Production: DAS RHEINGOLD
Composer: Richard Wagner
Company: Teatro La Fenice di Venezia
Conductor: Lothar Zagrosek
Principal Singers: Greer Grimsley, Natascha Petrinsky, Marlin Miller, Richard Paul Fink
Venue: Teatro La Fenice, Venice
Run: June 24 to July 2, 2011
**** (out of five)
Reviewed by James Karas
Richard Wagner died in Venice in 1883. There was something fitting about seeing Das Rheingold in the city where its creator breathed his last and at the splendiferous Teatro La Fenice even if it was in a concert version only.
Wagner, with typical arrogance, described his monumental Das Rheingold as a prologue, a mere preliminary evening to the three parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen. No one is fooled by the description but authorial respect still describes this full-fledged opera as its nasty creator wished. La Fenice presented the whole cycle beginning with Die Walkure in 2006, Siegfried in 2007, Die Gotterdammerung in 2009 and is now finishing with six performances of Das Rheingold.
A concert version has the huge disadvantage of giving you the music and the singing without the theatrical accoutrements. No scenery, no acting, just the performance by the orchestra and the singers facing the audience and turning pages on the lecterns.
There are advantages as well. You pay more attention to the music and the singing without being distracted (if that is the right word) by stage business, sets and acting. It is like listening to a sound recording on the best stereo system imaginable and being able to see the singers and the orchestra.
The Venice production has a great deal to offer beginning with the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice under the baton of Lothar Zagrosek. He attacked the score with vigour and the result was a splendid orchestral concert alone.
The singing was led by American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley as Wotan. The pony-tailed singer has a commanding physical stature to match his equally commanding vocal prowess. He sang with convincing sonority and was a marvelous Wotan.
Another American, baritone Richard Paul Fink, shone in the role of the evil Alberich. Even in tails, Fink could not stay still and he engaged in physical movements as he sang the notes of the horny dwarf who gives up love for gold. Singing and even acting on a very high standard.
Tenor Kurt Azesberger was a perfect foil as his brother, the whining and abused Mime. Again, Azesberger was not content to deliver only the notes; he brought out the character of the dwarf as well.
The construction team of the giants Fasolt (Israeli bass-baritone Gideon Saks) and Fafner (South Korean bass Attila Jun) are effective with very high marks going to Saks.
Austrian mezzo-soprano Natascha Petrinsky eschewed movement but she managed to sound like a nag and a bitch as Fricka. Welsh mezzo-soprano Ceri Williams had the smaller role of Erda but she made an impressive appearance. Tenor Marlin Miller conveyed the shiftiness and crookedness of Loge, the mastermind of the theft of the gold from the dwarfs.
I enjoyed listening to the Rhine Maidens more because I was watching a concert version. In fully staged productions I tend to be looking at directorial approaches and production methods rather than listening the Maidens in the opening scene. Mea culpa. Eva Oltivanyi (Woglinde), Stefanie Iranyi (Wellgunde) and Annette Jahns (Flosshilde) gave great reasons for paying attention to their singing and a needed corrective to a bad habit of mine..
Venice in the summer is awash with tourists negotiating the narrow streets, shopping for souvenirs in the ten million shops catering to that mentality or spending €1000 for a pair of sandals. Or worse, pretending to enjoy a ride on those over-priced, infernal gondolas. I am not exaggerating about the sandals.
La Fenice has been around for over 200 years (it opened in 1792) and has been somewhat prone to fires. It was last torched by arsonists in 1996 and it did not re-open until 2004. It is ornately decorated with gold leaf and presents an atmosphere of opulence.
Wagner was born in 1813 and in a couple of years we will be celebrating his 200th anniversary. Opera companies around the world are gearing up for the occasion and Wagnerites have a lot to look forward to – perhaps even another production in Venice.