For the Minnesota Opera’s first-ever production of Wagner Das Rheingold, I was wondering how a few important challenges were going to be solved. Challenge no. 1: the pit of the Ordway Music Theatre is too small to accommodate a Wagnerian-sized orchestra. Challenge no. 2: How well would the voices project in a hall that isn’t known for its resonance?

Nibelheim scene © Cory Weaver
Nibelheim scene
© Cory Weaver

As it turned out, producer Brian Staufenbiel and conductor Michael Christie had a few tricks up their sleeve – one of which I’ve never experienced in a grand opera production before. They moved the orchestra onto the stage of the theatre where it played unobtrusively, thanks to the use of dark lighting and screens. This was genius. Not only did it mean that a full complement of musicians could be used, it also enabled the orchestra pit to be turned into the Rhine and the underground Niebelheim, making staging those aspects of the opera’s plot more effective. In another bit of stagecraft wizardry, Staufenbiel placed the gods on a bridge above the orchestra, while the downstage area was where additional action involving the other cast members took place. For once, I was able to hear every note in a Wagnerian production.

The cast was uniformly excellent. Greer Grimsley is one of the most prominent Wotans active on the opera scene today, having sung the role at the Met Opera, Seattle Opera and numerous other companies around the world. His powerful, stentorian baritone hit all the right notes – literally and figurative. Nathan Berg sang the role of Alberich powerfully as well. Portraying a character with clear personality issues, in his interaction with the Rhinemaidens (Nadia Fayad, Mary Evelyn Hangley, Alexandra Raszkazoff), and later with Mime (Dennis Peterson) and Logo (Richard Cox), Berg conveyed perfectly the dual nature of Alberich’s swagger and desperation. The scene in which he makes his curse on the ring was spine-tingling.

Greer Grimsley (Wotan) © Cory Weaver
Greer Grimsley (Wotan)
© Cory Weaver

In her first Wagnerian role, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves was a convincing Erda. She commanded the stage not only with her deep voice but also her dramatic gown replete with tree branches. Also highly effective were Julian Close and Jeremy Galyon as the giants Fafner and Fasolt. Rather than the cartoon-like characterizations some productions present, these particular giants were imposing and sinister. With only one or two misses here and there during the performance, all of the voices were technically accurate and on pitch, and bright without being shrill. The Rhinemaiden’s trio passages that open and close the opera were particularly effective in this regard.

Michael Christie’s direction kept the proceedings under tight control, his conducting emphasizing clarity throughout. The augmented Minnesota Opera Orchestra played idiomatically, conjuring up an imposing Wagnerian sound at all the right moments including the procession of the gods into Valhalla, surely one of the most thrilling musical moments in all of opera.

As for the “scene-setting”, producers long ago eschewed Wagner’s own preference for “Romantic realism” (bearskins and all) in favor of other visions. Some of those have been less successful with audiences than others. A nice balance was struck here. Costuming placed this Rheingold in a kind of a futuristic-world along the lines of Mad Max, with headgear and other accessories to match. There was also highly effective use of video projections – some abstract – that brought heightened atmospherics and added drama to the scenes featuring the Rhine, the forges of Niebelheim, and Valhalla Castle.

Valhalla © Cory Weaver
Valhalla
© Cory Weaver

The final scene’s procession into Valhalla was highly effective as well. Instead of the typical approach of having the gods raised up on a platform to the doors of the castle, video designer David Murakami brought the castle to the singers. At the very end, the doors to the castle opened to a blinding light which enveloped the entire stage, underscoring Loge’s prophecy that Wotan’s greatest triumph would soon give way to the destruction of the gods’ entire world.

Speculation is rife as to whether this Rheingold production presages Minnesota Opera productions of the remaining three operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle in subsequent seasons. On the basis of the fine quality of this production, if that comes to fruition it would be welcome news indeed.