Das Rheingold

Emmanuel Villaume
Dallas Opera Orchestra
18 February 2023
Winspear Opera House Dallas
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanNicholas Brownlee
DonnerJoseph Barron
FrohRobert Stahley
LogeBrenton Ryan
FasoltPeixin Chen
FafnerSoloman Howard
AlberichMichael Mayes
MimeBarry Banks
FrickaAmanda Echalaz
FreiaKaren Slack
ErdaLindsay Ammann
WoglindeDiana Newman
WellgundeLindsay Kate Brown
FloßhildeHannah Ludwig
Stage directorTomer Zvulun (2023)
Set designerErhard Rom
TV director
The Dallas Morning News

The Dallas Opera’s impressive new ‘Das Rheingold’ has theft, fraud, fratricide — and magic

It’s got all the elements of a movie thriller: greed, theft, fraud, murder and incest, as well as true love. In the end, after four episodes totaling 16 hours of music drama, with numerous touches of magic, there’s also redemptive sacrifice and cleansing.

One of the great epics of Western civilization, inspired by Norse legends, Richard Wagner’s operatic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung portrays gods and mortals, giants and dwarves, torn between love and lust for power. They inhabit the Rhine River, a subterranean hellhole and a mountaintop palace. In music by turns sensuous, insinuating, sinister and scorching, the orchestra gets in on the storytelling, with repeated melodic motifs evoking individual characters and concepts.

With daunting demands theatrically, vocally and orchestrally, the Ring may be the biggest test of an opera company. The Dallas Opera has presented the Ring operas separately, in a drab 1980s production reprised between 1999 and 2002, but never as a weeklong cycle. On Friday night, at the Winspear Opera House, it performed the first of the four operas, Das Rheingold, in a brand new production impressive both vocally and orchestrally. Visually, it was often but not consistently arresting.

Conceived for Atlanta Opera by stage director Tomer Zvulun and set and projection designer Erhard Rom, the production was planned for an Atlanta opening and subsequent Dallas rental. But due to COVID-19 delays, it fell to the Dallas Opera to construct and present the first performances.

Atlanta has programmed the next Ring opera, Die Walküre, for the 2023-24 season, but has no plans yet for the remaining Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Dallas has made no commitment beyond Das Rheingold.

As often in Ring productions these days, this Rheingold has a sci-fi look, with much use of high-def video projections, and deft lighting by Robert Wierzel. The gods’ new mountaintop home Valhalla is a pair of under-construction glass skyscrapers. Costumer Mattie Ullrich drapes the gods in muted pastels, with glittery accents and various horned helmets. God-in-chief Wotan is accessorized with a gold breastplate.

There’s no attempt to make the conniving Alberich dwarf-like; he looks like a very scruffy laborer. Nor, beyond heavily quilted suits and padded boots, are there any gimmicks to make Fasolt and Fafner look gigantic.

Such are Wagner’s vocal demands that one expects some compromise in the cast. Here, miraculously, they’re minimal, although Michael Mayes needs more lower range heft, and ideally a little more snarl, for Alberich. Erda, the earth goddess, wants more vocal depth than Lindsay Ammann — admirably as she sings — supplies.

Nicholas Brownlee produces more decibels — thrilling ones — than any Wotan I’ve heard, with an admirable balance of beef and brass, as well as subtlety when called for. Brenton Ryan is the agile Loge, his tenor searing just enough for the troublemaking demigod of fire.

Sometimes portrayed as a bit of a nag, Wotan’s wife Fricka here has caring dignity and a brightly substantive soprano in Amanda Echalaz. The rest of the godly family is admirably voiced: Karen Slack as Freia, Robert Stahley as Froh and Joseph Barron as Donner.

Barry Banks is aptly acidic as Alberich’s terrorized brother Mime. Diana Newman, Lindsay Kate Brown and Hannah Ludwig are a fine trio of Rhinemaidens, although at the opera’s end their voices are far too present from the orchestra pit.

Two production quibbles: A huge projection of an eye and a dimly suggested body were totally inadequate for Alberich’s transformation into a giant snake, and Erda should rise from below, not be seen, even in shadows, walking on and off stage.

That the Dallas Opera Orchestra is a part-time outfit, here necessarily enlarged with numerous extra players, made Friday night’s accomplished performance all the more impressive. I feared that the extended pit, giving the orchestra more presence in the room, might pose serious balance problems, but music director Emmanuel Villaume commanded a dynamic range from merest murmurs to thrilling blazes of brasses. And he made sure the music always had design and purpose. The anvils needn’t have been so loud, though.

