Opera Review: Abridged staging of classic Wagner cycle rings true

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Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung" is one of the monuments of Western civilization. In its original form, its four operas last 18 hours, performed over a period of several days and requiring a large cast of singers with huge voices, an orchestra of 100 and expensive sets. "Ring" cycles are special events.

In Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's production of "Rhinegold," Rod Nelman sang Wotan, and Suzan Hanson portrayed Freia.
Click photo for larger image.

In 1990, British composer Jonathan Dove created a mini-"Ring" for the City of Birmingham Touring Opera. He trimmed Wagner's score down to a mere 10 hours, reduced the orchestra and fitted his adaptation to the excellent existing English translation by Andrew Porter, making it possible to use younger singers who look their parts better than stereotypical jumbo-sized Wagnerians.

This is not the "Ring" you'd see at Bayreuth or the Met, but it's remarkably satisfying, even for those who know their opera, while for the uninitiated it is a perfect introduction. Personal motives and interactions in particular come through with emotional immediacy.

It is with this version, cannily staged by Jonathan Eaton, that the feisty Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, in a collaborative effort with California's equally courageous Long Beach Opera, tested the waters successfully with the first two operas last summer and is now doing the first complete "Ring" (abridged) cycle ever in Pittsburgh at the Byham. The first of two consecutive weekend cycles took place Friday through Sunday. It's a must-see event for every opera lover or theatergoer.

In the prologue opera "Rhinegold," the Nibelung (dwarf race) Alberich renounces love in order to steal gold from the Rhine River and forge a ring that will make him master of the universe. When king-of-the-gods Wotan steals it, Alberich puts a curse on the ring that sets off a chain of tragic events. For the most part, Dove has cut away lengthy narrations and explanations. One cut that should be restored, however, is Wotan's solo at the entrance of the gods into Valhalla -- the most beautiful moment in "Rhinegold" -- without which the ending falls flat.

Danila Korogodsky's imaginative set and costume designs are dominated by a giant ring, which serves as a see-through curtain for each act. Mood is established at the start by the music as well: a sustained E-flat triad representing the eternity of the Rhine and reinforced by the Rhinemaidens -- splendidly sung and embodied by Diba Alvi, Charlene Canty and Elizabeth Saunders.

Eaton's direction, in keeping with the intimate setting, emphasizes individual feelings and relationships, such as Wotan's domestic squabbles with his wife, Fricka, and the brutish treatment of Sieglinde by her enforced husband, Hunding. Occasionally he miscalculates -- as in making the youth-goddess Freia overly spastic to depict the trauma of being kidnapped and raped by the giants -- but for the most part he's psychologically right on.

The musical element was valiantly led by Anthony Negus, although the brass players were hard-pressed by Wagner's (and Dove's) demands. The singing, for the most part, was quite good, though it must be noted that only a few among the cast might sing comparable roles in a big house with full orchestra.

There is also the troubling matter of amplification. According to Eaton, due to the Byham's uneven acoustics, he opted for "enhancement," but only in the area beyond 12 feet upstage. It didn't always work. Erda, for example, in the impressive persona and previously demonstrated grand voice of Demareus Cooper, did not project as well as expected from her upstage perch. In contrast, some smaller-voiced singers managed to find hot spots downstage that made them sound as if amplified to the point of distortion.

Rod Nelman sang Wotan without flagging, though also without imparting much insight. Brunnhilde was shared by two svelte sopranos: Deidra Palmour Gorton (lithe but shrill in "The Valkyrie") and Suzan Hanson (the twitchy Freia in "Rhinegold," a little uncertain in "Siegfried," coming into her own in the most demanding "Immolation Scene" that concludes the cycle).

The weekend's most impressive vocalism came from Gary Lehman and Anna Singer as Siegmund and Sieglinde. These are powerful, seasoned artists. Lehman, who has flirted with both baritone and tenor roles over the years, now seems on the verge of becoming a true Heldentenor. Singer soared through her lines and triumphed depicting Sieglinde's elation and despair.

Hardly far behind was Joel Sorensen, a superb character tenor with impeccable diction, doubling as the evil fire god Loge and the equally malevolent dwarf Mime. Others deserving mention include Nathan Bahny, an appropriately creepy Alberich; Jessie Raven, opulent as Fricka and also Waltraute; Dan Snyder, a handsome, vocally lightweight Siegfried; and the twin basses Herbert and Eugene Perry, bravely doing a variety of roles immediately after losing a beloved parent.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.


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