The audience emerges from Wagner's operas a little dazed, shaking off an experience that was intense and, perhaps, even a little unpleasant. The effect is that of escaping from an altogether overwhelming and immersive experience. At least, this was my feeling after the new production of Das Rheingold mounted by the Minnesota Opera Company at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul on November 19, 2016. What accounts for this sense of being overwhelmed and enraptured in the work is the weird lifelikeness of Wagner's greater operas, the feeling that we are participating in wholly coherent world built according to certain laws that may not be rational, but that are, nonetheless, predictable. Wagner's universe is constructed note-by-note, on a molecular basis as it were, with his famous leit motifs. These tiny fragments of melody signify various emotional states, characters, and physical entities in his operas -- in effect, they are tiny themes attached to the components of the narration that re-occur innumerable times in ways that vary according to the precise emotional valence required by the plot. This short-hand method of composition was a necessity, I suppose, for the construction of towering edifices requiring that a million or more notes be set in place just so -- the immense length of Wagner's scores probably would not have been possible except for the leit motif system that enabled the composer to recycle previously established melodic elements hundreds of times to create his effects. That said, Wagner is with Peter Tschaikovsky one of the greatest of all inventors of memorable, "ear-worm" melodies -- his operas swarm with catchy snatches of tune; one aspect of listening to Wagner is that after an hour or so, you can't get his themes out of your head -- the effect is somewhat disconcerting and, even, a bit irritating. Furthermore, Wagner's trick of characterizing his heroes and their surroundings, cloaking them as it were in bits recyclable melody, is to make his protagonists uniquely memorable and strangely distinct. When we meet someone and come to know them, of course, the experience yields a series of impressions that can't be put into words -- we experience the world sensually. Wagner's gods and mortals are all defined by whiffs of melody -- we smell them as it were. We can't describe exactly what it is about Siegfried's melody that is uniquely defiant and proudly heroic -- this is the way we experience real life as impressions that can not necessarily be reduced to words. We experience love or despair but can't put those emotions into exactly accurate verbal formulation -- rather, we are confronted with a complex compound of elements that are not primarily verbal. So similarly, Wagner's operas confront us with heroes and villains characterized not by their words or, even, by their actions, but by musical emblems that can't be reduced to mere description -- these musical emblems may shift and vary according to the circumstances, but they remain sufficiently true to their original formulations as to cause us to sense an underlying unity of character behind the different moods and tonal nuances expressed by the leit motifs. After an hour of Wagner, the audience is overwhelmed by a vast and musically coherent structure that seems to represent a powerfully realistic -- because unified -- world, a world in which its inhabitants are defined by sonic tags more profound than any mere verbal description might be.
Das Rheingold, of course, poses massive technical challenges. It's plot ranges from the heaven of Walhalla to the hell of the dwarves and the show is presented as one continuous act without intermissions -- actors have to somehow make themselves invisible, turn into massive fire-breathing dragons and toads. There are giants and gods and dwarves on the stage -- the only thing that the opera lacks in dramatis personae are human beings. We are in primordial cosmos, seeming before (or, perhaps after) humanity.
At the Ordway, the first technical dilemma arises from the size of the orchestra, players too numerous to confine in the tight pit beneath the stage. It is a commonplace that Wagnerian opera treats the orchestra as a character itself -- that is, as an agent of action and drama. Accordingly, this production simply plops the orchestra center-stage. The conductor stands with his back to the audience on his podium and the orchestra, divided into two wings with an aisle down the center, is arrayed under the proscenium arch. This solution requires that action spill out onto a thrust stage erected as a ceiling or cap over the orchestra pit. The thrust stage has two waist-deep indentations -- rectangular pits that can simulate either Rhine river, when foaming with dry-ice mist, or the craters of the dwarf's realm. Since the orchestra occupies the entire stage, there isn't really any room for the performers to move around, gesticulate, or act -- this isn't too much of a problem because Wagner's music-theater is largely static: the singers tend to stand motionless in one place or another while they navigate their complex and stentorian parts. At the Ordway, a metal bridge was cast across the stage, a steel truss about 15 feet off the floor to provide a platform for the gods -- throughout the production, they stood on the bridge spaced at intervals as required by the action (or rather non-action) and simply declaimed their parts from that height. Erda's appearance toward the end of the opera was accomplished by having the actress simply appear in the aisle between the wings of the orchestra -- in that way, the singer was aligned with the cosmic, prophetic music signifying the twilight of the gods that resounds in the orchestra; I thought it was a good effect. The notorious transition scenes are accomplished by way of two projections. First, a scrim was lowered in front of the orchestra and could be used as a translucent