BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's DAS RHEINGOLD is Full-Throttle Spectacle

By: Apr. 15, 2014
Iain Paterson as Wotan & Jamie Barton as Fricka.

Houston Grand Opera, which opened a lavish production of DAS RHEINGOLD this past weekend, is proudly kicking off their first Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner. Like any modern production of Wagner's Ring Cycle, Houston Grand Opera is sparing no expense and is offering Houston audiences a visually arresting and altogether magnificent spectacle by presenting Barcelona-based performance-art group La Fura dels Baus critically lauded production. At Sunday's matinee, the audience leapt to their feet for curtain call and clamored excitedly about this show and what's still to come in the cycle.

DAS REHEINGOLD first premiered in Munich in 1869, and the opera has been considered an important cultural phenomenon ever since. Sitting through the two and a half hour, intermission-less production, it is surprising how little plot actually seems to occur. However, as the prelude to a grand, epic saga, it succeeds in introducing audiences to characters that we'll follow through DIE WALKÜRE, SIEGFRIED, and GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG. The primary action of the musical drama (Wagner disliked the term opera) portrays the primal beginnings of the world. From the bottom of the Rhine River, Alberich, a dwarf, has stolen the precious Rhine gold. Meanwhile, Wotan, a god, has commissioned the building of an impenetrable fortress named Valhalla. He hires the giants Fasolt and Fafner to build the palace, promising them the goddess Freia as payment. Loge tells Wotan of Albreich's theft, and together they go to the Nibelheim, the land of the dwarves that live under the surface of the earth, to steal the gold and offer that as a payment to Fasolt and Fafner. Alberich curses the gold stolen from him, vowing that anyone who possesses the gold will die. This curse begins the vast narrative of The Ring Cycle and is not resolved until the final thirty minutes of GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG.

Conducting the opera, Patrick Summers brings Richard Wagner's rich score to life. From the sustained opening note played by the bassoon, which occurs in complete darkness, until the final notes, the audience is completely entranced by the skill of the orchestra and Patrick Summers' lively conducting of the complex music. The tonality of the piece is unique in that it is lush but unsettlingly dark from beginning to end. In this opening drama, Wagner uses musical leitmotifs to thrill audiences, foreshadow events to come in later operas, and to warn characters.

Direction by Carlus Padrissa uses spectacle to tell the story with wonderful attention to detail. Mixing multiple mediums, including videos and large mechanical pieces, Carlus Padrissa stages the musical drama in a way that ignites the imagination while appealing to the eye. Levels are constantly being manipulated to create gorgeous staged images that are enhanced by the copious videos. However, the use of spectacle sometimes interferes with the production, giving the audience too much to watch at any given time. For example, during the third scene, I watched the mining of gold from the Earth too closely and missed some of the plot because the background action caught and held my attention more than the foreground.

Iain Paterson as Wotan, Meredith Arwady as Erda,
Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner, Stefan Margita as Loge,
Kristinn Sigmundsson as Fasolt.

As is expected with productions by Houston Grand Opera, the cast offers sterling performances. Opening the show, the audience is amused by the bawdy and mean-spirited jokes that Andrea Carroll's Woglinde, Catherine Martin's Wellgunde, and Renée Tatum's Flosshilde play on Albreich. Christopher Purves' baritone instrument fascinates as he sings Albreich with tangible passion and drive. Wotan is powerfully sung by bass-baritone Iain Paterson, and he easily convinces audiences that he is the leader of the gods. Wotan's wife, Fricka, is brought to emotional life by Jamie Barton's lovely mezzo-soprano voice. As Freia, the goddess Wotan treats as expendable, Melody Moore's lush soprano instrument pulls on our heartstrings and leaves us rooting for her to be saved from the clutches of Fasolt and Fafner. With impressively deep, rotund, and rumbling bass instruments, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Fasolt and Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner are wonderfully imposing and intimidating. Chad Shelton's shimmering tenor suits his characterization of Froh well. Ryan McKinny's bass-baritone instrument is well-utilized by the character of Donner, and his rendition of "Heda! Heda hedo!" is the most memorable and enjoyable performance of the evening. As Loge, Stefan Margita is humorous and slightly sinister. Rodell Rosel's tenor voice shines on Mime's soliloquy. Singing Erda, Meredith Arwady's contalto is haunting on her warning to Wotan.

Ryan McKinny as Donner, Melody Moore as Freia &
Chad Shelton as Froh.

Roland Olbeter's Set Design and Chu Uroz's Costume Design perfectly pair to create a world that reminds audiences of 1950s/1960s Sci-Fi B movies like Doctor Strangelove and Barbarella and the BBC's Dr. Who all while be something new and unique as well. Everything in the Set and Costumes Designs lends itself to the astonishing visual appeal of the production. From the large robots that Fasolt and Fafner operate to the Barbarella-like boots worn by Fricka and Freia's headdress, these elements take audiences back to an imagined future of a bygone era.

Original Lighting Design by Peter van Praet, which was Realized by Gianni Paolo Mirenda for this production, mixes well with Franc Aleu's Video Design to emphasize DAS RHEINGOLD's sumptuous visuals. Gold lighting is expertly used in the first scene and fourth scene. Likewise, the videos and lights complement each other to create diverse atmospheres. The world of the gods is done in resplendent and open blues while the world of the Nibelheim is ominous and claustrophobically lit.

Houston Grand Opera's first staging of The Ring Cycle is off to a full-throttle and highly engaging start. Despite the occasional dragging moments in Scenes Two and Three, this production of DAS RHEINGOLD serves as a great way to get audiences into the complicated world Richard Wagner has constructed for this epic cycle. Furthermore, it serves as a wondrous way to whet the appetite of the operagoer. Leaving the venue on Sunday, I overheard many people already making plans to see the remainder of the cycle as it plays out over the next three seasons.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with no intermission.

DAS RHEINGOLD, produced by Houston Grand Opera, runs in the Brown Theater at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Avenue, Houston, 77002 now through April 26, 2014. Performances are Thursday, April 17 at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit or call (713) 228-OPERA (6737). Only limited tickets remain, so get yours before they're all gone!

Photos by Lynn Lane. Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.

Catherine Martin as Wellgunde, Andrea Caroll as Woglinde, Christopher Purves as Alberich & Renee Tatum as Flosshilde.

Melody Moore as Freia, Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Fasolt & Iain Paterson as Wotan.

Ryan McKinny as Donner, Melody Moore as Freia & Chad Shelton as Froh.

Christopher Purves as Alberich & Iain Paterson as Wotan.

HGO supernumeraries as Snake.

Stefan Margita as Loge & Iain Paterson as Wotan.

Crane operators, Melody Moore as Freia & HGO supernumeraries as Gold.

Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner, Iain Paterson as Wotan, Melody Moore as Freia & Kristinn Sigmundsson as Fasolt.

Iain Paterson as Wotan, Meredith Arwady as Erda, Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner, Stefan Margita as Loge, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Fasolt.

Iain Paterson as Wotan & Jamie Barton as Fricka.

Ryan McKinny as Donner, Melody Moore as Freia, Chad Shelton as Froh & Iain Paterson as Wotan.