Das Rheingold

Ludovic Morlot
Orchestra of the Seattle Opera
18 August 2023
McCaw Hall Seattle
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanGreer Grimsley
DonnerMichael Chioldi
FrohViktor Antipenko
LogeFrederick Ballentine
FasoltPeixin Chen
FafnerKenneth Kellogg
AlberichMichael Mayes
MimeMartin Bakari
FrickaMelody Wilson
FreiaKatie van Kooten
ErdaDenyce Graves
WoglindeJacqueline Piccolino
WellgundeShelly Traverse
FloßhildeSarah Larsen

Frederick Ballentine’s Loge shines in Das Rheingold to open Seattle Opera’s season

Written as a prologue for the other works in the Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold moves at a quick pace that makes it digestible for a general audience. A spectacular opener for Seattle Opera’s 60th season, Brian Staufenbiel’s production features a stellar cast, an excellent orchestra, and somewhat muddled staging.

Wotan-veteran Greer Grimsley embodies his powerful, stubborn character with total confidence. It’s a delight to watch him stride purposefully from scene to scene, long hair wafting behind him. Melody Wilson’s Fricka similarly captures royal poise, drawing a sympathetic figure from Wagner’s one-dimensional nag. The Rhinemaiden trio of Jacqueline Piccolino, Shelly Traverse, and Sarah Larsen blend their voices beautifully, while Martin Bakari enhances the woebegone Mime with pathos. Michael Mayes plays an impressively physical Alberich. He crawls, splashes and cracks his huge whip all across the stage while maintaining a strong, beautiful sound.

On top of an overall strong cast, Frederick Ballentine’s Loge completely steals the show; it’s worth attending just to see this performance. Ballentine draws attention to Loge’s status as a liminal figure among the gods, while his beautiful voice and nuanced acting choices are captivating, bringing the loquacious trickster to the forefront of the story.

The Seattle Symphony are understandably comfortable under the baton of Ludovic Morlot, their conductor emeritus. They play beautifully and sensitively, although the orchestra is a little quiet overall. For Wagner particularly, the orchestra can be as present as the vocalists, and here they take a backseat rather than the passenger seat. However, balance within the group is excellent and significant leitmotifs are very clear.

This Rheingold’s costuming is a mixed bag. I particularly enjoyed Fricka’s queenly gown and the Rhinemaidens’ flowing skirts entrapped in netting. Ashlee Naegle’s wigs and makeup are stunning — Freia’s flowing curls are unbelievably long, Loge’s headdress and sparkling lipstick are gorgeous, and Fricka wears a regal updo that glows with otherworldly light. These lovely pieces are contrasted by some odd costuming for the men. Wotan’s glowing arm and spear are a little distracting and Alberich sports an odd leather harness akin to bondage gear. Alberich, Mime, and the giants all wear large goggles that blend them together visually and clash with the medieval elements.

This production originated with the Minnesota Opera in 2016 and is set in a far future where nature and technology combine. It places the orchestra onstage, extending the performance space with a catwalk above and into the pit below. Watching the huge Wagner orchestra certainly adds excitement and the transformed pit is well utilized. The opera opens with the Rhinemaidens splashing about in the pit, which is full of mist and glows appealingly. Alberich clambers lustfully around its edges and the whole picture is an engaging and original staging. Another excellent moment is Alberich’s toad transformation, in which he leaps into the pit out of sight, then throws a large toad out of it. His dragon transformation is less delightful, with a dragon resembling a video game villain projected to the back of the stage.

Although I’ve loved the use of projection in Seattle Opera’s other productions, here it distracts throughout the performance. Most egregiously, Fafner and Fasolt stand upstage while a small camera projects them live onto a small rectangle beside the other characters on the catwalk. This constrains the excellent performances of Peixin Chen and Kenneth Kellogg, and the end result resembles an awkward Facetime between Wotan and the giants. A similar issue emerges during Loge’s storytelling, when a small projection high above him displays strange accompanying graphics that draw away from Ballentine’s outstanding performance.

