Indianapolis Opera and the ISO 'Das Rheingold' performance review 

It's been exactly 30 years since the last and only other time Indianapolis Opera and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra joined their programming series to produce an opera with an ISO music director on the podium. That was John Nelson conducting Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict from the Clowes Hall pit, April 1979. Last weekend, current ISO music director Mario Venzago did something quite a bit more special: He prepared and conducted Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold, the "Prologue" to perhaps the largest scale, most monumental staged-epic in history. Running three hours with one intermission, Rheingold is often followed on succeeding evenings (or weekends) in larger cities by Die Walküre, Siegfried and Die Götterdämmerung: the 16-hour Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848-1876), commonly termed Wagner's Ring cycle. Those attending Friday and Sunday's production witnessed a unique glimpse of Wagner's genius in portraying mythic gods with actions governed by human frailties and emotions: love, lust, jealousy, greed, power, even fratricide.

What made this Rheingold unique was that sets, elaborate costuming and a pit orchestra were replaced by a video backdrop shown on a screen the width of Clowes' proscenium, which descended to just above the orchestra on stage, with the singers entering, singing on and exiting from the pit as it rose and fell. Two scaffolded platforms stood at either end of the pit, allowing those who climbed it to be seen in shadow on the screen, often symbolic in its own way.

The Rheingold Prelude, a continuous, seven-minute drone on an E-flat chord, with the strings undulating with the "waters," accompanied a video starting with a spinning Earth and panning downward, stopping just above the waters. The opening scene with the three Rhinemaidens and Alberich, the Nibelung dwarf, musically satisfied the most of any part of the opera. Wagner gives us hints of his later-to-be-more-elaborated "leit motifs" while the waters, and the strings, continue to undulate. The Rhinemaidens were sung by Jenny Searles, Vanessa Houssian and Buffy Baggott. While they did not meld together perfectly, their individual voices are good. Richard Paul Fink, a baritone who shows a stunning delivery throughout the opera, sang Alberich.

Appearing in the next scene is Wotan, chief of the gods, long-haired with an eye patch, eventually playing with his conscience over his acquired (from Alberich) golden treasure and gold ring. Greer Grimsley enabled Wotan to exude a powerful bass-baritone. Loge, god of fire, featured Adam Klein, who did the most singing of anyone and played with and against Wotan in the latter's decision to forgo all his acquired treasure in response to Erda's (Mother Earth's) warning of his doom should he keep it. Contralto Cindy Sadler sang Erda a bit unevenly while Klein was excellent, even with his baritone-sounding voice in a tenor role. Fricka, Wotan's wife, featured Elizabeth Byrne, who had a bigger role last fall in IO's Hansel und Gretel. Freia, goddess of youth, saw IO veteran Amy Johnson return in a role exhibiting a bit of shrieking, as she became a desired pawn among Alberich, Wotan and the giant siblings, Fafner and Fasolt, sung respectively by John Ames and Rod Nelman. Both are well-projecting baritones.

In Scene 1, the video remained at the Rhine waters. Then, as Scene 2 began, we were lifted slowly up, past many rock layers, to a distant castle on the highest mountain top. Built by Fafner and Fasolt, the castle sat between their projected shadows. At the opera's end, Wotan christened the castle Valhalla, "for reasons you will learn later," he said. In a pique of jealousy over their acquired treasure and getting Freia's attentions, Fafner slayed his brother, with the video showing a huge, bloodied sword coming down, right on cue, onto Fasolt.

The elaborate sets and costuming of conventional opera are as much an artifice as this video-enhanced one. I would have preferred a less subdued, richer colored, sharper focused video. But then this was probably the first production of its kind, and Venzago deserves much credit for melding his conception into a whole piece so well.

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