surface on which images were projected -- the scrim simulates a cavern when Loge and Wotan descend into Alberich's realm. At the opera's opening, gears are projected onto the scrim to signify the many complex moving parts in the Cycle and, then, undulant waves to represent the Rhine. The rear screen is used for a projection of Walhalla, buttresses and domes mostly concealed by mists and, then, for various patterns that tracking upward or downward signify Loge and Wotan's elevator to (and from) the dwarves' Nibelheim. The rear screen a dozen feet behind the truss bridge is used to project a great fiery dragon when Alberich turns himself into that beast and, also, various orange and yellow neon flashes that signify lightning. When the gods march into Walhalla over the rainbow bridge, the effect is achieved by clearing the fog away from the titanic structures projected behind the bridge and built over a vast, obsidian-black crevasse. Walhalla very slowly approaches during the last ten minutes of the opera until the gods on their bridge are directly opposite a great door. Beneath their feet, we see sprays of colored light that mimic the rainbow. The doors to the castle open majestically and a great golden radiance pours out so that the gods appear as mere shadows in a flood of light. I thought these effects, with the mighty music accompanying them, were exceedingly effective. (And throughout this final scene, the Rhine Maidens appear below, in their troughs of bluish fog on the thrust stage, lamenting the loss of the Rheingold.) The costumes of the dwarves and gods were basically derived from the couture of the Mad Max films -- leather jackets, safari pants, aviator goggles. The Rhine maidens, zaftig and robust girls, wore what looked like pajamas, however, with Empire styling. The giants, Fafnir and Fasolt, were merely large louts with bald heads, also clad in utilitarian leather overcoats and wearing black goggles. They held forth from the thrust stage after first setting up a camera in front of them like a surveyor's transit -- this camera transmitted images to a big screen mounted on the extreme left side of the truss-bridge. In this way, Freia could be threatened while standing mostly immobile on the bridge by the monstrous giants remote from her on thrust stage below them. This would have been an impressive effect had I been able to see it -- however, my seats are partially obstructed with respect to action occurring on the extreme left of the stage, an area, unfortunately, where lots of interesting things often occur.
Wagner's Ring often gives the impression of extreme majesty combined with the most squalid and trivial bickering. The singers deliver mighty bursts of sound and the orchestra blazes brilliantly, but, sometimes, the subject of all this Sturm und Drang is underwhelming. The most famous example of the mismatch between the music and the puny interpersonal strife can be found in the Third Act of Die Walkuere where Wotan lectures Bruennhilde interminably about her disobedience as his daughter, all to titanic musical accompaniment. Similar discordance exists throughout Das Rheingold. Wotan has built Walhalla primarily as a sop to Fricka, his wife. Fricka is disgusted with Wotan's extra-marital affairs and her husband builds her the spectacular mansion as recompense for her wounded feelings. Wotan finds himself in a profound conflict when he tries to breach his construction contract with the Giants, conveniently forgetting that the runes on his oak staff are the warrant that contracts (and oaths) must be kept and fully performed. The mighty gods are perilously weak -- if they are deprived of Freia's golden apples, they weaken and risk perishing. Alberich's petty vanity allows Loge to get the better of him and the whole cosmic catastrophe is caused by minor-league sexual bullying --the Rhine maiden's unfortunate teasing of the hapless dwarf, Alberich. I thought the production didn't do justice to the strange beauty and uncanny sentiece of the Rhine-gold -- the gold seemed to be a Mylar beach toy, an inflated beach ball floating in the froth of the dry-ice mist on the thrust stage. The Rheingold motif is a burst of powerful light, something much vaster and more profound that the little Mylar balloon drifting around in the mist. I think this effect was intended as ironic -- when Alberich seized the Rheingold, the beach ball deflated and clutching the crushed and ruined talisman, he runs off stage departing through a side door under a red Exit sign. I thought Alberich's exist in the first scene was a little too emphatic since, of course, he's not decisively gone and will return later in this opera and in the Ring cycle in general.
The singers were all good. Greer Grimsley playing Wotan is physically too small for his role and the mighty music that he must intone but, nonetheless, sang majestically. Denyce Graves, appearing as Erda, was also excellent; her appearance and the portent of the twilight of the gods was thrilling. The two giants (Julian Close and Jeremy Galyon) also declaimed their parts in appropriately rich, deep, and giant voices. The fire-god Loge (Richard Cox) had an odd affect -- he seemed like a sardonic and unreliable butler. This impression may have been caused by his peculiar head-gear -- Loge wore a blue skull-cap from which protruded many slender forked antlers of orange metal, apparently, intended to simulate flames flickering about his head. In Wagner, the orchestra always seems either too loud or too soft -- but here, I thought, that the balance was mostly fine. The audience did not disappoint. Some came dressed in Viking's horns -- on one man's horns, a small raven was perched. In front of my seats, in the box, a smallish hobbit took his place. The hobbit was wearing an Edwardian black tuxedo with black bow-tie and wore white gloves; he was carrying a cane with a silver knobbed head and wore a black cape.