Many of the production’s visuals suffer from mismatched iconography. Staufenbiel is aiming for naturalistic techno-futurism, but his concept’s potential is confused by combining medieval fantasy with an outdated steampunk aesthetic. At the very opening of the opera the long, calm E flat major of the Rhine is bizarrely accompanied by large grinding gears projected on the front screen. Gears as a primary visual component don’t look like technology of the future; they send us backward to the industrial revolution. The same issue applies to the leather and goggles costuming, which clash beside the fairytale gowns of the women. The catwalk onstage is reminiscent of the 1980 Bayreuth Rheingold’s dam set, but its plain metal exterior evokes neither the natural world nor futuristic tech and looks strange placed in front of a projected, Hogwarts-knockoff Valhalla.

Despite some confused visual elements, the cast and orchestra make this production well worth a watch. Although this particular direction’s concept doesn’t enhance the work, the musical performance is excellent and we can hope that this will combine with last season’s stunning Tristan to encourage Seattle Opera to continue to stage Wagner.

Rosie Rogers | 14 August 2023


Seattle Opera’s Das Rheingold triumphs with a strong cast and innovative staging

Not long ago, staging Das Rheingold at the Seattle Opera usually meant that the other three operas in Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle would soon follow. The company was once a Wagnerian destination in the U.S., though not on the same level as the renowned Bayreuth. For decades, when the lights dimmed and the famous chord of E-flat major emerged from the orchestra, slowly at first and then transforming into the flowing Rhine, Seattle audiences and visitors from around the world settled in for a Ring full of leitmotifs.

That was then. Seattle audiences have not seen Das Rheingold in a decade. This story of power, hubris and consequence is a fanciful two-and-a-half hours of gods and giants and castles, and (of course) a subterranean bad guy with an ax to grind. Das Rheingold sets the whole Ring in motion, its story serving as the seed of the original sin growing through Wagner’s ambitious four-part drama. But even staged alone – as it was here – there is much to enjoy in this tale of mythic gods with human failings.

This year’s production was conceived by Brian Staufenbiel and first staged by the Minnesota Opera in 2016. A notable feature is the placement of the orchestra on the stage instead of in the pit, and it is a feature born of necessity: the Minnesota Opera’s pit is too small for the full-size ensemble demanded by Wagner. Staufenbiel’s fix was to place the orchestra at the center of the stage amid the action. I was skeptical at first that such a change could work, but the deeper into the opera we got, the more I was convinced that it was a well-made choice. The orchestra, with its size and near-constant churn of Wagnerian leitmotifs, is as much a character in the opera as Wotan, Loge and Alberich. Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony were expressive, colorful and always supportive of the singers on stage. And the freed-up pit was dragooned as a slightly recessed Rhine and – later – the gold mines of Alberich’s underground realm.

Screens, projections and scaffolding do the bulk of the place-setting. Seattle Opera has long relied on its state-of-the-art projection system, but I cannot recall a production that used the technology as effectively as this one. It is employed to particular effect to make the giants Fafner (Kenneth Kellogg) and Fasolt (Peixin Chen) larger than life via discreetly placed cameras that project their facial expressions high above the stage. Other projections conveyed a flowing Rhine and the majestic castle, Valhalla. Scaffolding running the length of the stage helped set the gods apart from everyone else, until Wotan (Greer Grimsley) and Loge (Frederick Ballentine) venture to the realm of the Nibelungen.

Greer Grimsley, no stranger to Seattle and Wotan, anchors a generally strong cast. To my ears, his 2023 Wotan is more sober and world-weary than when I heard him perform in the Seattle Opera’s 2009 Ring Cycle. Ballentine’s dexterous, lighter tenor is perfect for the opaque Loge. Alberich is given a biting, degenerate performance by Michael Mayes, while Martin Bakari is strong as a sympathetic Mime. Chen and Kellogg sang Fasolt and Fafner with thundering abandon.