This is one of the most impressive Dallas Opera performances I’ve seen over the last quarter century. If you plan to attend a subsequent performance — you certainly should — know that the opera is 2-1/2 hours long, with no intermission. You know what I’m saying.

Scott Cantrell | Feb 11, 2023


Dallas Opera serves up an electrifying “Rheingold”

At the time Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle was conceived, he was swept up in the revolutions of 1848 and was writing anti-clerical and proto-socialist articles. While in exile, following the quelled revolution, he wrote: “As the art of the Greeks encapsulated the spirit of a great nation, so too should the art of the future express the spirit of a liberated humanity which goes beyond the limits of nationality.”

The original conception placed the hero Siegfried as the central role through the cycle. He was to destroy a society corrupted by gold and power, proclaiming a new social order that would be based on love. However, Wagner came to view this idea as hopelessly utopian, replacing Siegfried with the god Wotan, who represents the old order of the world, striving in obduracy toward its own destruction. Lovelessness, the lust for power, and the central character’s powerlessness to prevent the ruin of the world transformed an optimistic heroic drama into a complex elegy of pessimism.

The Dallas Opera debuted a new production of Das Rheingold, the first of four works comprising Wagner’s colossal epic, Friday night performance at the Winspear Opera House. With sets from Atlanta Opera and some help from Dallas Stage Scenery, the staging blends the flamboyant dreamscapes of fantasy and lore with the industrial coldness of familiar, modern-day imagery. Director Tomer Zvulun presents the ancient myth in a way that celebrates the composer’s artistic intentions, posing the universality and timelessness of legend as a vehicle for analyzing critically the dire truths of the present time.

Friday night’s performance delivered some of the most electrifying singing and music-making from the Dallas Opera in many years. With the pit opened to its fullest “Wagner” position, music director Emmanuel Villaume led the 96-piece orchestra in superb form. Together, they navigated the dense landscape of Wagner’s score with lush sonorities and motivic clarity. The musical vision of the opera’s three main settings—the gleaming Rhine, the heavenly halls of Valhalla, and the craggy mechanizations of Nibelheim—were shrewdly interpreted and translated with notable immediacy.

Nicholas Brownlee was the vocal standout of the evening as Wotan. Showing absolute command and artistry, the bass-baritone sang with a resonant power that would effortlessly swell to fill every crevice of the hall then contract to a hushed and focused piano. His color was consistently rich and his phrasing elastic, with a depth that made the ruler of the gods seem affectionately vulnerable, and thus, chillingly relatable. His rendering of Wotan’s final aria “In the evening does the sun’s eye beam” was notably compelling and sublime.

Portraying his foil—the power-hungry, lecherous dwarf and dictatorial lord of the Nibelungs, Alberich—baritone Michael Mayes was equally expressive if lighter in heft. At times, Mayes’ baritone was covered under a fitfully dense accompaniment from the pit. Still, his thorough commitment to character yielded a portrayal that was difficult to take one’s eyes off of. His dramatic skills were manifest in the drawf’s many sides—bombastic, belligerent, and comical.

Loge, the scorned demi-god of fire and Wotan’s manipulative advisor, was portrayed ably by tenor Brenton Ryan. His interpretation of this villain had a populist slant, echoing that of Marvel’s Loki, as portrayed by Tom Hiddleston. His slippery, silver-tipped tone was matched by the mischievous and playful nature of his phrasing, commanding a glint that notably clashed—perhaps intentionally, with the warmth and body of the rest of the heavenly hosts. Ryan did well to set himself apart, visually and aurally, from his compatriots, alerting the audience immediately to the character’s connivance and cunning.

Mezzo-soprano Amanda Echalaz, in the role of Wotan’s wife Fricka, wielded a power and amplitude that stood up ably to that of her mate’s. She was tender and warm, with a spin that carried her easily into the upper registers on grand fortes. Soprano Karen Slack gave Freia, the goddess of love and damsel in distress apt emotional drama in her panic and dismay.

Basses Solomon Howard and Peixin Chen gave stout portrayals of the giants Fafner and Fasolt, respectively. Their presence on stage, though, was a bit stiff, likely due to the bulkiness of their costumes and giant-esque mannerisms. Mime, Alberich’s cowardly set-upon brother, brought a bit of levity through tenor Barry Banks’ portrayal. He was charmingly buoyant and light, denoting the role’s ever-constant timidity and fearfulness.

enor Robert Stahley as Frohe, and baritone Joseph Barron as the god of thunder Donner, lent sturdy support. Contralto Lindsay Ammann’s cameo as Erda, the foretelling primal earth mother, was affectionate and warm. Singing upstage through a vail of stingy curtain, she nimbly carried with her the requisite weight that suggested the fullness of Gaia.

