Friday, August 17, 2012

Union Ave Opera - "Das Rheingold"

     Who would have expected a small opera company to mount a production of "Rheingold" here in the mid-west?  But I just got back from the Union Ave Opera performance and I have to say hats off to them! This company, who performs three operas a year in a church in St. Louis, seems to have no qualms about tackling any project they feel drawn to.  They did "Dead Man Walking" last year and in the coming years they have the rest of the Ring Cycle scheduled!  They are using the Graham Vick/Jonathan Dove chamber arrangement - reduction of the work to be sure - an arrangement which, at least for this first installment, seems to work pretty well - but is not without it's problems.  Nevertheless, before I start nit-picking about little things I want to say that it was an outstanding performance.  Union Ave. did a great job mounting what has got to be a challenge even in the reduced form.  The singers, across the board, were great.  There was not a weak link in the cast - and they were very well balanced (unlike their earlier production of "Ballo.")  For me the standouts in the outstanding cast were - 1st and foremost - Jordan Shanahan as Alberich.  He was simply terrific.  This is a top notch singer.  But he wasn't alone - I really liked Elise Qualgliata as Fricka (I hope she will be back for "Walkure") and Todd von Felker as Fasolt.  Also, hats off to the trio of Rheinmaidens, who performed as a tight unit and had great ensemble. 
     On the whole the orchestra was good.  It is a hard score and I am sure that this reduction, like most that I have performed, is a lot more taxing even than the original.  Conductor Scott Schoonover had good control of the orchestra and maintained a good pace throughout, for the most part.  Things started to drag a bit in the opening of the 2nd scene, but the once the giants arrived the pace got back on track.  I do wonder about Jonathan Dove's orchestration.  Would it have killed him to have included a couple more horns and at least a bass trombone.  The low brass were woefully missing at times, and I am sure it was the orchestration.  And the two horns did yeoman's work with 8 reduced parts - but there were times when there was just not enough horn.  The introduction was cut (drastically) - so I am not talking about that, but, for example, when Alberich steals the gold there is a terrifying blast from the horns which was just not really effective here and I think it was because there weren't enough of them.  There were other moments in the orchestra: the low strings had intonation troubles, especially in the beginning.  And the timpani was just way too timid.  Come on - the entrance of the giants should be powerful, even terrifying - and it wasn't.  The timpani was to meek and the low brass had been cut by the orchestration so it was disappointing. On the other hand, the horns and brass played the valhalla motif beautifully.
     My biggest complaint however are the cuts.  I am not sure whether these cuts came with the reduction or were the choice of the music director.  And certainly some of them were perhaps necessary.  There is really no choice, for example, but to cut the intro if you only have 2 horns and 1 trombone - there is no way to do the 8 horn effect.  But the other cuts were excessive, I thought, and a couple of them affected the opera negatively.  The worst one is the cut of the entire opening of the Niebelheim scene, which resulted in the cutting of the entire character of Mime.  This is really unfortunate.  First, the cut was not seamless and was musically jolting. This also had the effect of ruining the development of the scene with Alberich.  Lastly, Mime is more than comic relief.  He is going to be a central character in Siegfried and Rheingold introduces him and we begin to understand who he is and what motivates him.  The other cut that I thought was really harmful musically occurred after the giants exit with Freia.  In the complete opera, Loge then watches and narrates the descent of the giants with the goddess.  Musically this has always been one of my favorite moments in the opera.  And what follows then develops better.  As it was with this cut, the giants leave with Freia and everyone immediately enters the stupor of not having had their daily apple.  In general I hated the cuts and thought they were excessive.  What are they going to do with the remaining operas in the Ring Cycle?!
     A couple other quibbles - Loge was too compassionate.  Was this his acting or the direction?  I don't know.  But he seemed to feel sorry and be compassionate for Alberich and then the giants.  I don't agree.  Loge should be aloof.  He doesn't care for anyone - like fire!  He is manipulative and selfish. In fact I don't think he really has feelings.  He champions the Rheinmaidens out of a sense of justice.  But there should be no pity for Alberich.  Also, the costumes were pretty good for everyone - except Loge and Donner.  Loge's costume was a complete misfire.  The wig didn't work and the outfit made no sense to me.  And Donner's costume just didn't seem to fit.  And what is with the oversize (papier maché?) hammer? Over kill I think. (BTW - What happened to the anvil strike at the climax of Donner's invocation?!?)  There needed to be more Niebelungs and they need to scream!  It seemed to me like the director did not know what to do with Froh and Donner a lot of the time, they just kind of wandered aimlessly around the stage.  So why did they enter at the beginning of scene 2 with Wotan and Fricka?  There is no good reason and they seemed to not know what to do with themselves.  On the other hand, I really liked the video projections - very effective.  And what a great idea for Loge to put Alberich the toad in his pocket! Also, the costumes for the giants were terrific, as were the Rheinmaidens. (Why was Freia in pink and the rest of the gods in white?)
    In closing this review I have to note that I noticed some Tolkien "Lord of the Rings" references.  Was this just my imagination or did the director purposely put these subtle suggestions into the opera?  Alberich looked like Gimli (except for the beard) and the gods (except Freia) looked elves. Wotan removed the Ring of Power from Alberich's hand by cutting off his finger (a la Frodo and Golum).  But the major allusion was this: I could not help notice that at the very end of the opera the video effect looked eerily like the eye of Sauron.  These are not criticisms.  I actually thought these were kind of cool and it is possible I am imagining them.  But they did seem to jump out at me.
     I know the Ring Cycle very well.  I have seen multiple performances - live and on video.  And I have to say that this was, on the whole, a very effective and excellent performance.  And in many ways I found it more effective and engaging than the horrid LePage production that the Met mounted (which I saw partly live and partly in HD).  And I am sure Union Ave did not have anywhere near the budget that they had at the Met.  And yet, with great singers, creativity, cleverness, and maybe a little fearlessness - and probably lots of volunteer hours - Union Opera was able to give St. Louis a wonderful Wagnerian experience.  Bravo and Thank you!  Union Ave. Opera is a treasure!

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