Edmonton Opera presents human side of Wagner's Das Rheingold

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They may be gods, but the characters in Wagner’s Das Rheingold are also very human.

“They’re full of foibles and failings and doubt,” says Peter Hinton-Davis, director of the Edmonton Opera production taking place at the Maclab Theatre from May 28 to June 1. “It’s remarkably psychological in a surprising way, these emblematic representations of beings, or forces, making decisions that have consequences.”

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Because greed lies at the heart of it the consequences are considerable in this truncated version of Wagner’s opera involving avaricious Norse deities. It’s a convoluted plot that resists a quick synopsis, but the details include a priceless ring, two angry giants named Fasolt and Fafner, a shape-shifting villain, and a one-eyed protagonist called Wotan who might be better known to fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Odin. Did we mention that Wagner’s original, the first of his four epic musical dramas called Der Ring des Nibelungen, usually clocks in at two-and-a-half hours in length?

Not so in Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick’s adaptation, which reconfigures the story to an hour-and-half-long, contemporary London East End milieu.

“They’re calling it a chamber version,” says Hinton-Davis. “What I’ve really found while working on it is that in this case chamber doesn’t mean smaller, it means more intimate. So it’s an opportunity to get closer to the characters and closer inside the story.”

Some critics have tossed around references to the TV drama Succession when describing Dove and Vick’s adaptation, but as Hinton-Davis points out, the Norse myths can easily be seen as allegorical for our own times. Sure, these are powerful figures engaged in mammoth undertakings like the building of Valhalla, but there are reverberations. What was the cost of building it, what are the demands of those who built it versus those who conceived it? What is the price of dreams and ideals?

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“I find it interesting in our own lives, where we risk behaving godlike to achieve a huge goal,” Hinton-Davis muses. “Whether that’s an artistic one, whether that’s a passion. We have ideals that we aspire towards and yet have to deal with the consequences of reality. People have failings and ambitions, people have goals that are thwarted. So that’s a very real drama that Wagner is exploring.”

In the classical Das Rheingold, as in all of the Ring Cycle, productions have tended towards the grandiose, with budget-destroying sets, costumes, musicians. Dove and Vick famously slimmed this down to the bare bones, or at least as bare bones as you can bring an epic opera like Das Rheingold. This means that the 85-piece orchestra is slimmed down to 18, scenes are edited, and the stage is smaller than your average opera singer is used to.

“The audience is three-quarters all the way around at the Maclab, and there’s no pit,” Hinton-Davis explains. “This is the kind of stage that a theatre actor would be more accustomed to. This is all brand new for opera singers because they’re accustomed to the maestro being down-centre and the orchestra below. So now it’s like a circle, almost like seeing opera in the round. That means that the whole body has to be expressive, the performer’s backs have to tell the story as much as their faces.”

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This isn’t an issue for Hinton-Davis. While he’s certainly directed his fair share of operas he’s also a celebrated theatre director, most recently premiering Dion: A Rock Opera, about a non-binary demi-god, at Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre. Whether dealing with supernatural beings and humans, theatre actors or opera singers, Hinton-Davis is mostly interested in viewing things from a fresh perspective.

“You’re always trying to look for images and ways of telling the story that don’t fall into cliches,” he notes. “You want an audience to always be slightly behind. Meaning that they’re always thinking ‘What’s going to happen next? Who is that? What are they going to do?’ It has to be as surprising as it was for audiences in the 19th century when it was first written, but using imagery and language from our own time.”

He certainly has a talented team to work with in aiming for that element of surprise, including Edmonton Opera mainstay Simon Rivard as conductor. The vocal talent is, by Hinton-Davis’s estimation, astonishing. Bass-baritone Neil Craighead, who sang as Don Alfonso in Edmonton Opera’s 2022 production of Così fan tutte, plays Wotan, while tenor Roger Honeywell tackles the role of Loge, God of Fire. Dion Mazerolleis the antagonist Alberich, while Catherine Daniel plays Fricka. The giants Fafner and Fasolt are played respectively by Giles Tomkins and Vartan Gabrielian.

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Other deities include Sydney Frodsham as Erda and Jin Yu as Donner. Jaclyn Grossman is Freia, Goddess of Youth, while the three Rhinemaidens are played by Mariya Krywaniuk (Woglinde), Madison Montambault (Wellgunde), and Renee Fajardo (Flosshilde). As for Hinton-Davis, who might be called The God Who Watches Over All in this production?

“My job is to provide the air that everyone breathes,” he says after briefly ruminating on the question of what he feels his role actually entails. ”That might sound kind of prosaic, but I mean, I provide the world in which it takes place. So one way of looking at it is in rehearsal Simon is rigorously looking at the music and dealing with what they’re doing when they’re singing. As a theatre director, I’m looking at what they’re doing when they’re not singing. What are they doing when others are singing? What are the obstacles that they have to overcome in order to achieve what they do? So it’s truly a collaboration because the music isn’t separate from the content. You know, there’s any number of ways to say “to be or not to be” but there’s a very specific score for singing this. So, how do you incorporate something spontaneous, and alive, and nuanced with that? These are the things that interest me.”

Das Rheingold

When: May 28, 29, 31 & June 1. June 1st, sold out.
Where: Maclab Theatre at The Citadel, 9828 101A Ave.
Tickets: $37 and up, available in advance from edmontonopera.com

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