Calgary Opera ends season with ambitious, futuristic take on Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold

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It’s not often that a opera company can drop modern pop-culture references into its promotional material.

But part of the marketing behind Calgary Opera’s final production of the season, Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, includes nerdy references to Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and video games such as The Elder Scrolls, V: Skyrim, Max Payne, and Too Human. It’s almost as if the venerable, 50-year-old company was teaming up with Calgary Expo.

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Wagner’s epic juggernaut was first performed in 1869, so Calgary Opera is clearly updating the piece for a modern audience. But even without the special effects, projections and futuristic setting, Wagner’s narrative seems custom-built for the fan-convention crowd.

“This is the perfect opera for anybody who has never been to an opera,” says director Brian Staufenbiel. “It has gods, it has giants, it has a demigod, it has a dragon, it has dwarves. It doesn’t get any better. It’s right out of all these popular series and stories that people are into right now.”

This is the fifth time Staufenbiel has staged this production of Das Rheingold, having been at the helm for performances in Minnesota, Arizona, Montreal and Seattle. As the creative director of San Francisco’s Opera Parallele, he specializes in multimedia and interdisciplinary productions. But while the opera may be 155 years old — it’s also the first of Wagner’s epic four-part Der Ring Des Nebelungen — not every opera company is equipped to put on the production, which Staufenbiel cheerfully calls “a beast.” In fact, this is the first time Calgary Opera has performed the behemoth production, which opens April 20 at the Jubilee Auditorium.

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Das Rheingold
The Minnesota cast of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Courtesy, Cory Weaver. cal

It’s unique staging will include having the 77 musicians from the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra on stage at the Jubilee Auditorium with the production’s conductor, Calgary Opera artistic director Jonathan Brandani. It is the largest orchestra in the company’s history with far more musicians than would have fit in the Jubilee’s orchestra pit. So they are on stage and much of the action takes place on a bridge that goes over the orchestra. This allows the pit to be utilized in an imaginative way as part of the set representing Rhine and the underworld of Nibelheim. It all offers an immersive and intimate experience for the audience. Intimate, of course, is not the first word that springs to mind when describing the thundering work of Wagner. Part of the composer’s aesthetic was to use the orchestra as a “personality” in the production and have them embedded in the set, Staufenbiel says. This also frees up the orchestra pit. In the first scene, it is filled with fog and projections, making it look like people are swimming in the pit. Later, it becomes part of the underworld of Nibelheim, where it resembles an underground cave.

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“The most extraordinary thing that it allows the Wagnerian singers to be almost in the hall,” Staufenbiel says.  “They are right on the edge, the audience is literally two feet away at times. They are down there singing and just a stone’s throw away. That’s a kind of intimacy that we usually don’t get in Wagner. Usually it feels like there’s a huge pit, people are way up stage and far away.”

The projections, light and other special effects also help give the production a futuristic, sci-fi vibe. When developing the piece, Staufenbiel decided to set Wagner’s take on Norse mythology in the technological era. In his notes for the Seattle production, he wroteit is set “in a future where science and technology have caught up with nature, where the organic, the mechanical, and the digital have started to fuse. Indeed, the distinction between biological processes and industrial artifice has almost ceased to exist. Gods are part human, part machine, and dwarves aspire to reign supreme by mining the technology of the past — semiconductors and computers.”

So yes, there are giants, dragons, demigods, dwarves and gods that seem more a part of the Star Trek Borg Collective than Valhalla. The story, however, boils down to a timeless and universal tale of greed, the power of love and the corrupting nature of power. In the Rhine, three sisters guard precious gold. When an ambitious dwarf named Alberich appears, he is told that whoever forges the gold into a ring will gain power over the world but must first renounce love. He decides to steal the gold. Much mayhem ensues.

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Calgary Opera
Gordon Gietz and Anna Pompeeva appear in Calgary Opera’s Das Rheingold. Photo taken at Studio Bell by HarderLee Photography cal

“Giving everything up for power and losing your way, that’s a very interesting theme,” says Staufenbiel. “Losing your soul to be all powerful is one of the biggest messages of this opera for me. It’s people struggling with that desire to get a taste of that kind of power and how one deals with that is the larger allegory of the piece.”

The cast is also suitably epic and international. British bass-baritone James Rutherford makes his Calgary Opera debut as Wotan, the power-hungry leader of the gods. Israeli baritone Boaz Daniel is also making his Calgary debut as Alberich. Tenor and Calgary expat Gordon Geitz, who got his start in the Calgary Opera chorus, will sing the role of Mime, Alberich’s brother. Anna Pompeeva, originally from Ukraine but now living in Calgary, takes on the role of the goddess of love, Freia, while Americans Kenneth Kellog and Jill Grove play the roles of  Fafner, a giant, and Fricka, the virtuous wife of Wotan.

Staufenbiel says the cast is a mix of those familiar with the opera such as Rutherford, who has played the role before and also won the 2006 Seattle Opera International Wagner Competition, and others who are newcomers to Das Rheingold. Similarly, Staufenbiel says the opera should appeal to both opera aficionados and newbies to the medium. Ambitious, multi-disciplinary and technically dazzling productions such as Das Rheingold are part of the ongoing evolution of opera, he says.

“I think we are seeing in the industry a lot more acceptance and even desire to have technology help us tell the story that is on stage,” he says. “With all these immersive things that are happening, people are expecting it more and more and enjoy seeing space that really comes to life.”

Calgary Opera’s Das Rheingold will be performed on April 20, 24 and 26 at the Jubilee Auditorium. Visit calgaryopera.com.

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