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In Houston, It’s ‘Alien’ Vs. The Rhinemaidens!

by Olin Chism 18 Apr 2014 2:09 PM

Well, Wagner did write a ‘cosmic’ opera cycle with gods and superbeings. So the Houston Grand Opera launches its Ring with a big, splashy, sci-fi, Star Warsy version of Das Rheingold.


rheingold2Catherine Martin as Wellgunde, Andrea Carroll as Woglinde, Christopher Purvis as Alberich and Renee Tatume as Flosshilde. Photos by Lynne Lane

The pinnacle of ambition for any opera company is to present Wagner’s epic Ring cycle — all of it. The Dallas Opera has done it twice, and now the Houston Grand Opera is having its turn.

Companies with enough cash or chutzpah present the four operas over a six-day span, with one-day breaks between Die Walküre, Siegfried and Die Götterdämmerung to give the poor singers’ vocal cords a rest. Houston, like Dallas, is spreading them out, one opera per year for four years.

Houston is currently presenting Das Rheingold to open its cycle. Ticket demand is heavy — the performance I attended on Thursday night was sold out — so anyone hoping to attend one of the two remaining performances, on April 23 and 26, may have a hard time getting in.

hgo rheingold1Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner, Iain Paterson as Wotan, Melody Moore as Freia and Kristinn Sigmundsson as Fasolt

The production, which originated in Spain, is highly original if not unique. It’s a bit like a dystopian science-fiction novel, with robosingers (half human, half machine); tons of projections, including a spooky factory that seems to be processing giant eggs with unhatched human babies inside; gallons of gold paint; and platoons of unsinging acrobats, among other things.

The experienced will probably groan: “Oh no, Eurotrash.” But it’s not quite that. In genuine Eurotrash, the director and designers, who hate opera, do their best to make fun of the particular opera they are vandalizing.

There is no clear evidence that director Carlus Padrissa and his well-staffed design team have negative motives. Their ideas may be weird, but they do sort of fit in with the spirit of Wagner’s opera, which is full of hate, violence, exploitation of enslaved workers, self-centeredness and greed.

The innovations of this production are evident from the first sung notes. There is real water as the Rhinemaidens frolic and Alberich teases them. The three maidens are in large, transparent, water-filled tubs which, when raised, allow the audience to see what they’re doing underwater. The director requires the singers to completely submerge themselves at times.

Soprano Andrea Carroll, who sings Woglinde, must be an athlete. Once she stayed submerged for so long that I began to be concerned for her well-being. Would she become the first Rhinemaiden in history to be drowned onstage? Less menacingly, Alberich came out of the first scene thoroughly drenched.

Not only did some of the cast have to be water-friendly, but almost all of them had to conquer any fear of heights that they had. There were contraptions, manned by technicians visible to the audience, that raised the soloists to varying heights above the stage floor. Once Wotan (Iain Paterson) and Loge (Stefan Margita) were raised almost to the top.

The scene most filled with contraptions, projections and bizarre actions was the one in Nibelheim, Alberich’s lair. In addition to the human-egg factory, which filled the rear of the stage, there was a conveyor from which real humans were suspended by their feet like so many sides of beef hanging on hooks in a slaughterhouse.

That certainly got attention. And that was the problem with this production. So much was going on, and grabbing attention, that the singing, and the music overall, took second place. Thursday’s performance was mostly missing the great dramatic moments so characteristic of Wagner, though the entrance of the gods into Valhalla did raise some goosebumps.

Most of the singing/acting was first-rate (the cast deserves medals for carrying on through trials of water and fear). The international cast includes, in addition to Paterson, Margita and Carroll, Christopher Purves (Alberich), Jamie Barton (Fricka), Rodell Rosel (Mime), Melody Moore (Freia), Kristin Sigmundsson and Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt and Fafner), Meredith Arwady (Erda), Chad Shelton (Froh), Ryan McKinny (Donner), Catherine Martin (Wellgunde) and Renée Tatum (Flosshilde).

The orchestral playing, under Patrick Summers’ direction, was satisfactory without rising to the level of the great Wagnerian orchestras.

Padrissa’s design team includes Roland Olbeter (sets), Chu Uroz (costumes), Peter van Praet (lighting), Franc Aleu (video) and Gianni Paolo Mirenda (something called “lighting realizer”). Those last three positions would have astonished Wagner, but they had much to do with the tone of this production.