iain Paterson), Fricka (Jamie Barton), Froh (Chad Shelton), and Donner (Ryan McKinny) — who move about deliberately and in a way that enhances Wagner’s statuesque characters and slowly unfolding narrative. The impish, clever Loge (a nimbly comic Stefan Margita) is the exception: he moves 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, is stagebound; the giants Fasolt (Kristinn Sigmundsson) and Fafner (Andrea Silvestrelli), too, walk the stage, but, encased in fifteen-foot-tall robot-like but sluggish bodies, they stand at eye-level with their floating counterparts; and Alberich, sung by the normal-sized Christopher Purves, appears dwarf-like in the company of giants, gods, and (read on) even the Rhinemaidens.

Each Rhinemaiden (Andrea Carroll as Woglinde, Catherine Martin as Wellgunde and 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, to rushing bubbles in all directions under water, and to the play of light against flowing streams of water, ever greater and more forceful until the Rhinemaidens appear frolicking in their pools when the stage itself is lit.

The subsequent musical transitions were no less fantastic: the emerging view from the gods’ mountaintop of Valhalla that takes 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, shape our understanding of the story’s events and their meaning. Other visual leitmotifs center on the human form: a golden fetus to represent the Rhine gold in its natural state deep in the Rhine, which morphs into a desiccated mummified face when love is forsworn by one who would possess it and marshal its power. Onstage, in its plundered form, the gold appears as enslaved, writhing supernumeraries in golden bodysuits. Valhalla, too, is a great human bust composed of smaller, linked human forms. The effect of these images is 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.

GREGORY BARNETT | MAY 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 11


Wildly Inventive Rheingold Opens Ring In Houston

Is it opera? Is it film? Is it circus? Yes. And a miraculous European production of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, recreated for the first time in the United States by Houston Grand Opera, is also fearless in its evocation of the work’s underlying politics and, in its very avoidance of a stereotypically “Wagnerian” sound, faithful to the composer’s conception of Gesamtkunstwerk, or the unification of music and drama.

Das Rheingold, launching HGO’s first Ring Cycle, opened on April 11 in Houston’s Wortham Center and continues on April 17, 23, and 26. The remaining operas of the cycle are scheduled to follow in 2015 (Die Walküre), 2016 (Siegfried) and 2017 (Götterdämmerung), all with the same creative team.

Originally a co-production of Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia and Maggio Musicale in Florence, the staging was created by La Fura dels Baus, a Barcelona company that defies categorization. Beginning as a street theater group, it steadily expanded its reach to opera, film, corporate events, and pubic spectacles, including the opening ceremony of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Director Carlus Padrissa led a multi-disciplinary and outrageously imaginative team.

Before describing the production, it might be useful to recall the historical moment that gave rise to Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. The mid-19th century found German-speaking lands, and indeed much of Europe, in the midst of a power struggle between the old nobility and the rising class of industrial capitalists. Wagner, a leftist in his early years (until the patronage of Bavaria’s King Ludwig II conveniently offered itself), had no sympathy for the greed and explosiveness of either side. Das Rheingold depicts the thinly disguised old and new guards in particularly scathing terms. The gods, led by the sexually prodigious Wotan, are narcissistic, devious and weak, dependent on the goddess Freia’s distribution of golden apples to keep them alive. But Wotan has foolishly offered Freia to the giants Fasolt and Fafner as payment for their construction of the gods’ new fortress, Valhalla.

Down below, the Nibelung dwarf Alberich renounces love in order to obtain the Rhinemaidens’ hoard of gold and forge some of it into a ring conveying limitless power, which he uses to enslave his fellow Nibelungs. He is planning to overthrow the gods. The half-god Loge (direct ancestor of Saul Goodman, the sleazy lawyer in Breaking Bad) has in the past served Alberich by firing his forge, but now he helps Wotan steal the gold from Alberich as a substitute payment to the giants. Even the Rhinemaidens are not exactly innocent: Their needlessly cruel (lookist, heightist and racist, as we would say now) contempt for Alberich’s romantic attentions sets the whole sordid tale in motion.

The Barcelona creative team expressed the political stance of Das Rheingold in striking – sometimes shocking – ways. Most horrifying was the depiction of Alberich’s subterranean realm in Scene 3 as an industrial-age Hell where laborers are both the producers and the product: Video designer Franc Aleu’s projected animation shows eggs containing golden human fetuses moving along an assembly line. Live action in front of the projection shows the result of processing — human figures (not dummies, but live acrobats) are hung from hooks, as at an abattoir, and are removed by assistants to be led away as newly manufactured slaves. The acrobats portray the exploitation of humanity by nobles and industrialists in other ways as well — crawling on the floor to form a heap depicting the gold hoard and, at the very end, suspended spread-eagle on cables to form the 30-foot-high walls of Valhalla — an unforgettable image.

To suggest the gods’ decadence and enervation, they seldom move under their own power. Most of the time each stands on a platform at the end of a jib-arm crane (like a camera crane on a film set) that is raised and lowered and rolled around the stage by black-clad crane operators, among the unsung heroes of this production. The cranes give Fasolt and Fafner, too, the necessary stature, with Transformeresque legs and arms attached. Loge, being only half a god, rides an earthbound Segway.

