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27, Jan 2018
AVA's cast of Rheingold, photo by Paul Sirochman

Wagner’s Rheingold with immediacy

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Wagner: Das Rheingold, Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia, January 2018
 

Das Rheingold is a surprising achievement by the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. Excellence is expected by this famed institution, of course, but Wagner is beyond its normal repertoire. And there are many music lovers who are wary of any opera without orchestra.

Yet this presentation won over the doubters. It was musically and dramatically effective, and even revealed new aspects of Rheingold. For instance, the opening four and a half minutes are instrumental, starting with a low E flat, describing the creation of life growing from a single cell; and, more specifically, the bottom of the river Rhine. When played by orchestra the emphasis is on the repeated low note, given weight by brass instruments. Here, with Luke Hausner alone on the piano, we were more cognizant of the ripple of broken chords and the waves of arpeggios that suggest an ascent through the water.

To address the other concern, yes it’s true that AVA’s resident artists normally sing Italian and French repertoire. At first glance you might not imagine these singers as Wagnerians. But let’s keep in mind that Wagner wanted his vocalists to emphasize legato and nuance. In his article Pasticcio in 1834 he wrote that a perfect trill, agility, and equalization of the registers were required. He also insisted that the text be clearly enunciated and be totally audible. That’s difficult with the big orchestras and larger opera houses of modern times, but it was achieved in the intimate Helen Corning Warden Theater (once a mansion) at 1920 Spruce Street.

Wagner’s choice of singer for the role of Wotan had spent a large part of his career singing Italian and French music, such as the roles of Don Giovanni, and Verdi’s Falstaff, and Valentin in Faust. Lilli Lehmann was a renowned Wagner singer who alternated as Brunnhilde and Bellini’s Norma.

In addition to Wagner’s insistence on legato — smooth singing — he wanted his words to predominate, creating a play with music ranging from the heroic to the intimate, rather than an opera with arias and ensembles. (The only ensemble singing in Rheingold is by the Rhinemaidens near the start and the finish.)

Wagner’s Ring is normally thought of as a saga about gods fighting over gold, but it’s also about a dysfunctional family with problems involving jealousy, envy and resentment. The operas pose the question: Can love endure when people devote themselves to the acquisition of wealth and dominance?

George Bernard Shaw saw the saga as a socialist critique of industrialization. He pointed out that Alberich, who steals the gold from the Rhinemaidens, is one of an exploited people who work hard in mines and factories; he represents the working class, which is tricked and humiliated by Wotan and his corporate cronies. The 1976 Bayreuth production of the Ring directed by Patrice Chéreau was based on that premise.

You also could regard Rheingold and the rest of the Ring as an environmental parable, showing how the plunder of natural resources leads to disaster. When the opening notes start low and rise slowly from the depths, they suggest more than just the Rhine River but, in addition, the wellspring of nature below the surface of the planet.

This time around I also imagined that Rheingold could picture Donald Trump as the aggressive Wotan who insists on seizing the magic ring that grants domination over the entire world, and Steve Bannon as Loge, the manipulative advisor to the big guy. Fafner and Fasolt, of course, constructed the buildings of Valhalla for Wotan, then he resisted paying them, reminding us of the Trump Casino in Atlantic City.

This excellent production — the conception of the set, and the direction — was by K. James McDowell. He’s the AVA president and artistic director who started his career as a baritone, so he’s not normally thought of as a stage director, but his conception was quite impressive. The style was traditional with one clever and significant innovation: McDowell’s staging of the murder of Fasolt wherein he directly involves Wotan.

Hausner coached the cast and supervised all the music, over two and a half hours without intermission, the longest single stretch of unbroken music in the Western world. Other Wagner operas are longer but are broken into several acts. His was a herculean task, achieved superbly.

The cast was near-perfect. Their German enunciation was excellent, their articulation was clear. I saw Nathan Milholin as Wotan (he alternated with Ben Wager.) I’ve enjoyed him previously as Mephistopheles in Faust and Sparafucile in Rigoletto and here he sang with even more sonority. Mezzo Hannah Ludwig was vivid as Fricka, Wotan’s wife (as she had been as Azucena in the AVA’s last production.) Timothy Renner was convincing as the greedy Alberich. Basses Daniel Noyola and Brent Michael Smith were impressive as the giants who came lumbering through the audience to the stage.

Alexandra Nowakowski was a radiant Freia whom the giants abduct, and Gabriela Flores sang beautifully as the low-voiced (but not quite contralto) Erda, the goddess of wisdom. Piotr Buszewski was Loge, demi-god of fire who manipulated the action, wearing a flaming red cape. Baritone Daniel Gallegos and tenor Marco Cammerota sang richly as Donner and Froh, while tenor Abraham Breton was effective as the abused dwarf Mime. Meryl Dominguez, Alexandra Raskazoff and Pascale Spinney harmonized nicely as the trio of balletic Rhinemaidens.

Val Starr’s costumes helped make the show the success that it was. In particular, the majestic robe she created for Wotan convincingly established him as the king of the gods, with chain-mail, velvet and fabrics in shades of brown and amber.

Vocal teachers often advise youngsters to avoid the challenges of Wagner, but it should be noted that the resident artists at AVA are ages 24 to 30 and already have degrees from colleges and graduate schools; they are experienced singers who have mastered their techniques. On the evidence of this Rheingold they are ready for worldwide bookings in this repertoire if they so choose.