You probably know the Bugs Bunny classic, “Kill the Wabbit.”
That one’s not from Das Rheingold. It’s from Ride of the Valkyries, another part of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Yeah, I was bummed about that too. But if have a chance to see Das Rheingold, the first part of the Ring cycle (actually, Der Ring des Niebelungen), you’ll recognize motifs that have entered pop culture. In fact, if you get a chance to see all 15 hours of the full Ring cycle, you’ll encounter much that is familiar. Take the basic plot: a cursed ring made of stolen gold has power over those who hold it. So, as remote as opera can seem to those who aren’t regulars, it is surprisingly present.
Just to put this out there, Richard Wagner is an anti-semite first class. Maybe he just hated Mendelssohn, who he attacked in a pamphlet Das Judentum in der Musik. Hitler loved Wagner, which doesn’t really add to Wagner’s credibility as a human being. But, Hitler was also a vegetarian and a failed art student, and I don’t get down on vegetarians or failed art students for having something in common with Hitler. But there’s no getting around the fact that some of the best music ever written was written by an anti-semite German nationalist. For some people, this means Wagner and his work are damnato memoriae. For others, it just means his work is forever tainted, requiring one to call out his anti-semitism before saying anything related to a performance of his work. So, here I join that list — Wagner is an anti-semite and an asshole for it. Das Rheingold is, sadly, a work that cannot be entirely divorced from its twisted messages about the master race (i.e. the gods). It really is too bad, because the merits of the work are minimally tarnished by these facts, and maximally, completely obliterated.
Okay, that’s done.
I wasn’t sure I’d make it through Das Rheingold. Anything that involves getting dressed up to sit for hours seems like too much artifice for me. My limited experiences with opera also make me something of a poor critic of the medium. I considered that if it was really torment, I’d depart at the first intermission. Then I found out that there were NO INTERMISSIONS. At that point, I bought food and stuffed it in my purse, thinking I’d need to fuel my way through 2 1/2 hours of German nationalism.
Turns out, that food went uneaten and Montreal Opera’s production of Das Rheingold kept me focused for the whole piece. The 2 1/2 hours passed rather quickly and the production was enhanced with multimedia effects that updated the story and took it further away from its nationalistic origins and seemed to play up a multiracial cast and the more environmental themes in the work.
The story concerns a ring made from stolen gold and the role it plays in settling a dispute between the gods of Asgard and two giants. A hunchbacked dwarf, Alberich (Nathan Berg), steals gold from the Rhine Maidens (Florence Bourget, Andrea Nunez, and Carolyn Sproule). He has the ore forged into a ring that gives him the power to rule the world. However, great power requires a great sacrifice, and Alberich forsakes love in exchange for the magic required to unleash the ring’s power. Alberich is not to have the ring for long, since the gods need it as payment for their new fortress, Valhalla. If they fail to meet the demand by evening, two giants (Julian Close and Soloman Howard) will take away Freia (Caroline Bleau), the goddess who tends the apples that give the gods immortality. The king of the gods, Wotan (Ryan McKinny), and trickster, Loge (Roger Honeywell), go to the land of the Nibelungen, to acquire the gold needed to get Freia back and also prevent Alberich from overpowering them with his special ring. Alberich curses the ring when it is stolen from him, setting in motion future operas.
One thing that especially helped in my appreciation of the opera was the fact I recently read Neil Gaiman’s Norse Myths. Das Rheingold is based on the mythology contained in the Scandinavian Eddas. Some things are changed, of course, like the characters’ names, but it’s easy to read through. Odin is Wotan; Loki is Loge; Andvari is Alberich; Thor is Donner; Frey is Froh, Frigg is Fricka; Freyja is Freia. Wagner also altered the stories, combined them, and introduced his own earth goddess, Erda (Catherine Daniel). But, the key stories that make up the plot of Das Rheingold — the theft of gold to repay a debt, the building of Valhalla by Giants and how the gods get out of paying for it, the promising of Freia as payment — are all in that mythological corpus.
I don’t feel like I can adequately critique the performance, except to say that the singers and orchestra seemed quite solid. At moments, I thought the orchestra would overpower the singers, but it never happened. All performers received standing ovations, and notably baritone Nathan Berg did a great job as the Alberich, and Catherine Daniel as the earth goddess was very striking. I felt a little less taken with Ryan McKinny as king of the gods, as he seemed so passive next to Roger Honeywell’s Loge. Although choreography was limited, I especially enjoyed the opening with the Rhine maidens, who used the orchestra pit as their Rhine, diving in and out. Then again, an opera isn’t about action. Instead, it is about poetry, and whatever I may think about Wagner, there is still great poetry in his words and the voices are meant to convey its emotional richness. I think this was done well on the whole.
What I can comment on, though, is that the story and presentation of the work were engaging. The initial scene, when Alberich fails to seduce the three Rhine maidens and they simply toy with his lust, was done with a perfectly light touch. This playful and comedic scene set a tone for the rest of the opera as one of wonder and delight, rather than heavy handedness and burdensome seriousness.
Another excellent feature was the rich use of multimedia. The opening scrim with its animation of steampunk style gears and wheels was a surprise and made sure that everyone in the audience was ready to see an opera that was breaking with tradition (or perhaps more focused on the environmental messages in the opera rather than about the master race). I especially appreciated the way the giants were enlarged from human beings to massive size. To create the menace of the two giants, a camera was utilized so that their black and white outlines projected on a screen set high on the stage next to a bridge where the gods stood. The giants held out their hands at the camera, giving the impression that they were reaching out at the gods. It was a very clever way to achieve a desired effect. At other times, a scrim was used, such as when it was necessary to create the sensation of moving clouds. In sum, this was not your grandmomma’s opera. This is opera done in Montreal, 2018, and sitting on the shoulders of the city’s rich tradition of digital effects. The only time I felt its lack was during Alberich’s transformations.
Overall, this was a fine production and one that surprised me for being able to capture my attention and hold it so thoroughly.
Das Rheingold was performed at Place des Arts between November 10-17. For tickets and showtimes for future operas by Montreal Opera, click HERE.