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Das Rheingold a Stunning Spectacle of Music, Voices and Stagecraft at HGO

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The set-up: Well, it's finally arrived! The "it" in question is, of course, Richard Wagner's monumental operatic myth, The Ring of the Nibelung.

The four-part epic, staged by Houston Grand Opera over a span of four years - one opera per season - is a mammoth undertaking: gigantic orchestra, strenuous and career-making roles, and massive scenic effects. The Ring cycle is unlike anything ever created before its complete premiere in 1876. While the 16-hour drama (more-or-less 16 hours, usually more) had no measurable effect on the world of theater, Wagner's aural magic forever changed the course of music. It changed its very sound.

The execution: The saga, a hybrid of Norse, Icelandic, and German folk legends, opens with a two-and-a-half hour prologue, Das Rheingold, in which all later dramatic and musical themes to be expounded are introduced. The tale begins, no less, with the creation of the world. Wagner never thought small.

Check out our interview with bass-baritone Iain Paterson.

The Wortham goes completely dark, except for the safety exit lights and a dim haze from maestro Patrick Summer's podium. It's a low E flat, way down the scale, an imperceptible stirring of life, sometimes felt more than heard. Slowly, the overtones to this major chord are brought in. Flashes of light shoot across the scrim. The chord increases in a rolling arpeggio, which sounds amazingly like the flow of water, powerful and mysterious. This builds and builds, hypnotic, alluring, striving onward.

The lights coalesce into mist, which then forms into cells as if seen through a microscope. The scrim is alive, electric. Water droplets appear. We're deep under the Rhine, Germany's historic lifeline, home to legendary sirens who lure unsuspecting sailors to their doom.

The music bursts into playful triads, the curtain goes up, and there are the mermaids in individual water tanks, happily dunking themselves and splashing about, having as much fun as Esther Williams in her soundstage pool. (Soprano Andrea Carroll and mezzos Catherine Martin and Renée Tatum are the sporty aquatic trio, who have absolutely no problem singing radiantly while repeatedly bobbing under water.) Giant rivulets of liquid dissolve in slo-mo across the background. What a visually arresting start to this impeccable music drama.

The playful maiden trio, singing some of Wagner's most enchanting melodies in the entire cycle, are the guardians of the magic Rhine gold, inherently powerful, but here just some shiny bauble for their amusement. Interrupted in their play by dwarf Alberich (baritone Christopher Purves), who's come down into the river in hopes of a little hanky-panky, they lead him on but inadvertently spill the secret of the gold. They think nothing of the danger, because who would renounce love for greed and power, certainly not this randy frogman. But they are wrong, lamentably wrong. Alberich drains their tanks and steals the gold, leaving the girls bereft and flopping about the stage like the fish out of water they now are.

The gold is a living thing, a prominent visual metaphor throughout. In its first manifestation it's a giant golden baby, like a gilded Buddha, resembling that enigmatic floating embryo from Kubrick's 2001. Later the fabled Rhine gold will be represented by gymnasts in gold body suits, hanging like sides of beef in Alberich's wasteland of a Nibelheim. The gold babies can be seen inside eggs being processed in the Dickensian factory, where they are electrified, turned upside down, righted again, and pushed along the assembly line until they are cracked and the shells deposited among heaps of others that stretch for acres.

The visual panoramas, especially the opening water images and that steampunk Gothic factory with its miles of pipes and industrial fans, are thoroughly mesmerizing. Created by artist Franc Aleu, the projections are the ultimate in state-of-the-art stagecraft. They are also at times mind-numbingly distracting, as if Wagner is only background score to Blade Runner.

Meanwhile, up in the abode of the gods, in a musical transformation scene of the utmost transparency, Wotan (bass-baritone Iain Paterson), god of gods, and wife Fricka (mezzo Jamie Barton) are having a spat. Like all gods, Wagner's are particularly human. As payment for building the gods' new castle, he has promised the giants Fasolt and Fafner (basses Kristinn Sigmendsson and Andrea Silvestrelli) the goddess of youth Freia (soprano Melody Moore). But if she goes, the gods will quickly fade away. Yet the contract is ironclad, and Wotan never breaks his word.

Advised by tricky counselor Loge, demi-god of fire (tenor Stefan Margita, who zips around on a Segway), he conspires to steal Alberich's stash as suitable payment for the dim-witted giants. But when Wotan learns the power of the ring forged from the gold, greed and deception take hold of him. Mime (tenor Rodell Rosel), Alberich's evil brother, has forged the ring and is enslaved underground, but we'll hear more from him in Siegfried.

Alberich loses everything, including the finger which held the ring, but not before cursing its future owners to death and destruction; earth goddess Erda (contralto Meredith Arwady) rises from the depths to warn Wotan to give away the accursed ring; Fafner kills Fasolt over the spoils; hot-headed god of thunder Donner (baritone Ryan McKinny) chases the mists away with his stirring "He Da! He Da, He Do!;" and along with brother Froh (tenor Chad Shelton), the other gods march blissfully onward into Valhalla across a rainbow bridge, while the Rhine maidens, below, pine for their lost gold.

The imaginative Cirque du Soleil-like production is by the Spanish new-age collective La Fura dels Baus, under the direction of Carlus Padrissa, with set design by Roland Olbeter, lighting by Peter van Praet, and the most hideous costumes by Chu Uroz, a mess of grade-B Flash Gordon. I don't know who had the idea of putting the gods on cranes, nimbly controlled by visual stagehands, but the singers look uncomfortable lurching about in their mechanical cages like stock boys at Costco, and their high-flying antics make the giants, Fasolt and Fafner, look puny, even in their towering Transformers suits of armor.

A wonderful visual coup is Valhalla, the abode of the gods. A misty projection reveals an artist's metal armature of a man. In close-up, the entire structure is composed of interlocking human figures, a 3-D tromp l'oeil effect out of M.C. Escher. It's as if Wotan has willed Valhalla into being by his very thought. The last image are those gymnasts, suspended in space, forming a living mesh by interlocking hands and feet. When the gods have reached the castle, the human column encases them within a protective embrace. Wonderfully evocative.

Under the sympathetic baton of Summers, who has a definite affinity for Wagner, exploiting all the score's pomp, mystery, and otherworldly excitement, the ensemble cast is above reproach. probably the best all-round Rheingold I've ever heard. Exceptionally thrilling are Margita's impish Loge; Barton's imperious Fricka; Purves's cursing Alberich; and Awady's chasm-deep, doom-laden-voiced Erda, although she makes an unintentional comic entrance as she arises from under a pile of gigantic Styrofoam jigsaw pieces. The rest of the cast is merely exceptional.

The verdict: Wagner's magical, mythical Ring gets off to a splendid start in HGO's Rheingold. If the visuals tend to overwhelm, they at least serve the Master of Bayreuth's intentions without sending him spinning, as do most contemporary accounts. He would need hear only one measure of that radiantly idiosyncratic music to recognize where he was. He, too, like the audience at last night's premiere, would cheer lustily. Hotly impatient, we have to wait another year to witness the tempestuous warrior maiden Brȕnnhilde and her battle-lusty sisters ride forth from Valhalla in Die Walküre, but in that time maybe the costume shop can make necessary alterations.

Remaining Das Rheingold performances are scheduled for April 17, 23 and 26. at the Wortham Center 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. $15-$390.

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