Das Rheingold

Arthur Fagen
Atlanta Opera Orchestra
5 May 2023
Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre Atlanta
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanGreer Grimsley
DonnerJoseph Barron
FrohAdam Diegel
LogeRichard Cox
FasoltKristinn Sigmundsson
FafnerDaniel Sumegi
AlberichZachary Nelson
MimeJulius Ahn
FrickaElizabeth DeShong
FreiaJessica Faselt
ErdaRonnita Miller
WoglindeCadie J. Bryan
WellgundeAlexandra Razskazoff
FloßhildeGretchen Krupp
Stage directorTomer Zvulun (2023)
Set designerErhard Rom
TV directorFelipe Barral

The Atlanta Opera’s visually stunning “Das Rheingold” feels modern yet timeless

In his Autobiographic Sketch of 1842, Richard Wagner wrote that on his way from Paris to Dresden, “Zum ersten Male sah ich den Rhein — mit hellen Thränen im Auge schwur ich armer Künstler meinem deutschen Vaterlande ewige Treue.” (“For the first time I saw the Rhine — with bright tears in my eyes I, poor artist, swore eternal loyalty to my German fatherland.”)

The Rhine is one of the world’s most iconic rivers. Since the Roman era, it has been central to Western Europe’s economic, cultural, and political history, playing an especially significant role in German art, culture, and identity beginning in the Middle Ages. Even in our 21st century, it remains a powerful symbol of German identity, including contemporary issues of environment and climate change.

The Rhine and its river spirits, the Rhinemaidens, are pivotal symbols in Richard Wagner’s monumental opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”). We first encounter the three Rhinemaidens at the beginning of the Ring’s first opera, Das Rhinegold, when the dwarf Alberich steals the Rhine gold, and again in Götterdämmerung, where they reclaim the gold ring at the end. Their flawed guardianship of the Rhine gold and the condition of “renunciation of love” through which it could be stolen and transformed into a means of acquiring world-dominating power are the vital elements that propel the entire Ring cycle’s drama.

But just as Wagner put his personal spin on old Norse and Germanic legends, The Atlanta Opera’s production of Das Rheingold puts a modern trajectory on the opera’s story. In the extended opening Prelude, as the droning music begins to build, we see the Earth, as seen from space, projected on the proscenium screen, then what appears to be a small asteroid comes into the frame, silently hurtling toward the planet. Is the implication that the magic “gold” in the Rhine is extraterrestrial in origin?

Well, why not? It would certainly not be the first time director Tomer Zvulun has presented an opera in a “timeless” setting, making it difficult to pinpoint the story’s era and lending weight to both the universality of its message while emphasizing its relevance to our present time — as was the case with The Atlanta Opera’s January 2020 production of Richard Strauss’ Salome, which involved the same principal creative trio of Zvulun, conductor Arthur Fagen, and scenic and projections designer Erhard Rom.

As with Salome, Rom’s structurally minimalist sets for Das Rheingold left ample space for Zvulun’s stage direction and plenty of room for the extensive use of projections on the proscenium screen, backdrop, intermediary scrim, or other hanging materials, notably including not only that video during the orchestral Prelude but also the cinematic imagery during the three subsequent orchestral interludes between the four scenes. Even though 160 minutes long, Das Rheingold is all in one act, performed without intermission. These vivid visuals strengthen the transitions between scenes.

Costume designer Mattie Ullrich decks the elite gods in gleaming garb reminiscent of the Marvel Comics universe while depicting the Nibelungen dwarves as 19th-century foundry-working proletariats. The attire of the giants is a bit bulkier and far less shiny than that of the gods; they are commercial building contractors who arrive on the scene in construction crane vehicles.

Excellent singing by the balanced cast of 14 was well-supported by conductor Fagen and the Atlanta Opera Orchestra, which had moments that felt genuinely Wagnerian, despite having to find substitutes for eight players who tested positive for COVID early in the rehearsals. Thankfully, the rest of the orchestra tested negative, and the company was able to draw upon Atlanta’s deep talent pool of freelance musicians for the necessary replacements.

The orchestral Prelude evolved into sounds evoking the swirling waters of the Rhine, and the first voices heard are the Rhinemaidens Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde (Cadie J. Bryan, Alexandra Razskazoff, and Gretchen Krupp) at play. They formed an inviting vocal trio in setting the first scene’s stage.

Zachery Nelson played the crude, power-hungry dwarf Alberich, effectively portraying the antagonist character’s emotional complexity, hubris, and foolishness. Julius Ahn offered a bit of counterbalance as Alberich’s timid and fearful brother, Mime.

Greer Grimsley clearly demonstrated why he is “the definitive Wotan of our era,” shining forth as the vocal luminary of the evening with his powerful, resonant voice and commanding presence.

Richard Cox portrayed the trickster Loge, the demi-god of fire and Wotan’s clever if not-so-trustworthy advisor, in a lively, compelling manner that makes him the most intriguing character on the stage.

