Friday, November 11, 2016

Das Rheingold at the MN Opera

Fantasy fans are going to have a field day

By Mathew LeFebvre.

Do you like Lord of the Rings? The Hobbit? Mythical stories of ancient Nordic and Germanic religions? Beowulf? Fantasy in general?

If you do: then friend, do I have the show for you.

Das Rheingold is kicking off at the Minnesota Opera tomorrow night and it will have nerds squeeing in tandem. It has everything - a mystical ring forged from magic gold; sirens of the water; dragons; magical helmets; dwarf slaves; gods and kings; giants; en-fortressed castles; and a lot more.
By Mathew LeFebvre.
Das Rheingold is the first in the four-opera Der Ring des Niebelungen cycle by Richard Wagner, a pinnacle of operatic history and one can only assume a keystone in the education of J.R.R. Tolkien. The series begins with the story of the Rheingold itself and how it becomes the magic ring of power. This is a winding journey, beginning with a sexually rapacious and thieving dwarf named Alberich who steals the magical gold from some water dwelling Rhine maidens who refuse his advances. While said dwarf is thieving, the fortress of the gods has been completed in a Freudian bargain with some giants who agreed to construct it in return for keeping Freia, one of the goddesses. The gods attempt to get out of this bargain and must steal the magic ring made from Alberich's stolen gold as payment for this construction.
By Mathew LeFebvre.
Said gods (Wotan, better known to Minnesotans as Odin; and Loge, better known as Loki) travel deep into the abyss of the earth where Alberich has enslaved his fellow dwarves to mine gold. Loge tricks Alberich out of the gold and the ring, and brings it back to ransom Freia from the giants. But before they leave, Alberich curses the ring so that anyone who possesses it will be killed. Wotan reluctantly hands the ring over to the giants, and Alberich's curse is fulfilled when the fight and one is killed. The gods are freed of their debt to the giants; the ancient earth goddess Erda warns the gods of their imminent demise; and Loge is left to ponder the decline of the order of things.
By Mathew LeFebvre.
This is a complex story and there is obviously way, way more detail and nuance to the above, but this is the quickest synopsis. The story in its entirety is actually really interesting, and you can read the full summary here if you are interested.

As this is the first of a four part series, there are some structural differences to this opera from the usual. For example, Das Rheingold runs straight through in 2.5 hours without an intermission. This can lead to intermittent moments where the show feels long, but it does help it to pass quicker than a normal opera might. Anyone attending should be aware and plan their beverage allocation accordingly.
By Mathew LeFebvre.
There are some kickass voices in this show. Mary Evelyn Hangley is magnificent as Woglinde, the soprano portion of the Rhine maiden trio. Her voice blends perfectly with the others while at the same time soaring above them, and it's lovely. The leading men, particularly Greer Grimsley as Wotan and Nathan Berg as Alberich, are enjoyable but don't quite reach the point of transcendence. Richard Cox is intensely interesting as Loge and his theatricality keeps you engaged throughout the show - he's definitely a focal point. And Denyce Graves has a stellar moment as the goddess Erda, not only for being unexpected, but because it's so damn nice to see a woman of color on an opera stage! She's dynamic and an inspired choice - I only wish she had a larger part. MN Opera, bring her back!
By Mathew LeFebvre.
I usually fall head over heels for the production design of MN Opera shows. This one left me a little underwhelmed (with the exception of some of the costumes, seen throughout this review), mostly because of the heavy reliance on projectors - I would have liked to see a little more tangible construction of the Rheingold universe materialized in the flesh. Also, an odd camera mechanism filming the giants live on stage as they sing is a little confusing - I get the concept, but it ends up being a lot to look at and a little distracting. That being said, how else are you really going to depict a dragon, or an epic journey through caves at the center of the earth, or a magical floating sky palace all in one show? I get it, and space is limited because the full orchestra is 100% visible on stage for this production. Since it's such a broad orchestration and a larger pit than usual, it's really neat to get a inside look at the conductor and how each instrument relates. Super geeky music fans (*ahem*myfamily*ahem*) will adore this.
By Mathew LeFebvre.
This would be a good "gateway" opera for those who aren't sure if they like the medium or who have never seen a show. Unlike most opera which tends to be about moody, passionate and doomed love affairs, Das Rheingold has a solid footing in fairy tales, magic, lore and mystery. It's really more of a quest tale than anything else, and many viewers (particularly those familiar with Tolkein's work) will find it much more engaging than the usual narratives. It's also part of the best of Wagner's repertoire, and the striking arias and gorgeous, tormented orchestrations will feel very familiar to Bugs Bunny or movie soundtrack aficionados.

I encourage you to give Das Rheingold a shot. It opens tonight and runs through November 20. The MN Opera does an AMAZING job of providing supplementary materials and other events for shows; for the full list of opportunities, synopsis, study guide, costume designs, related events and more, check out their site by clicking on this link.