This weekend, the Opéra de Montréal opened a milestone first with Wagner’s Das Rheingold, an impressive production featuring over 115 performers and technologically sophisticated set design.
Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) is the first in Wagner’s monumental tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung – that’s a kind of dwarf). The over-arching plot of the work concerns a ring crafted from stolen gold which confers unlimited power upon the bearer, and therefore is coveted by all, even though possession curses the owner with misery and anxiety. As the creator of the Ring states, “Possession will be living death and it will bind its possessor even in death: the Lord of the Ring will become its slave.” Pursuit of the Ring eventually leads the entire pantheon of Norse mythology to its downfall. (If this sounds suspiciously like a major fantasy motion picture franchise you’ve seen in recent years, the author of the original books always vigorously denied any Wagnerian influence. So that settles that. Maybe.)
Though the opera has some pretty steep casting demands, this production can boast a cast of voices which was pretty uniformly strong. In addition, the balance between the voices and the orchestra was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had at Opéra de Montréal productions. I often feel that my ear needs a little time to adjust sounds levels in Place des Arts but that was rarely necessary here.
A neat innovation was the decision to put the orchestra centred on stage and make use of the orchestra pit for staging purposes. This worked to excellent effect, for example, to create the illusion of a river. In the first scene, the Rhine maidens are happily frolicking in the “water”, diving in and out of the adapted pit, when Alberich the Nibelung arrives and rather comically tries to woo them.
A charming and fun trio, graceful and well-choreographed, these maidens (Florence Bourget, Andrea Núñez, Carolyn Sproule) take turns amusing themselves at Alberich’s expense, Nathan Berg as Alberich playing up the comic aspects of the scene very engagingly. He is at last on the point of leaving in disgust when he overhears them talking about their magic gold – he who would craft a ring out of it would become master of all, were he willing to renounce love forever. Alberich, smarting from his recent humiliation, is only too happy to do so and absconds with the gold, to the maidens’ despair.
The next scene pits the gods of Asgard against the giants Fafner and Fasolt, who have built them a spectacular new castle, the future Valhalla, in exchange for Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty. Basses Soloman Howard and Julian Close appeared on stage but also magnified on a scrim to appear as giants. Rather oddly, the frame they were being shot through was quite small, so that they were constantly in the position of crowding each other out of the way when speaking. Was this intentional? They at any rate went all in for comic effect and managed it quite well, though it took some time for the eye to adjust to where it should be looking – at the scrim or the singers.
Now that the castle is complete, Wotan is reluctant to give Freia up, though he ultimately has no choice – the giants eventually accept Alberich’s treasure as an alternative reward, but take Freia as hostage in the meantime. Wotan (Odin) sets off with Loge (Loki) to obtain it.
Meanwhile, Alberich has been tormenting his fellow Nibelungs with the Ring and forcing them to amass never-ending treasure for him, while his brother Mime has had to make him a magic helmet which allows him to change his shape into whatever he wishes. Here there was some great stage presence and good sound from David Cangelosi as the beleaguered Mime.
Loge succeeds in tricking the dwarf out of his helmet and Wotan seizes the Ring. The dwarf, furious, curses the Ring as they leave.
When finally the giants return to exchange Freia for the treasure, they demand every last bit of it. The helmet must go, but Wotan balks at giving up the Ring, until Erda the Earth Goddess appears and mysteriously predicts doom for the gods if he does not relinquish it. He throws it on the pile and Freia is free. Fafner and Fasolt immediately begin to squabble over shares, and Fafner murders his brother to keep everything for himself. The Ring has claimed its first victim, but the gods think nothing of it, as Fafner leaves them in peace and they triumphantly enter Valhalla for the first time.
All through this, liberal use was made of an upstage screen and a downstage scrim to project various effects which would have been extremely difficult to do convincingly with traditional sets and props. These are of course highly useful tools and there is no reason why opera houses should not make more use of them, especially in works like this, where flights of fancy reign. And yet, I left with the peculiarly paradoxical feeling that the screens had been both under- and over-used. It seems to me like there more could have been done for the presence of the giants, and for Alberich’s magical transformations using the helmet, or for depicting Alberich’s nightmare underground realm. But the somewhat abstract projections which did sometimes happen were more distracting than anything else. I still hope that it’s an avenue the Opéra de Montréal will continue to explore in future productions.
It isn’t possible or appropriate to talk about a production of any part of the Ring without a word about Wagner’s political opinions. Wagner was an unapologetic German nationalist and anti-semite, and while fans of his music and librettos may understandably want to divorce his personal beliefs from his composition, it is especially hard to ignore when faced with The Ring. That the Norse gods represent the Teutonic race in all its glory, about to be taken down by outsiders and foreigners, that is, the giants and the suspiciously Jewish-caricature Alberich, is uncomfortably obvious. So how to make sense of such a work today, especially when extremist nationalism is again becoming a hot-button topic?
Having seen the work last night, I wonder if a dystopian approach would work here. To be honest, the Norse gods as portrayed in this opera are not likeable people – they plan to either trade a woman (Wotan’s sister-in-law no less) as a sex slave to two giants, or to cheat said giants out of their salary. When the Asgardians finally give Freia up, the motivation to regain her seems to be primarily to stem the inevitable process of aging which tends to take place when you lose your local goddess of youth and beauty. Even then, Wotan hopes to keep the Ring for himself. This despite the fact that Loge (of all people) protests that he has promised they would return it to the rightful owners, the Rhine maidens, who are left still lamenting its loss at the conclusion of the opera. So having the gods appear as clearly already self-destructing through their behaviour would, I think, be more effective and timely.
I believe this production was meant to take a more environmentalist approach, framing those who covet the Ring as interested in power to the detriment of the natural resources they must harvest and destroy for it. This is an intriguing read, but I didn’t find that this production pushed it far enough, assuming that it could be carried off.
Particular vocal standouts for me were Aidan Ferguson as Fricka and Caroline Bleau as her sister Freia. Most especially Soloman Howard’s rich bass was a special delight – what a voice! If only we could have heard more of him.
The production runs through November 17th, 2018 at Place des Arts.
Opéra de Montréal presents Wagner’s
Performances: November 10, 13, 15, and 17 at 7:30 PM
Venue: Place des Arts – Salle Wilfrid Pelletier
(175 Saint-Catherine St W, Montreal, QC H2X 3X5)
Language: German (Subtitles in English and French)
Duration: 2h30 (no intermission)
Admission: $30.00 – $226.00
Box Office: (514) 842-2112
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