Others in the cast added their own confident performances, including Katie Van Kooten as Freia, Melody Wilson as Fricka, Michael Chioldi as Donner, Viktor Antipenko as Froh and the trio of Rhinemaidens sung by Sarah Larsen, Jacqueline Piccolino and Shelly Traverse. Only Denyce Graves, making her Seattle Opera debut and singing the role of Erda, was a disappointment. On opening night, at least, her voice sounded strained in a few parts as she tried to convey her warning to Wotan with seriousness.

Staufenbiel’s Das Rheingold will hopefully be remembered long after its run with the Seattle Opera ends. It is simple without feeling cheap, demonstrating the artistic possibilities of even limited budgets. The company continues to show an uncanny ability to cast Wagner’s operas with established stars and singers on the rise. And with the Seattle Symphony in the pit – or in this case, onstage – there is much to hear. Few orchestras in the United States are as gifted in this music.

General Director Christina Scheppelmann has been careful to remind patrons that a full Ring cycle is not coming soon. But so much went right with this Rheingold that I hope it inspires an effort to bring a new Ring to Seattle before too long.

Zach Carstensen | MaCaw Hall, Seattle, 12.8.2023

The Seattle Times

Seattle Opera mines a novel, futuristic ‘Rheingold’

Richard Wagner once described his trailblazing brand of opera as “deeds of music made visible.” The new production of “Das Rheingold” that opened Seattle Opera’s 60th season Saturday adds a literal twist to that concept by having the orchestra share the stage with the singers.

As the lights dimmed, a single E-flat, sustained by the double basses, emerged out of the silence. The spell was cast not, as usual, from the invisible depths of the orchestra pit, but in plain view, behind a scrim, as conductor Ludovic Morlot raised his baton from a perch at center stage.

A decade ago — the last time audiences saw “Das Rheingold” in McCaw Hall — that moment launched a performance of the entire, four-part “Ring,” with three vaster operas to follow over the course of a single week. But instead of introducing a brand-new cycle, this “Rheingold” (running through Aug. 20) is a production created to stand on its own.

As such, it invites a closer focus on the motivations and predicaments that set the rest of the “Ring” in motion — above all, on the fundamental grab for power that establishes the gold-stealing, ring-forging Alberich as the arch-nemesis of Wotan, king of the gods.

A main draw of this “Rheingold” is the return of Seattle Opera favorite Greer Grimsley, a veteran interpreter of Wotan whose vocal heft and stage presence continue to impress. In his latest foray, he portrayed an overly self-confident ruler whose bravado far outstripped any understanding or empathy. It threw into relief the frustration of his spouse Fricka (sung with both warmth and authority by Melody Wilson) and the despair of the ransomed Freia (Katie Van Kooten, in a vocally compelling performance).

Wagner himself exploited myth to reflect contemporary concerns about alienation from nature. Director Brian Staufenbiel and his design team follow suit by evoking a futuristic cosmos echoing our own fears of a world out of balance. Nature and technology have hyper-evolved and fused into uncanny hybrids in this production (originally produced by Minnesota Opera in 2016), which combines a bare-bones physical set with an ever-changing, subliminal array of front and rear projections by David Murakami as well as real-time motion capture. Mathew LeFebvre’s time-traveling costumes stitch together motifs ranging from machinery-infatuated steampunk to a sci-fi dystopia populated by replicants.

The production responds to the formidable staging challenges that the exposition-heavy, plot-driven “Rheingold” poses with imagination, though the results are not always convincing.

The emptied-out orchestra pit represented the Rhine River in the first of the intermission-less opera’s four scenes. Later, it did duty as a lower level of Nibelheim, where Alberich enslaves his fellow Nibelungs as the first step in his quest for world domination. A narrow, industrial catwalk suspended above the orchestra onstage served as the realm of the gods (though some of their action also transpired downstage on the main level).

