Edmonton Opera
Das Rheingold
“It was compellingly forceful and intimidatingly compelling, and by the time he was cursing the gods who robbed him of his glorious future with the ring, this Alberich was perversely in charge, both operatically and narratively. Mazerolle sang his hope and fury splendidly.””

by | Jun 19, 2024 | Featured, Reviews

Edmonton —The phrase “Wagner chamber opera” sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s what Edmonton Opera offered its audience to end the company’s diverse 60th-anniversary season. 

Wagner’s first instalment of his Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, is the shortest of the cycle’s four operas, but for all the segments, Wagner called for large orchestral forces and elaborate sets. A critic of the 1869 premiere noted that it was “lavishly decorated.” The Met’s Robert Lepage production of the whole cycle in 2012 cost $16 million US. 

So when someone stages a Ring adaptation for an orchestra of 19 and mounts it in a 685-seat venue designed for intimate theatre, a space without a fly or a pit, skepticism abounds. Wagner wrote the piece to last three hours without intermission. (Calgary did a production a few months ago but gave its patrons a 15-minute break.) Edmonton Opera’s presentation took just over two hours with an intermission. The Mime and Froh characters were cut entirely.

Since Joel Ivany became the company’s leader, Edmonton Opera has broadened its artistic scope, and its notion of home base has been expanded. More and more of its shows are not done in the 2,500-seat Jubilee Auditorium, where most of its productions have been seen over the past six decades. Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick’s truncated adaptation was staged at the downtown Maclab theatre, part of the Citadel Theatre complex, over a four-night run beginning May 28, two of which were sold out. 

One reduction in this approach to Das Rheingold was evident before a note was played. In the middle of the small stage, encircled by the audience, was an unmade hotel room bed, upon which lay a barefoot man in a white shirt and black trousers. The headboard and frame were a tacky orange, suggesting anything but “lavishly decorated.” The conceit of this rendition, directed by renowned Canadian theatre director Peter Hinton-Davies, was that the unassuming, hardly heroic figure napping on the bed was Wotan, dreaming the plot that would unfold. We couldn’t see what he was dreaming if he just lay there for a couples of hours, and so he roused himself and withdrew, as the gently roiling strains of the opening music ushered in the three Rhein maidens; the bed, however, remained, and much of the blocking was literally a work around and on the bed. 

Mariy Krywaniuk, Madison Montambauld, and Renee Fajardo played their parts as the dutiful guardians of the plot’s MacGuffin, the gold, with girlish enthusiasm and sang attractively. Hinton’s decision not to make them pretend to swim was a good one. They moved as sensibly choreographed singing actors, and when the incel interloper Alberich (Dion Mazerolle) invaded their space, their dismissive flirtation with the sexually frustrated stalker was unhurried and dramatically fluid. 

Although Wotan (Neil Craighead) is ostensibly the focus of the musikdrama, because the performers were so close to the audience, perhaps, Mazerolle’s Alberich was the most compelling figure in this tale of ambition versus love. He sang his role as one might imagine a working-poor Trump supporter, if he sang opera, would sing it as he agonized over his woeful, unjustly thwarted life. It was compellingly forceful and intimidatingly compelling, and by the time he was cursing the gods who robbed him of his glorious future with the ring, this Alberich was perversely in charge, both operatically and narratively. Mazerolle sang his hope and fury splendidly. 

Photo Credit: Nanc Price Photography

The rest of the cast was strong. Roger Honeywell has been singing steadily at home and abroad for a couple of decades, yet surprisingly, he was making his debut with Edmonton opera singing an authoritative Loge. Calgary Opera’s Loge was a flighty, acrobatic figure, but Honeywell, dressed in a red cassock, like some stern cleric, projected a kind of matter-of-factness, anchoring the line of the plot once he intervened. As Wotan’s aide and adviser, he nudged the power-hungry deity toward sensible decisions, and helped him undo the thieving Alberich. His presence, in a more understated way than Alberich’s, outshone the master of the universe at every turn, which is no criticism of Craighead’s performance. Craighead’s Wotan made his obsessions transparent on his own, but his weaknesses were thoroughly revealed through his interactions with the women in his life.

Catherine Daniel sang Erde in the Calgary production. Here she was Wotan’s wife, Fricka. Although impotent to dictate terms to the patriarch, her pleadings for her sister, Freia (Jaclyn Grossman), whom Wotan had bargained away to the two giants, Fasholt and Fafner, contracted to build Valhalla, conveyed a righteous deference that made Wotan look anything but kingly. 

The giants (Vartan Gabrielian and Giles Tomkins), dressed in business suits and carrying briefcases, effectively exerted their own male weirdness in their arguments over whether they should keep Freia as their contracted payment, or accept the mound of gold Wotan hoodwinked out of Alberich in scene three. Both giants brought a fixed-minded stubbornness to the negotiations that revealed another kind of sexual narcissism that both elevated and diminished the agency of their female obsession, Freia. In this production, the giants were in Wotan’s face, giving them more convincing leverage than the giants in the Calgary production, who were kept at a distance from the god they were wrangling with. 

The Maclab has a balcony space at the back and above the stage, where the company’s music director, Simon Rivard, led the miniature Wagner orchestra. The music was certifiable Wagner, but there were no Wagner tubas. There was a single tuba and the requisite bass trumpet. Six string players, including a single harpist, did the work of the seventy musicians wrote the score for. 

Most impressive was the rendering of the Nibelungen’s punctilious anvil hammering, executed by a single percussionist. The mighty Edmonton Symphony musicians enlisted for this modest take on a well-established, massive musical convention out of reach for most opera companies did better than yeoman service. What was missing in volume was made up for by a confident display of collaborative energy appropriate to the adaptation’s dimensions. 

Calgary has no plan to do more of the Ring. Ivany is programming all four in this reduced format. Next season it will be Die Walküre, who knows where? At the opening of Das Rheingold I attended, there may have been some purists in the crowd, curious about viability of this adulterated Wagner. Judging from the zealous applause, and two out four sold-out shows, once again, Ivany has shown that conventions are made to be preserved but also, perhaps, to be boldly rethought. 


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Bill Rankin

Bill Rankin has been a classical music and opera writer for two decades. His reviews and articles have appeared in the Edmonton Journal, the Globe and Mail, Gramophone, Opera Canada, La Scena, the American Record Guide and Classical Voice North America. He lives in Edmonton.



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