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Few works capture the grandeur and power of operatic storytelling as fully as Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Although the four operas that comprise this sprawling work primarily explore the follies of the gods, they also tell recognizably human stories. The Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) deftly explores the foibles of Wagner’s all-too-fallible deities in a fine production of Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), the first work of his tetralogy.
Director K. James McDowell uses the Helen Corning Warden Theater’s limited resources to his advantage. With no set designer credited, Allen G. Doak Jr.’s evocative lighting suggests the various locales specified in Wagner’s libretto, from the Rhinemaidens’ watery perch to the hellish subterranean lair of the Nibelungs.
Val Starr’s largely traditional costumes contain playful elements, including the flaming red and gold cape worn by Loge, the demigod of fire (sung here by the promising character tenor Piotr Buszewski). Singers make entrances and exits through the auditorium, adding palpable immediacy to the proceedings.
But McDowell’s staging excels most in its exploration of character. Das Rheingold sets in motion a tumultuous epic that will eventually resolve with the destruction of the realm of the gods.
Lord of the ring
Mercurial gnome Alberich uses the titular booty to forge a ring whose owner would become the world’s unquestionable ruler. (The evening I attended, the role was performed by firm-voiced baritone Timothy Renner, who alternates with Ethan Simpson.)
The prospect of world domination tantalizes Wotan (Nathan Milholin), chief of the gods. He steals the ring from Alberich, who curses its wearer with death and destruction.
Wagner rejected portraying gods as perfect beings. He instead presented the inhabitants of Valhalla as flawed, troubled people, sometimes indistinguishable from their mortal counterparts.
Milholin’s Wotan accentuates this dramaturgical point. His interchanges with his wife Fricka (mezzo soprano Hannah Ludwig) resemble those of any long-married couple. The only difference is that instead of deciding who washes dishes or takes out the trash, they squabble about ransoming sister Freia (sweet-toned soprano Alexandra Nowakowski) to giants Fasolt and Fafner (Daniel Noyola and Brent Michael Smith).
Milholin captures Wotan’s volatility and shortsightedness. He often resembles a child in singleminded pursuit of a coveted toy, bullying the pathetic Alberich until he gets what he wants. Milholin’s smart acting choices compensate for a voice that occasionally turns craggy and can sound unsupported, particularly at the lower end of his range. (AVA alum Ben Wager plays Wotan at select performances).
Ludwig stands out among the supporting cast for dramatic commitment and flawless German diction. Tenor Abraham Bretón brings similar skills to his portrayal of Mime, Alberich’s abused and berated brother. First-year resident artist Gabriela Flores follows up her superb Azucena in November’s Il Trovatore with a rich-voiced Erda, goddess of the earth and mother of the Rhinemaidens (beautifully sung by sopranos Meryl Dominguez and Alexandra Raskazoff and mezzo soprano Pascale Spinney). Members of the Philadelphia Boys Choir and Chorale provide some comic relief as the wily Nibelungs, who gladly betray Alberich before Wotan and Loge.
The conductor-free performance featured musical accompaniment by pianist Luke Housner, who alone managed to capture the myriad chromatic details and leitmotifs embedded throughout Wagner’s score. The decision to forgo a full orchestra feels in step with the production’s strengths. AVA’s Rheingold privileges the intimate, compelling character studies at the heart of Wagner’s epic music drama. Heda! Heda! Hedo! to all involved.
What, When, Where
Das Rheingold. By Richard Wagner, K. James McDowell directed. Academy of Vocal Arts. Through January 30, 2018, at the Helen Corning Warden Theater, 1920 Spruce Street, Philadelphia. (215) 735-1685 or avaopera.org.
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