This design scheme allowed us to be unusually close-up witnesses to Alberich’s transformation from a merely unpleasant creature into a terrifyingly focused force of malevolent energy. Michael Mayes played up the character’s brutality with deliberately harsh, rough-edged singing. Martin Bakari’s poignant Mime bore the brunt of his whip-cracking sadism. In a highlight of the evening, Mayes built inevitably to the seething, resentment-saturated climax of his parting curse after Wotan forces him to yield the ring (shown as an imposing, bracelet-sized accessory).

Alberich’s snarling rage posed a stark contrast with the winsome lyricism of Jacqueline Piccolo, Shelly Traverse and Sarah Larsen as the Rhine Daughters; their transformation into a lamenting trio left an indelible final image.

Some choices puzzled (why the depiction of Valhalla as a neo-Gothic, cloud-obscured castle in this futuristic world?) or fizzled out as underwhelming special effects (Alberich’s projected metamorphosis into a dragon).

The constraint caused by having the orchestra onstage also posed problems: At times, the ensemble seemed uneasy negotiating the space. Still, the cast overall was of high quality. Frederick Ballentine stood out for his nuanced performance of Loge, which suggested that the trickster fire god feels instinctively drawn to the giants (the booming Peixin Chen and Kenneth Kellogg) as fellow subversives.

Staufenbiel was at his best when it came to illuminating the emotional energies attracting or repulsing these characters. It was fascinating to see the effects on Wotan of briefly possessing the ring until the 11th-hour appearance of Erda, the goddess of primal wisdom — sung with solemn grandeur by Denyce Graves (in her belated company debut).

The Seattle Symphony players who form the core of the opera orchestra have a deep rapport with Wagner’s music: Their performance in last season’s “Tristan and Isolde” was exceptionally fine. But they sounded subdued on opening night. Because of their position behind (and underneath) the singers, Morlot, who is making his debut leading “Das Rheingold” with this production, had a harder task than usual of keeping everyone in sync. He seemed to proceed with extra caution, but I expect his interpretation will gain more character and definition in the performances to come.

Thomas May | Aug. 14, 2023


Why build an elaborate faux-underwater set for the Rhine scenes in Wagner’s “Ring” when you have an orchestra pit that can make a perfectly plausible stage river? It’s an idea so obvious, you think surely, it must have been tried already.

This is the solution found by Brian Staufenbiel, tasked with staging “Das Rheingold” for Minnesota Opera. It performs in St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts and doesn’t have a pit large enough to comfortably accommodate Wagner’s full orchestra. Staufenbiel put the orchestra onstage and placed the action in front of, above on a stage-spanning catwalk, and within it. He then enhanced it all with projections, sometimes abstract and sometimes representational, on the rear wall and front scrim.

Visually Arresting
It sounds like a concert performance, with or without the euphemism “semi-staged.” But, in this production, which Seattle Opera has borrowed to open its 60th season, it’s so much more. This “Rheingold” is visually arresting but flexible and light on its feet. There was no loss of epic grandeur, mythic atmosphere, emotional impact, or musical power. The run opened August 12 and continues for three more performances through August 20.

Seattle Opera continues its legacy as America’s premier Wagner company. They built a global reputation based on their “Ring” productions annually, from 1975 to 1983, and then sporadically. They then settled into a quadrennial schedule, with their most recent “Ring” performed in 2013. In addition, Seattle Opera has staged Wagner’s other six mature operas. The company states on its website that it has no plans for complete “Rings” in the near future. Since its modus operandi, Seattle Opera has inevitably worked towards the full four-opera cycle by staging the operas individually first. They presented excerpts from “Die Walküre” outdoors in the summer of 2021 to celebrate a return from the pandemic hiatus. Both that performance and this season’s “Rheingold” were led by former Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot and it looks like they will be gearing up for a full Morlot-led “Ring” before too long.

