It may come as no surprise to visitors to this site when we say that the pandemic has been rough on your friends Newoutpost. Short of become carefully reacquainted with the offerings of our local company (The Atlanta Opera), our return to polite society has been slow. For this reason, a self-imposed moratorium on pilgrimages, a frequent feature of our pre-pandemic content, hampered our output over the past two years. We are happy to report that newoutpost is officially back on the road, and this past weekend when we headed to Valhalla by way of Nashville Opera’s production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
While the decision to attend a regional company’s historic premiere of the first installment of Wagner’s landmark tetralogy may seems like a no brainer, there were valid reservations to consider prior to packing our suitcases. Our previous experiences with the company has been spotty: A blazing introduction in 2014 through Verdi’s Otello being sharply juxtaposed with a well-meaning yet ultimately disappointing presentation of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann in 2019. Was the company ready to take this quantum leap? Equally valid was the realization that Nashville’s Airbnb rates rival those found in NYC. You also have to get there, and though the distance between Nashville and Atlanta is moderate, the billboards and bumper stickers to be encountered during the drive can proof triggering depending on how your 2022 is going. The company’s assertion that programing the rest of the Ring cycle is not officially off the table helped tip the scales towards our visit, a decision further cemented with the realization that these performances of Wagner’s Das Rheingold would take place at Belmont’s University new Fischer Center for the Performing Arts.
Vital to Richard Wagner’s artistic ideals (Gesamtkunstwerk,) the orchestra and vocal balance of his scores is directly related to the size and design of the venue, and while the Fischer Center for the Performing Arts is not identical in design or scale to Bayreuth’s Richard-Wagner Festspielhaus, its Beaux Arts Revival style and seating capacity (approximately 1,600 seats spread over four horseshoe-shaped tiers) allow for a more intimate and friendlier acoustic than most American venues can offer. Though Nashville Opera framed the proceedings with rare advantage, the presentation replete with inevitable compromises: The production values contrasted the classic appeal of the venue and score by following some of the trends that have distinguished modern Wagner productions in the past decade. Under the direction of Nashville Opera CEO & Artistic Director John Hoomes and his design team, the stage divided into two levels by scaffolding which also serves to support massive HD screens, which bear the brunt of resolving the opera’s tricky stage challenges through clever imagery designed by lighting designer Barry Steele. The results are two-fold, occassionally enhancing the proceedings with the right poetic verve (the sequence accompanying the opera’s iconic prelude and the entrance of the gods into Valhalla were particularly effective), though often leaving the production vulnerable to the trappings of glitchy execution. The depiction of Alberich’s transformations in particularly were missed opportunities. The work of costume designer Matt Logan and wig and makeup designer Sondra Nottingham further promoted an atmosphere of ostentatious decadence without adhering to a cohesive aesthetic. Their work, to be certain, is visually striking and kept the eye entertained.
As heard on Sunday May 8th, the musical values made a stronger case for the piece. Though the score was reduced for a 64-member orchestra through an arrangement by Eberhard Kloke, it was ably managed by the orderly baton of maestro Dean Williamson, who’s musical direction was singer conscious, functional, and managed to deliver a well performed (if not terribly poetic) reading without major mishaps. The testing assignment was further complicated by various covid mitigation best practices which found the conductor and several members of the orchestra fully masked through the run of the afternoon. Maestro Williamson was fortunate to have at his disposal an exciting group of American talent that was able to bring the performance to life.
The introductory scene depicting the Nibelung’s theft of the Rhein’s magical gold guarded by the Rheinmaidens got the evening off to a promising start through the singing of three big-voiced sirens portrayed by soprano Jessie Neilson as Woglinde, mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan as Wellgunde and contralto Valerie Nelson as Flosshilde. Though the stage direction broke little ground in depicting these water-bound mythical creatures (swimming was implied through traditionally simple arm gestures) the trio managed to distinguish their personalities vividly through vocal means. The scene was further graced by the Alberich of baritone Samuel Weiser. An artist previously unknown to us, he revealed a fully formed portrayal of the opera’s complex antagonist. The instrument is ample and produced without apparent effort, and he had a comfortable grasp on the technical trickery to wield it from growl to whisper. This rendered it serviceable to Mr. Weiser’s artistic compass, which was acutely sensitive to the disparate motivations driving our villain. Judging by the ovation which greeted his curtain calls, Mr. Weiser managed to inspire sympathy for miserable old Alberich and provided the standout performance of the afternoon.
The realm of the gods brought further luminaries with the introduction of mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum’s deliciously sung Fricka. Having put us on notice last November through her starry portrayal of Cornelia in The Atlanta Opera’s production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Ms. Tatum distinguished her reading of Valhalla’s desperate housewife through large scale singing. What was heard in Atlanta was no accident, and here once again was a firm, healthy mezzo-soprano distinguished by an even scale and firmness tone. She was faithful to Wagner’s musical demands, and her instrument will frown, flinch, beseech and demand at will. She was well matched by the opera’s central figure, the god Wotan, played here for the first time by baritone Lester Lynch. The profile of this instrument has a Verdian, late bel canto edge, and it qualifies Mr. Lynch for the assignment: It was certainly an admirable first reading. The voice is large, warm and responsive to the demands on the score, though in mild contrast to Ms. Tatum, it can become unsteady under pressure. Mr. Lynch’s portrayal is that of a younger, more absent-minded husband who makes the crucial decisions that keep the pages turning yet seems apprehensive to lead. It made Wotan’s dependence on Loge in Das Rheingold the more believable.
