With a dazzling, futuristic Das Rheingold right on the tails of a lovely original parks show, Seattle Opera is flexing its creative might. Das Rheingold runs through this Sunday at McCaw Hall.
A space-age giant gazes out from a futuristic screen.
Royalty glistens down from a foggy catwalk, the scaffolding bared.
A 100ish-piece symphony orchestra sprawls across the stage, encased between the panes of a cinematic aquarium.
Actors creep, leap, and scurry from the depths of the empty pit.
This is opera?
It weighs in at a hefty 2.5 hours, without an intermission, so we’re not out of the woods just yet — but for the most part, it feels like an action flick flying by. Seattle Opera’s futuristic, cinematic staging of Das Rheingold takes this 1869 Wagner opera and hits the gas. As if to prove that it’s all-in on the spectacle, the design team throws layers upon layers of visuals — from the screen projections and all-encompassing lighting effects to gorgeous space-age-classical costuming to videographic plummeting into, then rising back out of, the depths.
Perhaps that’s why Seattle Opera’s Das Rheingold feels more Hadestown than Wagner.
Not to fear: its usual pedigree of singers is present, and always prominent. Of all, Frederick Ballentine as the crafty Loge and Martin Bakari as head metalsmith Mime make for the most captivating characters, with gorgeous voices highlighting their characters’ intrigue. Greer Grimsley is vocally stunning as the ruler Wotan, while Michael Mayes is perfectly repugnant as villain (and “lecherous lout”) Alberich. Big, dramatic vocals from Katie Van Kooten (Freia) and Melody Wilson (Fricka) bring the best from the rather one-dimensional characters. Sarah Larsen, Jacqueline Piccolino, and Shelly Traverse are delightfully playful as the mermaid-like, gold-hoarding sisters of the Rhine; and Peixin Chen and Kenneth Kellogg make compelling space-age giants.
But equally prominent alongside the singers are the scores of orchestral musicians, usually stashed away below, a twist that gives the whole thing a noted sense of urgency. Between the cinematic design elements and the prominence of the orchestra, this staging took on the feel of a Seattle Symphony live-scored film, if it were a particularly grand epic, leaping out in 3D.
Operatic storytelling is often confined to the trite, its drawn-out notes feeling most at home in the predictably tragic tales of love lost. Das Rheingold breaks free from the trite and the tragic romantics. While a tragedy of sorts, it arrives more fully as a critique of concentrated power and blinding greed; few illustrations of the Lord Acton maxim “absolute power corrupts absolutely” are drawn more clearly than the once-pitiful villain Alberich, whose despicable reign over his fellow Nibelungs also illustrates the cruelty of unrestrained capitalism.
Throughout, this futuristic Das Rheingold is an adventure story, eschewing tragedy (mostly) for a new outlook. It’s quite a ride.
Das Rheingold music and libretto by Richard Wagner. Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Production, staging, and direction by Brian Staufenbiel. Scenery, costumes, and props by Minnesota Opera; projections designed by David Murakami, lighting by Mextly Couzin, costumes by Mathew LeFebvre, sound design by Robertson Witmer, hair and makeup design by Ashlee Naegle, captions by Jonathan Dean.
On the much less formal stage, we find another hopeful tale in completely different form: Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World, a made-for-kids opera presented in a mix of English and Spanish, which Seattle Opera hosted last weekend at two Seattle parks. Based on the children’s book of the same name, by Laurence Anholt, Frida blended the great artist’s eccentricities with a young girl’s reluctance to sit with her for many hours, having her portrait painted. Ultimately she does, of course, but the fun is in the journey, and the clever staging.
Unlike the mainstage’s Das Rheingold, children’s park shows are not likely to blow anyone’s mind with cinematic special effects. But with a simple standing set piece and its flippable backdrop and many doors, along with excitable puppets and engaging actors, Frida made a little theatre magic that kept the grown-ups as happy as the kids. Rose Cano, better known for writing and directing plays for adults, often through her company eSe Teatro, here showed off her versatility with a beautiful (and very fun) staging of this family-oriented opera, with music direction by Shelby Rhoades.
Frida‘s run concluded this weekend, so you won’t be able to get out and enjoy it (unless they bring it back, which I hope they will). But it’s a good reminder not to overlook the “second seasons” — the things companies do off the main stage.
Bottom line: when a made-for-kids opera about a legendary artist sounds oddly compelling, or an ad for Das Rheingold looks intriguingly futuristic-pirate-tale, go ahead and listen to that instinct. What’s the fun of art if not to [play] around and find out?
Das Rheingold runs through 8/20 at Seattle Opera (in McCaw Hall, Seattle Center/Mercer side). Tickets ($108+) here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms available by most of them. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Rush tickets may be offered (8/18 only): see info here.
Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes, no intermission.
Frida and the Bravest Girl in the World performed through 8/13 at Powell Burnett Park and Highland Park. Show info here.
Financial accessibility note: Frida in the park was free, and brought in a wide array of audience members and first-time opera-goers of all ages. It’s a bummer that Seattle Opera didn’t offer a pay-what-you-choose or deeply discounted night for Das Rheingold, as they have done with other recent mainstage shows. It’s NWTheatre’s view that this show, to those who can afford it, is worth the ticket price; but that ticket price will keep out many, including perhaps first-time opera-goers, who would otherwise enjoy the show. Note that rush tickets are likely available at the 8/18 performance, to certain groups (including arts industry members, non-profit employees, and persons receiving reduced-income benefits) for certain seats; see info here.
For more about the move to sliding-scale ticket pricing, see NWTheatre’s feature here (2022).
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.