Story: Deep in the Rhine River, three maidens guard the immeasurably valuable Rhinegold. The gold can be taken and forged into a ring that will give its owner immense power, but only at the expense of forsaking love, which the maidens say is one emotion no one can truly renounce with any happiness. Nonetheless, a Nibelung dwarf named Alberich, spurned by the maidens, steals the gold.
Meanwhile, Wotan, lord of the gods, is in a quandary. He promised the giants Fasolt and Fafner his sister-in-law Freia, goddess of beauty and love, as payment for the opulent castle, a towering fortress that reaches into the sky, constructed by the giants for Wotan. His wife Fricka is furious with this arrangement, so Wotan and his demi-god servant Loge descend to Earth to wrest the gold from Alberich. They trick him into surrendering his treasure and then attempt to swap that ransom for Freia. Wotan is reluctant to include the ring in this deal, even though Alberich has cursed anyone who possesses it. At the urging, though, of the Earth goddess Erda, Wotan hands over the ring, with tragic results.
Highlights: Richard Wagner’s sprawling saga about the myths of Norse gods and goddesses, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), comprises four operas, including the introductory piece, Das Rheingold. The latter opened to considerable critical acclaim in 1859 in Rome, with Wagner’s composition of the three primary components of his ‘dramas,’ as he termed them, taking place over the ensuing 26 years. The first production of the total Ring Cycle occurred in Germany in 1876.
In 1991, Graham Vick, artistic director of the City of Birmingham Touring Opera, presented an abbreviated version of the Ring Cycle adapted by English composer Jonathan Dove. This truncated edition will be presented over four years by Union Avenue Opera, which finds Dove’s rendition of both the operas and orchestra size accessible to UAO’s intimate setting at the Union Avenue Christian Church. Director Karen Coe Miller’s spirited telling of Das Rheingold, along with the noble contributions of artistic director and conductor Scott Schoonover and a reduced orchestra, make for an auspicious beginning on UAO’s ambitious four-year quest.
Other Info: Scenic designer Patrick Huber shrewdly incorporates film shown on a background screen into his otherwise spartan set, which is comprised of a two-tiered scaffold embodying the heavens above, residence of the gods, and the Earth below. Projection designer Michael Perkins, with the aid of projection consultant Mark Wilson, fills the screen with lavish landscapes as well as a surreal appearance for the castle that reaches into the sky much like Jack’s magical beanstalk.
Teresa Doggett dresses the players in togs that traditionally represent the dress of the deities as well as the grimy rags that cling to Alberich. Huber adds some pinpoint lighting and Robert Van Dillen provides an assortment of props, such as a billowing rope representing the golden riches and a helmet that serves as the “tarnhelm” that gives its wearer magical powers. Elise LaBarge adds English supertitles that clearly describe the libretto sung in German by Miller’s players.
The cast is led by powerful performances by Jordan Shanahan as Alberich and Elise Quagliata as Fricka. That duo, which teamed last year in UAO’s riveting and glorious triumph, Dead Man Walking, demonstrates once again a masterful grasp of dramatic acting that propels an opera performance beyond its musical strength to another level. Shanahan’s anguish as the continually frustrated dwarf is palpable in his portrayal, while Quagliata puts considerable emotional depth into her depiction of the queen angered by Wotan’s poor decisions.
Kevin Misslich is OK as Wotan, although he doesn’t project the power and conflicting desires of the lord god as well as one might desire. Marc Shapman’s Loge is suitably deceptive and cunning, and Joy Boland is fine in the minor role of the hapless Freia, albeit with little to do. Similarly, John Maynard and Clark Sturdevant portray lesser gods Donner and Froh, respectively.
Todd van Felker and Nikolas Enzel pair off effectively as the brooding giants, one of whom loves Freia and the other who prefers gold and riches as the suitable payment for their efforts. Cecelia Stearman is striking in her brief scene as Earth goddess Erda, while Elizabeth Beers Kataria, Megan Hart and Katja Heuzeroth get the opera started in fine fashion as the Rhinemaidens. Zoe Archilleus, Jakilah Mason and Sean Simpson portray Underworld supernumeraries to fill out the cast.
Even in Dove’s abbreviated version, the Ring Cycle is an ambitious and daunting undertaking. Union Avenue Opera’s engaging Das Rheingold offers a tantalizing hint as to what UAO’s four-part presentation can achieve.
Opera: Das Rheingold
Group: Union Avenue Opera
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union Blvd.
Dates: August 24, 25
Tickets: $30-$52; contact 361-2881 or unionavenueopera.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Union Avenue Opera