That assignment was entrusted to tenor Corey Bix, who, like Mr. Lynch, essays the part for the first time with these performances. We have witnessed Mr. Bix’s development through the years, first as a young Florestan in Utah Opera’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, Aegisthus in Des Moines Metro Opera’s production of Strauss’ Elektra and a last-minute replacement for Brian Hymel as Aeneas in Berlioz’s Les Troyens at San Francisco Opera, all in the early 2010s. Though a Loge of promise, Mr. Bix’s dramatic portrayal could benefit from greater development. A tenor of uncommonly tall stature, he easily maintains the audience’s attention which can be a double edge sword: Once you’re noticed, you must convince. A certain guarded quality rendered his stage actions an air of interpolation, and while the cunning side of Loge was heavily feature by the direction, the parallels with Alberich (a reject who acts out versus a reject who wishes he could) were mostly underplayed. This is a significant caveat when taking into consideration that Das Rheingold provides the only opportunity to flesh out Loge’s character in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Mr. Bix overcame these shortcomings through vocal means, and despite some unsteadiness of pitch heard on Sunday afternoon’s performance, he possesses the vocal pedigree to develop into a promising Loge. His tenor is large, appealing in tone, and capable of negotiating the rhythmic and tempo changes admirably, all the while remaining responsive to the text.
The casting of popular soprano Othalie Graham as the goddess Freia added great interest to the proceedings. The artist’s reputation has kept her in our radar, though we have been unable to cross paths due to various circumstances until now. This first hearing of Ms. Graham’s art confirms the rumors: this is no vocal wallflower. Whenever her participation was required, she took full advantage of the character’s position to vocally embody the Freia’s distress, appropriately threatening to break through the acoustic sleeve at her every outburst. The voice itself is a large, bright soprano which travels both wide and forward, and can get a little wild if not carefully checked. A quick glance at her repertoire list reveals her tackling some of the big ladies in the standard rep, raising our urgency to sample her art in more extensive roles. Ms. Graham’s Freia was bravely defended by the noble tones of tenor Tyler Nelson’s Froh and the physically striking Donner of baritone Joshua Jeremiah.
The giant delegation was well served through the Fasolt of bass Ricardo Lugo and the Fafner of bass Matthew Burns. Unlike his grumpier sibling, Fasolt only appears in Das Rheingold, but limitations are opportunities to Mr. Lugo, who rose to the occasion and revealed a fully fleshed out character through his alert and sympathetic bass. The other sibling featured in Das Rheingold, Alberich’s brother Mime, was luxuriously realized through the work of veteran artist Allan Glassman. As his clarion tenor skated through the fits and starts of Mime’s zany phrases, we recalled our own memories of his Faust back in 1995. Incredibly, the span of nearly 30 years has done little to diminish the size and steady delivery of his instrument, which remains within his complete control. No discussion of a Das Rheingold performance can be complete without mention of the afternoon’s Erda. Gwendolyn Brown, a member of the nowadays rare contralto family, answered the call admirably. Though Erda’s endless legato phrases proved a source of discomfort at times, it is indeed a rare treat to feel the foundation of the auditorium rattle as a contralto descends into the lower reaches of her tessitura. Hers is a voice that begs a second hearing, if perhaps in different repertoire.
For those who balance pandemic concerns when considering attending these types of events (hands raised), mitigation practices at Fischer Center for the Performing Arts welcome the use of masks, though there is no requirement to do so. Throughout the auditorium, some masks were spotted though the majority did without. From our vantage point, several members of the orchestra as well as maestro Williamson sported masks throughout the performance. Audiences remain mostly quiet through Das Rheingold, and that helped when addressing instances of anxiety. During the ovations that greeted the curtain calls, we stepped to the exit in order to avoid direct exposure to the rowdier air currents. If pandemic concerns are keeping you out of the theater, consider choosing an area of the auditorium that has not sold well and is sparsely populated. Everyone is in different mental and emotional planes when dealing with this topic, and we recommend that you be patient with yourself. Plan ahead of time and take whatever strategic measures you deem necessary to have a safe and gratifying evening at the theater. You can make it work for you.
Sunday afternoon’s presentation of Wagner’s Das Rheingold closed the Nashville Opera 2021-22 season. Though company has made no official statement whether it will follow up with subsequent productions of the remaining operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, we choose to keep the hope alive. To obsessively keep track of this situation, or to stay up to date on all things Nashville Opera, please visit the company’s website at www.nashvilleopera.org