Soprano Diana Newman, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Kate Brown, and soprano Hannah Ludwig made an excellent trio as the Rhinemaidens Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde, respectively. As the first voices heard, they properly set the stage for thrilling acts of vocal mastery, and their blend yielded an effect that was haunting and foreboding.

Mattie Ullrich’s costumes worked beautifully against Erhard Rom’s set design. The effect was a bit matter-of-fact, augmented by projections that leaned more towards modernity. Save for some technical issues, it coalesced into a setting that was, indeed, timeless, while still maintaining a sense of immediacy. The fight choreography could have been executed with a bit more gusto.

Richard Sylvester Oliver | Feb 12, 2023


Superb singing and spectacular visual elements, firmly supported by conductor Emmanuel Villaume and the Dallas Opera Orchestra, resulted in an uproarious ovation at the close of The Dallas Opera’s production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold Friday night at Winspear Opera House.

The 150-minute long work, always presented without intermission, asks a level of audience devotion bordering on worship, and demands a level of excellence on stage and in the pit to merit that devotion. Norse mythology and the Norse pantheon form the basis of the narrative, played out by gods and demi-gods including Wotan, Fricka, Loge, and Erda in a world where Valhalla is new, and lust competes with idealistic heroism and devotion.

Late nineteenth-century European culture embraced Wagner’s grand musical and dramatic ambitions; his harmonic and structural innovations dominated classical music for decades and changed the course of music well into the 20th century. But it was the rise and refinement of cinematic and digital technology in the later 20th century and early 21st century that now make possible the realization of Wagner’s fabulous visions of rainbows, palaces, and magical transformations on a previously unimaginable scale.

And such is the case with this newly created production by Atlanta Opera’s Israeli-born general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun, who will take the production to Atlanta in April. Director Zvulun deliberately mingles mutually anachronistic elements throughout: the gods are decked out in heavy gold robes and armor designed by Mattie Ullrich, leaning toward a Marvel comic vibe (but without the fleshed-out musculature), while enslaved Nibelungen are portrayed as impoverished workers from the Industrial Revolution.

The physical sets, designed by Erhard Rom, are minimal platforms (at one point even a little rickety), but the projected images, also by Rom, present breathtaking and evocative visions, and serve as an essential element toward maintaining interest throughout the lengthy time-span of Das Rheingold. The audience initially approaches planet Earth from afar; eventually, Valhalla towers as a sleek modern office complex viewed from below. The Rhine shimmers, and Donner’s thunderstorm lifts us into a whirling cyclone of clouds from which the rainbow emerges; we approach Alberich’s mines through a dizzying descent via industrial elevators and iron bridges.

Wagner was never kind to singers (except in giving them amazing chances to shine), demanding roaring volume to outmatch his expanded orchestra, but with consistent beauty of tone. This cast of fourteen uniformly fulfills those demands. The most spectacular moments belong to Wotan: bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee beautifully builds, phrase by phrase, to his final triumphant declaration, delivered center-front to announce the gods’ entry into Valhalla. Lindsay Ammann intones chillingly in the brief but pivotal contralto role of Erda (literally, “Earth”), delivering fate and prophecy with a voice resonant with those qualities. Baritone Michael Mayes creates the bumbling complexity of the dwarf Alberich as he rises to power and then falters on his own foolishness; and soprano Amanda Echalaz applies a gorgeously rich timbre and queenly presence to the role of the goddess Fricka.

But the meatiest role, with the most opportunity for character portrayal and development, belongs to tenor Brenton Ryan as Loge, who delivers with vibrant energy and constant motion. As the trickster demi-god of fire, he saves the day for Wotan with his cleverness—but in the end, turns to warn the audience of ultimate doom as the gods progress into their hyper-modern Valhalla. Hitler was a well-known fan of Wagner, but he definitely failed to absorb the poet-composer’s warnings of the catastrophe inherent in supposed invincibility. In Zvulun’s vision, Loge turns to the audience, ensconced in the glamor of gleaming modern high-tech America, and delivers the same thought-provoking warning.

Wayne Lee Gay | Feb 11, 2023

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