Elizabeth DeShong, in the role of Wotan’s wife Fricka, made for a fine pairing with Grimsley. Jessica Faselt was superb as her sister and sustainer of the gods’ youth, Fricka.

Daniel Sumegi and Kristinn Sigmundsson offered sturdy portrayals of the giants Fafner and Fasolt. Adam Diegel as Frohe the god of frost and Joseph Barron as thunder-god Donner were credible in their supporting roles. Ronnita Miller briefly appeared as Erda, the personification of the Earth, delivering her fateful prophecy with warmth and resonance.

With this successful production of Das Rheingold, The Atlanta Opera’s exploration of Wagner’s epic four-opera cycle has only begun. While Zvulun will not yet affirm whether the company will produce a complete Ring, it is moving in that general direction next April with the second installment Die Walküre. Speculation in the air is that they will likely decide in early 2024 whether to move forward with a Sigfried in 2025. If they do, the most logical assumption is they might as well finish the job with Götterdämmerung the following year.

But as for a complete Der Ring des Nibelungen in one festival? That is an entirely different, complex, and expensive challenge of megalithic proportions. We’ll first have to wait and see whether The Atlanta Opera will finish the task of tackling them all, one at a time.

Mark Gresham | 4 MAY 2023


This past Saturday evening, the Atlanta Opera company bid farewell to its 2022-2023 season this past with a performance of historic significance. For the first time in its history, before a sold out audience, the company unveiled Wagner’s Das Rheingold in a production designed to showcase the opera within its context as the first installment of Wagner’s monumental tetralogy. Das Rheingold serves as foundation to the bulk of the Ring Cycle, and if the opening night’s performance set the standard for the remaining three operas that complete the cycle, the Atlanta Opera is bound to set itself ahead of its southeast regional sister companies in a big way.

A collaboration with the Dallas Opera, this production of the Wagner’s Ring Cycle was originally slated to premiere at the Atlanta Opera during the its 2020-21 season. Up until this point, company’s relationship with Wagner in general had been tepid and often frustrating to long time patrons. Its sole Wagnerian offering, Der Fliegende Hollander, debuted on the company’s 23rd season and was reprised sixteen years later. For nearly 40 years, Atlanta would venture no further into the polarizing composer’s repertoire, and local Wagnerians, kept afloat by the occasional all-Wagner program offered by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (concert performances of Act III of Die Walkure featuring James Morris, Christine Brewer and Andrea Gruber are fondly remembered,) felt obliged to seek satisfaction in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington (#pout) and of course, New York. To those excited beyond measure at the Atlanta Opera’s announcement of its Das Rheingold premiere in January of 2020, the subsequent shelving of the entire season by nationwide lockdown restrictions seemed like a curse. The frenetic social and political rollercoaster bridging the temporary halt and last weekend’s premiere, however, have setup a uniquely relevant atmosphere for the themes explored in Wagner’s opus to resonate to modern audiences. The corruption of innocence and the weaponization of nature by renouncing love – and along the way – decency, reason and fairness – are all immediately relevant to the hashtags (#leitmotifs) that inundate our everyday. Das Rheingold may feature gods and giants, but when considering their present and future actions, it certainly offers no heroes.

Guiding the Atlanta Opera company through its first forays into Valhalla, stage director Tomer Zvulun, alongside a production team familiar with the company and its audience, have thankfully allowed the proceedings to unfold in a straightforward way: The absurdity of modern life is all the updating that is essentially required. The work of scenic and projection designer Erhard Rom served the production admirably when depicting naturalistic elements such as waves of the Rhine River or the rolling clouds that announce the arrival to Valhalla. The synergy between his projections and the work of lighting designer Robert Wierzel occasionally resulted in awe-inspiring imagery, such as the settling of the clouds as Fricka awakens Wotan. The costumes by Mattie Ullrich beautifully contrast the Elysian profile of the gods against the utilitarian garb sported in the Nibelheim and the organic, algae-inspired frocks worn by the Rheinmaidens. Some of Das Rheingold’s prohibitive stage trickery was resolved with varying success through the filmed media innovations of Felipe Barral and Amanda Sachtleben, which proved most impressive when depicting Donner’s hammer strike towards the end of the opera.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) and Fricka (Elizabeth DeShong) prepare to take the rainbow bridge to Valhalla. Photo credit: Ken Howard. Tasked with the tremendous responsibility of bringing to life the nearly three-hour score without a break, maestro Arthur Fagen offered a solid, conservatively paced reading of the Gotthold Ephraim Lessing orchestra reduction of Wagner’s score on opening night. His orchestral phrasing was sumptuous (yet never pompous) and bold, allowing the brass section to assert itself in all its splendor, from the well realized vorspiel, a nerve-wracking fantasy in E-flat major for the horn section that expands 136 bars depicting creation, nature and the waves of the Rhine, to the exuberant sonic statements of the Valhalla and Sword motifs. Other highlights, such as the famous anvil sequence associated with the Nibelheim, proved less pristine. Maestro Fagen’s broad tempi also afforded his leading soloists the musical space to acclimate their resources as the long evening progressed.