Seattle Opera could do worse than to bring back Staufenbiel to stage the other three operas using his approach. The company’s 2013 “Ring” was the fourth go-round after its 2001, 2005 and 2009 productions. Stephen Wadsworth’s very popular and naturalistic staging, inspired by the natural beauty of the arboreal Northwest, became known as the “Green Ring.” Its main forest glen set was made so that one might be able to smell the pine needles. But, this style of stage-filling is immobile and many scenes inevitably had to be staged around it, which cramped the stage front.

Staufenbiel’s staging doesn’t have that problem. From floor to catwalk, front to back and in the pit, it places the action all over the theatrical space. The pit serves not only as the Rhine, but as the subterranean realm of the Nibelungs. The catwalk is the rainbow bridge the gods traverse to Valhalla at the opera’s triumphant conclusion. Stripped down, the set also bows to current economic realities. But, given the choice between spending money on trees and fake rocks, and spending money on musicians, I’ll choose the latter every time.

Much is being made to promote Staufenbiel’s high-concept rationalization for his staging. One may have seen the placards in the lobby and an essay in the program book. “I sought to connect Wagner’s mythical realm with the mysterious complexities of our technological era … Gods are part human, part machine,” said Staufenbiel. Seattle Opera is even touting the term “techno-Ring” as a descriptor in hopes, presumably, of replicating the advertising hook of its previous “Green Ring.” This concept is manifested primarily in images of gears and maze-like computer circuits in its projections, and need not concern you. But, if you like, feel free to ponder the parallels between Wotan’s treachery in building Valhalla and stealing the ring for his own power and our society’s current hubris concerning unregulated technological advancement and climate change.

Fresh-Voice Cast
Most of the action is placed in front of the orchestra to enhance vocal audibility. It is a boon with this production’s fresh-voiced cast. From top to bottom, it has to be the most winningly and attractively sung “Rheingold” in Seattle Opera’s history. In fact, it is overall the best-sung Wagner production I can recall there. It was a thrill to hear that Greer Grimsley would be returning as Wotan. He is a veteran Seattle Opera favorite in Wagner and as several other villains, including Jack Rance in “The Girl of the Golden West” and Mephistopheles in “Faust.” He brings a dark, rich, and authoritative bass-baritone to the role.

Another returning favorite is the almost intimidatingly versatile Frederick Ballentine, who at Seattle Opera preceded his “Rheingold” Loge with “Carmen’s” Don José and Charlie Parker in “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.” Staufenbiel’s vision of “Rheingold” is not only scenically innovative, with Ballentine’s vivid characterization to work with. This production places Loge, the opera’s moral conscience, at its dramatic center and clashes with Wotan as his equal. It is a balanced pair of pro/antagonists.

Others in the cast hinted powerfully at a bright Wagnerian future. Michael Mayes was a fantastic Alberich. Peixin Chen as Fasolt could also make splendid Wotans at some point. Katie Van Kooten as Freia is ready to triumph as Sieglinde. In her Seattle Opera debut, Denyce Graves sings Erda. There were a couple of rough moments when the contrast between her shimmering top and earthy lower ranges were hampered. More beautiful and captivating singing was provided by Melody Wilson as Fricka, Kenneth Kellogg as Fafner, Viktor Antipenko as Froh, Michael Chioldi as Donner, Martin Bakari as Mime, and Jacqueline Piccolino, Shelly Traverse, and Sarah Larsen as the Rhinemaidens.

One more detail to mention is the irony of the title prop as the ring itself and for the entire cycle. The MacGuffin, the driver of the plot, is normally invisible to the audience. Staufenbiel got around this simply by making it not a finger-sized ring, but by something grasped in the fist like brass knuckles and constructing it with light. Imagine that: a ring we can actually see.

Gavin Borchert | Aug. 17, 2023

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
256 kBit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 280 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (delayed broadcast 16 September 2023)
A production by Brian Staufenbiel (2023)