Over the span of nearly 26 years, German composer Richard Wagner constructed a cycle of four operas, based loosely on characters from Norse mythology and the German epic poem Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs). This quartet, officially titled Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is more commonly known as The Ring Cycle. This series consists of: Das Rheingold (The Rheingold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods).
At 15 hours in length, the total cycle would require four separate evenings of performance — Wagner’s original intention. However, the operas are now commonly performed on an individual basis. Wagner considered the first part of the cycle, Das Rheingold, which the North Carolina Opera performed on Sept. 16th and 18th, to be a prelude to the main story — providing background information and introducing some of the major players.
Imagine Das Rheingold as the prologue from The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring film or the “Fall of Erebor” opening sequence from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. We find out what the magical object is (a big clump of gold, called the Rheingold, found at the bottom of the river) and who found it (a hairy dwarf) and the ensuing shenanigans (the forging of the ring, the misuse of the ring, the fighting over the ring, and the delivery of the ring to its rightful place).
In addition to dwarves, elves, kings, and queens, Wagner’s tale prominently features Donner (god of thunder and wielder of a megahammer that summons lightning), Freia (goddess of fertility), and a number of less-than-veiled references to Norse myths that have been echoed in the universe of Marvel Comics — most notably in The Avengers series. It must be noted that this play has content that is extraordinarily misogynistic, but an 1869 audience was more tolerant of such portrayals than we enlightened folk.
The North Carolina Opera, over this past weekend, combined these fantastical elements along with a 70+-piece orchestra and abstract projections to form a semi-staged, but fully costumed production of Das Rheingold — in Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, NC — that was bold and thrilling. The star of the show was most certainly conductor Timothy Myers and his accomplished orchestra. The addition of an anvil was especially interesting and helped to highlight the metallurgy motif. I am partial to the horn section, and Wagner does not disappoint in this composition — nor did Myers’ musicians.
Das Rheingold includes a lengthy Prelude — one of the most famous examples of drone in concert repertory. Beginning with an almost imperceptible E flat, the orchestra ebbs and flows like the river Rhine, elaborately configuring chords over a four-minute period. The corresponding projection begins with a pinhole-sized speck of light and grows slowly into a full river of color and movement. The audience was instantly mesmerized and brought deeply into the universe of The Ring Cycle.
Sacrifices to stage space had to be made in order to accommodate the enormous orchestra, but director James Marvel used the remaining downstage area to great effect. Projections designed by S. Kay Tucker served as the centerpiece of the production’s design, providing mood, energy, and setting with literal and abstract moving imagery. These blended seamlessly with Jax Messenger’s intense and vibrant lighting cues, which changed with appropriate frequency, allowing the audience to regularly cleanse its visual palette.
Denise Schumaker’s costumes were certainly entering sci-fi/fantasy territory, but added much to character identity and the overall vibrant look of the production. Wigs and makeup by Sondra Nottingham further solidified the Norse mythology motif, and clearly delineated the characters.
Translated from the original German, the English supertitles, created by Jonathan Dean of the Seattle Opera and operated with precision by Christina Starks, were, perhaps, a bit too condensed. Some depth of language was lost. Audience members seated in the orchestra developed stiff necks this weekend as the supertitle projections were above the main projection screen, which was already quite high. However, this was undoubtedly to accommodate those sitting in the very highest balcony.
A perfect company of actor-singers rounded out this excellent production. One of Wagner’s greatest melodies, the introduction of Wotan, ruler of the gods, was sung with captivating strength by baritone Alfred Walker, and American tenor Richard Cox sang a charming and wicked Loge. Todd Thomas, a skilled “Verdi baritone” masterfully sang the role of Alberich the ring-forger, though his mastery of acting does not match his skill as a vocalist.
Tenor Vale Rideout performed the role of Mime with great vocal and physical artistry with equal measure, and mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens was a spellbinding and forceful Fricka. Mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick’s performance of Erda was brief but unforgettably alluring.
Richard Wiegold brought his mighty bass to the role of Fasolt the giant, and was at once threatening and heartbreaking. Likewise, bass Solomon Howard, as the giant Fafner, towered vocally and physically over the stage with grand authority and passion.
Adam Lau, as hammer-wielding Donner, was a baritone of the highest order, with a clear and steady godlike voice. Additional performers, all with outstanding skill, included Wade Henderson as Froh, Hailey Clark as Freia, Rachel Copeland as Woglinde, Kate Farrar as Wellgunde, and Deborah Nansteel as Flosshilde.
Das Rheingold began with a pinhole of light and a single, unwavering tone. It ended with a rainbow-filled stage and lush tapestry of orchestral and vocal sound. The Tolkien-esque journey, combined with the Norse elements often reflected in Marvel comics, made this nearly 150-year-old tale one that still holds audiences captive, at least when produced by the North Carolina Opera. I do hope you were able to see and hear it.
The North Carolina Opera’s next production will be Patrick Morganelli’s Hercules vs. Vampires, which projects the campy 1961 Mario Bava film of the same name behind the action on stage — all sound replaced by Morganelli’s score. That one-night event will take place in the Meymandi Concert Hall on Oct. 30th. It is bound to be quite the Halloween treat.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 17th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Ken Hoover: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8121; Sept. 15th Raleigh, NC Raleigh Agenda preview by Chris Vitiello: https://www.raleighagenda.com/3746/week-north-carolina-opera-takes-big-step-ring/; Sept. 15th Raleigh, NC Time Warner Cable News Central NC video preview by Rob Wu: http://www.twcnews.com/nc/triangle-sandhills/news/2016/09/15/nc-opera-presents-richard-wagners-famous-opera-das-rheingold.html; Sept. 14th Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Joanna Helms: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/put-a-ring-on-it-nc-opera-takes-on-wagners-formidable-masterwork/Content?oid=5065874; Sept. 14th Durham, NC Triangle Tribune preview by Dafney Tales-Lafortune: http://www.triangletribune.com/news/2016/09/14/arts-and-lifestyle/diversity-comes-to-north-carolina-opera; Sept. 14th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com video preview: http://www.wral.com/news/local/video/16014188/; Sept. 10th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article100873577.html; Sept. 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Linda Haac, Roy Dicks, David Menconi, and Mary Cornatzer: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article99092812.html; and Sept. 1st Raleigh, NC Walter Magazine podcast: http://www.waltermagazine.com/walter-now-september-2016/ and snap-chat with Eric Mitchko by Liza Roberts: http://www.waltermagazine.com/snapchat-eric-mitchko/.
Wagner’s DAS RHEINGOLD (North Carolina Opera, Sept. 16 and 18 in Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, NC).
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfR_1l1blvZyhsaII5MLaZw/videos.
Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) (1869 opera): http://www.wagneropera.net/operas/opera-rheingold.htm (Richard Wagner Opera) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Das_Rheingold (Wikipedia).
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Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.