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Monday, 20 August 2012 11:15

Union Avenue Opera's 'Das Rheingold' is downsized but still in business

Written by Chuck Lavazzi

The Details

How much can you downsize Wagner without putting him out of business? The late musical satirist Anna Russell once famously cut the entire “Ring” cycle down to twenty hilarious minutes and some change while still telling the bare bones of the story.

British composer Jonathan Dove had more serious intentions when he created a reduced version of the first opera in the series, “Das Rheingold”, for smaller opera companies without the facilities or budgets for the original. It lops around 45 minutes off the usual two and one-half hour running time and deletes one character (Mime, forger of the Tarnhelm) without noticeably sacrificing the story or the drama—still a pretty neat trick.

Unfortunately, the Union Avenue production’s use of Michael B. Perkins and Mark Wilson’s admittedly ingenious projected video sometimes falls short of offering the kind of theatrical impact Wagner had in mind (the dragon is especially disappointing), and the music loses some power in this unavoidably reduced orchestration.

Still, there are some great performances and enough fine singing to make it worthwhile.

Besides, to a certain extent the lack of theatrical flash sharpens the focus on the plot, the characters, and their implicit commentary on matters of morality and power. Wagner’s libretti for the “Ring” operas starkly illustrate the cost of abusing power and personal trust—highly ironic, given the way Wagner the man did both.

That said, it’s hard to get the kind of visceral thrills Wagner clearly intended from a 22-piece orchestra or from sets and effects that are only computer projections on the large screen that dominates the industrial-look bare bones set. That’s especially true when—as was sometimes the case on opening night—the tempi are so slow that they drain dramatic tension (the final entry into Valhalla really suffered rom this), the brasses have audible intonation issues, and the projections have a jerky quality that suggests the computer providing them might be underpowered.

Most of the time the band sounded fine, though, and the projected settings for the Rhine, Valhalla, and Niebelheim did create the right atmosphere. The production works far more often than it doesn’t, and given the near impossibility of what Union Avenue is trying to do here, I can’t help but admire it.

It helps that there are some standout performances, the most obvious being baritone Jordan Shanahan as Alberich, the dwarf whose renunciation of love allows him to create the Ring from the stolen Rheinmaidens’ gold. He’s a complex character, unscrupulous and a bully, but also wronged by the gods and less deluded than they about the cost of the Ring’s power. Mr. Shanahan’s Alberich is powerfully sung and dramatically convincing.

Todd von Felker and Nikolas Wenzel are solid as the giants Fasolt and Fafner, and tenor Marc Schapman radiates detached amusement as the wily fire god Loge. Kevin Misslich is a good physical type for Wotan but, at least on opening night, he didn’t always seem fully engaged with the character and his voice was sometimes drowned out by the orchestra.

The women in this cast are mostly very strong singers and actors. Elise Quagliata, who was so stunning in “Dead Man Walking” last season, turns in another fine performance as Fricka. Both she and Cecelia Stearman, in the cameo role of Erda, the Earth Goddess, are commanding figures that demand and get attention with their vocal power and concentration. Elizabeth Beers Kataria, Megan Hart, and Katja Heuzeroth harmonize beautifully as the Rheinmaidens.

My complaints about some tempo choices aside, Scott Schoonover does well by the score and the sound overall is as beefy as you can probably get in that small pit. He even managed to squeeze in a couple of the tuned anvils (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) that Wagner calls for in the Niebelheim sequence.

Teresa Dogget’s costumes mostly work very well, with Wotan’s family all in white outfits reminiscent of late 19th century European royalty, Erda in earth tones, and Alberich and the Nibelung supernumeraries looking like peasants from the same period. The exaggerated shoulders and Frankenstein boots of the giants give them an appropriately massive look while not visibly impeding their movement. Loge’s red-accented costume and punkish white wig, however, just looked goofy to me.

Patrick Huber’s lighting, while unavoidably rudimentary, nevertheless does the job and Elise LaBarge’s English supertitles are, as usual, clear and easily visible throughout the house. Stage director Karen Coe Miller does a heroic job of pulling everything together and making it all work as theatre despite the overall difficulty of the project.

Add it all up and you have an ambitious and highly flawed mini-“Rheingold” that retains the essential musical and theatrical values of the original but does so in a rather diminished form. If you have never seen any of the “Ring” operas, this would be a great opportunity to start making their acquaintance. It will be interesting to see what Union Avenue does with Mr. Dove’s downsized versions of the other three operas in the cycle, which it will mount on an annual basis through 2015.

Meanwhile, “Das Rheingold” concludes with performances Friday and Saturday, August 24 and 25, at 8 PM at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. For more information:

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