The coming and goings of the cranes did grow a trifle wearisome after a while, but the device proved particularly useful to the Froh of tenor Chad Shelton: At the curtain call, he walked onstage with the aid of crutches. Set designer Roland Olbeter gave each Rhinemaiden an individual Plexiglas tank of gold-flecked water to splash and dunk in, until Alberich opened the drains, releasing an alarming torrent, and pilfered bags of gold hanging underneath them. Happily, the Rhinemaidens (soprano Andrea Carroll as Woglinde, mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin as Wellgunde, and mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum as Flosshilde) were not required to sing while their heads were under water; above water, their voices gleamed.

HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers conducted with precision, occasionally a shade too deliberately, but on the whole with a fine sense of lyrical flow and attention to the theatrical moment. He had the HGO orchestra carry its 92-musician roster lightly.

One result was some sacrifice of orchestral gorgeousness (which, frankly, can be an opiate in Wagner), but another was a remarkable clarity and absence of audible exertion in the singing, from virtually the entire cast. The singing in Wagner’s operas can (and often does) sound like a vocal weight-lifting contest– a display of raw power and (if one is lucky) glory, preferably with a minimum of grunts and sweat. Here, the voices did not call attention to themselves as star athletes, but served the text and the music in fundamental (if often-neglected) ways – with rhythmic acuity, accuracy of pitch, rock-steady sustained notes, crisply defined German diction and, well, musicality.

Vocal standouts included the nearly flawless (if slightly less than magisterial) Wotan of bass-baritone Iain Paterson; the warm and supple Fricka of mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton; the brash, insinuating Loge of tenor Stefan Margita; the ringing Alberich of baritone Christopher Purves; and the enormous Fasolt of bass Kristinn Sigmundsson.

With a few exceptions (the Fafner of bass Andrea Silvestrelli, the Erda of contralto Meredith Arwady, the Freia of soprano Melody Moore), the voices were light in color and gratifyingly nimble. The vocal style of this production served as a reminder that Wagner’s musical DNA includes a few strands inherited from Bellini.

Mike Greenberg | APRIL 16, 2014


And They’re Off!

Houston Grand Opera’s nearly six-decade history is exceedingly rich, making it all the more surprising that only one opera from Wagner’s Ring cycle-Die Walküre, in 1959-has ever been fully staged. The company’s spectacular, newly-initiated production of the tetralogy, to be spread over four seasons, could be seen as a final accolade for the company, which has been consistent in commissioning new works, giving American premieres, and staging intriguing and well-cast productions representing virtually every nook of the repertoire.

As the flagship opera company of “Space City,” the sci-fi point of view adopted by director Carlus Padrissa is fitting. Multiple dimensions, large high-definition projections and robotic super-costumes for many of the leads result in a dramatic and always-surprising visual component. As with any undertaking of this magnitude, there are a few misfires: Donner’s tiny hammer looks like a Monopoly game piece, and the recurring projection of a solid gold baby seems more from an otherworldly physiology class than a mythical world of gods and giants. Loge’s means of transports–a Segway–already feels dated.

The spectacular aspects far outweigh the less-than-satisfactory, though, and from the Rhinemaiden’s first appearance, we are transported and consistently engaged. On a drastically raked stage, the three nymphs are captive in mobile tanks in which they swim, splash and frolic, giving ample opportunity for dousing Alberich when he nears, striking odd underwater poses and even engaging in stock synchronized swimming maneuvers in synch with the trio’s unison singing. It would be unfair to spoil the ingenious moment when Alberich finally steals the gold and the effect it has on the Rhinemaidens, but it is stunningly effective. Other visual aspects, such as the initial entry of of Fasolt and Fafner, Donner’s creation of the rainbow bridge, and a literally superhuman Valhalla, are inventive, visceral delights.

The superb cast is one of the strongest HGO has ever assembled. Most impressive were Stefan Margita’s flexible and precise Loge, Jamie Barton’s confident, steely Fricka and Christopher Purves’ twisted, sinister Alberich. Purves is a great find in this role, whose singing–accurate yet with a certain evil edge–was a perfect embodiment of the tortured dwarf. Iain Paterson seemed to take a while to warm up to Wotan’s vocal demands, while Andrea Silvestrelli was a slight disappointment, singing with the same large but abrasive sound that marred his turn in Don Carlos. Meredith Arwady’s velvet contralto made one wish Wagner had written a larger part for Erda in his epic.

The HGO orchestra has had several seasons to get ready for the Ring, and the impressive, dark and powerful brass playing and distinctive wind solos that stood out in Tristan und Isolde and Lohengrin, among others, continued. Patrick Summers coordinated the massive forces into a smooth, rhythmically incisive machine, and one anticipates that, with these forces continuing to combine in the forthcoming installments, this Ring will be one for the ages.

Marcus Karl Maroney | Wortham Theater Center April 13 2014

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 48.0 kHz, 352 MByte (MP3)
A production by La Fura dels Baus
Possible dates: 11, 17, 23, 26 April 2014
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.