For these performances, the Atlanta Opera should be credited with securing the services of Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, who makes his Atlanta Opera debut with these performances. For over twenty years, he has cemented his reputation as one of the finest exponents of the role Wotan in the world today. The stentorian instrument is distinguished by a gritty timbre which the savvy artist uses to navigate the complexities of his august assignment. In sonic terms, he can unleash a torrent of sound which can both caress and roar past the orchestral wall of sound with little sign of effort. Though his tone has lost some youthful luster since we last heard him in the flesh (that was in 2014, when he unleashed an overwhelming Macbeth in Minnesota,) his declamation is steady and responsive in every register. In both vocal and physical statement, he embodied the god Wotan at the height of his physical powers – yet easily seduced by the restless political currents he himself is willingly aggravating (his hyperfocus on the ring during Alberich’s curse), and extra marital pursuits (his interest in Erda going beyond her mystical wisdom). Emotionally, his Wotan is at once proud, troubled, exuberant and sometimes cruel. We look forward to the development of his interpretation next season when the Atlanta Opera company offers the next installment of the Ring Cycle, Die Walkure. Mr. Grimsley’s participation has already been announced.

In the part of Wotan’s antithesis, the Alberich of baritone Zachary Nelson shared the evening’s superlatives alongside Mr. Grimsley. A young artist celebrating a decade in his professional career, Mr. Nelson, his first forays into the Ring (at Lyric Opera of Chicago, no less) were stalled by the pandemic. Perhaps eager to make up for lost time, he vividly immersed himself into an intense reading of the frustrated and power-hungry Nibelung elf. His baritone has all the hallmark of youthful exuberance: Bronze hued timbre, tremendous sonority and easy access to the upper tessitura. He established a frenetic presence across the footlights with reckless abandon, and one hopes he will husband his resources as the career develops: His is one that holds many promises.

In Das Rheingold, the tenor ilk was principally represented by tenor Richard Cox, who produced a serviceable interpretation of the misfit god Loge. An important player in Wagner’s Ring, Loge’s sole chance at the spotlight takes place in Das Rheingold (Loge makes a brief appearance in Die Walkure, but does not sing). Mr. Cox revealed a well-placed instrument graced by a naturally soft edge, which was rendered poetic when revealing the deeper introspective facets of the character. When negotiating the perky and fast turning phrases that reveal the character’s clever disposition, his instrument lacked the type of exuberant, bombastic quality that commands the attention through its sheer presence alone. That incisive element was more readily found in the singing of tenor Julius Ahn, who stole every scene in the Nibelheim through the short but important (as we will see two years from now) role of Mime.

Alberich (Zachary Nelson) and Wellgunde (Alexandra Razskazoff). Photo credit: Ken Howard. Rounding off the leading men, baritone Joseph Barron and tenor Adam Diegel brought great swagger to their masculine impersonations of the gods Donner and Froh respectively, and were offset by the juxtaposing sentimental and ruthless disposition of the giants, brought to life in these performances by bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Fasolt and bass Daniel Sumegi as Fafner. In Das Rheingold, the score favors Fasolt, and Mr. Sigmundsson projected an empathetic character desperate to add some joy and happiness to an otherwise miserable life at every turn. Mr. Sumegi as Fafner was wonderfully selfish and calculating. He will have an opportunity to expand on Fafner’s development in Siegfried, if its in the cards.

Leading the women of Das Rheingold, Elizabeth DeShong offered a well sung performance of the goddess Fricka as her introduction to the Atlanta Opera audience. A frequent artist featured at the great opera companies worldwide, Ms. DeShong offered a stately mezzo-soprano distinguished for its firmness of tone and hall filling dimensions. The middle voice in particular shone beautifully through the auditorium of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. The ascent to the upper notes betrayed a slight hardness, which dissipated into the cacophony of the orchestra. Dramatically, her relationship with husband was understandably tentative, and though at times she put the audience on notice of her powers in reserve, she seldom chose to dominate the proceedings, either vocally or histrionically, delegating those duties to soprano Jessica Faselt, whose Freia was distinguished by clarion delivery, ad a gleaming, brilliant top register. An ideal contrast to Ms. DeShong. A solid trio comprised the aquatic delegation of Rheinmaidens led by the bright voiced Woglinde of soprano Cadie J. Bryan, the firm voiced Woglinde of soprano Alexandra Razskazoff, and that extraordinary member of the Atlanta Opera Glynn Studio Artists, dramatic mezzo-soprano Gretchen Krupp.

As Erda, mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller uneasy and somewhat strained delivery of the crucial role of Erda raised a few reservations in an otherwise excellent cast. The voice is wonderfully imposing and fills the hall appropriately, but it managed said task through a hooty production which compromised pitch and steady emission. She was aided by maestro Fagen, who expedited her efforts against the grain of his otherwise expansive beat. Erda is a short part yet very exposed, and we hope Ms. Miller rises to the occasion in subsequent performances.

Daniel Vasquez | 2 May 2023

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