Calgary Opera leaves best for last with powerful season-ending Das Rheingold

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Rounding out its highly successful current season, Calgary Opera is currently presenting Das Rheingold, the first of the four music dramas (operas) that comprise Richard Wagner’s The Ring of Nibelung. Following the old adage, the company has saved the best for last and this final production is the finest of the season and a triumph as a production and in its musical values.

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  The most immediately striking aspect of the production is the set and the concept of how the opera is presented. The concept, an original one, is the brainchild of director Brian Staufenbiel, who has previously directed similar productions in Minnesota and, more recently, in Seattle. Staufenbiel is a multimedia director, and in his concept, as outlined in the program, the world of Das Rheingold is envisioned as taking place “in a future where science and technology have caught up with nature, where the organic, the mechanical, and the digital have started to fuse.”

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  Expressed this fulsome way, it can sound as if this is just over-the-top techno-pop descending into sci-fi fantasy kitsch. But this is not the case here. Using the stage, the pit, and an above-stage catwalk, the action is presented on three different physical levels, the orchestra occupying the main stage with the conductor ever-present to the eye. Musically, this foregrounds the orchestra, which has an outsized role to play in this opera, and it enables the singers to be heard easily since they are mostly situated in front of the orchestra.

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 The costumes are epic in a style familiar to fans of Games of Thrones and other modern fantasy films. The rear of the stage is used to project many different images, from ominous, moving clouds to the grandeur of the castle of Valhalla, the new home of gods. The projection of Valhalla Castle possesses a grandeur impossible to achieve in a conventional set, and the other projections display a variety of atmospheric images that underscore the dramatic action. Flexible and imaginative in its use of space and effects, this staging of the opera creates both the sense of the abstractly epic and of the concretely specific, as the changing needs of the dramatic situation demands.

 The orchestra pit is now the Rhine River, in which the opera opens, and it also serves as the underground mine of Nibelheim where Alberich, the evil dwarf, employs other enslaved dwarfs to mine his horde of gold. The members of the Cantaré Children’s Choir are Alberich’s slaves in this production and are as effective in their purely dramatic role as they were in previous productions when they had to sing.

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 The cumulative effect of all this is a contemporary realization of the spirit of what Wagner originally intended: a “total art work,” where set, action, and music are fused into a coherent, integrated whole. The total effect of all these elements is indeed splendid and is one of the finest elements of the production.

 While the singing is remarkably consistent and fine, it is the orchestra that frequently takes centre stage (in this case, quite literally), with Jonathan Brandani once again showing his remarkable abilities to get the best from the orchestra. Leading an enlarged CPO, Brandani led the orchestra in a beautiful realization of the score, the tempos expertly gauged, the big moments making their mark.

 The famous atmospheric opening and the majestic final pages all received their due, as did the music for the Nibelheim scenes. Less obvious but equally important was the treatment of the conversational element of the music, one that needs constant subtle nuance to make the verbal inflections seem natural. Here Brandani was as impressive in German opera as in the Italian operas he has previously conducted with the company.

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 Among the singers— all fully equal to their roles — Rodell Rosel as Loge must be mentioned for his exceptionally fine performance. Vocally characterizing the wily, cunning Loge to perfection, Rosel was endlessly inventive in his acting, clearly the dramatic instigator of the action. As Wagnerian singers go, James Rutherford has just the right voice for Wotan. Sonorous, with excellent notes at both the top and bottom of his register, Rutherford was the ideal Wotan, a commanding figure in a role for which he is perfectly suited in every way.

 Given the size of the cast, not everyone singer can be mentioned here. But the fine vocal performances of Boaz Daniel as Alberich and Guido Jentjens as Fasolt need to be instanced, both basses in the best Wagnerian tradition, with rich voices, excellent enunciation, and clear vocal delivery. In smaller roles, Gordon Gietz made the most of his role as a much put-upon Mime (the brother of Alberich), and Elias Theocharidis as Froh and Connor Hoppenbrouwers as Donner were suitably godlike and vocally resplendent, especially in the final scene. Kenneth Kellogg made a good vocal match for Jentens as Fafner in his smaller role.

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 The ladies were no less excellent, Catherine Daniel commanding as the goddess Erda, as was Jill Grove as Fricka and Anna Pompeeva as Freia. Juliana Krajcovic, Justine Ledoux and Yenny Lee were the three Rhinemaidens, all suitably desperate and flailing at the theft of their gold.

 For lovers of opera, but hesitant about Wagner, there is nothing to fear here. This is the shortest of the Ring operas, Wagner needing a mere three hours to introduce his audience to story of the other operas of the Ring. Anyone who simply enjoys a good show will be thoroughly entertained by this production. Musically, Wagner’s music never fails to capture the imagination and both the singing and the orchestra as first class. A wonderful conclusion to one of the best of Calgary Opera’s recent seasons.

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