At 150 minutes without intermission, with an orchestra so large that it doesn't fit in the pit, the Minnesota Opera's Das Rheingold is a lot. Of course it's a lot. This is Wagner, who gave a new meaning to musical excess. There's a reason they call things "Wagnerian."
The opera is the first installment in Wagner's Ring cycle, and if the Minnesota Opera decides to stage the remaining three installments it will be the first time a local professional opera organization has done so. It would be the first time in almost a century, in fact, that the complete Ring cycle would be performed in Minnesota at all.
It's not without its baggage. The music of the notoriously anti-Semitic Wagner is on the first shelf of things people reach for when they want to discuss whether the merits of art can be appreciated apart from the lives and views of its creators. As was the case during his lifetime, though, the power of the music is undeniable. Viewed across the centuries, it's remarkable how much of a touchstone Wagner's vision of a Gesamtkunstwerk — and even many of the specific details of what the Ring operas look and sound like — remain a touchstone for larger-than-life productions today.
A Gesamtkunstwerk is a "total" work of art: not just the music, not just the story, but an all-encompassing audiovisual creation from the mind of a single genius (which Wagner knew he was, even though he imagined the parameters of his genius to extend much farther than they did). The clearest descendants of this approach today aren't operas, but movies. Not only is the idea of a sweeping, overpowering epic of sight and sound quintessentially Wagnerian; fantasy series like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings cop characters, plot points, and of course musical tricks from Wagner's mythopoetic playbook.
J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was inspired by much of the same Norse mythology that provided the basis for Wagner's Ring cycle. Das Rheingold centers on a single ring of power, illicitly forged and subsequently fought over between a hero from on high and a subterranean foil. When Tolkien's three-part novel was translated to screen, the similarity with Wagner's Rign cycle became even more apparent — in large part because John Williams's Star Wars scores codified Wagner's musical vocabulary and his leitmotif storytelling strategy as integral to fantasy film music.
No doubt about it, the Gesamtkunstwerk was a direct ancestor of what today we might call a blockbuster franchise. It was also a pivotal achievement in the history of art generally, raising the stakes for what a single creator could set out to accomplish. Not only did Wagner write the Ring cycle (and several other operas to boot), he built a venue for their presentation (Bayreuth) and ensured that his work would command a cult-like following through the decades. Like a magic ring, Wagner's work has been key to history even if its place in that history hasn't always been salutary.
The Minnesota Opera's production of Das Rheingold captures the material's bombast, but keeps the focus squarely on the music. (Hear John Birge explore the show with members of the creative team.)
Stage director Brian Staufenbiel puts the of-necessity outsize orchestra on the stage of the Ordway Music Theater, turning the orchestra pit alternately into a pool for the Rhinemaidens and a mine for the Niebelung. The gods prowl a catwalk above conductor Michael Christie's head, and David Murakami's projections on two scrims (one in front of the orchestra, one behind) expand the setting.
Just as surely as you need a giant orchestra and Wagnerian singers to do the Ring, you need a production concept, and this one is cyberpunk. "The action takes place in a future where science and technology have caught up with nature," writes Staufenbiel in a program note, "where the organic, the mechanical, and the digital have started to fuse." The production doesn't put too fine a point on any of that, though, so Norse old-schoolers need not stay home.
Rossini famously said that Wagner had some beautiful moments and some dull quarters-of-an-hour, and no amount of circuitbreaking can get around the fact that Das Rheingold (the shortest of the Ring cycle, in fact) is something you have to settle in for. Seen one way, the story is essentially a prolonged multi-way negotiation &8212; a high-fantasy conference call.
The giants Fasolt (Jeremy Galyon) and Fafner (Julian Close) have constructed Valhalla for Wotan (Greer Grimsley) and his gods. As payment, Wotan has promised his sister-in-law Freia (Karin Wolverton). Understandably, that plan doesn't thrill his wife Fricka (Katharine Goeldner) — and then there's the further complication that with Freia grows the golden apples that keep the gods forever young.
Loge (Richard Cox), god of fire — well, demigod, technically — gets the giants to agree to release Freia if they can get their hands on the Rheingold instead. That would be gold with magical powers, which the power-hungry Alberich (Nathan Berg) has stolen from the Rhinemaidens (Mary Evelyn Hangley, Alexandra Razskazoff, Nadia Fayad). Wotan and Loge set out to wrest the gold from Alberich, but Wotan would prefer to keep the all-powerful ring Alberich has forged from the gold by renouncing love (his prospects were limited anyway). That's not going to work out so well, warns earth goddess Erda (a majestic Denyce Graves).
The last opera in the cycle is called Götterdämmerung ("Twilight of the Gods"), so you know where this is ultimately headed. A tragic air hangs over the entire cycle, including Das Rheingold: as the gods enter their new home on high, Wagner captures a mixture of majesty and poignance. One of Wagner's signal achievements as a musical dramatist was empowering the orchestra to not just underscore the action but to comment on it — his complex compositional language plumbs the depths of these characters' hearts, alternately foreboding and nostalgic.
That makes it all the more apt that the orchestra takes center stage in this production, with the characters moving around and through it. The music flows continuously, like a rolling wave these characters ride toward their fate. It's a grand and rare spectacle.