Steampunk elements in Minnesota Opera’s Das Rheingold. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Minnesota Opera’s eye-popping (er…sorry, Wotan) production of Das Rheingold, the first installment of Richard Wagner’s epic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, takes the stage at the Ordway Music Theater in St Paul through November 20. Such a cultural touchstone as this is ripe for inventive production concepts, and Minnesota Opera’s offering is no exception.
As the introduction to Wagner’s epic saga, and notably shorter than the three subsequent installments, Rheingold tells the tale of how the infamous ring came to be, and how the folly of the gods would set in motion their own eventual destruction. Under the stage direction and production concept of Brian Staufenbiel, Minnesota Opera’s production involves a layered mixture of medieval, steampunk, and retrofuturist imagery, with, for the most part, a light enough touch to avoid overwhelming the audience with dense imagery over Wagner’s already dense score. These clashing styles allow a contrast between the primordial (those Rhine maidens and their gold), the industrial (the giants and Nibelung dwarves), and the waning pantheon, who look only slightly like extras in Flash Gordon, headed by a fatally flawed Wotan.
Mary Evelyn Hangley, Alexandra Razskazoff, and Nadia Fayad are ethereal and extraordinary as the Rhine maidens, moving languidly and blending their voices beautifully even as they mock-swim through the artificial mist in the orchestra pit. Nathan Berg makes a star turn, from beginning to end, as a grumpy and grizzled Albrecht, and Greer Grimsley is a commanding Wotan, with a rich bass-baritone and stoic charisma. Katharine Goeldner’s powerful and velvety mezzo-soprano is entirely suited to the goddess Fricka, and Karin Wolverton is utterly stunning as Freia. As if the cast so far is not incredible enough, Jeremy Galyon’s expressive bass makes for a surprisingly sympathetic Fasolt, the giant brother set on collecting the beautiful Freia for his own. As the earth goddess Erda, the luminous Denyce Graves gives an enchanting performance, rounding out an ensemble of singers that is not to be missed by dedicated opera fans.
As with any visually inventive production for such rich and familiar material, there are bound to be some misses—as the giants Fasolt and Fafner, Galyon, and Julian Close are goggled and leather clad, almost directly out of a Terry Gilliam film. The conceit for the giants is that they perform in front of a camera downstage as they appear projected and enlarged next to the gods up above, and while this seems novel at first it becomes somewhat visually confusing as the interaction continues. This is hardly much of a distraction from the dynamic and enthralling experience of the whole evening, though. Wagner’s famous motifs are reflected and enhanced visually in the projections throughout the stage, and this stylish and stylized conception of Rheingold is sure to be a highlight of the season.