Putting the orchestra on stage is the pits in Seattle Opera’s production of Das Rheingold
Taking an opera orchestra out of the pit and putting it on stage – especially a massive, Wagner-sized one – is not the best thing for a fantasy story like Das Rheingold. But that is exactly what Seattle Opera did in its latest presentation of Wagner’s opera. The company’s production of Das Rheingold (August 12) at McCaw Hall offered excellent singing and acting, but an orchestral sound that was not exciting, even with the conducting of Ludovic Morlot, Conductor Emeritus of the Seattle Symphony.
Was cost a factor? Wagner’s operas are well known to be budget busters, and lack of funds is probably one of the main reasons that Seattle Opera has not mounted the Ring Cycle in since 2013. After Speight Jenkins retired from his post as General Director in 2014, the company delivered The Flying Dutchman (2016) and Tristan und Isolde (2022), the latter under its current General Director, Christina Scheppelmann. Now starting its 60th season, Seattle Opera celebrated with Das Rheingold, but that can be seen as a bittersweet moment since Scheppelmann is moving on to take over La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels at the end of the 2023-2024 season.
Billed as a Das Rheingold for the technology era, Seattle Opera’s production, directed by Brian Staufenbiel, put action on a gantry-style bridge above the orchestra, in the orchestra pit, and on a couple of extra platforms. Projections, designed by David Murakami, conveyed the imagery of grinding gears and electrical energy. A camera that projected and amplified the giants faces on a screen above the gods also symbolized technology a bit, but other than a couple of colorful, steampunk-like costumes designed by Mathew LeFebvre, that was it. There were no specific scenic constructions of machinery, no cell phones, laptops nor anything else to convey the concept of technology.
Putting the musicians on the stage was an innovative idea, but it took up a lot of real estate and forced the singers to make some of their entries right through the middle of the orchestra. Still, Staufenbiel made the most of it. The Rheinmaidens (Jacqueline Piccolino, Shelly Traverse, and Sarah Larsen) dipped, dived, and slipped their way around the orchestra pit. Albrecht (Michael Mayes) jumped into mix but was unable to snag the elusive mermaids. After becoming fixated with the glimmering Rheingold, he renounced love and stole the treasure for himself.
The orchestra pit also served as the workplace of the Nibelungen and Mime (Martin Barkari). They cowered before Albrecht who snapped his whip and made himself invisible with the Tarnhelm. Wotan (Greer Grimsley) and Loge (Frederick Ballentine) tricked Albrecht, captured him, and got the all-powerful ring. After Erda (Denyce Graves) warned Wotan to give up the ring or it would doom the gods, he reluctantly included the ring and all of the gold to pay the giants – Fasolt (Peixin Chen) and Fafner (Kenneth Kellogg) – for building Valhalla. That released Freia (Katie Van Kooten), but then Fafner strangled Fasolt and pushed him into the orchestra pit for good measure.
Relegated to the elevated bridge, Fricka (Melody Wilson), Freia, Froh (Viktor Antipenko), and Donner (Michael Choildi) never ventured down to the earthly main stage level. Only Wotan and Loge made that journey. The downstairs-upstairs concept was reinforced by Erda, who proclaimed her cautionary advice from a raised platform next to the orchestra conductor, and the giants, who took position on a platform – with the camera on a tripod – that rose out of the orchestra pit. The pit also served well for the Nibelheim scene with the child-work force. But the kids could at least have been given toy hammers to do their work. Just using their hands seemed really lame.
The commanding, stentorian bass of Grimsley led a strong cast of singers, including forceful volleys from Mayes, who created an incredibly active Albrecht. Chen upped the volume with his demands as Fasolt. Ballentine sang the role of Loge with a show-stealing twinkle in his eyes. Graves was impressively golden in the lower register but a bit hooty in the upper. Antipenko’s Froh and Van Kooten’s Freia sounded majestic in their all-too-brief passages.
Morlot seemed to hold the orchestra back a little bit or perhaps the position of the orchestra on stage hampered things. Overall, the orchestral sound did not have enough dramatic thrust when needed. Even at the end, the music didn’t exclaim as triumphantly as it could have. And the gods were left standing on the bridge, looking at the projection of Valhalla as it came towards them – an odd contrast of stasis and movement – that seemed to sum up this unsatisfying production of Das Rheingold.