Pittsburgh Festival Opera – Richard Wagner’s “Rhinegold”

Header (5)It was with slight trepidation that a hardcore devotee of Richard Wagner sat down last night and waited for the first performance of Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s version of his Rhinegold (Das Rheingold) to begin. The most majestic orchestral passage in the work was nervously and needlessly feared for, because it was omitted (as were two characters). The handling of the giants and other scenic effects are frequently made ridiculous even at the Metropolitan, Bayreuth and other opera houses in Germany and elsewhere, so it was with surprise that a comparatively fine performance of this prelude to the composer’s massive The Ring of the Nibelungs (Der Ring des Nibelungen) unfolded over the course of two very short hours. There was a tremendous amount of vocal talent on the stage, some of the special effects unreasonably demanded by the composer were handled rather well, the orchestra was more than acceptable, and a larger than usual crowd expressed considerable appreciation of the performance. And the appreciation was deserved. [the_ad id=”7283″]

Uncut, this first music-drama of Wagner’s massive, four part tale of the downfall of the ancient Norse gods runs the better part of three hours, and consists of a single act with no intermission. Jonathan Dove trims the better part of an hour from his arrangement; slightly excessive pruning for one suffering from Wagner-mania, but this more compact version does very little serious damage to the work. Walter Morales conducted the reduced but sufficient orchestration quite well, and the instrumentalists, once “warmed up,” did a commendable job in their playing of the magnificent score. Their numbers may have been smaller than what the composer had in mind, but they produced a surprisingly ample, solid sound to support the action on the stage.

Andrew W. Potter as Fafner

Andrew W. Potter as Fafner

So far as the singers went, all were well up to Wagner’s expectations, and several would have quite delighted him if he could have heard them last night. Kenneth Shaw as Wotan, ruler of the gods, was impressively costumed and made up, and sang with a powerful, booming and very musical voice through the most trying passages of the role, and acted the part quite remarkably. The part of Alberich, the power hungry Nibelung dwarf who tricks the Rhine Maidens out of the precious gold they guard and sets the chain of events into action, was very well sung and acted by Barrington Lee. The giants, Fasolt (Adam Cioffari), and Fafner (Andrew W. Potter), scenically were managed far better than is often the case, and were a fine looking pair who sang magnificently and acted impressively. For Mr. Potter, portraying a “giant” isn’t much of a stretch, since he’s the better part of seven feet tall, and Mr. Cioffari isn’t exactly cheated in the height department, either. They were among the standouts of the cast, in roles that beg to go wrong, but didn’t.

Kenneth Shaw as Wotan

Kenneth Shaw as Wotan

Robert Frankenberry, as Loge, the demi-god of fire and Wotan’s right-hand man, I assumed would make the best of his role, and he didn’t disappoint. Both in voice and action, he was delightful, twirling a red-tipped baton the entire time. Alexander Charles Boyd, as Donner, the god of thunder, was punk-like in appearance, and made the most of his singing and acting opportunities. Froh, the god of prosperity and sunlight, and Mime the smith, Alberich’s conniving brother (who plays such a large part in the Siegfried installment of “The Ring”), didn’t survive the cuts, so there’s nothing to be said of them.

Mary Phillips, as Fricka, Wotan’s justifiably nervous wife, the goddess of “family values,” did rather well vocally (the part’s range is so wide that it can be sung by a soprano with a solid lower register or a mezzo-soprano who can handle the higher passages), and in action stayed within the frame successfully. Her sister Freia, the goddess of love who guards the magic, golden apples which give the gods their eternal youth, and is held as collateral by the giants until Wotan pays for their construction of Valhalla, was sung by Brooke Dircks. She has the voice for the part, but in this staging delivered a rather flippant portrayal of the timid and terrified nature of the role. Erda, the all-knowing, primal earth goddess, who appears briefly to warn Wotan that his greed will end the world as he knows it, was sung by Demareus Naomi Cooper. The rich, dark tones needed for the part were there, although the careful shading of the voice to match the more poignant moments of the text and orchestration were somewhat lacking. But she still managed to deliver an acceptable rendition of one of the most thrilling scenes in the music-drama.

Demareus Naomi Cooper as Erda

Demareus Naomi Cooper as Erda

The Rhine Maidens, Woglinde (Hanna Brammer), Wellgunde (Emily Hopkins) and Flosshilde (Kathleen Shelton), were vocally quite astonishing, although in appearance they were more like punk rock versions of the Valkyrie warriors than mermaids. Their two scenes are tricky to pull off successfully – the second, when they would have been more effectively heard in their plaintive laments from behind the scenes, found them at the very front of the stage. But this, and Alberich’s brief transformation into a dragon, were practically the only intricate staging challenges that fell somewhat flat.

Randi Daffner, Becky Merbler, Jay Rockwell, Dennis Sen, Montaja Simmons, Carolyn Smith, Elizabeth Stamerra, Peter Stammera and Russel Wilner were the ensemble of “supes” who cowered as frightened Nibelungs and did a fair job with the few spots of somewhat awkward scene shifting made necessary by the limited stage of the Falk Auditorium.

Wagner is rarely heard in Pittsburgh, and when the former Opera Theater of Pittsburgh gave this Jonathan Dove version of Rhinegold a dozen or so years ago, it was only the second time the work had been heard here, and the previous time was within the living memory of very, very few. It was a very commendable performance that was heard last night, well worth the reasonable admission prices.

Very extensive productions details, history – and tickets – may be found by visiting Pittsburgh Festival Opera. Rhinegold is one of the best of the company’s offerings to date, and will be repeated July 15 at 2:00 pm and July 21 at 7:30 pm.

The Production Team for Rhinegold

Walter Morales, Conductor; Jonathan Eaton, Director; Jonathan Dove, Arranger/Orchestrator; Danila Korogodsky, Scenic & Costume Design; Rachel K. Wyatt, Costume Construction; Bob Steineck, Lighting Design; Jina Pounds, Hair & Makeup Design; Colter Schoenfish, Assistant Director, Stephen Variames, Assistant Conductor; Richard Masters, Rehearsal Pianist; Katy Click, Stage Manager; Morgan Lea Palmer and Claire Durr, Assistant Stage Managers

Photography – Heather Mull



Categories: Archived Reviews

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