Concert Review: Wagner: Das Rheingold – Orchestra of the Music Makers, 8 Jul 2023 | The Flying Inkpot
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Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
Woglinde: Teng Xiang Ting • Wellgunde: Victoria Songwei Li • Flosshilde/Erde: Anna Harvey
Alberich: Joachim Goltz • Fricka: Caitlin Hulcup • Wotan: Greer Grimsley
Freia: Anita Watson • Fasolt: Yorck Felix Speer • Fafner: Lukasz Konieczny
Froh: Florian Thomas • Donner: Michael Lam • Loge: Tuomas Katajala • Mime: Adrian Dwyer
Directed by Tang Xinxin
Orchestra of the Music Makers
Joshua Kangming Tan, conductor
8 Jul 2023, Esplanade Concert Hall
Review by Derek Lim
Published 12 Jul 2023
It takes a certain ambition to even think about putting up a production as big as Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Singapore. The fact that the four-opera behemoth has not been taken up even by larger bodies such as the Singapore Symphony Orchestra or Singapore Lyric Opera speaks volumes.
But ambition is something that the volunteer band Orchestra of the Music Makers is not in short supply of. Having performed the Singapore premiere of Die Walküre in January 2020 before the pandemic struck, they planned to have played Das Rheingold the following year, but that performance – also the Singapore premiere – had to be moved to this year.
This one-night-only performance at the Esplanade Concert Hall, semi-staged as Die Walküre was, was well worth waiting for. With conductor Joshua Tan leading the proceedings, this was always going to be a relatively fleet-footed Rheingold. With the huge orchestra on stage, the balance was firmly in favour of the OMM, and the cast of singers, singing in their foreground, had to work even harder than usual to cut through Wagner’s climaxes.
The sustained pedal points of the opening bars of the Prelude gave way to some fine playing from the orchestra as the Nature leitmotif emerged and developed into that of the Rhine. With colour and frisson aplenty, it was clear we were in for a night of Wagnerian magic. Not surprisingly, the orchestra was most at home and shone brightest in the orchestra-only interludes between scenes; nevertheless, the singers were always well-supported.
And what singers! With an ensemble cast of seasoned Wagnerians, led by sought-after Wotan American bass-baritone, Greer Grimsley, this was a cast with no weak links. The Rhine Maidens, featuring established Singaporean sopranos Teng Xiang Ting (Woglinde) and Victoria Songwei Li (Wellgunde), were a somewhat luxury casting which showed off their voices and inflexions to great effect, while mezzo-soprano Anna Harvey (also appearing later as Erda) tackled Flosshilde with such allure that it made it all the more believable that Alberich (German baritone, Joachim Goltz) would renounce love once and for all.
Every story needs a strong villain and Goltz was an especially strong one, easily dominating each scene he appeared in. With a huge, expressive voice, he played a sympathetic, dwarf Alberich who you nearly felt for at times, crafting a multi-faceted humane character rather than a straight-up villain. He made his Alberich a person to be pitied rather than despised, though his cackle as he ran away with the Rhine gold was, well, pure nefarious gold.
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Grimsley, with his intelligent singing and similarly huge bass-baritone, was a similarly imposing Wotan. Wagner doesn’t give Wotan in Rheingold as much meat as he does in Die Walküre, but Grimsley impressed with great vocal acting, all while wielding a very real-looking spear.
Among the supporting cast, Finnish tenor Tuomas Katajala was charismatic as the demigod of fire, Loge, exuberantly entering on roller skates – presumably showing how easily his character runs circles around everyone else. The giants Fasolt, played by also-huge-voiced Yorck Felix Speer – who was convincingly in love with Freia – and Fafner, played by Lukasz Konieczny, were persuasively aggrieved parties in the negotiations. Adrian Dwyer (a not-so-camp dwarf Mime), Caitlin Hulcup (Fricka), Anita Watson (Freia), Florian Thomas (Froh) and Michael Lam (Donner) rounded off the excellent cast.
Staging is something much experimented with in Wagner productions, and this was no different. Instead of OMM’s more complex semi-staging in Walküre, director Tang Xinxin opted to use just the foreground portion of the Esplanade stage and the frontmost part of the stalls for her creative staging, while projected images were shown on a screen covering the choir stalls.
Though generally non-controversial, some choices proved somewhat distracting and one wondered if they couldn’t have been better visualised. There was a lack of consistency in the visualisations. Valhalla, for example, was depicted in a rather anime style, while Nibelheim was all flickering flames – which did not add to the audience’s experience of the drama. The appearance of the giants was marked by shoeprints stomping across the screen, which evoked more sniggers than awe, though later the transformation of Alberich into a dragon fairly hit the spot. Costumes and props were all fairly modern throughout, including Donner’s hammer, which looked like Mjölnir straight out of the MCU.
Among other directorial decisions, perhaps something more controversial was the depiction of the Rhinegold (an inanimate object) as a voluptuous woman – dressed in heels and a gold bodycon dress – played by Felicia Teo. This was perhaps understandable, given that the Rhinegold is only the object of desire of the men in the opera. But to have the gold personified as a living, breathing woman, who actually has actions in parts (in the Nibelheim scene she is seen kicking Mime) has the effect of Alberich renouncing human, feminine love in favour of … gold in the form of a woman, which doesn’t feel like he gave up anything at all. On the other hand, it objectifies the woman playing the part of the gold.
Extramusical distractions aside, this production of Rheingold was another worthy historic event in Singapore’s operatic history, and absolutely worth the wait. Opera is by no means easy to finance, but Wagner’s Ring is such a historically important work that any country which wants to be considered a worthy cultural centre needs to reckon with its performance as a rite of passage. Let us hope that the Orchestra of the Music Makers and its backers will press on with its remaining two instalments – Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.
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